In his important speech in Cairo last June, Obama asserted that the United States categorically rejects the expansion of Israeli settlements in the Palestinian West Bank, one of the clearest and boldest statements any sitting president has ever made about Palestinians’ core grievance. Fine. But why not dispatch more Arabic-speaking diplomats to Arabic news outlets to reiterate this policy when those networks assemble panels to discuss the conflict? The U.S. government isn’t bothering to effectively communicate changes in foreign policy that Arabs favor.
Ultimately, the United States will have to use Arab television to spotlight necessary adjustments in its foreign policy, in order to affect basic public opinion here. U.S. government-produced news and an opposition to extremist networks simply won’t do the job.
In January 2009, I was dining with a family of Iraqi refugees in Amman when Barack Obama’s first TV interview as president was broadcast on the Al-Arabiya network and translated into Arabic. The Iraqi family was astonished and proud. For a moment, this otherwise politically discarded family felt important, attended to, and relevant. After a few minutes, though, one family member said, “Well, that’s nice of Obama, but let’s see what happens in Iraq and with the Palestinian issue.”
Obama’s interview on Al-Arabiya, while momentarily uplifting to many Arabs, wasn’t enough. The United States must do a better job of discussing sounder policies on Arab TV in order to minimize anti-American sentiment in this part of the world.
Of course, the United States has no obligation to win a global popularity contest, and that’s not what diplomacy is about. But improving Arab public perception of the U.S. is one of our important security concerns, and it is also within the realm of the possible.
The satellite dish has for decades fed news of controversial U.S. policies into Arab homes. There’s no reason this same medium can’t be used to amplify news of our better policies.