Book Review: Losing Arab Hearts and Minds by Steve Tatham

In the global information environment, the media influences public opinion and government policy around the world. It conveys to the public not only what the government is doing, but provides a feedback loop to the government through the coverage created by editors and reporters in response to their listeners, viewers, readers, and sponsors, whether advertisers or owners. Policies can no longer be presented to the public in the abstract as they are constantly measured against images on television, in the newspaper, and online, around the clock and around the world.

Reports on American Public Diplomacy and Strategic Communication are filled with examples of how the United States failed to engage the Arab public since 9/11. These have come from the Defense Sciences Board, the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, and numerous think tanks, and more will appear as we near the end of 2008 and the end of the Bush Administration. There are also several books on the subject, see below for more on these, however none closely examines the critical relationship between the U.S. Defense Department and the Arab media and public. There is one book that does explore this “last three feet” of engagement and you’ve probably never heard of it.

Losing Arab Hearts and Minds: The Coalition, Al Jazeera and Muslim Public Opinion is by Steve Tatham, a serving officer (now Commander) in the Royal Navy. He was the Royal Navy’s public spokesman in Iraq from 2002-2003 and is uniquely qualified to give an outsider’s “inside” view of the Coalition’s engagement with the Arab media, or rather their intentional non-engagement with Arab media.

Drawing on first hand experience and other resources, Steve carefully and thoroughly describes the media affairs of the Coalition, notably of the United States. He does so on a foundation he establishes in the first one hundred pages as he explores the biases of the Americans, the British, and the Arab world. This includes superb analysis of the public statements from the Bush Administration, the American media environment (including “The Fox Factor”), lessons learned from the 1991 Gulf War, and Hollywood influences. He also looks at the major Arab media and their evolution, America’s response, such as the creation of Al-Hurra, with a scholarly, yet conversational, examination. His insider’s view of operations at and the people running the Information Centers in Doha, Kuwait, and Bahrain amplifies the theme of the book: that the United States public affairs were focused almost exclusively on the American public.

The tactical maneuvering of ignoring the Arab media created substantial handicaps in our ability to get the word out. By excluding a critical link to the Arab public, the very people the President would claimed was the purpose for the invasion (“to bring democracy”), air time would be filled not by our information and explanations. The resulting information product would spiral down.

To exclude significant media who speak to major target audiences was a combination of naivete and even arrogance and was not restricted to the Arab media. Threaded through the book is the truth the United States, and the military in particular, has only recently begun to come to grips with: that perceptions matter more than intent and that operational activities must be formed and guided by the information they generate and not followed ad hoc by a communication plan. Steve quotes an Al Jazeera executive, who said

By merely disseminating a point of view the battle is not finished. It take more than information to convince public opinion of your good will towards the Arab world.

Steve does a superb job exploring the frustration, prejudice, and ignorance displayed by America toward the Arab media and Arab public opinion and how it undermined the engagement and understanding of a critical, if not the critical, audience in the global struggle for minds and wills. Losing Arab Hearts and Minds is required reading for those interested in Public Diplomacy, Strategic Communication, Information Operations, and general military-media engagement. The failure of the Coalition, and the United States Defense Department specifically, to engage the Arab media was lost the battle for ‘hearts and minds’ before it really began.

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4 thoughts on “Book Review: Losing Arab Hearts and Minds by Steve Tatham

  1. Great review and I must say very accurate. International media, and Al Jazeera in particular, were of secondary importance to the fleet of PAOs on the ground. This may have been the direct result of Bush’s installation of a “media adviser” at CENTCOM; someone who could focus all efforts on the need to sell to and maintain the American public’s support.

  2. One of the really vexing problems of communicating with the Arab public is the pervasiveness of the “conspiracy theory” explanation for every aspect of US policy. Conspiracy theories are particularly hard to dispel since any set of facts that might be presented to counter the theory are readily dismissed as part of the fabricated cover-up.I experienced this first hand back in 1990 when I was living in Cairo. At that time, it was “conventional wisdom” that Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, and then the US’ easy defeat of Iraqi forces (but not taking Baghdad) was the result of a deal between Bush and Saddam over control of Kuwaiti oil.
    Though Americans might dismiss such theories as ridiculous, conspiracy theories have lots of currency and staying-power on the Arab street.
    The New York Times did a good article on one such conspiracy theory about 9/11.
    Al Jazeera has an entire section of their English website dedicated to listing and explaining the myriad of conspiracy theories.
    Conspiracy theories can not be ignored by practitioners of strategic communication. That said, US strategic communication efforts will have little effect in dispelling conspiracy theories until the Arab street grow to trust their government and the media. This will require Arab governments become more transparent and Arab media to be held to (or hold itself to) a higher standard for fact-based reporting. These solutions require long-term investment in academic and professional development exchanges for politicians and media through the Fulbright program and the like.

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