U.S. is struggling to get its message out to Arab world

Reversing course, officials use Qatar channel, hope to expand VOA service

War On Terrorism : The World

October 16, 2001|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - After complaining for weeks that Al-Jazeera had an anti-American bias, the Bush administration has now seized on the satellite news channel as a major platform for getting its anti-terror message out to the Arab and Muslim world.

Condoleezza Rice, President Bush's national security adviser, gave an interview yesterday to the widely watched Qatar-based Arabic-language station, pressing anew the administration's case that America's air assaults on Afghanistan are neither anti-Arab nor anti-Muslim.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has appeared, and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has an interview scheduled today.

"I know that you're going to have many of my colleagues on in the future, and I look forward to being back with you," Rice told her interviewer.

That the United States would put its top officials on a station that only two weeks ago Powell complained about to the emir of Qatar is a measure not just of Al-Jazeera's reach across the Middle East but also of America's failure to come up with its own ways of getting its message across in the region.

Although Bush said at his news conference last week that "we've got to do a better job" in communicating with the peoples of the Middle East, the administration has no single person in charge of a propaganda effort and finds itself handicapped by a lack of tools.

The Voice of America, the government-funded worldwide radio news agency, reaches just a small fraction of the region's population. The United States Information Agency, which dominated propaganda during the Cold War, has been scaled back and submerged into the State Department.

The decision to grant interviews to Al-Jazeera lets the administration respond to the Osama bin Laden videos and Taliban statements also aired on the network.

But changing perceptions in the Middle East won't be easy or quick, historians, diplomats and veteran propagandists warn.

America's poor image in the region puzzles politicians and policymakers who find it hard to understand how a country that markets Marlboros and Clorox to the Arab world can't seem to sell itself.

After all, the United States military rescued a Muslim state - Kuwait - in 1991, continues to protect Saudi Arabia, led a large relief effort for Somalia in late 1992 and halted Serbian aggression against Muslims in Bosnia in 1995.

"How is it that the country that invented Hollywood and Madison Avenue has such trouble promoting a positive image of itself overseas?" Rep. Henry Hyde, the Illinois Republican who is chairman of the House International Relations Committee, asked last week.

Part of the reason is neglect of what for years has been the mainstay of projecting that image: soft-sell, native-language news broadcasts beamed to regions where government control limits what the populace hears and reads.

"We have almost no youthful audience under the age of 25 in the Arab world," says Marc Nathanson, who heads the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees VOA. This age group, he says, has "enormous distrust of the United States."

The board hopes to correct this with a major expansion of VOA's Arabic-language service in a number of Middle East dialects that offers popular programming geared to a younger audience. Some members of Congress are pressing for a new service, a Radio Free Afghanistan.

In the meantime, much of what the Arab world observes of the United States is what viewers of American commercial television see, says Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter:

"Most of it is ugly, vulgar, cynical and increasingly sex-preoccupied, and we're projecting that in a religious culture that is traditional and has strong political grievances against us," he said recently.

Putting prominent administration spokesmen onto Al-Jazeera is one part of a Bush administration strategy to change this image. Quickly responding to false information in Middle East media is another, together with getting the message out to the Muslim world about U.S. humanitarian efforts in Afghanistan.

Charlotte Beers, a top-flight advertising executive appointed as the State Department's undersecretary for public diplomacy, says the administration is intent on reminding audiences worldwide about the human dimensions of the Sept. 11 attack. But unlike in her previous line of work, she says, she can't immediately order up bus signs to start an ad campaign.

"If you think of this attack as a big building going down, you haven't got it. If you think of it as how many orphans were made that day and how many people are still weeping and mourning, you will remember," she said last week. In addition to using the limited public diplomacy resources, she plans to work with the Advertising Council on developing a media strategy.

Historically, the U.S. government has gone to imaginative lengths in its wartime propaganda, at home and abroad. During World War I, the Committee on Public Information put out pamphlets, movies, posters and ads to keep patriotism high.

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