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Shadowy Group Funds Middle East Ad Campaign About Iraq

Thursday, Nov. 16, 2006

In the latest issue of their "Middle East Notes and Comment" newsletter, the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Middle East program notes a new ad campaign that is airing on Arab satellite stations:

Anyone hoping to enjoy a light-hearted hour of Survivor Middle East or Lebanese Star Academy this fall should be prepared for some sobering commercial breaks. That's because a shadowy organization called the Future Iraq Assembly has unleashed a big budget anti-terrorism ad campaign onto Arab airwaves.

The campaign consists of several television advertisements, as well as billboards, flyers, and a website. The flagship commercial, running on the most popular pan- Arab satellite television stations, is a sixty-second TV spot depicting an everyday market scene suddenly torn apart by a suicide bombing. The $1 million ad is packed with special effects, including an ultra-slow motion sequence straight out of Hollywood. It goes on to show the wreckage of the bombing, and then fades to its tag line in Arabic script, "Terror Has No Religion."

Some question the effectiveness of the campaign. Lawrence Pintak of the American University in Cairo told the Associated Press that he believes the target audience will dismiss it for looking "too American." It doesn't help that the Future Iraq Assembly will not identify its membership and the U.S. gov-ernment will neither confirm nor deny involvement. Many Arabs bristle at the very idea that the United States would be in a position to judge whether violence is justified or whether violent actions are Islamically sanctioned.

So who is the Future Iraq Assembly? The English version of their Web site doesn't offer many clues. This is what it says in its "Who We are" section:

Future Iraq Assembly is an independent, non-governmental organization, comprised of a number of scholars, businesspersons, and activists, who share a common and firm belief in freedom and progress for all the Iraqi people. It is simply the "watchful eye" over Iraqi interests.

Future Iraq Assembly encapsulates, both in name and mission, the illustrious image of Iraq that we can recapture in the brighter future we look forward to.

That bit about it being the "watchful eye" over Iraqi interests certainly doesn't do much to dispel the organization's mysterious air. And indeed the group's ad spots do have a certain "American" look to them, if only in the sense that they have very good production values and are shot in a style that seems straight out of Madison Avenue or Hollywood.

We have no idea, but if we had to speculate, we'd guess that American money is involved in the effort, whether from private or public sources. Nothing wrong with that. But it's too bad that whoever is running the show over at the Iraq Future Assembly couldn't have done a better job of concealing it.

This has been a persistent problem in U.S. public diplomacy in the Middle East -- that the message is tainted by the very fact that it's associated with the United States. We've even seen reports of this in relatively pro-American Iran, where pro-democracy groups have been reluctant to take U.S. funds because they say its hurts their message.

The inability to tailor the style of public diplomacy campaigns to Arab sensibilities and culture has also been a hallmark of U.S. government-funded efforts. In the wake of 9/11, then-State Department Public Diplomacy Czar Charlotte Beers, a veteran of the U.S. advertising industry, reportedly considered an advertising campaign on Arab TV that would feature American celebrities like Tiger Woods extolling the virtues of the United States. It was dropped when they realized such an approach would likely go over like a lead balloon.

Of course, public diplomacy efforts that are overtly funded by the United States, such as the TV station Alhurra, can do little to avoid whatever stigma is associated with their being funded by the United States. For covert efforts, however, it seems every attempt should be made to cover up U.S. fingerprints.

If, as many Arab TV viewers seem to believe, the Future Iraq Assembly is funded by the United States, it has done a poor job of concealing that fact. How hard would it be, after all, to make TV commercials look like they were produced in the Arab world and not in New York or Los Angeles?