America’s Perception Problem in the Middle East

Cartoon_2 Amer­i­ca’s mis­ad­ven­ture in Iraq has had mul­ti­ple costs for the US, with just one being the decline of Amer­i­can moral lead­er­ship on the inter­na­tion­al stage, and par­tic­u­lar­ly with­in the Mid­dle East. Intel­lec­tu­al­ly, we know that Amer­i­ca’s pres­tige is momen­tar­i­ly shot. But to get a feel for what this means in prac­tice, it’s worth lis­ten­ing to this inter­view (iTunesMP3) with Lawrence Pin­tak, who directs the Adham Cen­ter for Elec­tron­ic Jour­nal­ism at The Amer­i­can Uni­ver­si­ty in Cairo. A long­time observ­er of the Mid­dle East, Pin­tak sees the evo­lu­tion of Amer­i­ca’s image going some­thing like this: Before 9/11, the prover­bial Mid­dle East­ern cab dri­ver expressed deep admi­ra­tion for Amer­i­ca and Amer­i­cans, even while dis­agree­ing with Amer­i­can lead­ers and poli­cies. When the Twin Tow­ers fell, sym­pa­thy for Amer­i­ca was nev­er greater. Now, six years lat­er, it’s all gone awry. The men­tal line that sep­a­rat­ed Amer­i­cans and Amer­i­can pol­i­cy is gone, and the antipa­thy toward Amer­i­ca is fair­ly com­plete.

What part­ly explains this shift is how the war has been refract­ed through the Mid­dle East­ern media. Ever since Al Jazeera start­ed air­ing in 1996 (you can watch it here in Eng­lish), the Mid­dle East has had its own free media and seen events through its own lens. And, in the case of the Iraq war, it has meant see­ing what we don’t see — the unsan­i­tized war, the bod­ies, the lev­eled build­ings, etc. — but also much more mun­dane things that shape over­all impres­sions. It means see­ing, for exam­ple, how tone-deaf US spokes­men in Bagh­dad show up at jour­nal­ist con­fer­ences in Abu Dhabi (a com­plete­ly non-mil­i­tary event out­side of Iraq) in army fatigues, leav­ing essen­tial­ly the impres­sion that the US sees the larg­er Mid­dle East as a mil­i­tary stage.

Pin­tak knows the region well, and he artic­u­lates Amer­i­ca’s per­cep­tion prob­lem in a bal­anced and thought­ful way. Check it out here: (iTunesMP3) Also, on a relat­ed note, any­one who wants to digg more deeply into Mid­dle East­ern per­spec­tives may want to explore Mosa­ic: World News from the Mid­dle East (iTunes  Feed). This Peabody award-win­ning pod­cast pro­vides a dai­ly com­pi­la­tion of tele­vi­sion news reports from across the Mid­dle East. The news comes from inde­pen­dent and state-run news ser­vices, and it is all trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish.

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