Saturday, November 14, 2009

The United States war on Al Jazeera

I found The Public Diplomacy of Al Jazeera by Shawn Powers and Eytan Gilboa as well as Public Diplomacy and Soft Power by Joseph Nye especially enlightening this week as we have continued to discuss both concepts frequently in class. What I discovered in these readings just served to enhance what I already knew; The United States does not have it's act together when it comes to approaching public diplomacy, soft power, and the rising political power of Al Jazeera in the Middle East.

Al Jazeera is viewed positively by its target audience - Arabs and Muslims throughout the region of the Middle East, most likely because the network attempts to create a feeling of "Pan Arab" citizenry across borders that has never been achieved. Regardless of pressures by surrounding regimes, who criticize the news outlet for inciting violence, encouraging dissent, and reporting on "taboo" topics; the relatively new media source was recognized as the fifth most popular "brand" in the world. Obviously, Al Jazeera is doing something right to achieve this status. As the network continues to be attacked by governments in the Middle East, this only serves to increase its credibility and popularity. One would think the United States would have learned this lesson in watching its Arab counterparts attempt to shut the network down, to no avail. Led by the Bush Administration as well as various agencies and departments, Al Jazeera was labeled "Osama's mouthpiece", accused of inciting terrorists activities, and inaccurately protraying the war in Iraq. These criticisms have only served to increase the popularity of the network and lessen the amount of influence the US may hope to have in the region through soft power and public diplomacy efforts.

Joseph Nye defines soft power as " the ability to shape the preferences of others" and public diplomacy as the instruments governments use to spread soft power. Soft power is dependent upon three objectives: culture, political values, and foreign policies. The US attempts to "win the hearts and minds" of people in the Middle East through these tactics. What the US fails to notice is that actions speak louder than words when it comes to soft power. Nye discusses how in the new information age, everyone has access to so much information that people are experiencing information overload and need to decide for themselves what is going to receive their attention. No matter how much the US talks and talks or continues to criticize Al Jazzera, this only serves to decrease our own credibility and increase that of the only network many in the Middle East view as a legitimate and independent source of news. With websites, such as that label Al Jazeera to be a form of terror television and a new form of hate America media, the US government is doing exactly what its counterparts in the Middle East regimes do - attempt to prohibit an outside, independent source from reporting the news. This branding of the station as anti-American has increased due to the broadcasting of Al Jazeera English.

Al Jazeera's English website describes its goals: "Al Jazeera English is destined to be the English-language channel of reference for Middle Eastern events, balancing the current typical information flow by reporting from the developing world back to the West and from the southern to the northern hemisphere...the channel aims to give voice to untold stories, promote debate, and challenge established perceptions". If the United States wanted to effectively use its soft power and increase its relevancy through public diplomacy, it would smartly use this media source as a chance to counteract the negative reporting against the United States and its foreign policy actions, particularly the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nye believes that in order for public diplomacy to be successful, the US needs to know its target audience. The consumers of Al Jazeera English are the exact audience that we need to be targeting. As Nye further states, "It is sometimes domestically difficult for the government to support presentation of views that are critical of its own policies. Yet such criticism is often the most effective way of establishing credibility...When the government instruments avoid such criticism, they not only diminish their own credibility but also fail to capitalize on an important source of attraction".

While I am in no way defending Al Jazeera's actions (I actually find fault with them for claiming to "set the agenda" as well as their statements that they are not always a neutral source of information), I recognize the power they have as a brand, a news source, and as a political actor. They have managed to do significant damage to the United States goals abroad, but this could have been mediated by the United States own involvement on the network to counteract their charges. Further, CNN and Fox News, as well as other domestic sources that provide our information make use of stories and video released by Al Jazeera. Also, the videos shown (especially those released by Bin Laden) allow government officials to analyze the true dates the videos were released and the location of where they formed. If used effectively, I believe the US could actually use Al Jazeera, specifically Al Jazeera English, to rebuild our soft power in the region and even use them as a potential source in fighting the war on terror.


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