Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz and other senior American officials have accused the pan-Arab media of broadcasting material that they consider “incitement” that could lead to further attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq. The American administration in Baghdad temporarily shut down an Iraqi newspaper for the same reason recently.
It’s not surprising that Wolfowitz and friends are seeking culprits to blame for the daily, often deadly, attacks. But from my vantage point inside the Arab media in a region plagued by occupations and ideological battlegrounds, Washington’s “incitement” charges are childishly unconvincing.
The accusations show just how different are the U.S. and Arab perceptions of the difficult situation in Iraq. But they probably reveal even more about the tortured mind-set of Wolfowitz and vintage American neocons who successfully launched America’s war against Iraq but now find themselves flailing at enemy ghosts that torment and elude them. There is something pitiful about a person of Wolfowitz’s stature, experience and power responding to the regular killings of young Americans in Iraq by lashing out against Arab satellite TV channels like Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya.
Are the charges accurate and fair? On the strength of having watched American television and these two Arab stations daily for the last year, I think not. The specific complaints against the Arab media include:
* Calling the U.S. presence in Iraq an occupation and labeling those who commit acts of violence in protest against it as the local armed resistance. (Almost all the non-Anglo-American world uses this same language because it is deemed factually accurate.)
* Airing strong anti-American sentiments on talk shows and interviews. (The Arab channels also routinely give the uncensored American official version every day and night.)
* Showing how American troops’ and administrators’ behavior in Iraq often humiliates and angers ordinary Iraqis. (This happens and is rarely shown on U.S. television.)
* Providing political narratives and testimonies that contradict the American portrayal of daily events in Iraq. (The Arab channels offer far more extensive and comprehensive coverage of the region and thus include a wider and more accurate range of views than do most American media.)
* Allowing many hosts and anchors to express anti-American biases. (These are regularly countered by the views of American and other guests.)
At the technical level, the Arab media do exactly what the mainstream American media have done since March: They mirror and pander to the dominant emotional and political sentiments of their own public opinion, because they seek to maximize their market share of audience and advertising. In choosing, framing and scripting their stories, Arab and American television stations alike unabashedly and unapologetically cater to their respective audiences’ sentiments: The flag-adorned U.S. media emotionally support the U.S. troops, and the Arab media are equally fervent in opposing America’s occupation of Iraq.
Like it or not, the media have become part of the arsenal of the political conflicts that define many aspects of U.S.-Arab relations. This is not incitement; this is digitized combat.
But although the Arab channels clearly offer an alternative point of view, and although they -- like millions throughout the world -- have made it clear that they believe the U.S. occupation of Iraq is wrong and is creating a powerful, spontaneous resistance movement, they do not and have not supported the violence against Americans. The correspondents and anchors of Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya have not praised the attacks or called for them. They are not the enemy; they are simply the messengers.
Wolfowitz’s incitement accusation takes us back to the strange time of Richard Nixon, Spiro Agnew and John Mitchell. These intellectually ignoble Americans in their criminalized White House found it easier to attack messengers bearing bad news than to try to grasp the important antiwar message being transmitted.
In today’s Iraq, the Arab media are only the latest to be blamed by an increasingly desperate Washington for attacks against U.S. forces (having already named former Baathists, Saddam Hussein loyalists, local criminals, Iranian agents, residents of the “Sunni triangle” north of Baghdad, anti-American groups from other Arab countries and Islamist terrorists from around the world).
Politically, all of these and more are probably involved in fighting the American occupation army in Iraq. But as Associated Press’ Niko Price more soberly reported from Baghdad last week, Iraqis who shoot American soldiers often are motivated not by love of Saddam Hussein or Islamist fervor but by their anger at the humiliating and degrading way U.S. troops have treated their families and communities.
The very simple reality of Iraq, as old as time, is the message being sent by most of the Arab media: Occupation begets resistance.
Calling it incitement because your occupation troops are the target of both a spontaneous and an organized resistance movement is faulty media analysis, amateur politics and Agnew- and Nixon-style sour grapes taken to those frightening edges of logic and truth where only nervous neocons dare tread these days.
Rami G. Khouri is executive editor of the Beirut-based Daily Star newspaper, which is published throughout the Middle East.