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Hearts & Minds
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Building A Better Arab
H and in hand with the tectonic geopolitical shifts being undertaken by the Bush administration in the Arab world are a series of cultural initiatives intended to resuscitate its wounded image in the region. Convinced it’s not U.S. policy, but misperceptions of the U.S. that have engendered hostility, the Administration is targeting the bewildered Arab public through media initiatives and educational, economic, and “democratic” reforms, while continuing to embed its longstanding strategic approach. The new Arab the Administration hopes to engineer, will, with any luck, finally comprehend the beneficence of U.S. policy.
Arab Hearts And Minds
T he hearts and minds campaign began, for obvious reasons, in October 2001, when Charlotte Beers, a former Madison Avenue advertising executive, was sworn in as the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy. The main accomplishment of Beers’s department was to launch an $8 million television ad campaign aired in parts of the Islamic world. Her intended audience was “the Muslim- majority countries, where the mis- perceptions are very extreme,” or so she explained to PBS in January shortly prior to resigning.
The ads were intended to counter what Beers viewed as the mistaken impression that the U.S. is anti-Islam and not a hospitable place for Muslims. Her target demographic might have been won over—provided they missed out on reports of Muslim prisoners being tortured at Guantanamo (where children are also imprisoned), the aggressive monitoring of Muslim charities, or the forced registration, indefinite detention, and mass deportations of immigrants from Muslim countries to the U.S.
The next salvo in the charm offensive came with the foisting of Radio Sawa on Arab listeners in August 2002. Run by the federal government’s Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), Sawa combines chart-topping Arab and Western pop tunes with useful news bulletins. “There is a glut of Arabic- language media outlets that cater to emotions and the sensational,” explained Sawa news director Mouafac Harb, “some people want the sensational, but others want to know.” For those who “want to know,” Sawa offers long, uncritical interviews with U.S. officials like Colin Powell and Paul Wolfowitz, who was given a platform on the day Baghdad fell.
“When was the turning point, or what was the major incident that made you reach that conclusion that the current Palestinian leadership is no longer a peace asset?” Harb asked Powell, in order to allow the Secretary of State to correct the common “misperception” among Radio Sawa listeners that Yasser Arafat is the legitimately elected leader of the Palestinian people and, as such, the embodiment of their aspirations.
Not satisfied with its foray into the world of Arab FM radio, the BBG plans to launch a satellite television network early next year in the hopes of tempting viewers away from pan-Arab stations like Al- Jazeera. Nominally called the Middle East Television Network (MTN), the project has received $30 million from Congress already but needs another $32 million to start broadcasting. “We look at this as being a pipeline from the United States into the region,” explained BBG board member and Radio Sawa founder Norman J. Pattiz to PBS, “and that will be heavily news and information-oriented, which will obviously be produced internally.” As American corporations begin siphoning oil out of Iraq, the BBG will begin piping “infor- mation” back the other way.
Recent evidence suggests that the hearts and minds strategy isn’t working. “Dislike of the United States has really deepened and spread throughout the Muslim world,” commented Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center. The Pew Global Attitudes Project, a worldwide poll conducted after the Iraq war, found that majorities in all the Arab countries surveyed except Kuwait had a negative opinion of the U.S., with only 1 percent favorable ratings among Jordanians and Palestinians. The spike in hostility was overwhelmingly related to the U.S. invasion of Iraq and excessive U.S. support for Israel.
A side from pure spin, the state department does have more substantial “reforms” in mind for the Arab world. The $29 million U.S.-Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), announced December 12, is the most comprehensive package of this kind to date and covers three main areas—education, democracy-building, and economic relations.
The educational system of the Arab world, particularly in Saudi Arabia, has been widely portrayed in the U.S. as responsible for breeding terrorism. “The combination of Wahhabi ideology and Saudi money has contributed to the radicalization and anti-Americanization of large parts of the Islamic world more than any other single factor,” Weekly Standard editor William Kristol told Congress, relegating the impact of U.S. policy to at least second place. Congress has responded by introducing a resolution (S. CON. RES. 14) expressing its concern at the religious curriculum taught in Saudi schools. Unsolicited American advice on the place of Islam in education has not been entirely welcome in the region and has made needed reforms more difficult to justify domestically. Arab officials have chafed at demands that they introduce changes they don’t deem culturally appropriate. Attempts to alter the way Israel and the concept of Jihad is portrayed in Kuwaiti textbooks last year, for example, led to demonstrations and then vehement denials by the government that they were being enacted under U.S. pressure. Saudi Arabia has likewise edited textbooks to take out material that promotes “intolerance,” but insisted that its review was necessity-driven, rather than dictated by Washington.
MEPI’s educational prescriptions, however, go well beyond limited reviews of content. The Arab world is to be opened to western educational institutions, more English classes, literacy programs for women, exchange programs for Arab students, increases in book publishing, and expanded Internet use in schools in order to widen available “bodies of knowledge.” While many of these changes may be healthy, that they are being introduced under intense political pressure suggests to Arabs that the U.S. is more interested in challenging indigenous narratives that are hostile to western interests, than it is in the scholastic well being of Arab students.
The fact that Qatar’s primary and secondary school system has been overhauled by the Rand corporation, a right-wing think tank that coincidentally boasts Pattiz as an advisory board member, is unlikely to put skeptics at ease. Rand has recommended reductions in the amount of Arabic and Islam taught in the classroom and a boost in the sciences and English.
A fter generations of open U.S. support for Arab dictatorships, MEPI has established the Middle East Democracy Fund to bolster civil society in the region. The declared intention of the initiative to train “journalists” and “candidates for political office” is an indication of how little the Administration appreciates its credibility gap with the Arab electorate. It’s difficult to imagine Jordanian politicians trained at the state department garnering votes by trumpeting their pedigree on the stump.
The genetic blueprint of the new Arab homo economicus is mapped out by both MEPI and President Bush’s recent proposal for a U.S.-Middle East Free Trade Area. The Arab world is to be inducted, kicking and screaming if necessary, into the cult of neo-liberal economics. “Across the globe, free markets, and trade have helped defeat poverty, and taught men and women the habits of liberty,” declared Bush as he announced his initiative. An example of the ways in which Arabs could learn the “habits of liberty” would be for the Egyptian government to liberalize retail pharmaceuticals, the American Ambassador to Egypt suggested on May 28, a move that would no doubt make needed drugs as unaffordable to Egyptians citizens as they are to U.S. citizens. Under MEPI, advice on financial sector reform will be offered, as will internships to young Arabs in a corporate U.S. Arab members of the WTO are to be “assisted in coming into compliance with their commitments” and “aspiring members will be offered technical assistance.” The idea that opening the door for U.S. corporations to purchase large swathes of the Arab world will dampen resentment would seem far-fetched, but officials are upbeat. “The number one concern all over the world, and it’s not foreign policy…is, in fact, the economy,” said Beers, wagering that the distant promise of prosperity will distract those Arabs who are spending too much time worrying about the domineering U.S. presence in the region.
Operation Privatize Iraq is now the flagship enterprise of the Administration’s economic grand strategy for the Arab world. “Iraq is open for business again,” declared the U.S. viceroy, L. Paul Bremer III, when U.S.-backed UN sanctions that had scoured the country were finally lifted. The U.S. now exercises dominion over Iraq’s oil revenues and is dispensing contracts for reconstruction almost exclusively to subsidiaries of large U.S. corporations like Bechtel and Halliburton in a process so opaque that even Congress has called for an inquiry. Iraq “is being treated as a blank slate on which the most ideological Washington neo-liberals can design their dream economy: fully privatized, foreign-owned and open for business,” wrote Naomi Klein.
In its Iraqi laboratory, the Administration is pushing U.S.-backed exiles into positions of influence and promoting constitutional reforms that de-emphasize Iraq’s Arab and Islamic character, while declaring openly that it will not accept Iraq as an Islamic state whatever the will of the majority. Iraq is to become a secular, liberal, free- market democracy—or else. Senator Robert Byrd, in his most recent Shakespearean oration, made the obvious point that “Democracy and freedom cannot be force fed at the point of an occupier’s gun,” before capturing the essence of the problem in a rhetorical question: “How can we expect to easily plant a clone of U.S. culture, values, and government in a country so riven with religious, territorial, and tribal rivalries, so suspicious of U.S. motive, and so at odds with the galloping materialism, which drives the Western-style economies?”
Persuading the Skeptics
T o succeed in its ambitious agenda for “reform” in the Arab world, the Bush administration must convince a skeptical Arab world that it has their best interests at heart. The belief in a “harmony of interests”—what’s good for the U.S. goose is good for the Arab gander—may be an article of faith in Washington, but it is not in Cairo, Damascus, or Baghdad. It is there that the spin must succeed in spite of policy.
Most Arabs believe U.S. behavior in the region can be explained by two words—oil and Israel. The U.S. justification for the first Gulf War—liberating Kuwait—is usually countered with the obvious U.S. desire to prevent Iraqi hegemony over Gulf oil. Likewise, the lure of Iraq’s oil is considered a more plausible motivation than the threat of WMD was for this spring’s invasion. The most indelible image for Arabs of the U.S. parade into Baghdad was not Saddam’s statue collapsing at the ankles, but the lightning deployment of U.S. troops to guard Iraq’s oil ministry while the rest of the city burned.
The second mountain for the Administration to climb is Israel. While the Western media focuses on the Administration’s Roadmap to Peace, the Arab world notes the inequity of power brought to bear on Iraq to comply with UN resolutions on WMD with that levied against Israel to end settlement building and its 36-year occupation of Arab lands. Even were the Roadmap to succeed, it is widely believed that Israel’s vision of Palestine—semi-sovereign, security dependent, a source of natural resources, cheap labor and a market for Israeli goods—is the kind of relationship the U.S. would prefer with the Arab world. When even 47 percent of Israelis think the U.S. favors Israel too much, according to the Pew data (38 percent saying U.S. policy is fair and 11 percent saying the U.S. favors the Palestinians), it should be clear to the Administration that the problem is not one of Arab misperception.
Right now, U.S. policies appear to Arabs demonstrably driven by naked self-interest and no amount of re-education, Radio Sawa, or internships at Bechtel will convince them otherwise. Indulging Israeli excesses, auctioning Iraq off to American corporations, and strong- arming Arab educators into teaching less Islam and more English, deepens the rift.
Ashraf Fahim is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Z and the Palestine News.
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