Size 10 – US Public Diplomacy Disaster
by The Federalist
In recent weeks, we have had a moment of convergence…seemingly unconnected events coming together in an act with a much larger significance.
The Annenberg School of the University of Southern California recently completed a study of alHurra television for the Middle East at the request of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) and paid for with taxpayer funds. The Board attempted to withhold its release, citing a bar under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) on making such reports public. Later, with the establishment of an Obama transition team unit to assess the BBG and the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), a member of the team made copies of the Annenberg Report available to other transition team members. At about the same time or shortly thereafter, the BBG posted a press release that included a link to the Annenberg Report and another study prepared separately by the University of Missouri.
When queried earlier by the media watchdog group ProPublica, an attorney for the General Counsel’s Office at the BBG remarked that the report may never be released. No one on the transition team, however, appears to have been aware of the FOIA bar cited by the BBG’s Office of the General Counsel. As the Obama transition team started to look into the BBG operations, the report that might have never been released earlier suddenly saw the light of day.
It came as no great surprise once the Annenberg Report was made public that it was particularly critical of alHurra’s operations and the lack and/or ineffectiveness of management or journalistic controls and standards.
Next, some opinion writers have urged that James Glassman, the current Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy, be retained by the incoming Obama Administration.
Third, on a recent surprise visit to Iraq, President Bush was caught by surprise when an Iraqi journalist hurled a barrage of epithets and a pair of shoes at him, an act that is considered to be a major insult in the Arab world. Quick reactions by the president allowed him to avoid being struck by the shoes.
With this act, the point of convergence was reached:
At considerable expense to the American taxpayer, the Bush Administration established and continues to fund alHurra television broadcasts to the Middle East. By all accounts, this station has never been able to seize the moment and change the paradigm of anti-US public opinion in the Arab and Muslim world.
The act of hurling shoes at the President of the United States captures the cumulative anger and hatred felt toward not only the man but also US policies in the Middle East. Instead of being seen as a champion of elevating the human condition, the US is seen as a malevolent and violent force set loose by the Bush Administration upon the face of the earth.
AlHurra has made its own contribution to this dark moment.
This station, for which US taxpayers continue to pay millions of dollars each month, has had no measurable positive impact in the Middle East. Its message has been widely rejected. It has failed to create a broad understanding of US policies. In a failed effort to win audience approval, it has allowed for moments of uninterrupted anti-US rhetoric without balanced editorial counterpoint. It provided an unchallenged platform for Holocaust deniers. One can argue that indirectly alHurra has put the chief US policymaker at risk of physical harm.
US policymakers — the BBG, some State Department officials, and the White House — have failed to grasp that alHurra symbolizes a daily taunt in the face of the Arab public. Given the intensity of the anger that is reflected in Arab public opinion, the station represents a severe liability for the United States. The public, physical assault on Mr. Bush underscores how vulnerable we have become to public outrage toward our policies.
The transition period is a sensitive time in the federal bureaucracy. It is a time when known mistakes and liabilities become targets of opportunity for the incoming administration to address. The Annenberg Report requires from the Obama Administration more than just words of concern. The report has to be followed up with action. Characteristically for the current Broadcasting Board of Governors, the first action to come out of this report was an attempt by the BBG and its IBB staff to bury it.
This was nothing less than an effort to preserve “business as usual,” to avoid acting decisively to correct known problems and/or replace inept senior managers responsible for an ineffective response to the serious problems detailed in the document.
Prior to becoming Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy, James Glassman was appointed chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors. Mr. Glassman occupied a key position in overseeing all aspects of US international broadcasting, including alHurra television. To all appearances, while still a BBG member Mr. Glassman supported alHurra’s operations and did not address the known criticisms of the station’s management and programming.
Warnings about alHurra have been around ever since the Bush Administration officials started talking about its creation. US media reporting on alHurra’s failures reached a significant mark earlier this year with a report on the station by ProPublica.org, a companion piece by the “60 Minutes” unit of CBS News on June 22, 2008, and an extensive article by the Washington Post following the “60 Minutes” broadcast. The BBG was hoping, however, that the interest in and scrutiny of alHurra would wane and things would return to “business as usual.”
Unfortunately for Mr. Glassman’s reputation as the person in charge of US public diplomacy, the news accounts by ProPublica.org, “60 Minutes,” and the Washington Post, the release of the Annenberg Report on alHurra, and the shoe-throwing incident in Baghdad have all occurred on his watch. They all demonstrate a failure of the Bush Administration’s efforts to win public approval abroad for its policies. The shoe-thrower, Muntadar al-Zaidi, has been elevated to celebrity status throughout the Arab and Muslim world. Ironically, his act represents a public diplomacy triumph of sorts for those who oppose US interests in the Middle East.
Thus, it is left for the incoming Obama administration to sort through the debris of US public diplomacy in general, and in the Middle East in particular, to determine what is salvageable.
Without question, it is imperative that the United States maintain an ability to explain its policies in the Middle East. It is too dangerous from the perspective of US interests to be silent in that part of the world. However, a question should be asked whether alHurra has a place in presenting US policies and American opinions in the new political environment created by Barack Obama’s historic electoral victory? In my view, alHurra is so tainted with shortcomings and failures of the past, and is such a demonstrable lightning rod for anti-American sentiment, that the most sensible course of action from the perspective of US interests would be to shut it down. At this juncture, keeping alHurra on-the-air serves only as a constant reminder of things gone wrong with US foreign policy and public diplomacy in the Middle East.
In the interim, the US Government should reestablish the Voice of America (VOA) Arabic service on radio and a companion VOA Arabic Internet website. These services were eliminated by the BBG. Current BBG thinking is to go all-Internet and eliminate other VOA radio operations. This is a new monumental mistake by the BBG, which the Obama Administration should quickly reverse. Successful international broadcasting is based upon a flexible triad of radio, Internet and — when possible — television.
Unfortunately, the BBG has soured the Arab world on American government-funded Middle East TV programs. Until the new Obama Administration has a chance to decide what to do with the BBG and alHurra, it might want to have US policymakers appear on Arab television networks, particularly those with bureaus in Washington and New York, and begin the process of reconstructing US credibility with the Arab “street.” If the new public diplomacy approach is successfully put in place and shows positive results, the new administration can then start deciding how to reconstitute a television product for the Middle East.
It would be tragic and counterproductive for the Obama Administration to adopt the BBG’s strategy of “business as usual.” New thinking, new direction and new leadership should be the top priorities for the new administration’s public diplomacy effort. What we need is a new Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy, a forward-thinking and open-minded body to oversee U.S. international broadcasting (if the BBG is to be retained in some form) and a management restructuring within the IBB to weed out inept and self-serving bureaucrats.
Finally, some have suggested that the shoe-throwing incident represents somehow a victory for the principles of freedom of expression or freedom of the press. It does not. This incident was an expression of rage and a physical assault upon the individual seen as responsible for misery and suffering among the Iraqi people. There is some hope, however, in the fact that Barack Obama’s electoral victory forced the Broadcasting Board of Governors to release the Annenberg report on alHurra that the BBG wanted desperately to suppress. Hopefully, the next step will be a complete overhauling of US public diplomacy and giving America a new voice in the Middle East.
The Federalist 2008
Use this link to the ProPublica.org web site to view the Alhurra report with English subtitles about a Holocaust deniers conference in Teheran: http://www.propublica.org/feature/alhurra-video