Another Kind of Air War

Review – The Other Air Force by Matt Sienkiewicz

America, Matt Sienkiewicz asserts at the beginning of his new book The Other Air Force, ‘is not a subtle nation’. In many ways – religious, political, cultural – the United States is seen as the enemy of nuance; its values are perceived to be bold, brash and often in conflict with those of older societies and older systems, in Europe and the world over.

This is especially true – conventional wisdom holds – in the Middle East, which has, again to take the well-trodden path, been chronically and catastrophically misunderstood by American politicians and military men, all of whom have misread the mood of that region and its citizens.

As always, some nuance is needed, especially when attempting to apportion a lack of it. And that depiction of American influence – in media terms and in ways political and military – seems to be, in its own way, rather reductionist.

Despite this, in recent years, the author, an assistant professor at Boston College, writes, ‘American attempts to influence the Middle East by funding local media productions have, quite often, been flexible, multifaceted projects’. And, more than that, ‘they have produced varied and, yes, sometimes subtle results’.

In the other kind of air war – a war for the airwaves as much as a war for towns, cities and streets, a real war of ‘hearts and minds’ – American economic and cultural hegemony is sometimes an advantage and sometimes a hindrance.

In response to the charge of cultural imperialism, which both permeates the debate in this area and also, necessarily, the book at hand, Sienkiewicz writes that, ‘in defiance of orthodox media imperialist understandings, the contemporary American system … is one that embraces and depends on important levels of local agency’. This is both a blessing and a curse.

There is an interesting side note here. Positive results of American work in the media (if that is the right word, or the right thought) can be found in the fact that American media influence has genuine benefits, not because it forces certain messages into popular circulation, but rather because it promotes a more commercial way of doing things.

This detracts from the influence of state media, independently attracting advertising revenue and the attention of citizens. In this assessment, controlling content is less important – and less effective – than prioritising certain business models, with the hope that they could be widely emulated.

One example is Afghanistan’s Watander media and the Ma’an Network in Palestine, which exhibit certain amounts of ‘bad behavior’, but are tolerated and funded by American sources regardless.
Sienkiewicz quotes Norman Pattiz’s description of two BBC-created and US-backed media organisations, Alhurra TV and Radio Sawa, which describes a ‘new global broadcasting strategy’ for those countries ‘that hold[s] mission imperatives and market forces as co-equal in the overall broadcasting (and public diplomacy) equation’.

American media in Afghanistan before September the 11th attacks, and the invasion of that country in the same year, did not have the resources to operate with intensity. (What happened after the invasion was a different matter, and much space in the book is dedicated to describing in great detail the media situation in that country.)

But in the preceding fallow period, US influence did serve to produce Radio Free Afghanistan in 1985, which provided ‘American-crafted, pro-democracy, anti-Soviet material throughout the country’.

Unlike the author, I cannot summon any misgivings at what he terms this policy’s ‘uncomfortable neoliberal connotations’. After all, as Sienkiewicz notes, ‘[t]he concept of soft-psy media intervention indicates the melding of market-oriented, neoliberal “soft power” strategies with the more rigid and content-oriented ideas typified by military “psyops”.’

This seems sensible and even essential; the cacophony of modernity, which is associated with the profusion of so many competing voices – ‘hyper-pluralism’ – of contemporary media, effectively necessitates such a strategy.

Sienkiewicz is critical of American efforts to influence and shape the media in Iraq, which he calls a ‘major misstep’. He notes that ‘In the years leading up to the Operation Iraqi Freedom, the United States invested considerable resources in providing media training for … opposition groups’, and that this included aiding the Iraqi National Congress and its leader, Ahmed Chalabi, who Sienkiewicz terms ‘entirely untrustworthy’.

Chalabi’s methods of production were ineffective; he did not live up to expectations. Though his organisations absorbed millions of dollars of American funds, ‘they produced little, if any, actual media content’. The apparent independence of Chalabi (which is disputed by what Sienkiewicz terms his ‘open friend[ship] with the Iranian theocracy’) also led to his taking dramatically divergent positions to those supported by – and therefore supporting – the Americans.

One has to be rather sceptical of people who now criticise Chalabi to excess, however, as they often use him as a representative of US policy more generally whom they can subject to criticism as a kind of proxy – a straw man in human form. But in this case it seems justified; his operation was ineffective, and the support it was afforded appears wrongheaded.

This book is certainly interesting – and deeply relevant – but it must be said that its profusion of technical language can prove a little impenetrable. The lay reader may want to begin this undertaking with a good dictionary to hand. Its purview is quite remarkable – taking in media of all kinds across the Middle East – and the extent to which this information is immediately accessible rather than merely bewildering will depend largely on the reader; as befitting a scholarly text, some hard work is required.

In sum, this work is rewarding, not least in that it gives a real insight into how perspectives are formulated, communicated and eventually disseminated across the world, from a germinal stage to a finished product – as well as including many dead ends and false starts. This sort of information is definitely valuable.

One could compare this strategy with other attempts to build nations, remove dictators and generally align the region towards American interests in a post Cold War world – and the analysis contained in Sienkiewicz’s book complements such vital questions.

This piece was originally published at The New Arab.

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