President Bush's criticism of the Arab media during his press conference has received quite a bit of attention from the Arab media, more than pretty much anything else in that press conference. It was only an answer to a question, and nobody in the US really noticed very much, but the Arab media did - and it has been important in shaping the reception of the Karen Hughes/Dina Powell appointments. Here's the key quote from press conference:
It is very important for us to have a message that counteracts some of the messages coming out of some of the Arab media -- some of it coming out, partly, because of our strong and unwavering friendship with Israel. You know, Israel is an easy target for some of the media in the Middle East, and if you're a friend of Israel, you become a target. And since we're not going to abandon our alliance with Israel, there's a -- there was some churning in the press, and there was some unhelpful things being said. And so part of that is to make sure people understand the truth.
To the extent that this suggests that Bush still buys into the idea that hostile Arab media is the source of America's "image problem" in the Middle East, and that al Hurra is the solution to the problem, it is pretty disheartening. Most of the Arab commentators who have written about the press conference have taken this as the most important news which emerged. Al Quds al Arabi covered the press conference under the headline "Bush is angry with the Arab media"; Al Sharq al Awsat ran the headline "Bush: We must confront the criticisms in the Arab media"; Al Ghad ran with "Bush: the Arab press attacks every friend of Israel."
I want to talk about two of the more interesting responses published to date before offering my own tentative thoughts. First, Abd al Bari Atwan, the influential editor of the generally anti-American leaning al Quds al Arabi, uses his column today to bemoan the "misfortune of the Arab media." Respondong both to the press conference and to the Hughes appointment, Atwan expresses fear that in practice, confronting the Arab media will probably mean in the coming months moves to close down those few remaining platforms which continue to be independent and which "express the truth about Arab feelings towards the practices of American hegemony in the region" - i.e. al Jazeera, al Quds al Arabi, and whatever others (he doesn't name names).
The vast majority of the Arab media remains in state hands, he reminds us, and those regimes will probably do what America tells them and clamp down on their own media. Most of the Arab satellite television stations, he observes, are becoming copies of Al Hurra - indeed, he argues, "we do not exaggerate if we say that the margin of freedom on al Hurra is wider than in most of its Arab counterparts." The American ambassadors in Arab capitals are becoming the real censors and editorial advisers for most of the Arab media, he argues, pointing out how American embassies have filed complaints when these stations have hosted guests who expressed anti-American views - and he recounts how he was told this by several station managers who specifically mentioned him by name as someone to not be invited any more (Atwan is a frequent and popular guest).
Atwan continues with these troubling words: America "is rivaling the dictators of the Arab world in its repression of competing opinions, and in its financing of television stations to distort the truth, and in funding propaganda and false news reports." Since the launch of al Hurra and Radio Sawa, the US has been directly funding Arab television, and it has also been indirectly financing other stations. He mentions one station (without naming it) which supposedly was given $1 million for a (worthless) archive of old programs as an example. He also points to another station (again unnamed) which was flooded with American advertising during the Iraqi elections, which he claims clearly influenced their coverage to present Mosul and Baghdad as safer and happier than New York or Geneva.
None of this is especially new for Atwan, but it's an important column by an influential figure. One could read his complaining as in some way a vindication of American strategy - look at the subtle and indirect ways that the US is successfully shaping and influencing the Arab media - just as easily as one could be distressed by American willingness to subvert and undermine free and independent media. Either way, it's an important trend to think about as we try to make sense of American public diplomacy and the political impact of the Arab media.
The other interesting piece was by Abd al Wahhab Badrakhan in al Hayat yesterday, called "Karen Hughes and Dina Powell in a ridiculous task." Badrakhan sees many signs of a change in American methods for pushing reform and democracy in the Middle East. One of those changes, he thinks, is a new willingness to directly and openly deal with and engage with the Arab peoples rather than with Arab governments. The US, he argues, has always treated the Arab people as the problem - radical, emotional, dangerous, anti-American and anti-Israeli - and the Arab governments, no matter how unsavory, as the more moderate and pliable solution. If this has changed, he thinks, it would be revolutionary and good.
But, alas, Badrakhan is not all enthusiasm and good cheer: "there is no reconciliation obtained between America and the Arab peoples, because there has not been frankness and there have not been dialogues." American officials think that they can say whatever is useful at a given time, and that this will convince the people that America has become their ally. He mocks this idea, arguing that most Arabs remain fully aware of American interests and past practices. With the exception of Lebanon, where he praises Bush for keeping the pressure on Syria, Badrakhan sees the relations between the American government and Arab governments as remaining very strong, and doubts very strongly that the Arab people will be fooled into thinking otherwise.
Badrakhan complains that the Americans still seem to think that the problem is one of public relations, and that their policies just need better marketing to be supported by Arabs. That if only Arabs could hear Bush's speeches, they would become his supporters. But Arabs, Badrakhan argues, remember American policies quite well, know American positions quite well, and their deeply rooted convictions aren't going to be changed by obvious spin. He finishes rather bluntly: "defending democracy and Israeli crimes at the same time is an impossible attempt to bring together deeply contradictory things." That is why Hughes and Powell face an impossible task, and why spin and marketing won't do the job.
As for me, I haven't yet made up my mind as to whether to take the Hughes/Powell appointment as a positive sign that Bush is taking public diplomacy seriously. My fear is that Hughes embodies the spin and marketing aspect of public diplomacy, as well as a vision of the media as fundamentally a tool for political warfare rather than as an important part of democracy in its own right. If she approaches the Arab media from this perspective - and it's hard to see why she wouldn't, given her history and her expertise - then all of her talent and energy, as well as influence with the President - could be in the service of pushing the worst possible kinds of policies.
Just taking the problem seriously and doing something about it isn't enough... you need to do the right kinds of things. I'm going to continue to reserve judgement and wait and see.