The recent sale of Al Gore’s Current TV to Al Jazeera, which is owned by the government of Qatar, could bring the voice of a foreign government directly into millions of living rooms across the United States. Though Qatar is thought to be one of the more liberal autocracies in the Arab world–hosting free trade negotiations and even, at one point, an Israeli diplomatic office–it is also hosting the Taliban’s new “political office” in Doha.
For more than a decade, Al Jazeera has penetrated the veil of official state media throughout the Arab world, broadcasting criticism of Arab governments that viewers might never hear otherwise, but it tends to spare the Qatari regime. It is not an Islamist network, but has at times inflamed Islamist passions, particularly around conflicts involving Israel and the United States, which the network has often tended to sensationalize.
Its English-language version has a different flavor, but strives to provide an alternative–and at times radically critical–take on current events in the West. Its forthcoming Al Jazeera America network, which is busily hiring journalists, will look to amplify and expand the niche that Current TV occupies, competing with MSNBC for the left side of the spectrum and adding a vociferous international dimension to its criticism.
The entry of Al Jazeera America into the U.S. market comes at the same time that the government of Qatar is hosting Taliban’s new negotiating mission–which the terrorist group lost no time in turning into a sort of embassy or government-in-exile. The fact that the Qatari regime is connected to both of these initiatives raises questions about whether and how Al Jazeera America will influence U.S. debate about talks with the Taliban.
The fact that the Obama administration encouraged the opening of the Taliban office in Doha, and that senior Democratic figures were involved in the sale of Current TV to Al Jazeera, also highlights the degree to which Middle East policy on the American left is aligning more closely with the Sunni monarchies of the Arabian peninsula, who are prepared to tolerate some liberalization as long as their own power is left unchallenged.
It is noteworthy that despite his belated enthusiasm for the revolutions of the Arab Spring, President Barack Obama rushed to help Saudi Arabia crush a pro-democracy, and largely Shia, uprising in the small Gulf state of Bahrain. His reversal on Syria–in which he is now committed to arming a largely Sunni, and jihadist, force against the Russian- and Iranian-backed Assad regime–may also reflect that trend in Obama’s foreign policy.
President Obama has long seen himself as a mediator between the U.S. and the Islamic world, rather than a defender of U.S. interests and values in the face of confrontations emanating from that cultural and political milieu. Small Gulf states like Qatar, which are typically the most open Arab countries in the region, are natural partners–but they remain autocracies, and incubate harsh forms of political and religious intolerance.
At the same time that Qatar’s powerful media network is seeking out opportunities in the U.S., its government is also facilitating a U.S. withdrawal from its last major battlefield in the region. As much fuss as Israel’s critics have made of the so-called “Israel lobby,” there is no pro-Israel organization with anything like that kind of clout within U.S. foreign policy or the American media. It is, at the very least, a connection worth watching.