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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