A new book plumbs the history and ideology behind the State Department's propaganda efforts in Middle Eastern media, and the resistance it provokes
IN pursuit of counterterrorism objectives in Afghanistan, the United States government infuses modern digital infrastructure with old-school counterinsurgency tactics. In February 2012, for instance, the State Department posted a grants notice for $400,000 to “produce eight 48-minute films outlining daily life in ten of Afghanistan’s cities and provinces,” along with a “corresponding radio series.” The series was intended to raise public awareness about “the improvement in living conditions in Afghanistan in the past decade.”
Earlier this year, the department put up another grants notice, this time worth $15 million, to produce a “television drama series” aimed at “countering violent extremism among young people in contemporary Afghan society.” The series would show how “young people grapple with everyday frustrations and lack of opportunity, while growing and learning through new experiences.” According to the offer, the series would challenge viewers to “engage in critical thinking by placing characters in situations where they are faced with a choice: support universal values of tolerance and peace or be drawn into the dark world of extremism.”
Such media grants are integral components of American state-building efforts in Afghanistan. The U.S. sees Afghan media as a valuable transmitter of propaganda about its war effort in the country, as well as a tool to induce behavioral changes more consistent with Western liberal values among Afghans. But as Matt Sienkiewicz argues in his new book, The Other Air Force: U.S. Efforts to Reshape Middle Eastern Media Since 9/11 (Rutgers University Press, 2016), neo-imperial attempts at media manipulation in the greater Middle East are in practice far messier and unfocused. This is partially thanks to local media makers, who regularly undermine America's multimillion-dollar, low-intensity information warfare in the region.
In Sienkiewicz’s telling, American “soft power” evolved in the 1990s, when it turned to exporting “media systems and styles” rather than “particular elements of cultural content.” The U.S. no longer prioritized the production of specific content to project its image abroad, but focused instead on the promotion of a free market model, which emphasized the need for competitiveness among media institutions. The establishment of a free market model, the thinking went, would lead to an exponential return on U.S. investment through the creation of new media outlets sympathetic to liberal Western values.
This push for commercial, for-profit media combined with specific content aligned with U.S.-vetted messages, formed what Sienkiewicz calls soft-psy media. These media projects are aimed at winning viewers and advertisers, openly funded by foreign backers, and produced overwhelmingly by local producers. They're also guided by an orientalist view of the Middle East, and funding can be cut off if media makers cross certain ideological red lines (though such supervision is loosely enforced).
Ma’an Network in the Palestinian territories offers perhaps the most salient example of what these red lines look like. The network was established in 2005 and subject to “round-the-clock Western oversight” in its early years, but Sienkiewicz notes that it now operates without regular supervision, even though it still receives international funding. But cash from the State Department is still contingent on clear parameters: Ma’an Network must not undermine the two-state solution nor multilateral negotiations, and it must unequivocally reject Palestinian armed struggle against the Israeli occupation.
Although soft-psy media projects can result in “relatively nuanced, multilateral” relationships between western donors and local producers, writes Sienkiewicz, they typically begin with the kind of bifurcated vision of the Middle East implied by Ma'an Network's funding rules. He locates the earliest articulation of such a binary division of Middle Easterners in Daniel Lerner’s 1958 book, The Passing of Traditional Society: Modernizing the Middle East. According to Lerner, Middle Easterners are either “chiefs,” who are traditionalists and religious, or “grocers,” who are “entrepreneurial, secular modernizers.” Soft-psy media projects begin when an American funder finds a grocer.
Many of the projects Sienkiewicz describes seem to lack any particular counterterrorism objectives beyond the promotion of free-markets, such as Arman FM, a radio station in Afghanistan that was established in 2003 with a $229,000 grant from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). U.S. funds were intended to help station owners overcome barriers to market entry, but provided no long-term financial commitment and required the station to develop commercial revenue sources. An internal evaluation of the station cited by Sienkiewicz complained that the owners, “like any businessmen, are interested in turning a profit.” Arman FM’s idea of promoting national unity, it continued, “appears to be running promotional jingles that inform the audience that Afghanistan ‘is a beautiful country.’” While this certainly aligns with the laissez-faire ideology promoted by the State Department, it's not apparent how it prevents jihadist attacks in the near future.
Despite Arman FM’s failure to help the U.S. achieve such strategic objectives, investment in the station “paid off exponentially,” according to the State Department. The station was an immediate commercial success, displacing the centrality of state radio and encouraging the development of other entrepreneurial stations. For USAID officials, this developing Afghan mediasphere featured “just the sort of competition needed to foster economic and discursive conditions amicable to an embrace of liberal western values.” The underlying and unfounded assumption that creating an environment conducive to for-profit, commercial media outlets would result in ideological and behavioral changes in Afghans seemed to have been enough of a reason for USAID officials to consider the project a success.
On the entertainment side are programs such as Tolo TV’s Eagle 4, an Afghan version of Fox’s disturbingly Islamophobic series 24. The concept for Eagle 4 came from the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan, and its objectives were to increase local production capacity and “encourage ideologically attractive discourses on police and government competency.” State-sanctioned violence, writes Sienkiewicz, “is portrayed as a necessary means of ensuring public safety” in the show, while forensic and surveillance technology “serves as a guarantor of security”--much like in the American version.
But Sienkiewicz also points to Eagle 4 as an example of how local media-makers can subvert the strictures imposed by foreign funders. He discusses how the show’s 22-year-old co-director, Ghafar Azad, served as “a check against the program’s tendency to hew too closely to 24’s reliance on computerized information gathering and individualized, maverick police activity,” even when Western producers of the show pushed for such stories. Azad pushed the story away from its “over-emphasis on technology,” managing to get rid of an entire storyline that exaggerated the capability of Afghan police’s forensic technology. This singular example of local agency may not significantly undermine the propagandistic reach of the show, but according to Sienkiewicz, it points toward a future in Afghan media which may soon include voices that push against and beyond Western-imposed ideas.
It is important to interpret U.S. soft-psy media as a means of achieving strategic transnational objectives. In this light, it's easier to see it for what it is: A weapon and tactic of war. Sienkiewicz is never quite clear on what he means when he calls soft-psy media “the other air force,” but it could be an allusion to a kind of warfare that takes place without putting boots on the ground: aerial campaigns to drop bombs, whether they be literal or epistemological.
Yet for all the valuable contributions Sienkiewicz has made toward our understanding of U.S. soft power in the Middle East, his analysis would have been stronger had he connected its articulations abroad to those at home. In 2012, for example, lawmakers in the United States repealed a ban on the “domestic dissemination” of propaganda produced by the State Department within its own borders. The result was the release of thousands of hours of government-funded radio and TV programs for domestic consumption every week.
One government source told Foreign Policy that this was necessary to reach diaspora populations such as the Somali community in Minneapolis: "Those people can get al-Shabab, they can get Russia Today, but they couldn’t get access to their taxpayer-funded news sources like VOA [Voice of America] Somalia." Voice of America, according to Sienkiewicz, is a “top-down system of information dissemination, with U.S. government employees producing all material and the U.S. Department of State retaining ultimate editorial control.” Republican attempts to put government news operations under the control of a chief executive appointed by the President are likely to further consolidate this top-down approach.
The distinction between international and domestic projection of soft power is collapsing, as evidenced by several domestic media projects now backed by various U.S. government agencies. Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) initiatives, a priority of the outgoing Obama administration, seek to prevent individuals from turning to violent extremism by promoting “anti-extremist” narratives. The funding available under the purview of these programs creates strong incentives for private individuals to pursue media projects that align with U.S. interests.
One such project is Average Mohamed, a series of short cartoons that strive to counter the extremist narratives of al-Qaeda, Islamic State, and al-Shabab. “It is an average guy who turns average people into extremists. It will take all of us average people to tell them otherwise,” writes series creator Mohamed Ahmed, who engages in presumptively average activities like managing a local gas company and fathering four children with his wife in Minneapolis. Ahmed works with the Department of Homeland Security, and unsurprisingly has a fan in George Selim, the director of DHS’ Office of Community Partnerships. Selim has heaped effusive praise on the program, calling for “another thousand ‘Average Mohamed’-type campaigns or efforts.”
Such projects suffer from the same fundamental flaw that Sienkiewicz recognizes in U.S.-backed media projects in the greater Middle East, which he describes as “the notion that communication is the root cause of Arab and Muslim enmity” toward the United States. This convenient myth allows the United States to circumvent any and all discussion about its own policies, such as the U.S.'s targeted killing program and longstanding support for Israel, which continually produce such enmity.
Programs such as Average Mohamed will likely proliferate, boosted by funding from a Republican-dominated government and directed at challenging any ideas deemed too radical or obstructionist to U.S. national security imperatives. Such programming is deployed with the hopes of refashioning the subjectivities of targeted communities and producing compliant subjects; but whether or not it will be effective depends on the distance government agencies can maintain from the projects they fund. Identification as government-funded propaganda will likely undermine their influence, as will resistance from within targeted communities. Much like Azad, Eagle 4’s 22-year-old co-producer in Afghanistan, communities targeted by CVE, such as Somali Muslims in Minnesota, have been pushing back against the stigmatization of their communities.
While Sienkiewicz does not directly address the expansion of soft-psy media strategies in the United States, The Other Air Force stands as a helpful study on the subtle ways U.S. government agencies try to advance their own agendas under the pretext of development and community support. By shedding light on the resourcefulness and creativity of those who work within the circumscribed boundaries of such projects, it also precludes simplistic classifications of such people as native informants working on behalf of their oppressors, highlighting instead the everyday resistance that soft-psy media inevitably provokes.