Failure of US Public Diplomacy in the Middle East
Michael Pan and Jeremy Weinstein argue in “Forfeiting the War of Ideas” that the US government has failed to fund public diplomacy efforts that might help the US win the war of ideas in the Middle East. They are absolutely right. Goddamned Jesse Helms did irreparable damage when he succeeded in rolling the United States Information Agency into the State Department. State is always short on funds, and then security had to be beefed up at the embassies, and the USIA got starved. USIA used to have American libraries in the major cities of the Middle East. They were all closed and the books remaindered. Even the libraries that had existed were flawed, since they were English-only.
You know, if you were an Arab intellectual in Cairo, Amman or even Baghdad, and you wanted to read a book that collected some central writings of Thomas Jefferson in Arabic, you almost certainly could not get hold of such a book. I repeat: The major classics of American thought either have not been translated into Arabic, or were published in tiny editions and are now impossible to find. I just checked. Bernard Mayo’s Jefferson Himself appeared in Cairo in 1959 and 1960. Nobody now could find a copy, I am sure. I searched for the Federalist Papers in Arabic and got nothing. Abbas Mahmud al-`Aqqad’s book on Benjamin Franklin was published in 1955, and appears to be the last word on the subject.
There is no good book distribution in the Arab world, no jobbers like Ingram or Baker & Taylor. Often bookstores publish a book, in a run of 500 copies, and if you want the book you have to go to that bookstore. I’ve tramped all over Cairo looking for obscure little bookstores that had put out a volume I wanted. A lot of the time, authoritarian governments keep books published in other Arab countries out. I can remember how shocked I was at how small and understocked the Arabic-language bookstores were in Tunis (the bourgeoisie could buy all the French books they liked).
Not only is American print culture largely unavailable in Arabic, but the media situation has gone downhill. The highly professional and provacative Arabic service of the Voice of America has been shut down. It has been replaced by Radio Sawa, a pet project of US radio mogul Norman Pattiz, which broadcasts Britney Spears and Arab pop to the young people but which has almost no intellectual content. There are short news headlines, AM radio style, that are given in language that is obviously and heavy-handedly biased toward the US and Israel. Most important Arab states, like Egypt, won’t allow Radio Sawa to broadcast in their countries (it uses local FM frequencies). Pattiz is contemptuous of the old Voice of America operation because it was on shortwave and only reached 1% of Arab listeners. But there was no reason VOA couldn’t have been broadcast on FM if the US had wanted that. Closing it down and replacing it with pablum and propaganda is no way to win a war of ideas.