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ICG Risk Blog - [ Underestimating the gravity of bombing al Jazeera (2004) and bombing the USSR (1984) ]

Underestimating the gravity of bombing al Jazeera (2004) and bombing the USSR (1984)


Most US nationals underestimate the impact of the reality in Arab eyes that Bush43 was intent on bombing al Jazeera's Doha headquarters in 2004 just as they underestimated the impact of Ronald Reagan's quip about commencing the bombing of the USSR in 1984. Both are serious yet US nationals for the most part are oblivious.

The 1984 event drew us back towards nuclear war that was nearly avoided in 1983:

During a microphone test for his weekly radio address of 11 August, 1984, unaware that the microphone was live, Ronald Reagan's wit emerged:

My fellow Americans, I‘m pleased to tell you today that I‘ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.

[Note that Reagan's quip is variously misquoted in print, thus audio wav files of the original mike test recording are here and here.]

Reagan's "indiscretion was not broadcast, but news of it filtered out and drew a strong rebuke from Moscow."  That is the understatement of the quarter century as Reagan's quip was coming on the heels of an extraordinarily close Soviet preemptive nuclear strike against the west as Moscow, still raw from being surprised in 1941 by the Germans in Operation BARBAROSSA - "the worst military disaster in Russian history," was under the growing impression that the US was itself moving to preemption.

Consider these snippets from Martin Walker's The Cold War: A History:

In May 1981, in response to President Reagan's aggressive talk about nuclear war, the Soviet Union instituted the [Operation] RYAN [raketno-yadernoye napadenie] (Nuclear-Rocket Attack) program, which created a "heightened state of intelligence alert, instructing all foreign stations to conduct a constant watch for tell-tale signs of the buildup to a Western nuclear strike."

In 1983 the RYAN program and Soviet paranoia over an American nuclear attack reached a new peak with the Soviet shooting-down of a Korean airliner that strayed into Soviet airspace over a top-secret missile warning installation in early September 1983. The shooting down of this commercial airliner was in part caused by increasing Soviet anxiety over what they considered an "imminent American nuclear attack." The Soviets believed that the November 1983 NATO exercise, Able Archer 83, designed to practice "command coordination" for a NATO nuclear attack, was in fact not an exercise at all but an actual Western nuclear strike against the Soviet Union. During this NATO exercise in November, the Soviets put their military forces on alert and prepared for a Western attack. Few Americans at the time realized how President Reagan's loose talk about fighting and winning nuclear war had frightened the Soviets and pushed the world toward the brink of nuclear war.

To grasp the gravity of this situation, readers should look to the short War games but, better yet, the very readable CIA monograph A Cold War Conundrum. US PSYOPs (psychological warfare operations) involving air and naval probes buttressed by political commentary, Reagan's rhetoric included, had succeeded far beyond expectations. It fell to Margaret Thatcher to call for Reagan to "moderate his rhetoric and actions [in the belief] that US policy toward the USSR had become risky and counterproductive by threatening to undermine NATO's consensus on deployment of US intermediate-range missiles."

Get that far and the smile of Reagan's quip will slip off your face.

The 2004 event may yet bring us into some form of war, declared or otherwise:

Even before the uproar over bombing what the majority of Arab and many Muslims believe to be the gold standard of reality reporting, al Jazeera, the task facing US Undersecretary of State for Public Affairs Karen Hughes was Herculean (also here), but I would point readers to the Asia Times' A US ear in the Muslim world to get a bracing view from offshore. It seems nearly forgotten that the US bungled its opportunity in 2004 to produce a viable counter to al Jazeera. The US sponsored TV channel, Al Hurra (The Free One), was almost immediately seen as yet one more state sponsored station "failing to report news of critical interest to listeners at the same level of priority coverage." I admit to some astonishment that we can continue a collective public relations mechanism that is so counterproductive.

For whatever reasons, the British government has moved to the uncommon point of invoking a gag order under the Official Secrets Act against the Daily Mirror who first broke the story that a "five-page memo - stamped "Top Secret" - records a threat by Bush to unleash "military action" against the TV station, which America accuses of being a mouthpiece for anti-US sentiments."

According to a source quoted in the Daily Mail, Blair told Bush that bombing al-Jazeera "would cause a big problem." The source was also quoted as saying: "There's no doubt what Bush wanted to do -- and no doubt Blair didn't want him to do it."

While the WP reports that a "former senior U.S. intelligence official said that it was clear the White House saw al-Jazeera as a problem, but that although the CIA's clandestine service came up with plans to counteract it, such as planting people on its staff, it never received permission to proceed. "Bombing in Qatar was never contemplated,"" al Jazeera's listeners track a different time line:

In 2003, during the invasion of Iraq, a U.S. missile hit the network's office in Baghdad, killing a correspondent. U.S. officials called the incident an accident. In 2001, American bombs exploded in its bureau in Kabul, Afghanistan. Washington said the targeting officers did not know that the site was an office of the television service, believing instead that it was used by al Qaeda.

The WP's Jefferson Morley does a nice round-up of the goings on here and here while Blair Watch tracks the mechanics of two memos, not one, here and here.

While it remains to be seen if the Bush43 comment was jest or reality, the damage is done in Arab eyes; another anti-US feeling confirmed, the humor of Don't Bomb Us - A blog by Al Jazeera Staffers not withstanding.

I find a link between 1984 and 2004 in that US actions, many unintentional, drove the Soviets to a fever pitch such that every US action was seen through the lens of looming nuclear preemption; no comment could be interpreted as good or cooperative. White House spokesman Scott McClellan now labels al Jazeera's claims as "outlandish and inconceivable." Virtually none of al Jazeera's listeners believe him. Every US action is seen through the lens of US hegemony and subjugation of Arabs; no comment can be interpreted as good or cooperative. 

Two men in UK court over "Jazeera bombing" leak
By Gideon Long
Source: Reuters
29 Nov 2005 15:07:58 GMT

Two British Men in Court Over Leak
November 29, 2005 12:31 pm

Pair charged in UK bomb memo leak
29 November 2005, 18:56 Makka Time, 15:56 GMT

Blair denies bombing plot knowledge
29 November 2005, 3:39 Makka Time, 0:39 GMT

Aljazeera demands answers from Blair
26 November 2005, 14:15 Makka Time, 11:15 GMT

Don't Bomb Us - A blog by Al Jazeera Staffers

Paper Says Bush Talked of Bombing Arab TV Network
By Kevin Sullivan and Walter Pincus
Washington Post
November 23, 2005

By Kevin Maguire
23 November 2005

U.K.: Media Gag Order Over Leaked Memo
Jefferson Morley
Washington Post
November 23, 2005

Bush, Blair, Bombs and al-Jazeera
Jefferson Morley
Washington Post
November 22, 2005

A US ear in the Muslim world
By Ioannis Gatsiounis
Asia Times
Nov 2, 2005

War games
Soviets, fearing Western attack, prepared for worst in '83
By Bruce Kennedy
CNN Interactive

A Cold War Conundrum
By Benjamin B. Fischer
Center for the Study of Intelligence
Central Intelligence Agency

Context: Soviet Cold War Setbacks
The Soviet Intelligence Alert and Operation RYAN
Why an Intelligence Alert?
Spooking the Soviets
RYAN, Phase II: A New Sense of Urgency
RYAN and East German Intelligence
The War Scare Goes Public
"Star Wars"
KAL 007
The "Iron Lady" and the "Great Communicator"
War Scare Frenzy in the USSR
The Enduring Trauma of BARBAROSSA
Conclusion: The War Scare Was for Real
Appendix A: RYAN and the Decline of the KGB
Appendix B: The Gordievsky File

The Cold War: A History
Martin Walker
ISBN: 0-8050-3454-4
Henry Holt, 1993

Gordon Housworth

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