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[] WSJ 17.10.01: Arab Network Al Jazeera May Be Best Way For U.S. To Present Its Side To Muslim World,
Wall Street Journal
October 17, 2001

Capital Journal

Arab Network Al Jazeera May Be Best Way For U.S. To Present Its Side To Muslim World

By Gerald F. Seib

Monday was a busy day for Condoleezza Rice, President Bush's national-security adviser. The U.S. military was in the midst of its heaviest day of bombing in Afghanistan, and she was preparing to leave with Mr. Bush for an important meeting in China.

But in midafternoon, she took time out to do an interview with al Jazeera TV, the Arab-language satellite network now famous for its reporting from inside Afghanistan, and infamous to some Americans for obtaining and broadcasting tapes of fiery speeches by Osama bin Laden and his spokesman. Ms. Rice made her points -- the U.S. wants warm relations with Muslims, the Bush administration hopes to move soon on Israeli-Palestinian peace -- in 15 minutes on camera.

Afterward, a U.S. official says, a member of the al Jazeera crew handed Ms. Rice an envelope. It contained a contribution to the Afghan Children's Fund that President Bush has set up to aid Afghan refugees; the crew member said it came from his son.

The scene illustrates how rapidly the U.S. government has switched from seeing al Jazeera as a source of irritation to viewing it as a medium to be mastered. And that is a good thing. Far from being an unhealthy force in the Middle East, al Jazeera is an important development in reducing the political repression that lies at the root of both the region's problems and many of the U.S.'s own woes there.

At times, al Jazeera has let itself become too much a platform for Islamic extremists, and it has gone overboard in presenting an uncritical view of Palestinians' recent battles with Israel. But in a region where cynicism and anger have flourished under governments that aren't representative and propaganda that can't be believed, al Jazeera is a revolutionary breakthrough. In the long run, it represents an Arab attempt to replicate American values of free speech and open press, which can't be a bad thing.

IN THE SHORT RUN, though, it can be a problem. That is why Secretary of State Colin Powell, in the early stages of the campaign against terrorism, asked the emir of Qatar, whose country hosts al Jazeera, to help "tone down" anti-U.S. voices on the network.

Now, though, the administration has decided that the best defense is a good offense. So last week, Mr. Powell sat for an al Jazeera interview. Ms. Rice did so Monday, and Tuesday, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld followed suit.

The big question is whether President Bush himself will take up an al Jazeera interview request. The idea is being considered, but nothing is planned.

What is emerging is a healthy respect for what al Jazeera represents: an audience of perhaps 30 million Arabs, stretching from North Africa through the Persian Gulf, who are the very target of the U.S. message that the battle against terrorism isn't a war on Arabs or Muslims.

But within the Arab world, al Jazeera represents something even more profound. It was launched in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar in 1996, with start-up funding from the Qatari government of $30 million a year through this year. Despite the government subsidy, Qatar has given the station freedom to roam journalistically, which it uses ambitiously.

IT GIVES NEWS with a decidedly Arab edge, and its talk shows include strident anti-U.S. voices. It has pumped up the Palestinian cause across the region in recent months, further inflaming Arab passions.

Yet it also has shown long clips of President Bush explaining his policies since Sept. 11. It has exclusive access to Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan and a pipeline from Mr. bin Laden and his camp. But U.S. officials say al Jazeera has indicated it will show more caution in broadcasting bin Laden statements.

Along with other new Arab satellite networks, the Internet and independent Arab-language newspapers published in London, al Jazeera is part of an important political maturation. Many Arab governments have long treated their own people as if they were too immature to handle political debate, open elections and freedom of speech. To the extent the U.S. is seen as supporting or propping up such governments, many Arabs have blamed the U.S. for their stunted political life. Result: anti-U.S. backlash.

So today, the U.S. challenge is to jump into the widening Arab political debate and defend itself. Almost three years ago, Jon Alterman, a scholar at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, produced a study of the new-media age in the Arab world in which he argued prophetically, "The imperative is for Washington to engage the new Arab media. American officials should seek out opportunities with Arab journalists to make a case for U.S. policy. American officials should appear on camera and explain the U.S. position to a possibly hostile audience."

To the extent the Bush administration now is doing that, it is moving in the right direction. And to the extent that al Jazeera is a step toward a free and open exchange of ideas, that is healthy for both the U.S. and the Arab world.

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