May 3, 2007

May 3, 2007 | Commentary on

Voices of America

No matter what you choose to call our war with the forces of radical Islam, it is clear that the global landscape of public opinion regarding these events is highly complex. The challenge of navigating it falls to the branches of the U.S. government whose task it is to win over hearts and minds in the Muslim world. How to deal with this challenge was the subject of intense discussion last week at the Cantigny estate outside Chicago, which hosted "The Future of U.S. International Broadcasting." Given the devastating choices imposed by shrinking budgets on the leadership of Voice of America, the meeting was not just timely but critically important. 

Just consider the poll released this week by WorldPublicOpinion.org, conducted with the support of the University of Maryland, which suggests that the job we are doing today in trying to explain ourselves to the Muslim world is woefully inadequate. Respondents in Egypt, Morocco, Pakistan and Indonesia (countries that actually all have governments friendly toward the United States) overwhelmingly believe that the intent of the U.S. government is to "weaken and divide the Islamic world" in order to "achieve political and military domination to control Middle East resources." In Egypt and Morocco, great majorities supported attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq (though interestingly in Pakistan and Indonesia, where the U.S. military has made huge humanitarian efforts after a tsunami and an earthquake, this was not a prevalent view). 

Our relations today with the Muslim world are far more complex than anything we faced during the Cold War, when a relatively united West faced a Communist Soviet Bloc, whose citizens felt oppression keenly and spoke the same political language as we in the West. Communism, after all, was a malignant outgrowth of Western thought, and, therefore, was possible to discuss in familiar terms. It obviously also helped that President Reagan understood the importance of communicating America's message through the Iron Curtain and made sure that the U.S. Information Agency and U.S. international broadcasters had the resources needed. 

We are not doing nearly as good a job talking to the Muslim world. Due to budget cuts and emphasis on the use of surrogate radio outlets, Voice of America does not send a single broadcast under its own name to the Middle East. (Surrogate broadcasters, of which Radio Free Iran is an example, often broadcast news about the countries in question using local journalists.) And yet, an integral part of VOA's mission is to inform others about American society and U.S. policy. In a world where anti-Americanism is rampant, that mission surely has not become obsolete. 

What's missing from international broadcasting today is a strategic vision. The two missions of international broadcasting coexist uneasily: the day-to-day business of how we present the United States to the world; and how we engage in an existential fight against a radical ideology, which is more closely aligned with ideological warfare and strategic communication. 

In addition, there is the question of who we want to reach. Audience numbers always seem to be the most obvious measure. In 2006, Radio Sawa and Al Hurra television, broadcasting to the Arab world, had a weekly audience of 35 million. Radio Free Afghanistan had 3 million listeners, and the Voice of America had 101 million tuning in worldwide. Yet, with the limited resources available, we have not made the effort to set priorities for reaching the audiences that are the opinion-makers of the future -- students, intellectuals, the political elites. The propaganda of the Islamists, the very voices we are trying to counter, is highly sophisticated and professional. Though largely Internet-based, it is often broadcast unquestioningly by Al Jazeera, with a huge magnifying effect throughout the Arab world. 

How we reach our target audiences is also a very complex matter. While shortwave radio used to be the primary medium of the broadcasters, today FM radio, television, the Internet and even Podcasts compete with each other. Each medium comes with its own set of audience demographics. 

Unfortunately, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which is charged with the oversight of the complicated apparatus of U.S. International broadcasting, has for the past decade been part of the fragmentation rather than the solution. As important as this fight is, the White House needs to take charge of the strategic vision, and it can't happen soon enough.

Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First appeared in The Washington Times