The U.S.--Al Jazeera Détente

Relative to the American sound bite, John Kerry recently gave an in-depth interview to Al Jazeera, the independent Middle Eastern news service which operates an international TV channel and a website in Arabic and English. Kerry discussed Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, and now the New York Times’ Media Blog reports that Hillary Clinton has met with Al Jazeera’s “senior manager” and has herself given an interview before a crowd of 300 university students. Is this possibly the same Al Jazeera that former Defense Secretary Rumsfeld called “vicious” and “disgraceful”, referring to its coverage of the Iraq War?

Quite possibly, yes. But now that a more diplomatic approach is being taken at the highest levels of the American government, perhaps our statesmen and stateswomen have realized that being friendly across Middle Eastern airwaves will do more to advance American interests than Rumsfeld’s brand of sarcasm and grimace.

Al Jazeera is remarkable partly because it has been able to maintain its editorial integrity in a region where most media is heavily controlled by the State. A loan from a Qatari Sheikh allowed the news network to get off the ground.

Still, American policy towards Al Jazeera has been fierce, especially after 9/11 when many debates over factual matters, such as the presence of WMD in Iraq or the legality of a unilateral preemptive war, were treated as inferior to the debate over whether one was a patriot or a turncoat, a debate won and lost—typically lost—over how loudly one parroted the most aggressive of government policies. According to The Nation:

The United States bombed [Al Jazeera’s] offices in Afghanistan in 2001, shelled the Basra hotel where Al Jazeera journalists were the only guests in April 2003, killed Iraq correspondent Tareq Ayoub a few days later in Baghdad and imprisoned several Al Jazeera reporters (including at Guantánamo), some of whom say they were tortured.

At the time, the British press reported that former President Bush discussed his desire to deliberately bomb Al Jazeera offices with former Prime Minister Blair.

For the moment, the U.S. seems to be taking a more conciliatory approach.

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