Outside View: improved Mideast war room?

By NICHOLAS NOE, UPI Outside View Commentator  |  March 27, 2006 at 6:13 AM
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BEIRUT, Lebanon, March 27 (UPI) -- Whether or not one believes the Arab media distorts U.S. policies, it is clear that the relationship between the Bush administration and Arabic language media is badly broken.

Despite tens of millions of dollars spent on largely unpopular, U.S.-backed broadcasting efforts, such as Radio Sawa and al-Hurra TV, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other top officials still complain as loudly as they did three years ago about the supposedly pernicious, ill-willed influence of al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya, among others.

Indeed, over the past month, the administration's tendency to blame the media for its failings in Iraq has only seemed to increase.

Thus, not a moment to soon, al-Arabiya recently broadcast a thoughtful look at the new Rapid Response Unit (RRU) set up under the auspices of Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Karen Hughes.

The mission of the RRU seems straightforward enough from the perspective of the administration: the Arab media routinely distorts U.S. policies in the region, so the answer is to respond quicker and with greater frequency. A sort of smoking out of the Arab media, if you will.

Unfortunately, both the usefulness of the effort, as well as its perception in the region, are fatally handicapped from the outset. Instead of acting as a listening device for the administration to better understand how policies are transmitted and perceived in the Arab and Muslim world -- a process which might actually suggest a change in the policies themselves -- the RRU is meant to function exactly like the War Room of U.S. political campaigns.

Having worked for one such operation, I hold no illusions that any amount of listening will actually transpire as a result of the outfit. Instead, the purpose of the Hughes War Room will be exactly the same as that of any other campaign's War Room: find out what your opponent is saying about you and immediately dispute it.

In this vicious cycle, all criticism is wrong, risky, anti-something or, better yet, doesn't "pass the smell test."

When one considers that the overall opponent in this case is the Arab media itself, the entire tactic -- of dubious socio-political merit to begin with -- quickly becomes self-defeating, reinforcing the perception that the U.S. is great at communicating, horrible at listening and ultimately complacent as a result of its imperial certitude that America is just plain right in its convictions in the world.

Hughes certainly does nothing to help matters when she talks of "correcting" the Arab media, as al-Arabiya noted. Nor does it help that, every day, 600 embassy staffers from around the world feed information to the RRU, which then produces a one pager for decision makers on the "Arab Media."

In classic War Room style, the complexity and breadth of argument is boiled down to a few bullet points for Hughes to read in the morning. One has to wonder if she will find on her sheet not just "anti-American" red-flag items, but also some of the highly nuanced, and often devastating opinions and hard news pieces produced by an increasingly diverse Arab media every day.

Let us suppose though that we are to evaluate the effectiveness of the RRU only in regards to its more narrow purpose, as deftly outlined by one al-Arabiya analyst who explained that "(the RRU) will pass a political judgment on the Arab media institutions. Based on this, it will reward some Arab institutions by giving them privileges inside the U.S. or easy access to U.S. officials, while punishing other institutions by depriving them of these privileges."

Again, the parallel to U.S. political practice is as unmistakable as it is misplaced.

Just as the Bush White House uses a carrot and stick approach with the domestic press corps, so to will it now seek to reward and punish the Arab media.

The problem is that the first time that the Bush administration tried the stick it failed -- mainly because the relevant governments refused to reign in their local media outlets.

Using a more subtle approach will also likely not produce the desired results because applying the good cop/bad cop routine to al-Jazeera simply does not carry as much weight as it might with, say, The New York Times. One reason is that access to U.S. officials is almost never the exclusive that it might be for the American media. Nor is U.S. confirmation of a story all that critical. What is more, the rules demanded by the administration concerning interviews, as well as the posture of the interviewees themselves, almost always ensures a rigid adherence to canned talking points. And this says nothing of the fact that applying a stick directly to the Arab media would only further distance the U.S. from their target audience.

Nevertheless, the RRU may yet succeed in getting more of the Bush perspective across to the Arab viewer. Conversely, Karen Hughes may end up being a bit better informed as to what some in the Arab world think of the U.S. and its policies -- which can only help matters.

However, given Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's recent admission that she failed to see Hamas's electoral victory coming, I would suggest a different approach and a different measure of success for the RRU.

Instead of employing a better communication strategy, Hughes, Rice and policymakers across the board should use the RRU as an invaluable listening device.

In other words, take a step back, sit down and see how effective the U.S. can be when it takes the time to listen to voices from across the region -- the good, the bad and the ugly.

Maybe then we might not find ourselves left with the vague notion that the next Islamist electoral victory says "something about us not having a good enough pulse." At the very least, it would spare us yet another campaign War Room.


(Nicholas Noe is the founder of Mideastwire.com, a Beirut-based media translation service covering the Arab and Iranian media.)

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