Media critics with bombs and delivery systems
Did President Bush tell Prime Minister Blair that he would like to bomb Al Jazeera? According to leaked document, allegedly a secret minute of a conversation between the president and the prime minister in April 2004, Mr. Bush seriously considered taking out the Al Jazeera studios in Qatar.
The president was reportedly angered by the Arab TV network's broadcasting of Al Qaeda propaganda, including messages from Osama bin Laden, and its coverage of Iraq, particularly the American assault on Fallujah, was slanted against the American led coalition.
The press reaction has, of course, been one of outrage, not only on the predictably anti-American Left, but also on the supposedly Atlanticist Right. Yesterday, for example, a Tory member of Parliament and the editor of the Spectator magazine, Boris Johnson, fulminated against the attorney general's publication ban in a Daily Telegraph column headlined, "I'll Go to Jail To Print the Truth About Bush and Al Jazeera." "We all hope and pray," Mr. Johnson wrote, "that the American president was engaging in nothing more than neo-con Tourette-style babble about blowing things up."
What interests me about the conversation in dispute is why anybody, let alone a worldly-wise politician and journalist like Mr. Johnson, should be surprised by it. Indeed, I would be surprised if Messrs. Bush and Blair had not discussed ways of limiting the damage done by Islamist propaganda, whose main conduit is indeed Al Jazeera TV. It may well be that the thought of silencing the Arab network crossed their minds, only to be dismissed as too risky. If so, were the two leaders wrong to consider that option?
I don't think so. That shutting down Al Jazeera would be desirable from the Anglo-American point of view is obviously true. And if Qatar, a Gulf state that is nominally an ally of America (on which it relies for its independence), has allowed its capital to become Al Qaeda's principal propaganda base, it has no right to expect America automatically to refrain from punitive action on its territory.
The wider issues raised by the Bush-Blair Al Jazeera exchange are two. First, how far can the West tolerate the dissemination of Islamist propaganda intended to poison the minds of Muslims against Jews and "Crusaders"? Second, how much information are Western governments obliged to give about their internal decision-making process, and are they justified in suppressing sensitive information, even if this means penalizing the press, to protect Western interests?
Islamist Web sites and other means of communication are constantly monitored by security services and in some cases those responsible for propagating incendiary material have been prosecuted. I mentioned last week the case of an Islamist Webmaster who now faces extradition from Britain to America to face terrorism charges, Barbar Ahmad. The fact that it is the major Arab global network does not give Al Jazeera the right to disseminate material that directly threatens American or British national security.