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.  



Reeducating
Arabia 



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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. 



Free-market
Arabs 



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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 



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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.