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BOMBING AL JAZEERA
by Amir Taheri
New York Post
December 6, 2005

December 6, 2005 -- IT is a dark and humid night as a Tomahawk cruise missile fired from a ship sailing west of the Strait of Hormuz whizzes its way over the Qatari Peninsula and into a compound of small buildings, turning them into ruble on impact.

The missile has been fired by the U.S. Navy, targeted at the headquarters of the Al Jazeera satellite TV network in Qatar — just four miles from the largest American military base between Germany and Japan. The launch came deep at night so that just a handful of people would be in the Al Jazeera buildings, thus avoiding collateral damage on a big scale.

And then? Well . . . Al Jazeera's directors switch operations to the nearby Qatar-TV station, whose emergency facilities have been at their disposal since 1998. The channel is back on air in less than half an hour, castigating the American "Great Satan" for its "criminal attack" and, later, broadcasting messages of sympathy from Osama bin Laden and Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi (who also don't like being bombed by the Americans).

And then? The Americans could hardly deny the attack. They opted for the missile launch because they lack the suicide-bombers to deploy as any self-respecting protagonist in the Middle East would.

And then? Would the emir of Qatar swallow the bitter pill in a single gulp and continue to play host to the U.S. military base? After all, apart from the fact that he owns Al Jazeera, the emir is responsible for his country's safety and security. He can't simply stand back and watch his territory be attacked. The least he'd have to do is ask the Americans to pack up and go. But would they, even if asked?

Whichever way one looks at it, the story about an alleged suggestion by President Bush to bomb Al Jazeera's headquarters looks like a joke used by professional anti-Americans as yet another excuse for a bit of self-righteous propaganda against the "Great Satan."

The story can't fly for a number of reasons.

To start with, the United States, the land of TV technology, knows full well that there are enough broadcasting facilities in the world to enable Al Jazeera (or any other network) to get back on air within hours, if not minutes, of losing signal. (Indeed, one could think of at least one American TV network which would immediately offer to broadcast Al Jazeera's programs, if only to get at Bush.) In any case, as noted, Al Jazeera has had secure back-up facilities in Qatar for years.

Then there is the fact that no U.S. administration could attack a media outlet anywhere in the world without being skinned alive by its own media back home. Throughout the Cold War, while the USSR jammed every single Western radio and TV station, the United States never even thought of retaliating against any Soviet media outlet. For more than four decades, Cuba has served as a center for anti-American radio and TV propaganda throughout the Western Hemisphere. And, yet, no U.S. administration has ever dreamed of knocking the Cuban media out.

Indeed, the U.S. government isn't even allowed to engage directly in what Congress has defined as "propaganda." Thus, the Voice of America, though financed by the U.S. taxpayers, makes a point of broadcasting administration views with a clear caveat, often followed by one or more contradictory views.

Now supposing Washington did want to force Al Jazeera off the air, there would be easier ways of doing it. Would it not be simpler to raise the issue with the Qatari government — which, after all, owns and controls Al Jazeera? The Qataris could, of course, refuse to shut Al Jazeera as a matter of national pride. What matters for our present discussion, however, is that the Americans have never raised the issue.

In conversations with senior Qatari and American officials over the years, this writer has always enquired whether or not Al Jazeera's quixotic anti-Americanism has been an issue of bilateral discussions. The answer in every case has been an emphatic "no."

The real issue is not whether or not the Americans wanted to bomb Al Jazeera, but whether or not they regard it as a threat in real political and military terms.

My guess is that they don't and, if they did, they'd have little difficulty in persuading the Emir of Qatar to change its personnel and policies in accordance with the strategic interests of the alliance in the War on Terror — an alliance of which Qatar has been one of the first and most energetic members from the start.

Conspiracy theorists might even argue that Al Jazeera is doing a great job by telling the Arabs that the only choice they have is between bin Ladenism and a status quo guaranteed by the United States. By eliminating all other options, including those of domestic liberalism and democracy, Al Jazeera, despite its radical appearance, ends up promoting the conservative option: For, while some Arabs might find the shenanigans of bin Laden and al-Zarqawi interesting from afar, few would want to be ruled by such men.

At the same time, Al Jazeera reinforces the caricature of the Arab as a fanatic drunk on a witches' brew of radicalism and terror. The channel is doing more damage to the Arabs than it does to America — which is powerful enough to look after itself.

The way to deal with Al Jazeera is not to bomb it, but to expose its true character as an instrument of propaganda for one strand of opinion within the Arab world — a strand that has every right to exist and express itself in freedom and security, but should not masquerade as unbiased professional journalism.

Iranian author Amir Taheri will give a public lecture in New York City on Dec. 11. For details, see benadorassociates.com.

 

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