EASTON, MASS. — The US has learned from its war in Afghanistan that winning an information battle can sometimes be more important than scoring a military victory. Now that the US and the Middle East are on a collision course over military action against Iraq, American officials need to exert more effort to communicate with the Arab people through effective channels like the Al-Jazeera satellite network.
An obstacle to this is the misguided perception that Al-Jazeera is an anti-American network that increases Arab animosity toward the US. While Americans may be most aware of - and perhaps prejudiced about - the network for its broadcasts of audiotapes of Osama bin Laden, the reality is that Al-Jazeera is a mere vehicle for information, a vessel through which ideas and opinions from all possible sides are disseminated and public discourse is forged.
Since its inception in 1996, Al-Jazeera, Arabic for "the island," has won the respect of millions of Arab viewers. Based in the island nation of Qatar, the TV network has been hailed - even by some US officials - as a beacon of free press, a bold initiative in journalism, and a revolutionary force among Arab media long constrained by state control. Indeed, one indicator of its journalistic independence is that Persian Gulf region ministers of information, uncomfortable with the network's reporting, have organized a boycott of businesses that advertise on the network.
The network has an approach to the news that was unthinkable in the Arab world a decade ago. Before Al-Jazeera, there were no public affairs interviews, no talk shows, no free debate, no viewer participation, and hardly any live coverage. With its vivid debates, daring commentary, and multiple perspectives, Al-Jazeera appears to be breaking new media ground by venturing into a realm of open discussion rarely attempted by other broadcasters in the region - so much so that it has been perceived as serving as a de facto forum for pan-Arab political debates.
Al-Jazeera's motto is "The Opinion and the Other Opinion." Run by Western-trained Arab journalists who claim financial independence - though it was initially founded and financed by the Emir of Qatar - the network commits itself to presenting opposing views. Because it provides representatives of opposition groups with a high-profile platform that resonates around the region, it is the most trustworthy and credible news channel among Arab viewers, who've always been critical of their own media.
CNN's minute-by-minute coverage of the Gulf War in 1991 made that network the primary source of news in Arab viewers' own backyard. Whether they had a command of English or not, their need to watch what had been denied them became more pressing than understanding foreign languages.
But now those viewers follow "The Arab World's CNN" - Al-Jazeera. It was, in a way, the CNN of the war in Afghanistan - and would be a credible and influential TV news source in a US invasion of Iraq.
During its coverage of the Afghanistan war, Al-Jazeera encouraged US officials to appear on its live panels, talk shows, and round-table discussions. Only a few officials, such as Christopher Ross, special adviser to the State Department and former US ambassador to Syria, appeared on Al-Jazeera's talk shows. On one of these shows, which discussed the bombing of Al-Jazeera's bureau in Afghanistan in November 2001, Mr. Ross debated an Arab scholar and answered questions addressed by the viewers. His eloquent responses were not in English: They were in fluent Arabic. This episode of the talk show was a hit with audiences all over the Arab world, and offered viewers a valuable perspective on the issues from an American source.
Other American officials, such as Secretary of State Colin Powell, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld also appeared on Al-Jazeera to explain the official US line during the Afghanistan war. Too formal and brief for the Arab viewers to relate to, their appearances were neither as powerful nor as effective as they could have been. Al-Jazeera's Arab audiences need exposure to more views from US officials who can address viewers effectively and persuasively and can engage in lively debates with Arab officials and scholars.
Unfortunately, there aren't many US officials who've mastered Arabic. And even those who do speak Arabic haven't really made the effort to connect with the Arab world by appearing on Al-Jazeera.
In an attempt to sell the American image to Arab hearts and minds, the Bush administration has spent more than $30 million to launch a new Arabic-language radio station in the Middle East. The station's working title is the Middle East Radio Network, but on-air it is already identified by its catchier label, Radio Sawa, or "Radio Together" in Arabic. Since it debuted in March, most of the network's programming has been a blend of Arabic and American pop music, but it presents five-minute news and analysis segments on the half-hour. Can hearts and minds be won by Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys? In a region where animosity toward the US is fostered by ideological and political differences, airing pop music will do little to resolve basic issues.
If US officials want to gain Arab support, they need to use the Middle East's own best weapon: the credible, popular, and powerful Al-Jazeera news network. It's the smart bomb in the battle over information - and it's already winning Arab hearts and minds.
• Mohammed el-Nawawy is a professor of communication at Stonehill College in Easton, Mass. He is co-author of 'Al-Jazeera: How the Free Arab News Network Scooped the World and Changed the Middle East.'