Marc Lynch

Khanfar: Obama has opened a window of opportunity

Khanfar:  Obama has opened a window of opportunity

 

 


Al-Jazeera Director Wadah Khanfar at the Middle East Institute

 This morning I joined a small group at the Middle East Institute for a free-wheeling hour with Wadah Khanfar, the controversial and energetic director of al-Jazeera who is in Washington DC for the first time.  (My FP colleague Blake Hounshell was there too.) Khanfar will meet with a range of administration officials, will be giving a public talk at the New America Foundation over lunch, and — best of all! — will be visiting with my course on the Arab media at the Elliott School of International Affairs this evening.  When I last saw Khanfar (in Doha this past February), I had urged him to come to Washington and to give the new administration a chance.  I’m delighted that he has. The simple fact of his visit to Washington symbolizes the new opportunities for engagement between the U.S. and the Arab public — as well as the complexities of that engagement.  

 Khanfar said that the Obama administration’s new approach has opened up a window of opportunity for engagement between the Arab world and the United States.  That window takes the form of an argument, though, not of any automatic change in attitudes — something which I think can be seen far more clearly in Arab talk shows and op-eds than in public opinion surveys.  Khanfar suggested that Obama’s election has sparked an intense debate within the Arab public.  On one side are those who sense a new spirit in the region, who want to help him in his new vision and to leave the preceding eight years of conflict and hostility behind.  On the other are those who warn Arabs not to be deceived  by beautiful words, because American interests and behavior will never really change.  

 How that argument will be resolved is very much in the air, he suggested, but at least now for the first time in eight years there is the opportunity to argue about the value of engagement and dialogue.   But many in the region want to see an end to the years of hostility and confrontation, he claimed.   They admire American values, especially about freedom and democracy, and want the U.S. to be an inspiration rather than an enemy.  But their experience has been one of double-standards, of the U.S. not living up to its claimed values, and of an American foreign policy which outrages and offends.   Hence the hope that Obama can restore that potential for shared values and aspirations lost under the previous administration.  

 Khanfar, as one might expect, was keen to defend al-Jazeera against a variety of well-known criticisms prevalent in the U.S.    He argued that al-Jazeera reported the reality of Arab anger against U.S. policies rather than creating it, just as it reported the likely difficulties of the invasion and occupation of Iraq rather than creating America’s problems there.  Many in the U.S., he argued, labeled al-Jazeera as “them”, on “their” side, so that they did not have to pay attention to it — but in the end its coverage of Iraq and other issues turned out to be far more accurate and even prescient.  Wouldn’t the U.S. have been better served by listening to and engaging with al-Jazeera than by demonizing it?  

 I can’t do justice to the entire conversation.  Over the course of the hour he defended al-Jazeera against a variety of other charges while advancing his vision of the station as centered on professional reporting and on an identification with the people rather than with regimes.  He rejected criticism that al-Jazeera had stopped covering human rights, pointing in particular to a new program focused on prisons and detainment in the Arab world (which I haven’t seen personally, I should note). He deflected several questions about Qatari intervention in the station’s content, arguing that the Qataris understood that al-Jazeera’s influence rested on the perception that it was independent. 

 He offered a thoughtful take on the impact of the Iranian election crisis on Arab public views of Iran, which boiled down to “it’s too soon to tell” but with an active and intense argument going on about it.  He described the difficulties of covering divided societies such as Lebanon, Iraq, and the Palestinian scene — where any coverage, no matter how balanced, would inevitably anger one side or the other (the answer: strong editorial leadership from Doha).  And he said that getting greater access to the American market for al-Jazeera English, building on the recent opening up of the Washington DC cable system, was a high priority.  

 The most important part of Khanfar’s visit is probably the visit itself.  His decision to come to Washington, and his ability to meet with a wide range of government officials, demonstrates the very real new possibilities for a new style of American engagement with the Arab world.  For all the transformation of the Arab media landscape over the last decade, al-Jazeera remains the most widely viewed and most influential Arabic news station.  Americans should not view al-Jazeera simply as a hostile presence in the Arab political arena or or the source of its image problems. Nor should they view it only as a possible vehicle for public diplomacy and spreading American messages, though they should certainly take every opportunity to be on its programs and engage.  They should also listen to it, to the raucous talk show arguments and the dominant narrative frames and the voices of the Arab public which it presents. Those arguments won’t end, and that’s a good thing — and better to be in that argument rather than pretending it doesn’t exist.