Wednesday, March 2, 2005
Making the world safe for hypocrisy.
— Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward Angel
It’s easy to get crosswise with the United States. Just ask Qatar. In 1988 it was Stinger missiles-today it’s Al Jazeera.
Back in 1988 the United States was on the same side as the Afghan rebels, as those opposing the Russians were known. One of the ways that we helped the rebels (in addition to training Osama bin Laden and his band of followers) was by selling them Stinger missiles. The rebels were delighted to own Stinger missiles but, after the war, became somewhat sloppy as to their whereabouts. As a result, some of the missiles that hadn’t been used ended up in Iran, a country with which then, as now, the United States did not enjoy particularly cordial relations. That would have been a pretty bad outcome but for two things. We were not at war with Iran and had not yet even identified it as part of the axis of evil. Furthermore, according to reports then circulating, the Iranians could not figure out how to make the missiles work. Disappointed but not without resourcefulness, the Iranians sold them to Qatar.
A good question at this point would be why would Qatar have wanted to buy Stinger missiles that Iran couldn’t make work from the Iranians. The answer is the United States had sold 70 Stinger missiles to Bahrain a short while earlier. Although the United States professed a dislike of selling weapons in that part of the world, it made an exception in the case of Bahrain (among other places) because it wanted Bahrain to be able to defend itself from Iran on the off chance Iran would use the weapons it had acquired from Oliver North of the Reagan administration or from the Republic of China, against Bahrain. Qatar wanted the Stingers for self-defense in case Bahrain forgot that it was to use the Stingers against Iran and were to use them against Qatar instead.
One day someone in the administration happened to be watching television and what to that person’s wondering eyes should appear but a Stinger missile in a military parade in Qatar. Since the U.S. hadn’t sold the Stinger to Qatar its curiosity was piqued and it sent Richard Murphy of the State Department to Qatar to learn more about it. Because Mr. Murphy represented a very important country, he demanded of Crown Prince Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, Qatar’s defense minister, that the missiles be returned to the U.S. Because the Crown Prince is a very important person in Qatar he refused Murphy’s request saying Qatar needed the missiles to defend itself from Bahrain. (That dispute was ultimately resolved when Qatar destroyed the missiles in 1990.) That was then, this is now. Once again Qatar has something the U.S. wants it to get rid of. This time it’s Al Jazeera.
Al Jazeera is an Arab language television station headquartered in Qatar that broadcasts throughout the Arab world and is heavily subsidized by the government. The U.S. administration does not like Al Jazeera because it shows pictures of things that the U.S. would prefer not be shown on television. In addition, leading administration figures such as the secretaries of state, defense have said that the broadcasts are not only inflammatory but occasionally false. When they say they are false they may be thinking that they are like the television shows in this country that purport to be news shows but are actually broadcasts paid for by the Bush administration in order to mislead the American public on such things as its education and healthy marriage initiatives. Among the Al Jazeera reports that the administration disliked were those that showed civilian casualties while Falluja was under assault. Although there were lots of civilian casualties the administration believes reports of the casualties will make Arabs angry just like the falsified TV reports in the United States make U.S. citizens angry. It fears that if the Arabs get mad enough they’ll do worse things to demonstrate their anger than the compliant American public will.
The administration does not want to give Arabs the impression that it opposes freedom of speech even though it sometimes does. Nonetheless Al Jazeera’s staff is aware of the administration’s displeasure. As its news editor, Ahmed Sheikh, Al Jazeera’s news editor explained: “We understand that Americans are not happy with our editorial policies. But if anyone wants us to become their mouthpiece, we will not do that. We are independent and impartial, and we have never gotten any pressure from the Qatari government to change our editorial approach.” It’s impossible to know if he’s telling the truth about not being pressured by the government. It’s not impossible to tell whether the U.S. government has used broadcasters as mouth pieces. It has.