On Feb. 14, the U.S. launched Al-Hurra (“the free one”), its much-touted Arabic-language satellite television station, to beam American messages in Arabic and Farsi across the Islamic world. President George W. Bush has extolled the channel as a means to cut through the “hateful propaganda that fills the airwaves in the Muslim world” and to tell people “the truth about the values and the policies of the United States.”
At $62 million a year, the project is significant. With America’s public image in a free fall (for example, U.S. favorability ratings have fallen from 61 percent to 15 percent in Indonesia, and from 25 percent to 1 percent in Jordan, over the past two years), clearly anything seems better than the current failing U.S. public diplomacy. But those who think that a “fair and balanced” television station will reverse the plunge in America’s reputation or, more importantly, resolve the serious policy challenges the U.S. faces, are kidding themselves.
Adding yet another state-owned media outlet to the region answers neither America’s needs nor those of the region. In fact, changes in technology mean that in just about every Muslim country, citizens already have access to television broadcasts from America and around the globe. Even in Syria, local falafel vendors could be seen during the Iraq war switching from CNN to Al-Jazeera, and even to Fox News, trying to get a read on what was actually going on.
The U.S. faces more than just a losing popularity contest or some imagined information gap. Beyond the glossy ad campaigns and high production values, a far more strategic approach to U.S. policy toward the Islamic world is needed. The U.S. must focus on crafting a policy of engagement that seeks to support forces of progress, while undermining those aiding radicalism.
First, Washington should center its policies on promoting good governance and democracy. These are values that citizens of Muslim countries admire in the U.S. and want to see take root in their own countries. Bush’s many speeches on democracy must translate into real, substantial programming in the new budget.
Second, there can be no “one-size-fits-all” agenda or mass media push that targets the entire Islamic world as if it were a unitary actor. Muslim countries are exceptionally heterogeneous in terms of history, wealth, culture, religious composition, attitudes, etc. Whether one is talking about democratization, support for peace initiatives, or public diplomacy, programs should be strategically developed, but tactically deployed on a regional or country basis.
Third, in a war of ideas that may last generations, the youngest portions of society may be key. The rapidly growing cohort of youths in Muslim-majority countries should be seen as an opportunity for U.S. policy, rather than just a threat. For instance, research shows that youths are more likely to have an affinity for American values, especially when they have internet access. Technological connectivity not only creates broader job prospects, but also opens broader perspectives and familiarizes the young with American culture and policy. Thus, expanding these connections through increased technology access should be a cornerstone of U.S. developmental policy.
Fourth, the U.S. must leverage the strength of its diversity. In a time when America lacks both credibility abroad and foreign language speakers to best represent its views, the distance between the U.S. government and the Arab- and Muslim-American communities is stunning. The departments of State, Homeland Security, Justice, and Defense should all examine how they can better tap the strengths of these communities, both in programming and recruiting.
Fifth, the U.S. should support civil society actors in the Muslim world by building closer alliances with NGOs and protecting them from crackdowns, even when the governments are American allies. Washington’s close association with such groups would demonstrate that the U.S. supports the progress that non-government actors are working toward. For example, supporting local press freedoms in countries would do far more good than adding another television station.
Sixth, the U.S. should expand official visitor and exchange programs to reflect changing American geopolitical needs, particularly toward the Muslim world. Not only are the current programs mainly attuned to outdated Cold War attitudes, but also new visa restrictions make it difficult to bring in any visitors at all to the U.S., at a time when the country needs these cultural ambassadors more than ever.
In other words, hatred of America can be reduced and, in turn, American security improved through jointly planned activities and a dialogue between Americans and Muslims. If the U.S. government continues to be inactive on this front, seeking splash over substance, the onus will fall on the rest of Americans to pick up the slack.