- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 20, 2003

If we have learned one thing about fighting terrorism, it is the critical importance of reaching out to younger, future generations in the Arab world.
As we help to rebuild Afghanistan into a stable, democratic country and make war to eliminate Saddam Hussein and his regime of terror, a harder, long-term task looms ahead of us: winning the hearts and minds of Arab youths in Iraq and across the Middle East.
We were not doing a good job of that before the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. In fact, we were not doing much at all until six months after those tragedies when the administration launched Voice of America's Radio Sawa aimed at the Arab world.
Two years later this innovative effort has been a huge success by any standard of measurement and is getting rave reviews from Baghdad to Amman, according to independent listener surveys. It has proven to be so popular that the White House plans to launch a far more ambitious television version this year that will be beamed to Arab countries.
High-level administration officials tell me funding for the TV venture to compete head-on with the Arab TV network al Jazeera will be quietly inserted in the upcoming supplemental appropriations bill to pay for the war against Iraq. Once funding is approved, VOA officials say the network will be up and running in six months.
Radio Sawa, which is being heard in homes, at work and on taxicab radios throughout the Arab countries, broadcasts a mix of light American rock, Arab pop music and news in Arabic. America gets its message out in the news, delivered straight and factual, but the music is the medium that draws the audience.
"If you want your message to have impact in the Middle East, you have to be heard in the medium they want to listen to," says Kenneth Tomlinson, chairman of the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees VOA's programming.
Radio Sawa is being heard by people who will one day become the future leaders of the Middle East. It has become so popular it is even being praised by many Iraqis.
"One news service asked Iraqis in Baghdad what they listened to, and a cabdriver said he listens to Radio Sawa because 'they have better music and you get the news fast,' " Mr. Tomlinson told me.
Sawa's target audience is between the ages of 17 and 28 the largest age cohort in the region and surveys show the radio network is beating the competition cold.
For example, a year after the network began broadcasting in Amman, Jordan, a poll of 500 listeners found a stunning 86 percent said they had listened to Radio Sawa in the past week. Other Arab stations trailed far behind.
President Bush's critics have been pummeling him for his failure to rally a larger world coalition behind the war against Iraq, although a substantial numbers of nations are actually supporting us, from Eastern Europe to Saudi Arabia.
But diplomacy, the art of winning friends and influencing people, comes in many forms. The New York Times has called the Radio Sawa service "a triumph of the Bush administration's focus on public diplomacy abroad."
Radio Sawa has become one of America's strategic information tools in the hot war to disarm Saddam Hussein and rid the world of its most dangerous terrorist. Speeches by Mr. Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell and others are broadcast live. News of the war's events are broadcast on the half hour and updated immediately. "You get the news fast," says a listener in Kurd-held territory in the North.
After the war of liberation is over in Iraq, Mr. Tomlinson says the VOA's programming focus will shift to building democracies in the Arab world, advancing human rights and promoting religious diversity.
After that, "the next big vision" will be building an Arab-language TV network to take on al Jazeera. The White House has budgeted $31 million to get it started. Mr. Tomlinson, the former Reader's Digest editor-in-chief who ran VOA in the Reagan years, says, "We can be up and running in six months."
The more radical al Jazeera is "like [former Ku Klux Klan leader] David Duke representing the American point of view. We can't let that be the only point of view."
The TV project has strong bipartisan support in Congress and Mr. Bush's inner circle, including National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and even penny-pinching Budget Director Mitch Daniels.
"Can we compete head-on with al Jazeera? I think you'd be surprised," Mr. Tomlinson told me confidently.
The war to get rid of Saddam Hussein will be quick. The job of building enduring alliances and friendships in the Arab world to prevent future September 11s will take longer. VOA's outreach efforts deserve our strongest support.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent for The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide