Cohen: Let's face the new 'core facts'
NEW YORK: In the gym at the NATO base in Kabul, U.S. soldiers hit the treadmills every morning and gaze at TV screens broadcasting Al Jazeera's English news channel. When Osama bin Laden makes news, as he did recently with a statement about Iraq, America's finest work out beneath the solemn gaze of their most wanted enemy.
This sounds like a scene from Donald Rumsfeld's private hell. The former Secretary of Defense dismissed Al Jazeera as a "mouthpiece of Al Qaeda." He once called the Qatar-owned and based network "vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable."
In an indication of what the Bush administration thinks of Al Jazeera journalism (and habeas corpus), it has locked up one of the network's cameramen, Sami al-Hajj, in Guantánamo for five years without charging him.
The choice of viewing at the NATO gym is a lot wiser than Rumsfeld's choice of words or the unconscionable treatment of al-Hajj. America, and not just its front-line soldiers, needs to watch Al Jazeera to understand how the world has changed. Any other course amounts to self-destructive blindness.
The first change that must be grasped is America's diminished ability to influence people. Global access to information now amounts to an immense à la carte menu. Networks escape control. To hundreds of millions of people accessing information for the first time, from central China to Kenya's Rift Valley, the United States can easily look exclusive, discriminatory and less relevant to their future.
The second essential change is the erosion of American power. Samantha Power, the author and Harvard professor, calls this "the core fact of recent years."
American hard power - its military - is compromised by intractable counterinsurgency wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Its economy is strained; witness the feeble dollar. Its soft power - the resonance of the American idea - has been hurt by a loss of legitimacy (al-Hajj languishing) and by incompetence (Iraq).
The third essential change is the solidification of anti-Americanism as a political idea. Jihadist Islamism is the most violent expression of this, but its agents benefit from swimming in a sea of less explosive resentments.
In response to all this, America can say to heck with an ungrateful world. It can mutter about third, even fourth, world wars. Therein lies a downward spiral. Or it can try to grasp the new world as it is.
To this world Al Jazeera English offers a useful primer. The network can be tendentious - Bin Laden's face up there for several minutes - in stomach-turning ways. But, overall, its striving for balanced reporting from a distinct perspective seems genuine.
A year after its launch, it reaches 100 million households worldwide. Its focus is on "reporting from the political south to the political north," as Nigel Parsons, its managing director, put it. The world it presents, more from the impact than the launch point of U.S. missiles, is one that must be understood.
Yet, the network has been sidelined in the United States. Jim Moran, a Democratic congressman from Virginia, told me: "There's definitely an attitude here that these guys are the enemy. But in the Mideast, Asia and Europe they have a credibility the U.S. desperately needs."
Moran met recently with Al Jazeera English executives seeking to extend the service's Lilliputian reach here. Right now, you can watch it in Toledo, Ohio, through Buckeye Cablesystem, which reaches 147,000 homes.
Or if you're in Burlington, Vermont, a municipal cable service offers the network to about 1,000 homes. Washington Cable, in the capital, reaches half that. Better options may be YouTube or Globecast satellite distribution.
These are slim pickings. Allan Block, the chairman of Block Communications, which owns Buckeye, told me: "It's a good channel. Sir David Frost and David Marash are not terrorists. The attempt to blackball it is neo-McCarthyism."
Block, like other cable providers, got protest letters from Accuracy in Media, a conservative watchdog. Cliff Kincaid, its president, cites the case of Tayseer Allouni, a former Afghanistan correspondent jailed in Spain on a conviction of Al Qaeda links. "Cable providers shouldn't give them access," he said.
Most cable companies have bowed to the pressure. Equally, most deny politics played a role in their decision. "It just comes down to channel capacity and other programming options," said Jenni Moyer, a spokeswoman for Comcast.
Nonsense, says Moran, the congressman, blaming "political winds plus a risk-averse corporate structure."
These political winds are hurting America. Counterinsurgency has been called armed social science. To do it right, you must understand the world you're in.
Comparative courses in how Al Jazeera, CNN, the BBC and U.S. networks portray the Iraq war and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be taught in all U.S. high schools and colleges. Al Jazeera English should be widely and readily available.
Readers are invited to comment at my blog: www.iht.com/passages