Critical Conversations: Nicholson Discusses Middle East Policy with MBN’s Alberto Fernandez

America Talks to the Middle East an Interview with MBN’s Alberto Fernandez

Recently, Providence co-editor Robert Nicholson sat down with Ambassador Alberto Fernandez, president of the Middle East Broadcasting Networks. MBN provides news and information in Arabic to the Middle East and North Africa. Throughout an extensive conversation, Nicholson posed five questions to Amb. Fernandez on topics ranging from Syria to the prospect of democracy in the greater Middle East.

1. What is the Middle East Broadcasting Networks and what does it do?

MBN is the US government-funded Arabic language broadcaster to the Middle East. It includes television (Al-Hurra and Al-Hurra Iraq), FM radio (Radio Sawa and Radio Sawa Iraq), and various social media platforms, including Alhurra.com, radiosawa.com, Irfaa Sawtak, and Maghreb Voices. MBN’s mission is to expand the spectrum of ideas, opinions, and perspectives available in the media of the Middle East and North Africa, provide objective, accurate, and relevant news and information, and accurately represent America, Americans, and American policies. Through our multimedia outlets, MBN seeks to inform and engage with the region’s people in support of universal freedoms.

2. What is the role of public diplomacy in our Middle East policy? What are the objectives? Has it been effective historically?

The role of public diplomacy in Middle East policy is to communicate with the public with the aim of informing and influencing audiences overseas for the purpose of promoting our national interest and advancing our foreign policy goals. Whether it has been effective historically is open to question. Depends on the time, place, and issue. It is one thing to understand American policy and another to agree with it. It’s still another thing to differentiate between various official policies and liking or disliking other aspects of American society and culture. And still another layer in the public diplomacy challenge is the difference between regimes and people. There are pro-American governments in the region with high levels of anti-Americanism among their own populations. Some of this is because of perceptions of our policies, and some of it is because these regimes cynically use us as a whipping boy to distract and manage frustrations in their own societies. And then you have a country like Iran with a hostile regime and a population much more open, and less hostile, to the United States than its clerical rulers.

3. I recently wrote about the tension between democracy and liberalism in the Middle East, how the pursuit of one seems to undermine the other. You have spent a long career in the region. How do you think of this tension as it relates to US policy? Should we be favoring one over the other?

Both those terms—democracy and liberalism—have become really loaded words in the region now as regimes and various movements used and abused them. They have become discredited to a certain degree among mass audiences. Obviously, we should first think of our national interests in the Middle East, of our relations with historical allies, and at the need to confront aggressive adversaries like Russia and Iran. But our long-term interests are ultimately best served by regimes that respect human dignity and promote policies that encourage human flourishing. We tend to—overwhelmingly—have the opposite today across the region. The region desperately needs more critical thinking, more honesty and understanding of the “other” in the face of daunting political and socio-economic challenges. But we also have a built-in problem in foreign policy because we tend to have a short attention span, something our adversaries often do not. Historically, we lack a “ground-game” of patient and consistent promotion of both our interests and our values in the field. And we have tended to cultivate the type of tools, I am thinking here of the training of personnel, that focus on the more shallow, short-term, and superficial. I remember in Sudan being the only Western chief of mission who spoke Arabic. But the Russian, Iranian, and Chinese ambassadors all spoke Arabic.

4. Putin seems to be running circles around us in Syria. How is Russia so effective compared to us, and how should we be thinking about Russian influence in the region? Is it an opportunity for partnership or a threat to be confronted?

Russia took advantage of the debacle in US foreign policy that existed in Syria during the years of the Obama administration. And Russia has been looking to effectively leverage what is a middling hand not just in the Middle East but elsewhere where it believes it can challenge American interests in an asymmetric way. It has generally been effective in doing so. I personally believe that while there may be a very few logical areas for partnership with them, Russia is basically a threat to which the United States has to respond in a multi-faceted way, including in the field of media and information operations. At the end of the day, they are an adversary that wants to bring us down.

5. You are a devout Roman Catholic who works for a secular government in the Islamic world. How has your Christian faith equipped you to deal with the challenges of diplomacy in such a complex and dangerous environment?

In at least two ways. First of all, believing in the truth of the Gospel and in the fallen nature of man should give one a sense of humility in dealing with the realities of the Middle East. All too often Westerners come to the East with a built-in sense of superiority of postmodern liberal society over a supposedly benighted and fanatical East. The reality is rather more complicated than that. Second, being a believer can and should help you understand people’s motivation, what touches their heart and spirit, what is most precious to them, more than life itself. Westerners, especially highly secularized elites who tend to staff Western foreign ministries, have sometimes forgotten, if they ever learned, that man does not live by bread alone. This dismissal of the spiritual (or if you prefer, ideological or inner) dimension of the human condition can be worse than folly. It can be deadly. This is not to present a simplistic clichéd image of a spiritual East and material West, but the world is broader and deeper than the jaundiced view from Foggy Bottom or Brussels or the island of Manhattan.

Robert Nicholson is the executive director of the Philos Project and the co-editor of Providence.

Alberto M. Fernandez is president of the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, Inc. (MBN). He served as the US State Department’s coordinator for the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications from 2012 to 2015, retiring from the State Department in May 2015. Fernandez has served as US ambassador to the Republic of Equatorial Guinea; charge d’affaires to the Republic of Sudan; director for Near East public diplomacy; director for Iraq public diplomacy; and in senior public diplomacy positions at the US embassies in Afghanistan, Jordan, Syria, and Guatemala. His awards include the 2008 Presidential Meritorious Service Award, 2006 Edward R. Murrow Award for Excellence in Public Diplomacy, and a 2003 Superior Honor Award for his work in Afghanistan. Fernandez has published in ReVista: the Harvard Review of Latin America, Middle East Quarterly, and the Journal of the Assyrian Academic Society.

Photo Credit: Al-Hurra anchor interviews a protester, Ahmed Duma, in Tahrir Square on February 7, 2011. By Deirdre Kline for Middle East Broadcasting Networks.

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