As you may know, the impact of growing publicity in Arab political life is an ongoing obsession of mine. So I found this bit from the Forum on the Future absolutely priceless:
"The highly choreographed, three-and-a-half hour event was supposed to be closed to the public, with the exception of a few opening statements, most of them from Western leaders. But Moroccan officials failed to turn off the audio feed to the press room. As a result, the Arab foreign ministers inveighed against the West apparently unaware that several dozen journalists were listening."
What's interesting about this is a couple of things.
First: usually, the argument is that Arab leaders grandstand against the West in public, but are highly cooperative with the United States in private. This little anecdote turns this on its head. If the Foreign Ministers thought they were in private, why all the anti-Western big talk? If there wasn't nobody there but us chickens, as the old joke goes, what was the point?
Second: the "highly choreographed" part. One of the most important things about al Jazeera and its imitators, I've always argued, is that precisely that it foregoes the choreography in favor of spontaneous, open public argument. I remember Christopher Ross, the main US point-person for dealing with Arab public opinion, once commenting that he found such an uncontrolled environment uncomfortable, and much preferred settings where he could simply lay out the American perspective and largely control the agenda. The Forum on the Future seems to reflect those priorities - the preferences of powerful states that want to control the agenda - while shutting out the raucous, diverse, and unpredictable voices of the public. What a perfect metaphor for the shortcomings of current American democratic reform promotion.
Third: "Secretary of State Colin Powell, in an opening statement to the group on Saturday, spoke of efforts to make "participation in political and public life more inclusive," the ostensible subject of the conference. Nonetheless, one by one, representatives of 20 Arab states talked largely about economic development and the ever-present thorn in debate here, the Arab-Israeli conflict." Two points here: as I noted over the weekend, the Bush administration seems to have given in to the preference of Arab dictators to talk about economic development rather than political change; no surprise there. As the LA Times put it, "There has been concern in the Arab world that the U.S. would attempt to use the forum to impose its political will on the region." Turns out they didn't have to worry. And second, the Arab-Israeli conflict really does matter in American-Arab relations, no matter how many times conservatives insist that it does not. It does. The fact that anti-American sentiments in the region have skyrocketed to unprecedented levels has real political implications, again no matter how many times conservatives insist that it does not.
More later, after I've had a chance to look over the Arab press.UPDATE: Well, I was planning to write more about how the Forum for the Future was being covered in the Arab media, but the truth is that it isn't being much covered at all - which is, in itself, perhaps the most damning fact. On most sites, the Forum is below the fold - not on the front page, if covered at all. I found nothing at all in al Sharq al Awsat, an interior (non-cover) story in al Hayat, a brief non-headlined report on al Jazeera, nothing on al Arabiya. Where it is discussed, it takes the form of "just as we expected, no real commitment to or action on real reform." So, "damp squib" seems to be the best characterization of the Forum, at least in the Arab media.