EDUCATION AND MEDIA: American Encounters with Arabs: The "Soft Power" of U.S. Public Diplomacy in the Middle East/Voices of the New Arab Public: Iraq, Al-Jazeera and Middle East Politics Today

By Anderson, Jon W. | The Middle East Journal, Autumn 2006 | Go to article overview

EDUCATION AND MEDIA: American Encounters with Arabs: The "Soft Power" of U.S. Public Diplomacy in the Middle East/Voices of the New Arab Public: Iraq, Al-Jazeera and Middle East Politics Today


Anderson, Jon W., The Middle East Journal


EDUCATION AND MEDIA American Encounters with Arabs: The "Soft Power" of US. Public Diplomacy in the Middle East, by William A. Rugh. Westport, CT and London, UK: Praeger Security International, 2005. xvii + 198 pages. Tables. Notes to p. 211. Sel. Bibl. to p. 214. Index to p. 220. $49.95.

Voices of the New Arab Public: Iraq, Al-Jazeera and Middle East Politics Today, by Marc Lynch. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006. xiv + 251 pages. Tables. Notes to p. 273. Bibl. to p. 286. Index to p. 293. $24.50.

Reviewed by Jon W. Anderson

If Joseph Nye's conception of "soft power" has any effective referent, it would surely center on media, its practical home would be public diplomacy, and the practical imperative of every practitioner would be to understand how people frame their views. Classic International Relations is little help, since it reduces communication to the message. Closer to the ground where the action is, William Rugh offers a gentle defense of the practical strategy of influencing the influencers that evolved over the years only to be discarded by the current administration in favor of mass communications just as satellite television and the Internet made those anachronistic. The new Arab public sphere emerging through them is Marc Lynch's interest in a more (and the first truly) academic case study of Al-Jazeera. The base fact on which both studies latch is that communication is a two-way process not limited to message passing. Together, they have much to say about how soft power works in the Middle East because, instead of starting with some exogenous "if only" theory, these studies center on practitioners.

William Rugh, who has produced seminal works on mass media in the Arab Middle East, here turns the mirror to those who attempt to influence it through public diplomacy. Administration by administration, from World War II through the current "war on terror" Rugh describes policies and operations of public diplomacy, and how they shifted with political fads in Washington. What keeps this from being a litany of tinear failures is real respect for beleaguered practitioners in the field succeeding despite inadequate resources and no recognition, plus his conviction that, if jaw-jaw is better than war-war, then expanding the circle of discourse is worth doing for its own sake. And Rugh knows how: it is by returning from the current public relations model (derived from Madison Avenue and the "permanent campaign" of contemporary electioneering) to the classier communications that aimed at influencing the influencers, on the old VOA (Voice of America) model, which took its listeners seriously, rather than the new model public relations (PR), which conceives of them as a market to be "sold." This is all done with the light touch of an old hand sorting through what works and what doesn't.

Lynch picks up the story with a case study of Al-Jazeera that morphed into a focus on how Arab public opinion formed around the suffering of Iraqis under the sanctions regime following the 1991 Gulf War. At its heart are a puzzle and an innovation in the study of Arab public opinion. The puzzle is that supposed influencers were blind-sided by public opinion and struggled to keep up, while the wider Arab public was shocked to hear its opinion publicly rejected by opposition Iraqis. The innovation that makes this visible is the maturation of opinion polling in the region pioneered by the Zogby organization, Shibley Telhami (Anwar Sadat Professor of Peace and Development at the University of Maryland), The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, and others including the World Values Survey, so that public opinion can be read directly, in the usual practice of American political science, instead of intuited from "opinionators." In effect, what Lynch shows is that the Arab commentariat of journalists and academics were not, in fact, articulating a private transcript but a variant of the public transcript put out by political elites; and far from forming public opinion, they were by the end of the 1990s struggling to catch up with it. …

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