In the halls of American power, the Arab Spring has brought Al-Jazeera in from the cold.
Seven years after then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called the broadcaster’s reporting “vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable” and President George W. Bush joked about bombing it, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised it as “real news” in her recent Senate testimony.
Not only that, her staffers, as well as those of the CIA and the Obama White House, were attending the Congressional Correspondents’ Dinner as Al-Jazeera’s guests.
“They are a really important media entity, and we have a really great relationship with them,” said Dana Shell Smith, the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for international media engagement, who speaks Arabic and has frequently appeared on the channel. “This administration has empowered those of us who actually do the communicating to be in a close relationship with Al-Jazeera. They understand that the relationship can’t consist of complaining to each other about the differences we have.”
The differences also have shrunk as the big story in the Middle East has shifted from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the democratic movements sweeping the region. In the recent uprisings, U.S. interests tended to line up with Al-Jazeera’s, and President Barack Obama alluded to both the network’s influence and its pro-democracy bent in remarks caught on an open mic during a closed-door fundraiser last week.
“The emir of Qatar come by the Oval Office today, and he owns Al-Jazeera basically,” Obama said in remarks recorded by CBS News’s Mark Knoller. “Pretty influential guy. He is a big booster, big promoter of democracy all throughout the Middle East. Reform, reform, reform. You’re seeing it on Al-Jazeera.”
But even an in an Al-Jazeera-friendly Obama administration there are tensions. The president continued, delivering some harsh criticism that conflicted directly with his diplomatic comments earlier in the day, when he had praised the emir for his leadership “when it comes to democracy in the Middle East.”
“He himself is not reforming significantly,” the president told the donors. “There is no big move towards democracy in Qatar.”
But even if the president thinks Al-Jazeera’s Qatari owners might have a blind spot, his remarks before an audience of the rich and powerful reflected how recent events in the Middle East and North Africa have accelerated the shift of Al-Jazeera’s brand from “anti-American” to “pro-democracy” in the American consciousness.