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The Problem Is With Product, Not Packaging

The Problem Is With Product, Not Packaging

By Ramzy Baroud

The United States government persists in its disrespect for Arabs. Its frequent attempts to win their ''hearts and minds'', through wars, state-of-the-art radio and TV stations and ''reform'' initiatives often lead to new follies, further insults.

US policymakers are failing to grasp that cluster bombs and cheap propaganda, even if combined with heart-warming photos of soldiers handing out candy to disheveled-looking Iraqi children, will change nothing. It will hardly alter the fate of one US flag on its way to being burned by angry protesters somewhere in the Middle East. Such rituals are anything but rare.

A US Congress panel, formed on June 2003, to “study the problem of America’s sinking image” concluded that US policy goes a long way toward explaining the anti-American sentiment throughout the world.

Much of the anti-American sentiment abroad is exemplified in the Middle East. If one belief unites most Arab nations, it is their abhorrence of the way the US government handles its affairs in the region — a combination of extreme militancy, disregard of the individual and collective aspirations of Arab peoples, and the obnoxious tactics it uses to redeem its sins.

By the time the congressional panel released its report, Arabs saw enough and heard enough of the atrocities committed in Iraq in the name of “liberation and installing democracy”. But to former Ambassador Edward Djerejian, the panel’s chairman, the anti-Americanism is merely a problem of imaging, definition and presentation.

“If America does not define itself (to the world), the extremists will do it for us,” he was quoted by the Christian Science Monitor as saying.

So how should American “define itself”? Through self-examination, reassessment of its foreign policy, re-evaluation of its “total war” approach? No — through a more determined infusion of good old American propaganda. Instead of changing its policy, Washington is spending millions to change the way Arabs are interpreting these policies. More insulting than the idea itself is the implementation.

Sometime in early 2002, a US government agency, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), launched the Arabic language Radio Sawa. The declared intent was to serve the interests of the United States through “communicating directly in Arabic with the people of the Middle East by radio.”

Twenty-four hours of cheap English and Arabic pop music, interrupted occasionally with badly composed news bulletins failed to sway the Arabs. As if the bloody war in Iraq and its unending quagmire presented an opportunity for the US, the BBG came with yet another terrific idea: A TV station, Al-Hurra, which in Arabic means, “the free one”. Broadcasting to all 22 Arab countries from Washington, the station’s first celebrity guest was none other than US President George W. Bush himself.

“We have not been in Iraq for one year and already there has been enormous progress,” the president said. “Today a free society has started to float to the surface.”

And the propaganda goes on.

But while unfounded claims can always be refuted, discarded even, the Arabs’ incapacity to stand up to the political and military encroachment of the United States entices the latter to intrude with even more unmannerly designs. The latest is the “Greater Middle East Initiative.”

The US draft of the initiative was “circulated to European allies” and was “leaked” to the Arab press, says the Financial Times.

The Bush government seeks to reform the Middle East with the help of the Europeans. In fact, the Times says that the plan was Washington’s attempt to heal “trans-Atlantic divisions (with European countries) created by the Iraq war.” Of course, the healing would have to happen at the expense of the Arabs.

For the Arab peoples and their representatives, whose future is being molded by foreign leaders thousands of miles away, knowing the full details of what Bush envisages for them would have to wait until June. Needless to say, their consent is irrelevant.

The angry response generated by the “Greater Middle East Initiative” among Arab governments won them some assurances by US diplomats that the plan will refer to the term “partnership”, alluding to an Arab role in Washington’s charade.

Nonetheless, a “revised and probably diluted plan is still expected to be launched in June under a different name,” wrote the Times, quoting diplomats. This means that Washington is not likely to halt its political and cultural indiscretions in the Middle East.

Washington is blinded by its quest for rearranging the geopolitics of the region to accommodate its preconceived political, economic and military interests. If these interests compel a total and far-reaching makeover, from Morocco to Pakistan, then one is in order.

But what is also in order is another “Greater Middle East Initiative”, one that is born from the region itself. Arab countries are in urgent need of reforms, not as a reactionary counterdesign to Washington’s initiatives, but because political reform in the Arab world is both overdue and indispensable. What Arabs must realize is that their inability to bring about genuine political and social reforms will always qualify them as the subordinate party, whose backwardness is the sole reason for Washington’s charity and goodwill.

America’s unwillingness to treat the Arabs as equal partners is intrinsically linked to the Arabs’ failure to establish themselves as equals. As long as Arab governments remain unable to win the trust and respect of their own people, they will always fail to redefine their relationship not only with the United States, but the world as a whole.

Reform in the Arab world is imperative. To abandon or evade reform, under whatever pretences, is an open invitation to Washington to sketch the future it has ordained for the Middle East.


— Ramzy Baroud is a Palestinian-American journalist and head of research & studies at Al-Jazeera Net English.

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