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Hearts, Minds and Hearings

Author: Steven A. Cook, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
July 6, 2004
The New York Times

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With the transfer of political authority to the Iraqi interim government now complete, the Bush administration should focus its attention on promoting democracy in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. One of the most effective ways in which the United States can pursue this goal is to transform Washington's Arab satellite news channel, Al Hurra, into a kind of C-Span for the Arab world.

It would be difficult for the new channel to broadcast hearings and meetings of Arab and Middle Eastern governments, at least initially. It could begin, however, with programming that has already proved its attraction to Middle Eastern audiences: the workings of the United States government.

On May 7, after revelations about torture at Abu Ghraib prison, Al Hurra broadcast Donald Rumsfeld's testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee to the Arab world. The spectacle of the secretary of defense of the United States answering questions from elected legislators about the conduct of American soldiers transfixed many Arabs.

After all, many leaders in the Middle East are unelected and unaccountable, and most Arabs have never seen a senior government official called to account. If America's Arab satellite news channel broadcast Arabic translations of United States government hearings, as well as other aspects of the American political system, it would go a long way toward promoting democratic principles in the Middle East.

Started in February with United States money, Al Hurra is an important component of Washington's effort to improve America's image in the Arab world and to counter misinformation about America that is routinely broadcast on Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya and other satellite stations based in the Middle East. These goals are admirable, and Al Hurra's journalists are talented, but the channel still suffers from a credibility problem.

Hostility toward the United States -- over its support for Israel, occupation of Iraq, abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib or for other reasons -- is endemic in the Arab world. As a result, Arabs routinely dismiss Al Hurra as propaganda. Although the evidence is thus far anecdotal, across the Middle East Al Hurra's programming is perceived as little better, though slicker, than the standard fare of state-owned Arab channels.

Al Hurra should not be a simple retransmission of C-Span, though. Live coverage of House floor votes on scintillating topics like the reauthorization of the federal transportation bill would not translate very well in the Arab world. Over time, perhaps, the station could gain permission to broadcast important government proceedings in the Middle East. In the meantime, showing the American government at work would reap benefits in several ways.

Televised debates over the budget, testimony by high-ranking government officials and candidate stump speeches would give Arabs a living-room view of the democratic process. For all the diplomatic, economic and military links between Washington and Arab capitals, the American political system remains a mystery to the vast majority of Arabs.

The new version of Al Hurra could also provide a vantage point for people from Morocco to the Persian Gulf to observe both the best and worst aspects of America's political process, helping to counter many of the prevailing myths and conspiracy theories about how American policy is developed and articulated.

From an American standpoint, the unfiltered content would help insulate Washington against charges of peddling propaganda. And perhaps most important, the channel would provide a standard against which Arabs could measure their own political systems -- which are notable for their distinct lack of transparency and accountability.

In its current form, Al Hurra simply cannot compete with Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya. In format if not content, Al Hurra represents more of the same in an increasingly saturated Arab satellite news market. In contrast, a C-Span for the Arab world would be an effective way of improving America's image and promoting reform in the Middle East.

The Bush administration's rhetorical emphasis on democratization in the Middle East is a welcome change in policy. Yet the administration's initiatives to encourage political liberalization is not new. Good governance programs and microfinance loans to the poor are important, but their collective effect on the authoritarian politics of the Middle East over the last decade has been limited.

Change will come slowly, of course. But broadcasting the spectacle of American politics could help spread to the Arab world the principles, practices and spirit of American democracy.

Steven A. Cook is a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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