President Obama’s Meeting with Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa.

Browsing articles available in American media on Prime Minister Mehdi Jomâa’s visit to Washington, one is faced with the gradation of quality and specificity and attention to detail that exists among different news sources. A concise article on International Business Times is a comparitively sober and informative resource, an interesting and valuable contribution to public discourse, and in another vein one is reminded that The Washington Post is a reliable outlet for fluffy pieces about the US’ benevolent role in the so called developing world, for sweeping generalizations about terrorism, the Arab Spring, democracy, etc. Unsurprisingly, most US news sources follow in this line of reporting.

‘A Breath of Fresh Air’ – Laipson and Romdhani on Tunisia
At the beginning of the month Ellen Laipson of the Stimson Center and independent analyst Oussama Romdhani published an International Business Times report in anticipation of the Prime Minister’s visit to Washington. Mr. Jomâa Goes to Washington: A ‘Breath of Fresh Air’ from Tunisia’s Arab Spring Revolution is itself a relatively refreshing breath of air amidst a number predictably and propagandistically spun US news reports on last Friday’s meeting at the Oval Office.

As opposed to common offerings of myopic background information about Tunisia since the revolution, (where «a transition period marked by terrorist attacks, political assassinations and widespread social unrest» is the general cut-and-paste context for many an article about Tunisia), Laipson and Romdhani’s article briefly but attentively address Tunisia’s «proven tradition of political moderation», touching on the country’s history since Bourguiba, its political parties, an economic profile, and several proposals for US-supported reform in Tunisia. Suggesting the importance of a more effective regional strategy and alliance-building with Libya, Morocco, and Algeria, the authors’ conclusion openly and pragmatically summarizes the benefits involved for both Tunisia and the United States:

Indeed, Tunisia has long favored a more integrated region. While politics in the larger neighboring countries have prevented much progress, the U.S. can encourage this trend as a way to support Tunisia’s leadership and its strategic interests. It is also the smart way to expand interest and opportunities for the U.S. business community, and to create more effective markets for trade and innovation for both countries.

The Washington Post on Tunisia
As if the Prime Minister’s work as the head of a time-pressed interim government constituted the makings of a bedtime story, A Tunisian Leader’s Hope for Democracy is the contrived title of a superficial interview with Jomâa in the Opinions section of The Washington Post. The same interview is replicated under another title, The Arab Spring’s One Bright Spot, on the online daily magazine Slate. «Tunisia is the country where the Arab Spring began, and analysts are saying it might be the only country to emerge from that tumultuous experience as a democracy.» A citation here would be appropriate to indicate which analysts have volunteered the prognosis and implicit assumption that the Arab Spring—«that tumultuous experience»–is some kind of diagnosable, uniformly identifiable condition that plagues non-democracies. What follows are a string of empty, uninspiring questions that prompt accordingly vague, uninteresting answers:

Is Tunisia the only Arab country that survived the Arab Spring?
– We hope to be one of the best countries practicing democracy.Lally Weymouth’s interview with Mehdi Jomâa, A Tunisian Leader Hopes for Democracy

‘Standing Up for American Enterprise’ is Investing in Tunisia’s Transition

Tunisian Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa speaks at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Photographer: Ian Wagreich / © U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Tunisian Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa speaks at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Photographer: Ian Wagreich / © U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The US Chamber of Commerce («Standing Up for American Enterprise») features an article on The New Tunisia: A Democracy Start-Up that is unabashedly clear about its interests in the economic possibilities that Tunisia represents. Written by the coordinator for the Africa Business Initiative within the US Chamber of Commerce, the piece is crafted for a readership of American investors and entrepreneurs. The report reads like a brochure, indicating that

Tunisia has much to offer including:
– A strategic geographical position as a trade and investment hub for Europe, the Middle East & Africa
– A diversified, and highly skilled workforce
– An enabling business infrastructure which includes a simple fiscal system and numerous investment protection agreements

A lack of attention to (even economic) detail is indicative that the reasons for writing the article are not to promote an understanding about the intricacies of Tunisia’s democratic transition, but to sell it.

Tunisia’s newfound momentum will determine its ability to produce a robust economy that is capable of sustainable economic growth. The United States and its private sector must rise to the challenge and help Tunisia as it drives toward its economic and democratic potential.Kyle Gibson, The New Tunisia: A Democracy Start-Up

Official US Government Reports and Publications
On the Whitehouse webpage is a video and on the US Embassy webpage a transcript of opening remarks exchanged between Jomâa and Obama prior to their meeting. The Office of the Press Secretary also issued a Joint Statement by the United States of America and the Tunisian Republic including an overview of the meeting, as well as the main points outlining “Support for Tunisia’s Historic Democratic Transition” which are “Advancing Economic Cooperation and Development”, “Educational and Cultural Cooperation”, and “Security and Counterterrorism.” The most consequential information to come from Friday’s meeting is the FACT SHEET: The President’s Framework for Investing in Tunisia available on the Whitehouse as well as US Chamber of Commerce Facebook pages. In the same format as the Joint Statement, the Fact Sheet reiterates and fleshes out the three points of cooperation which are at the core of the Strategic Dialogue.

Appropriately, the partiality of official US government media reports pertaining to the Jomâa-Obama meeting is tempered with substance; that is, the US agenda (whether propelled by altruism or self-interest) and diplomatic verbiage (whether reflective of naïve idealism or the usual euphemisms and vague terms that constitute the language of soft power), are at least associated with tangible information of the terms addressed in the first session of the Strategic Dialogue that defines the Tunisia-US partnership. The authenticity of these terms as well as the implementation, consistency, and implications of the prescribed support and assistance programs can only of course be discerned over time. At the very least US publications provide a springboard for research into proposed bi-lateral cooperation specifically through investigation of the actors involved (Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) Council, Center for Entrepreneurial and Executive Development, the Overseas Private Investment Corporatio to name a few examples) and the prescribed projects (Tunisian-American Enterprise Fund) and following up on projected events and meetings (US-Maghreb Entrepreneurship Conference), a field of exploration that certainly merits its own report.

Everything with a Grain of Salt…and a Dose of Healthy Criticism
Comparing the information and reports available online provides insight into the ambitions, assumptions, performance, impressions, and interpretations of actors involved, public perception, and media reporting on international relations and partnerships. What is apparent in US reports on Mehdi Jomâa’s meeting with Barack Obama is general imprecision and loosely used terms that reflect lack of attention to detail, prioritizing quantity over quality of information, ignorance, the need and/or tendency to quantify and categorize what is complicated or elusive or perceived as foreign. While mainstream American media sources continue to whittle away the complexity and intricacy of the interrelatedness of current events, historical context, and social phenomenons into cleverly-titled, neatly packaged news items, what can interested and even incensed readers do but continue to read and respond and question and compare and offer constructive criticism in pursuit of understanding the workings of societies and our relations in a way that upholds our values and integrity…