Disinformation on Iraq

When the electricity went out during Hurricane Isabel, Americans wanted to know when their lights would go on. The same goes for Iraq’s citizens — who have been through far worse than Isabel. There is no doubt that the residents of Iraq have a hunger for information. Yet, the Coalition Provisional Authority is still struggling to get its message to the Iraqi people. Meanwhile, Al-Jazeera, Iranian state-sponsored broadcasting and others are filling the information vacuum with a bias that is harmful to our mission in Iraq.

The reconstruction of Iraq and the war against terrorism are ultimately battles of ideas, just as the Cold War was a struggle of ideologies. Victories in such confrontations are fundamentally about demonstrating the validity of either side’s views. Such a revelation only comes with the communication of information that builds an audience’s comprehension, both of specifics and the larger context. If the United States has any hope of convincing the Middle East of the validity of our involvement in the region, it is dependent upon our boosting Middle Eastern access to news and entertainment that is not hostile to us.

The power of information was a critical ingredient in the tearing down of the Berlin Wall by the German people. The Voice of America and Radio Free Europe gave Eastern Europeans a window to something other than the oppressiveness found behind the Iron Curtain, and that vision helped undermine the Communist Bloc’s hold on the minds of its people. The question is whether or not America will use this tool to convey the merit of liberty, the rule of law, political pluralism and religious tolerance once again.

Last year, Al-Jazeera profited $66 million from advertisers who believed in the value of reaching the Arabic-speaking world. In comparison, the annual budget for the United States’ Radio Sawa for young Arabs is $35 million; and our effort to launch a new Arabic-language 24-hour news and entertainment network has been allotted ten percent less than Al-Jazeera’s yearly advertising take. Radio and TV programming are not a panacea for the misunderstandings and rifts in U.S.-Arab relations; but, such programming is crucial for shared security and prosperity in the long term because it promises to shape how Arabs interpret events.

The potential for success is real. Access to international commercial satellite television networks and the Internet have played an important part in the enthusiasm young Iranians have for the West. This sentiment has been strengthened by the United States’ VOA Farsi-language television, radio and Internet services, and Radio Farda. Still, the VOA’s TV services to Iran are limited to six-and-a-half hours a week. Far more effective programming time is warranted, given the opportunity for the U.S. to connect with young Iranians — three-quarters of the population is under 30 years of age — and the ramifications of Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Likewise, Turkey is a NATO ally and a democratic frontline state in the Middle East. Nevertheless, internal politics prevented Turkey from hosting U.S. forces in their overthrow of Saddam’s regime because Turkey’s citizens were poorly informed as to America’s resolve and intentions. No surprise: a lack of funds prevents American broadcasters from service beyond 14 hours per week of radio. No television is provided. This is not an adequate use of mechanisms that can further America’s relationships at the grassroots level in a pivotal nation.

America’s annual international broadcasting annual budget hovers around $550 million ? one-fourth the price of a B-2 bomber. This is a weak investment, considering that the American defense budget is $400 billion and the U.S. has a $10.4 trillion economy. Consider that as a percentage of the government budget, the U.S. spends a quarter of what France spends on international broadcasting. No wonder then that a recent Gallup Poll in Iraq found that France’s President Jacques Chirac, who opposed the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, is twice as popular as President Bush, even though the vast majority of Iraqis say they are thankful Saddam is gone.

Our nation enjoys history’s most powerful military, widest-ranging alliances and largest economy. Our other instrument of national power — information — nonetheless has yet to see its potential realized in our connection with the world. We need to increase the reach, availability and suitability of U.S. broadcasting programs for the 300 million people in the Middle East.

We have the human resources to accomplish this mission: Of the nine largest global media corporations, seven are American. Let us apply our corporate abilities to make concepts resonate across cultures. And, let us appropriate more broadcasting funds, recognizing that military power cannot be the only tool we use to touch the lives around the globe. As the most successful example of modern liberal democracy, and as the world’s foremost example of a republic of ideas, we have much to gain by communicating to the world, and much to lose if we do not.

Jeff Kojac is a Council on Foreign Relations Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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