If Middle Eastern countries can accept free-market “soft power” ideas, they may become more amenable to the American way of doing thingsby David Patrikarakos / November 17, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
“America is not a subtle nation,” says Matt Sienkiewicz in the opening line of this powerful and illuminating work (perhaps an acute judgement given the election result.) Especially so, he adds with admirable understatement, “in the worlds of media production and Middle East policy.”
The book looks at the attempt of US media policy to support Washington’s goals in the Middle East. He is unsparing in his criticism of its more tone-deaf attempts, notably setting up the clandestine Free Voice of Iran radio station after Iran’s 1978-9 Islamic Revolution, “disguising American voices as Iranian and fooling few—if any—into counterrevolutionary action.”
In the lead-up to the 2003 Iraq war, Washington poured resources into Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress group to create propagandistic newspapers and radio broadcasts, which were never even produced. But, Sienkiewicz argues, more recent attempts to influence the Middle East by funding local media productions have produced success.
The key, he argues, is the move from urging local media to parrot Americans perspectives to insisting that US-funded projects create programming that embraces “the industrial and aesthetic conventions of for-profit, American-style commercial television and radio.”
The idea is simple: if Middle Eastern countries can accept free-market “soft power” ideas—even if they disagree with the US message—and imitate the American way of “doing media,” they may become more amenable to the American way of doing things in general.
As Sienkiewicz goes on to argue, in Afghanistan and Palestine especially, this approach has achieved considerable success. Reality TV, it seems, can help win hearts and minds in the Middle East.