Neo-cons take spin to US-backed airwaves
By Khody Akhavi
WASHINGTON - As the administration of US President George W Bush struggles
through its last two years in office, it appears that the agenda of
neo-conservative ideologues has finally lost its appeal among strategic parts
of the US foreign-policy apparatus.
But as their influence has waned at the Pentagon and State Department,
neo-conservative hawks have taken charge on the battlefield of public
Intent on fixing what American Enterprise Institute (AEI) fellow Joshua
Muravchik termed President Bush's "public diplomacy
mess", right-wing hawks have gained control of the weapons in the "war of
ideas" - US government-funded and supported media outlets such as Voice of
America (VOA), Al-Hurra, and Radio Farda, which broadcast to the Middle East
and aim to offer an alternative view of the news.
The recent appointment of Jeffrey Gedmin, a veteran neo-conservative
polemicist, as the director of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE), and a
smear campaign that led to the recent resignation of Larry Register, Al-Hurra's
former news director, appears to herald a turn toward more ideologically rigid
As a result, viewers and listeners of US-supported media in the Middle East are
being exposed to a tougher ideological line that endorses the hallmarks of the
neo-conservative agenda - regime change and interventionist policies in the
"No group other than neo-cons is likely to figure out how to do that," wrote
Muravchik in a December 2006 article in Foreign Policy magazine titled
"Operation comeback", a reference to the declining influence of
neo-conservatives in the Bush administration. "We are, after all, a movement
whose raison d'etre was combating anti-Americanism in the United States.
Who better then to combat it abroad?"
In a widely circulated e-mail memo sent to White House adviser Karl Rove last
July and obtained by Inter Press Service, the former Republican Speaker of the
House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich, also criticized the State Department's
inability to manage the information campaign advocating US foreign-policy
interests in the region.
He called on Karen Hughes, under secretary for public diplomacy and public
affairs at the State Department, to "run the information operation aimed at
delegitimizing Syria, Iran and Hezbollah every day".
This year, a report authored by Ladan Archin, head of the Pentagon's Iran
directorate who, in the run-up to the Iraq war, worked in the Defense
Department's controversial Office of Special Plans, charged that both VOA's
Persian TV service and Radio Farda, a Persian-language radio station that
broadcasts from Prague and Washington, were too soft in their criticism of
Archin's report, which was obtained by the McClatchy Newspapers Washington
bureau, complained that while VOA's Persian TV service "often invites guests
who defend the Islamic Republic's version of issues, it consistently fails to
maintain a balance by inviting informed guests who represent another
perspective on the same issue".
With the neo-conservative drums beating inside the Washington Beltway, the
reshuffling of key positions at RFE and Al-Hurra came as no surprise.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced in February a major initiative to
promote democracy in Iran, including US$50 million to increase Persian-language
Congress also appropriated $21.4 million to expand VOA's Persian television
programming to 12 hours a day, and $14.7 million more for Radio Farda (which
means "tomorrow" in Farsi).
Early this year, Broadcasting Board of Governors chairman Kenneth Tomlinson
named Gedmin, a former AEI fellow and a founding member, along with Vice
President Dick Cheney and former Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, of the Project
for a New American Century, as RFE's director. Gedmin's new job gave him
control over Radio Farda and Voice of America. Some listeners have since noted
changes in the tone and content of their programming.
A June 14 VOA broadcast in Persian, for example, featured an original interview
with AEI fellow and leading neo-conservative Richard Perle on the future of
democracy in Iran, as well as a roundtable discussion with Shahryar Ahi, chief
organizer of a conference of Iranian opposition groups in Paris. Ahi, an
informal liaison during the 1970s between the shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza
Pahlavi, and the White House, currently works with the late shah's 45-year-old,
Washington-based son, Reza Pahlavi.
Radio Farda has featured three exclusive and well-publicized interviews with
Perle, Michael Rubin, yet another AEI fellow, and Pahlavi, according to Hossein
Derkhshan, an Iranian blogger whose weblog, Hoder.com, is widely read.
As the Bush administration ramps up its offensive against Iran's regime through
VOA and Radio Farda, neo-conservatives have also taken aim at Al-Hurra, a
US-sponsored Arabic-language satellite television station that broadcasts to 22
countries across the Middle East on an annual budget of more than $70 million.
Early this month, Register resigned from Al-Hurra after less than six months on
the job, in the wake of a series of public attacks against him and the
station's allegedly anti-US content by neo-conservative columnist Joel Mowbray
in the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal.
Mowbray complained that Register was directly responsible for most Al-Hurra
broadcasts that, among other things, carried Hezbollah leader Hassan
Nasrallah's December 2006 anti-Israel speech in its entirety, reported
uncritically on last year's Holocaust conference in Iran, and referred to the
establishment of Israel in 1948 as al-Naqba, which means "catastrophe"
"Our taxpayer-financed Arabic network was set up to counter Al-Jazeera, not
echo it," Mowbray wrote.
Since its launch in 2004, Al-Hurra had served as the centerpiece of
Washington's "aggressive post-[September 11, 2001] courtship of the Arab world"
and was "fulfilling its mission" until it hired Register, according to another
Yet Register's predecessor, Moufac Harb, resigned a month after a scathing
report from the US Government Accountability Office found that Al-Hurra lacked
"a comprehensive, long-term strategic plan" and criticized its reported
Register, a veteran producer and vice president who worked at CNN for 20 years,
was supposed to boost the profile of Al-Hurra, win audience share and generate
political debate. But his attempts to appeal to an Arab audience ostensibly
went against the goals of the neo-conservative establishment in Washington.
"The conservative crusade against Register demonstrates one of the great
difficulties facing any official American broadcasting in the Middle East,"
Marc Lynch, a professor at George Washington University whose blog, Abu
Aardvark, on Arab media and politics is widely read in Washington, wrote in
Britain's Guardian newspaper.
"To be a free and credible media outlet means allowing critics of American
policy to speak and covering news that might make America look bad," he noted.