Posted on December 29, 1996 in Washington Watch

At the end of 1996 there is a clear and deep divide that exists between U.S. and Arab opinion makers.

During my recent two week, four country visit to the Arab world, I had the opportunity to hear the views of a number of government leaders, newspaper editors, and businessmen regarding the key issues facing the region.

Two issues appeared to be of paramount concern. The election of Likud’s Benyamin Netanyahu as Prime Minister of Israel has caused a trauma still being felt in Arab capitols. The dangers that a Likud government poses to the troubled Middle East peace process go well beyond the Palestinian, Lebanese, and Syrian fronts; many fear that a collapse of the peace process will result in renewed hostility, regional instability, and a growth of extremism.

Of equal importance are the dilemmas posed to the region by the policies pursued by the regimes in power in Iraq and Iran.

Though weakened by war and with its population suffering from international sanctions, most Arab leaders and opinion makers agree that the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein remains a short-term regional problem and threat: a problem because the regime appears to be incapable of reforming itself; and a threat because it maintains an aggressive and repressive force that creates fear and instability.

An emboldened and unchecked Iran poses a longer-term threat that causes concern well beyond the Gulf countries mainly due to the support that regime is held to provide to extremist movements in the broader Middle East.

While focused on these regional issues, Arab leaders and opinion makers also have been closely following developments within the U.S. in 1996. Specifically they ask how well their concerns are understood in the U.S. the impact a second Clinton term will have on U.S. policy toward the Middle East and what policy direction, if any, they can deduce from the appointments to the Administration’s new foreign affairs team.

Throughout the Middle East there is a clear appreciation of the fact that U.S. policy and public opinion play a crucial role in shaping present Middle East political realities and future possibilities. While the serious responsibilities imposed by world leadership are felt by U.S. officials who carry out policy, unfortunately U.S. opinion shapers apparently do not share this world-view.

The parochial attitudes of the U.S. press are revealed in the results of a survey released late last week. The Associated Press conducted a poll of 181 U.S. newspaper editors and broadcast news executives in order to determine their assessment of the top ten news stories of 1996.

According to those media leaders the top story of 1996 was the crash of TWA flight #800. That was followed by the 1996 presidential elections, the bomb that exploded in the Olympic village, and the arrest of the suspected “unibomber.”

The remaining top ten stories as ranked by U.S. News executives were: the crash of a U.S. plane in Florida (5); the vote of the U.S. Congress to end welfare (6); the Olympic games in Atlanta (7); the shut-down of the U.S. government in January (8); the booming U.S. economy (9); and the winter storm of January 1996 (10).

The first foreign policy story (and the only Middle East related story to make the top twenty list) to warrant the U.S. editors’ attention was the bombing of the U.S. military barracks in Saudi Arabia that took the lives of nineteen Americans. That story ranked fourteen, followed by number sixteen: Bosnia, the number 19: Boris Yeltsin’s reelection, and the number twenty: the tragedy in Rwanda.

A sex scandal in the U.S. Army, reports of life on Mars, and testimony by O.J. Simpson ranked higher than Rwanda.

A more realistic assessment of the world’s major news stories came from another survey also produced by the Associated Press. That poll of 139 news executives in forty countries, placed developments between Israel and Palestine as the third top story of the year—right after the reelections of Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin. These international editors ranked events in Rwanda number four and the Bosnian elections number eight.

The near-sightedness of the U.S. editors is quite disturbing especially in light of the significant efforts made by U.S. officials to pursue Middle East peace in 1996. The attitudes of the editors also appear to be quite out of step with the coverage they have given to developments in the Middle East during the past year.

Throughout the year Middle East issues have, in fact, become major front page stories. The President has repeatedly invested his personal prestige at various stages of the peace process. He visited the region, convened emergency summits in Washington and Egypt, U.S. envoys have been regularly dispatched to the region, and a stream of heads of state have been to the White House in 1996.

A list of the top ten stories (not in order of importance) that have drawn major U.S. official involvement and significant press attention in 1996, would include: the Palestinian elections; the wave of terror bombings that rocked Israel and the Sharm El Sheikh Summit convened by President Clinton; the devastating Israeli bombing of Lebanon and U.S. efforts to end the hostilities; the Israeli elections and the visits of Israeli and Arab leaders to Washington following those elections and the Arab Summit in Cairo; the violence created by the opening of the tunnel in Jerusalem and the Emergency Summit convened in Washington; the visit of French President Jaques Chirac to the Middle East exposing long-simmering tensions over U.S. efforts to exclude Europe from the Middle East diplomacy; the bombing in Saudi Arabia; U.S. reactions to Israeli settlement policy; the crisis in Iraq; and the Friends of Lebanon conference in Washington.

In fact, it might be fairly said that no where else in the world has the U.S. invested so much combined political, military, and financial resources in 1996 as it has in the Middle East.

And yet despite the compelling U.S. interests in the Middle East and the significant investment the U.S. has made in the region and the dramatic stories that have erupted from the region in 1996, U.S. editors and news executives did not recognize those realities in their rankings

This troubling gap in U.S. media perceptions may itself be one of the top stories of 1996. It certainly should be recognized by Middle East leaders as one of their top challenges to confront in 1997.

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