Thursday, September 20, 2007

Why I watch Al Jazeera

Tuesday night, I finally saw the film Control Room, a documentary about Al Jazeera and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It got me thinking about the real lessons of 9/11, and the ways in which American policy has gone horribly wrong in the 1,644 days since the invasion began. Bush and his crew think that our security depends on a macho display of military might and unwavering determination to kill rather than be killed. They also view news coverage of the war and its casualties to be at best a nuisance to be corralled and managed, but all too often as part and parcel of the enemy. In the invasion of Baghdad, the US Army and Air Force intentionally targeted the offices of Al Jazeera and Abu Dhabi television, and the hotel used by Reuters and many other international journalists. The official military reports claim that hostile fire originated from exactly those specific buildings, but it's difficult to see targeted strikes on three media outlets, all of whose precise GPS coordinates had been given in advance to the military, as anything other than an assault on the concept of a free press. The saddest part is that a free and open world press is our best hope in bringing global terrorism to an end.

President Bush chose to make the so-called war on terror a shooting war when he invaded Iraq, but he has neglected the media war, much to the detriment of US interests. There's no way around it: the United States is losing the media war in the Middle East, and losing it badly. We need to make a compelling narrative for the rest of the Muslim world — the 99.9% of Muslims on earth who are not part of al Qaeda — that they should, individually and collectively, actively oppose the methods of al Qaeda, even if they have sympathy with some of its grievances against the West. That's how we get the "human intelligence" on the terrorist operations: someone with inside knowledge turns in the cell that's planning a car bomb or a suitcase nuke or anything in between. It's also how we dry up the supply of new recruits. We've got to make it un-cool for young Muslim men to go off and join al Qaeda. We live in the nation that raised advertising to its pinnacle, persuading millions of people that their lives will be incomplete unless they get the latest gadget, gizmo, antiperspirant, or penis pill, but we are getting clocked in a P.R. battle by a bunch of guys in a cave.

Right now, the America™ and Al Qaeda™ brand names are competing for popularity in a key demographic: Muslim men, age mid-teens to thirtysomething, devoutly religious, alienated, and deeply resentful of something or someone. The Iraq War was George W. Bush's effort at making Uncle Sam the new pin-up poster for angry Muslim youth. Trouble is, that poster is adorned with a bullseye instead of hearts and flowers. Our military operations in Iraq have been abyssmally unsuccessful in convincing the pool of potential future terrorists, not to mention the majority of the Iraqi people, that America is more their friend than Osama is. The question of whether the US-led invasion of Iraq was justified will be has already been decided in the court of global public opinion, not domestic, and that verdict includes the continuation of the occupation.

To regain any credibility whatsoever in Iraq, and in the broader Muslim world, the United States needs to deal honestly with the effects of the war on the Iraqi people. Hundreds of thousands are dead, millions have fled into exile in neighboring countries, millions more are in exile within Iraq, millions have been wounded, and the economic infrastructure has been devastated. So long as the occupation continues, and especially so long as the occupation continues with such evident disregard for the suffering of the Iraqis, those wounds will not heal. Donald Rumsfeld put it well: "It seems to me that it's up to all of us to try to tell the truth, to say what we know, to say what we don't know, and realize that we're dealing with people that are perfectly willing to lie to the world to attempt to further their case. And to the extent people lie, ultimately, they are caught lying and they lose their credibility, and one would think it wouldn't take long for that to happen, dealing with people like this." As much as the Bush Administration has lied to the American people about the war, it has lied far more egregiously to the people of the world, and it has been caught out.

Captain Josh Rushing, a CENTCOM spokesperson, says in Control Room: "I really think the big thing for my generation is for these two perspectives — my perspective, the Western perspective, and the Arab perspective — to understand each other better. It's our responsibility to reach out and try to understand their perspective, and I hope they feel the same way, that they need to reach out and understand our perspective. Because, truly, the two worlds are colliding at a rapid rate right now." Josh Rushing put that sentiment to work when he signed on with the new English-language Al Jazeera channel. I share the sentiment, and that's why I watch Al Jazeera English, to see, in the words of their taglines, "Every angle, every side. ... If it's newsworthy, it gets on air, whether it's Bush or Bin Laden." The most important program in my TV week, even above Colbert and Bill Maher, is Inside Iraq, the only source I trust for a perspective on the war unfiltered by the Bushies. It airs at 10:30 A.M. on Fridays, with reruns through the weekend.

Dedicated to the memory of Tareq Ayyoub, a correspondent killed by a U.S. air strike targeting Al Jazeera's Baghdad office.

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