Prague, 21 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- A review of the items up for debate in the major news dailies today finds discussion of Al-Jazeera, the Arab world's premier satellite news channel, and a broader consideration of how the Arab world views the United States and its policies. Some analysts also urge the U.S. administration to face the realities that threaten to scuttle the 30 June deadline for a transfer of power in Iraq.
In a contribution to the London-based daily, Jessica Mathews and Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace say that the continuing Iraqi insurgency against the U.S.-led occupation indicates that the plan to abdicate power to an Iraqi authority quickly -- and in keeping with a 30 June deadline -- is unrealistic.
The planned transfer would shift governmental responsibility to "an entity that the vast majority of Iraqis sees as an illegitimate American puppet," the authors say. Since the U.S.-led coalition "unwisely" decided to turn the "discredited" Iraqi Governing Council into a sovereign interim administration, the coalition's political plan has been "in tatters."
The scheduled June transfer is now no more likely to succeed than the attempt to "[conjure] up Iraqi forces almost overnight to achieve security." The "fiction" that a reconstituted and hastily assembled Iraqi police force could establish order in the country "has now been abandoned in the streets," as U.S. troops "are now fighting to re-establish the control they relinquished prematurely."
The priority now is to reestablish security and "switch to a credible political process." This will entail negotiations with all of Iraq's influential groups, which "cannot be accomplished by June 30." In order to ensure "legitimacy, local acceptability and expertise," the authors say the UN should lead the discussions.
"There is nothing sacred about June 30, and no failure in dropping a plan that is not working in favor of one that might," write Ottaway and Mathews. "Broad inclusion of Iraqis is admittedly demanding and highly risky but it is far more likely to produce a stable, moderately pluralistic government in Baghdad. That modest goal -- not fully fledged democracy -- should be the aim."
"Times" magazine staff writer Scott MacLeod says one sign "of democracy's failure to take root in the Arab world is the way authoritarian regimes muzzle the local media. So when the Al-Jazeera satellite channel began its broadcasts in 1996 from the Persian Gulf state of Qatar, [for] the first time, Arabs were able to watch news programs and talk shows in their own language and assembled by independent journalists rather than by government propagandists." The station is funded largely by the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.
Given Al-Jazeera's success with 35 million viewers, the network has spawned imitators across the Middle East such as Al-Arabiya and Abu Dhabi TV. The station has also "angered Arab governments by giving airtime to rebel movements and freedom advocates and tackling taboo topics like polygamy and apostasy."
Qatar's emir "insists that the channel reflects a wind of change blowing through the Middle East," says MacLeod, adding that Arab regimes today "are certainly feeling more than a breeze."
Former al-jazeera.net correspondent and author Arthur Neslen says Al-Jazeera has managed to attract 35 million daily viewers "precisely because it has shown the human carnage that U.S. military onslaughts leave in their wake." If it began censoring its broadcasts to edit out the "realities" of these U.S. military operations, Neslen says "it would lose its audience."
Encouraging democratic principles in the Middle East may be the U.S. administration's stated aim, but Neslen says "on the ground, the U.S. is acting against the flowering of Middle East media freedom." He says ever since the beginning of the war on terror, Al-Jazeera "has been a thorn in the side of the Pentagon." After the station broadcast videotapes of Osama bin Laden following the 11 September 2001 attacks, Washington "has treated it like a fifth column."
Neslen cites what he calls "reliable sources" at the station's headquarters in Doha as saying that U.S. officials threatened "to close down the Al-Jazeera bureau in Baghdad earlier this year and last week sent a letter accusing the network of violating the Geneva convention and the principles of a free press." He also notes that Al-Jazeera offices were bombed by U.S. forces in Kabul as well as Baghdad -- both times allegedly by accident, according to the Pentagon.
Neslen says, "the targeting of Al-Jazeera is all the more remarkable, given that it is the only Arab TV network to routinely offer Israeli, U.S. and British officials a platform to argue their case."
Al-Jazeera "has a track record of honest and accurate reporting, and has maintained a principled pluralism in the face of brutal and authoritarian regimes within the region, and increasingly from those without" -- and this is why "it should be defended by those who genuinely believe that successful societies depend upon an independent media."
THE NEW YORK TIMES
In a contribution today, author Walter Russell Mead of the Council on Foreign Relations tackles the question of why there is so much hostility toward the United States in the Arab world. The main reason for this antagonism is not the war in Iraq nor, necessarily, U.S. support for Israel. He says rather, "it is a widespread belief that the United States simply does not care about the rights or needs of the Palestinian people."
Following a five-week trip through the Middle East, Mead says in "Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey and other countries, the large majority of people I spoke with are ready to tolerate the Jewish state -- most even understand that the final boundaries of Israel will include some of the heavily settled areas beyond the pre-1967 borders. They also understand that few if any Palestinians will return to the homes they lost after the war that erupted when Israel declared its independence in 1948." But they cannot understand why Washington seems so unmoved by the suffering of the Palestinian people.
U.S. Middle East policy "is unnecessarily zero-sum," says Mead. Washington could "be more pro-Palestinian without being less pro-Israeli."
Taking the lead on negotiating compensation for evicted Palestinians and other issues "vital to the Palestinians would not bring quick progress toward peace in the region, nor would it undo overnight the consequences of decades of suspicion and resentment." But Mead says "it would help to reduce anti-Americanism in the Muslim world and beyond, as well as to advance the cause of peace."
Political commentator Massoud Derhally looks at Israel's targeted assassination this weekend of Abd al-Aziz al-Rantisi, the Gaza Strip leader of Hamas -- which comes just weeks after the assassination of the group's founder, Sheikh Ahmad Yassin.
He calls the latest killing a "vindictive act that will not only fuel the cycle of violence, and increase the resentment of America in the Arab world, but most certainly lead to a proliferation of Osama bin Ladens."
Derhally says the "disinclination of the [U.S.] administration to condemn targeted assassinations" and its agreement to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's "unilateral disengagement plan," announced this week, "sends a message: that the U.S. is not interested in a strong, viable and independent Palestinian state."
The current U.S. administration "alienates even its closest of friends in the Arab world," Derhally says. "It courts Israel with open arms while putting allies such as Jordan's King Abdullah in a truly precarious position."
And the Arab world "is disenchanted. It sees nothing but unfulfilled U.S. promises, a Bush administration that is disconnected from the realities on the ground, and an intransigent Israel." The United States has taken part only "haphazardly" in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The "road map" was its latest half-hearted attempt to find a solution, but Washington "never followed up on its implementation." Today, the plan "is for all intents and purposes dead."
Derhally says, if Israel "is to make peace with its neighbors, it must view Palestinians as equal partners, as human beings who have also suffered unjustly. [An] Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 borders, after decades of Palestinian humiliation, collective punishment and near enslavement of a nation, is the least Israel can offer the Palestinians."
Justin Vaisse, a historian specializing in U.S. affairs at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris, looks at some of the similarities and differences between military operations in Iraq and the war in Vietnam. From 5-11 April 1968, 356 U.S. soldiers were killed in Vietnam, compared to the 65 dead in Iraq for the same week of 2004. February 1968 saw 80 U.S. soldiers killed per day, compared with an average of between one and eight over the past year in Iraq. Thus the United States is far from being mired in a Vietnam-like quagmire, says Vaisse.
But in spite of the many and obvious differences, there are striking similarities between the two conflicts, including the unilateral U.S. decision to launch hostilities and the widespread objections of foreign publics. Even the exaggeration of the pretexts for war can be compared, as the Gulf of Tonkin incident that allegedly precipitated the U.S. decision to go to war in Vietnam was "undoubtedly" overstated, just as were the capabilities of Iraq's weapons systems.
And Vaisse says the "domino" theory used to justify the war in Vietnam -- which warned that if one country in Southeast Asia fell to communism others would soon follow –- can be likened to the U.S. administration's insistence today that democracy in Iraq will begin "a wave of freedom" that will spread throughout the region.
"More disconcerting still is the cocktail of optimism, good intentions and ethnocentric blindness" that seems to unite the two military interventions, he says. But the chaos that U.S. forces are now confronting leaves the optimistic American creed deeply shaken.