I wrote yesterday about the spectacle of Fox News personalities Britt Hume and Bill Kristol promoting the failed Christmas attack as a “success” for Al Qaeda. Today’s conservative Al Qaeda publicist is Lurita Doan, who was forced to resign in May 2008 as head of the General Services Administration under the Bush administration — something which, given Bush’s well-known lack of enthusiasm for punishing failure, says a lot. Doan writes “Everyone keeps saying how lucky we are that the “crotch” bomber on Flight 253 was unable to ignite the explosives hidden in his underwear, but I am sorry to report that the attack was a actually a huge success. The plane was not destroyed and no lives were lost, but the larger, strategic goals of al Qaeda were certainly advanced.”
As I noted yesterday, it is true that one of the goals of terrorism is to elicit a wild over-reaction from the target government, resulting in greater publicity and a larger pool of potential recruits for the terrorists’ cause, and so any response has to be balanced against that. But the idea that “the strategic goals of al Qaeda” are better advanced by more security theater at American airports than they were by, say, inducing the United States to invade and occupy two Muslim countries and engage in a global campaign of kidnapping and torture, is just ridiculous on its face.
But this is largely beside the point, because conservatives like Kristol, Hume, and Doan aren’t genuinely (or at least primarily) interested in analyzing threats and policies to deal with them, they’re interested in promoting a specific, and politically advantageous, narrative about the nature of those threats. And apparently, the possibility of those threats serving as Al Qaeda propaganda is a price they’re willing to pay in order to achieve that political advantage.
Over-stating the strength and prominence of Al Qaeda has been a tendency of the right for years. In Iraq, for example, even long after it had become clear that Al Qaeda represented a small part of the Iraqi insurgency, the Bush administration was still promoting it as the lead actor in the insurgency, because it fit within the administration’s narrative of why we’d gone into Iraq in the first place.
But as Marc Lynch, who monitors Arabic-language media (and who wrote a great book on the subject which you should read), wrote at the time, this did real harm in the wider Arab and Muslim world, “where the exaggeration of al-Qaeda’s role works directly and devastatingly against American goals.”
It magnifies al-Qaeda’s perceived power, strengthening its own media campaign and feeding its most powerful propaganda instrument… The [Bush] administration in effect claims more power and military success for al-Qaeda in Iraq than al-Qaeda claims for itself — for which the al-Qaeda leadership can only be bemusedly grateful. Forget al-Hurra — if you’re looking for a real public diplomacy fiasco, you’ll be hard pressed to do worse than the US acting as al-Qaeda’s agent in promoting its Iraqi success.
As Lynch wrote last week in regard to the failed Christmas bombing, “In most of the Arab newspapers which I follow on a daily basis, the failed airplane plot didn’t even make the front page — or, at best, got a small and vague story.”
In American conservative media, however, the Al Qaeda Threat is the lead story. On Fox and Friends this morning, right-wing talker Laura Ingraham said of what terrorism experts estimate to be perhaps a few thousand committed extremists: “This is a major, major threat to our way of life!”
Remember when conservatives used to attack Al Jazeera all the time for giving Al Qaeda free publicity? In March 2004, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld claimed “We are being hurt by al-Jazeera in the Arab world…There is no question about it.”
“The quality of the journalism is outrageous — inexcusably biased — and there is nothing you can do about it except try to counteract it.” He said it was turning Arabs against the United States.
“You could say it causes the loss of life,” he added.
Later that year, Fox News ran a story entitled “Al Jazeera: Friend or Foe in the War on Terror?” Given how committed Fox News and other conservative media seems to be to waving Al Qaeda’s flag for them, maybe we should be asking the same question now about them.