Good Washington Post article takes a look at the failure of al-Hurra a U.S.-funded, Arabic-language television network that hasn’t managed to attract any viewers:
According to critics, the U.S. government miscalculated in assuming that al-Hurra could repeat the success of Radio Free Europe during the Cold War, when information-starved listeners behind the Iron Curtain tuned in on their shortwave radios.
By contrast, “About 200 other stations beam Arabic-language programming to satellite dishes reaching even the poorest neighborhoods in the Middle East and North Africa. The BBC launched an Arabic-language news channel this year, and more rivals loom.” Some of those channels are state-controlled and thus of limited value, but then again al-Hurra is state controlled as well, and the Arab dictatorships are generally not nearly as repressive as the Soviet Union was in terms of this kind of thing.
This is, however, indicative not only of the failure of one particular initiative, but of the Bush administration’s broad inability to “get it” with regard to the US and the Arab world, a problem in which they’ve been joined by many other actors and institutions. The upshot of it all is that though the Arab world has many problems, it’s just not a situation like Eastern Europe. Most Eastern Europeans regarded their governments as not only repressive, but as puppets of a Moscow-based Russian empire and many were willing to embrace the idea of US-assisted liberation. A lot of Americans would like Arabs to see the geopolitics of the Greater Middle east in that way, but relatively few actually do. Insofar as the analogy stands up at all (which isn’t very far), we’re closer to playing the Soviet Union role — acting as the guarantor of post-colonial successor regimes set up by the British Empire in the Gulf, and as the opponent of anti-imperialist regimes in Syria, Iran, and formerly Iraq.
Even once you understand the situation correctly, there’s still a lot of questions to be debated about what’s the best way to handle things. But the essential first step is to not let our picture of the situation be clouded by wishful thinking or a weird kind of nostalgia and al-Hurra reflects both.