Tuesday, December 30, 2003

French Kiss-off - Punishing dissent in Snail Country

The French journalist Alain Hertoghe paid a heavy price for accusing leading French newspapers of being unreasonably critical of the United States when covering the war in Iraq. In a recent book, La Guerre Outrances, he wrote that the papers saw "the war they would have liked to have seen," infusing news stories with their ideological preferences. This prompted Hertoghe's own employer, the Catholic daily La Croix, to fire him because he had maligned its war coverage.

Many might observe that Hertoghe was merely stating the obvious: the notoriously subjective press in France has always been ambiguous toward the United States, and in the case of the Iraq war its criticisms merely mirrored an unsympathetic mood pervading French society. However, the fate that befell the journalist revealed something more perverse, namely that France's foreign policy self-esteem continues to be propped up by dubious perceptions that simply should not be challenged.

As it happens, a leading perception is that of a "French alternative" in the Middle East, which holds that France is virtually one among equal world powers in the region, whose interests must be taken into consideration whenever important decisions are pending. Ever since Charles de Gaulle realigned French policy away from Israel after the June 1967 Arab-Israeli war, France has regarded itself as an independent troubleshooter in the region, often advancing its interests against those of the United States, while also filling the gaps Washington has left open.

This self-image has been largely made possible by France's being a permanent member of the Security Council. However, it has stood against the reality that no Middle East state friendly (or unfriendly) to Paris and Washington considers its relationship with France as even moderately equivalent to that with the US. At best, ties with France are used as leverage against the Americans, never as a substitute.

The contours of this purported French alternative were not necessarily sharpened with the emergence of the European Union. In April 1996, for example, France's foreign minister, Herve de Charette, took on a diplomatic mission during Israel's Grapes of Wrath operation in Lebanon that undermined EU interests as much as it did American ones. It was Paris, not Washington or Brussels, which initiated the so-called "April understanding," although the Clinton administration hijacked the proposal once it proved to be a useful means to end the border conflict.

France's achievement brought confidence to its Middle Eastern diplomacy, which had shown little real success after the Madrid conference in 1991. Yet this led nowhere. Paris soon resorted to playing the role of spoiler in Iraq, as it headed an effort to lift UN sanctions there, which would have conveniently allowed French companies to rake in billions of dollars from contracts with the Ba'ath regime. This hardheadedness may have been financially explicable, but it also meant France was hitching its Iraqi fortunes to the resilience of Saddam Hussein.

As Hertoghe wrote in his book: "As a result of being permanently confronted with dictatorial, or at least authoritarian, states and abusive or even terrorist means, a kind of tolerance develops, which sometimes drifts into open complaisance."

That the French were complaisant with the Ba'ath regime was plain in the run-up to the Iraq war, after Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin indicated France would prevent military action at all costs: "We will not allow a [UN] resolution to pass that authorizes resorting to force," said de Villepin at a press conference with his Russian and German counterparts. This contradicted the spirit of UN Security Council resolution 1441, but also raised questions about French acumen, since the statement could be justified neither on idealistic nor pragmatic grounds.

With respect to idealism, it made little sense for France to engage in a quixotic effort to derail a war that was by then certain to happen. Far more usefully, France could have abstained at the Security Council, preserved a friendly rapport with the US and used this to help ensure that the humanitarian interests of Iraqis would be protected. When it came to pragmatism, French combativeness merely guaranteed that once the war ended, Paris would be viewed with hostility, marginalizing it in post-war bargaining over reconstruction contracts and the debt owed to it by Iraq.

French President Jacques Chirac managed to hide behind the fact that the public supported him. That's why France has yet to engage in a public debate over whether it gained anything politically from its fervent opposition to the US. Yet Chirac and de Villepin had nothing to show for their efforts. If anything, the French president's slapping down of Eastern European states for supporting the US on Iraq (where he imperiously remarked that they "missed a good opportunity to keep quiet") only confirmed he would tolerate no dissent on his policy choices.

Apparently La Croix was of a similar disposition, even though Hertoghe was far less critical of its coverage than he was of reporting in such papers as Le Monde, Le Figaro and Liberation. Yet Iraq was significant enough an episode in recent French Middle East diplomacy to require different behavior. Did the French media fail to ask the right questions about the wisdom of their government's performance prior to the Iraq conflict? Did they intentionally avoid providing more objective news of the war?

These are perfectly legitimate questions in a Western democracy, and they merit more than this rejoinder to Hertoghe—that he missed a good opportunity to keep quiet.

Friday, December 19, 2003

From the Jaws of Victory - Catching Saddam and giving Iraqis their country back

Last Sunday, as television stations showed footage of a captured Saddam Hussein, a Damascus shopkeeper turned to me and said: "We got rid of him, but there is one left. Do you know who?" I hesitated: "No, you tell me." He answered: "Osama bin Laden." When someone in my group said: "And Bush," the shopkeeper feigned shock and, smiling, replied: "I know nothing about politics!"

On that day, the Syrian didn't care about punishing George W. Bush, even though the US president had just signed the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act. He was just enjoying the disgrace of an Arab despot.

The reaction was interesting, because it contrasted with a purportedly more general Arab feeling of humiliation that Saddam had not gone down in a hail of gunfire. Consider this lament from that tragicomic distillation of Arab pathology, Abdel Bari Atwan, editor of the London-based Al-Quds al-Arabi: "It was a shock to us, and an insult to millions of other Arabs watching...the Iraqi president submitting to the humiliating (American) medical examination; we would have liked to see him fight to the end and die a martyr like his sons and grandson, or choose the death of Hitler by firing a bullet into his head or swallowing poison."

Leave it to the Arabs, or more specifically to their Pan-Arab publicists, to miss out on history and transform their potential triumphs into perceived failures. The image of a brutal and cowardly thug cowering in a hole should inspire an Arab renaissance and invite Arabs to break free from the patronizing intimidation of their leaders; yet many persisted in seeing Saddam's downfall as an illustration of the region's failings.

Evidently, someone forgot to explain this to the Syrian shopkeeper.

In its often-simplistic belief in core democratic values in the Middle East, the Bush administration may be closer to the truth than its critics give it credit for. Many Arabs will have seen in Saddam's downfall something personally liberating, even if the subtleties of Middle East academia prepare one for more than the unrefined deduction that Arabs, like most other people, don't appreciate regime goons staring over their shoulders, raping their wives, shooting their husbands, brainwashing their children or razing their villages.

Yet it is precisely by reaffirming such core liberal values, by restating its belief in the dictum "live and let live," that the US will emerge successfully from its stumbling Iraqi entanglement. Saddam's capture bought the US valuable time, and his trial will surely cast light on what a service the Bush administration did when it ended the long Baathist nightmare. However, this time must be put to good use as the US lays the groundwork for a truly independent, open and representative Iraq.

But what of the Arab world? Even America's harshest critics showed little nostalgia for Saddam, though many of them had explicitly or implicitly praised him in the days when he was custodian of the "eastern flank of the Arab world," to use author Christine Moss Helms's injudicious phrase. How revealing, and relieving, it was to read Talal Salman, an unrepentant Pan-Arabist, writing in Al-Safir on Monday: "It was an end worthy of a despot, an oppressor of his people, weak in the face of foreign occupation...Every dictator is a coward, he kills but doesn't fight."

And yet many are the dictators still thriving in our region, simultaneously criticized and defended by Pan-Arab intellectuals and polemicists, who regard them as indigenous ills, and, therefore, more palatable than the Americans.

Keeping America out of the Middle East would not be a bad idea if Arab governments didn't invite the contempt that makes outside intervention in their affairs so tolerable. In many a conversation at the start of this year, Arab and Western opponents of an Iraq war insisted that transformations in the Middle East must be homegrown, and that what the US was planning was unacceptable. What they couldn't answer was why Saddam had for so long been deemed acceptable, but also how domestic reform was possible under a near genocidal regime. In their zeal to censure America, the critics were reduced to peddling an absurdity.

That's why Saddam's removal and arrest were a logical conclusion to an illogicality, even if one might question the Bush administration's intentions. At the end of the day, however, these intentions will be checked by the Iraqis' desire to fashion a country that is to their own liking, thanks to the liberal values the US has claimed to be advancing. Saddam's capture will only reinforce such values, and through them the wish of Iraqis to avoid seeing their country turned into an American colony. On Sunday the US told the Iraqis: Saddam is history; your country is now truly yours.

There is a paradox in colonialism—since some insist on seeing the US presence in Iraq as a neo-colonial venture. It is that indigenous elites established by colonizers usually end up leading national liberation struggles. The Americans know this and are also aware that they are giving their Iraqi allies a stake in a new system that will surely reject absolute American control. If you have any doubts, then ask yourself where else could Saddam's delectable televised humiliation lead?

Monday, December 1, 2003

Orient Obsess - A lackluster look at Americans abroad

American Orientalism: The United States and the Middle East Since 1945, by Douglas Little, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 424 pages, $34.95

In his book The Dream Palace of the Arabs (1998), the Middle East scholar Fouad Ajami took a page out of Edmund Wilson's Patriotic Gore (1962) in closing a chapter by describing a son as a coda to his departed father. Wilson did it with Tom Sherman, who epitomized the psychological pathologies of Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman. (Tom became a Catholic priest, to his father's enduring regret.) Ajami did it with professional basketball player Steve Kerr, whose tenacity on the court replicated that of his father, Malcolm, a Middle East specialist who was president of the American University of Beirut (AUB) when he was murdered in January 1984.

Few Lebanese saw anything seminal in Kerr's death, let alone pondered its meaning in the context of well over a century of U.S.-Arab relations. Lebanon's on-again, off-again war was then in its ninth year, and the loss of this scion of patrician American missionaries was regarded as just another tragedy in a series of similar outrages, though unusual for having infiltrated the sheltered world of the AUB.

For Ajami, however, the murder represented much more. He described Kerr's death as that of "an intimate stranger," born in Beirut "in the very hospital where he was pronounced dead," an American who had sought to understand and address the Middle East on its own terms, and who could do so in its own language. Like Wilson, Ajami saw something transcendent in the contrast between father and son, a generational rupture that spoke to the complexities, moral and political, of the worlds navigated by the fathers. In Kerr's case, a world that devoured him.

Douglas Little, in American Orientalism: The United States and the Middle East Since 1945, provides a practical, competent overview of American relations with the Arab world, but one that will leave you in search of either drama or meaning. Little, a history professor at Clark University in Massachusetts, is good at chronological exposition, has blackened many a note card, and boasts a hefty bibliography. Yet the outcome is a book that will make you marvel at how someone could tackle such an enthralling subject and make it sound so flat.

The title doesn't help. Whenever the word Orientalism is used, people on all sides of the Middle East studies divide reach for their pistols. They will safely pack them away upon scanning Little's tome, however. He never really uses the term in an interesting way, in part because his definition is anemic: American Orientalism, he argues, is "a tendency to underestimate the peoples of the region and to overestimate America's ability to make a bad situation better." One suspects that even the late Edward Said, who famously developed the concept of Orientalism in a 1978 book of the same name, would wince: "What of the nexus of knowledge and power creating 'the Oriental' and in a sense obliterating him," Said might well sneer, citing himself.

Yet there are aspects of the book well worth examining. Little opens with a chapter on America's cultural alienation from the Arab world, where he makes the valid point that perceptions of Arabs in the United States lag far behind those of other ethnic groups in terms of sensitivity. American popular culture is shot through with appalling stereotypes of Arabs and Arab-Americans, though Little's path to this revelation is much too dependent on his reading of National Geographic, which he foolishly treats as the primary vessel for establishing American attitudes toward foreign cultures.

Little falters also in overlooking those sympathetic Americans -- missionaries, academics, and diplomats -- who sought to explain the Arab world to their countrymen. They were the ones who set up educational institutions that trained generations of Middle Easterners, who made understanding the region a cornerstone of their lives, and who, like Malcolm Kerr, paid a high price for embracing cultural ecumenism. Surely they deserve a mention in Little's inventory of American anti-Arab biases, if only to underscore their irrelevance in forming American opinions.

In fact, Little never gauges the impact these Americans of the Middle East played in defining their country's outlook on the region. He prefers sketching the grand policies of U.S. administrations and oil companies to explaining the psychology of the American-Arab encounter. That's fine, but one never gets a sense that Little has experienced his subject at first hand; American Orientalism reads like something crafted in a New England study. Infinitely more immediate is Robert Kaplan's rousing 1993 work, The Arabists (the term used to describe those Americans working in, enamored with, and knowledgeable of the Arab world), with its insights garnered through myriad interviews, lengthy taxi rides, and plodding lunches.

Little didn't need to duplicate Kaplan, but he would have gained by giving a face to his characters. The Arabists will remain valuable, for example, because of its unsparing account of Americans going native in the Middle East, an essential feature of the cross-cultural interaction Little is describing. Consider, for example, Kaplan's account of the mid-'80s kidnapping of American missionary Benjamin Weir in Lebanon by Islamic Jihad. What image could match that of Weir's wife Carol snapping at U.S. Secretary of State George Schultz, who had just criticized the kidnappers, that her husband's captors "had some legitimate grievances against the United States"?

The Weirs suffered for their Middle Eastern sympathies, losing their daughter Ann in a bus-train accident in Egypt, where she had gone to teach. Yet their attitude only underlined how the Arabists, often remarkable for their educational, academic, and cultural achievements, were also astonishingly blind and petty when it came to certain issues.

For instance, most Arabists' deep revulsion for Arab Christians, particularly Lebanon's Maronites, was legendary. One explanation is that the mainly Protestant Americans couldn't abide the Eastern Christians' attachment to Catholic France, or their devotion to the outward trappings of religion at the expense of spirituality. That may be true, but it misses the point: What pro-Arab Americans couldn't stomach was that the Christians were often estranged from their Muslim brethren and from the Arab nationalism the region engendered (though minorities were among the first theorists of the ideology). The Arabists believed, particularly during the heady days of "national liberation" in the 1950s and '60s, that archaic Christians were stubbornly resisting the Middle East's future. There was something very American in their reaction: a righteous indignation that the Arab consensus was being bucked, but also a romantic identification with a dogma regarded as modern and progressive. Ironically, a similar motivation shaped the Arabists' outlook on Israel -- always perceived as a foreign body interrupting potential regional harmony.

This is all absent from Little's unadventurous log. The few discernible Americans populating his book are government officials, who for much of the half-century of American-Arab transactions after World War II were preoccupied with the Soviet Union. Throughout the Cold War successive administrations tried to resolve the following conundrum: How far could Arab governments go in expressing their sovereign nationalism without threatening America's position vis-à-vis the USSR? The specter that haunted Washington was that of Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser, who was seen by the United States as an anti-communist nationalist until he sought to play the superpowers off against one another, while also developing his relationship with Moscow, which had no qualms about arming him.

A consequence of this anxiety that Arab regimes might tilt the Soviet Union's way was an American quest for stability in friendly states. Little takes an intriguing look at how numerous administrations sought to pursue this goal through a strong dose of Yankee hopefulness, which was much needed since pro-American Arab leaders were often splendid thugs. And they had an incentive to stay that way: Washington was so obsessed with losing ground in the Cold War that the regimes could easily abuse their populations and stifle free expression. The U.S. wouldn't turn up the heat on them as long as they were regarded as anti-communist -- as "sons of bitches, but our sons of bitches."

American policy makers understood this reality but still stalwartly requested that their repressive confederates advance reform, development, and modernization to garner domestic support and ward off coups or revolutions that might harm U.S. interests. The only problem, as Little observes, was that reform raised expectations (he uses the examples of Iraq under the Hashemites, Libya under King Idris, and Iran under Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi), mobilizing populations even more aggressively against their pro-American masters. What Washington could not grasp was that reform and modernization contradicted regime immovability: The U.S. wanted its friends to stay solidly in place as enlightened despots, but Arab populations (not to mention the Iranians in 1979) naturally saw reform as an invitation to oust their leaders -- even if what came afterward was often far worse.

The USSR ultimately collapsed through Mikhail Gorbachev's similarly misguided notion that a sclerotic and largely discredited system could somehow survive political and social renovation. The Soviet leader's efforts provoked much derision in the United States. Yet many forget that American policy in the Middle East was for decades based on similar logic.

Do the Bush administration's actions in Iraq portend change? One paradox, it appears, has been replaced by another very similar one: Where the U.S. had previously sought reformist change by its Arab allies to ensure steadiness, today it claims to spread liberalism through American military might but is so far finding this difficult to manage. The Bush administration is again confronting the familiar problem of introducing positive change and realizing afterward that dynamism can be a headache. In response, the U.S. can revert to familiar behavior, averting its gaze from the illiberal practices of friendly Arab regimes, or it can stick it out and turn Iraq into a liberal-capitalist showcase, whatever the regional fallout.

For the moment the administration is taking both approaches simultaneously, but ultimately only one can prevail. In calling for a new American empire to replace the Pax Britannica of the 19th century, the British historian Niall Ferguson has referred to the U.S. as "an empire in denial, a colossus with an attention deficit disorder." Yet what Ferguson forgot was that for half a century, until the 1991 Gulf War, the United States had it both ways -- managing the region like an imperial power, but doing so from a distance without getting its hands, or conscience, too dirty.

That much has changed. America has virtually become a Middle Eastern state because of its Iraqi presence. More often than not the region has absorbed its conquerors and neutralized them. Against this history stands an American tendency to impose the will of the United States and, as Mark Twain put it in Innocents Abroad, to bear down on the people of the region "with America's greatness, until we [crush] them." A liberal Middle Eastern order will emerge only if America is able to sidestep these two extremes -- absorption into the region or its gradual suffocation.

Friday, November 14, 2003

Missing Persons - America's vision of Iraq misses Iraqis

There is a great deal that is revealing in the American public's rediscovery of Jessica Lynch, months after she was injured during the US invasion of Iraq. The young soldier's slow recovery, embellished by her display of true grit, is only one aspect of a regenerative tale the American media (and Lynch herself) have carefully crafted in recent weeks. More intriguing, however, is that largely absent from the stirring narrative are the Iraqis themselves.

Not that this is new: the peoples America has encountered in its myriad wars have been routinely denied entry into the country's military passion plays. For example, in virtually all of the often stunning Vietnam war films made in the US from the late 1970s onwards—Hal Ashby's Coming Home, Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter, Oliver Stone's Platoon—the Vietnamese characters were invariably silent substructures to essentially American stories—sometimes meriting compassion, but also pervasively alien.

In a Time magazine article this week, as well as in a book written by Rick Bragg that has just been published, the Lynch saga has been all insular psychodrama. Indeed, Bragg, who couldn't get his volume out fast enough under a publisher's deadline, eschewed traveling to Iraq altogether to check out the details of Lynch's capture. Not that it would have mattered, since by then the Iraqis had been airbrushed out of a fable conceived to buttress contending American spins on the Iraq war.

The difficulty Americans have had in integrating Iraqis into their war narratives should reassure those who worry about US imperialism in the Gulf. One aspect of any genuine imperial urge is the desire to summon up what writer Jan Morris has called the "aesthetic of empire," by which she meant "its feel, its look, its human passions, the metaphysics of its power, the sense of it, the intuition..." And while some in Washington cast ravenous eyes on Iraq's oil or aspire to play regional power games from Baghdad, most Americans remain disinterested in the aesthetic of their Iraqi possession, preferring to focus on the microcosm of Jessica Lynch's recovery.

It would be a mistake to condemn this tendency. Too much knowledge of a conquered people is as likely to earn an occupier opprobrium as too little, since it can be regarded as just another instrument of control. However, specifically in the case of Iraq, the dearth of human and cultural ties binding Americans and Iraqis, which the parochialism of the Lynch narrative has underscored, poses a strategic problem: given such a situation, how solid will America's necessary perseverance in Iraq be, particularly if the going there gets even tougher?

Consider that one of the most determined publicists for Iraqi suffering has been US Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. Faced with American self-absorption, he has remained defiantly internationalist. At a recent question and answer session at Georgetown University, Wolfowitz was chastised by a student who told him that his Iraq policies were "deplorable," since they were "responsible for the deaths of innocents." In justifying war, the Pentagon official simply described how the former Baath regime had wiped out the Marsh Arabs, so that there "were half a million... in 1991. The estimates today are somewhere between 40,000-200,000."

What Wolfowitz sought to do was take a specifically Iraqi narrative and give it meaning in an American milieu, arguing that moral considerations had shaped his policies. Yet the fact that a student could sympathize in the abstract with Iraqi victims of Wolfowitz's "deplorable" war, while also ignoring the very real, longstanding and brutal repression wrought by Saddam Hussein and his acolytes against millions of innocents, shows what an uphill struggle the Bush administration has to convince Americans that Iraq has personal meaning for them.

It may be too ambitious to ask that Middle America and Middle Iraq find much common ground, nor do the Iraqis have a choice part in the Holy Scriptures, which have been so useful in tying the American Bible-belt to Israel. But if the Bush administration wants to provide more expansive meaning to its democratic efforts in the Middle East, if indeed it wants to convince a majority of people both in the region and outside that it is sincere about opening up Arab societies, then much more must be done to integrate Iraqi and American narratives.

Can it be done? For half a century successive US administrations managed to convince their countrymen that the Cold War was worth its shocking expense, even though the peoples either engulfed or threatened by communism usually had very little in common with an American public willing to wage wars on their behalf. The same is possible in Iraq, though the effort will not be nearly as demanding. As September 11, 2001 showed, the stakes in promoting a more liberal Arab world, if this curbs the frustrations supposedly engendering violent Islamism, are very high.

Some will dismiss this as a recipe for neo-imperialism. Perhaps, but the critique it acts off of was initially defined by liberal Middle East academics, who saw militant Islam as a byproduct of usually pro-America autocracy and economic underdevelopment. The paradigm has its flaws, but also its merits, and if America is to succeed in Iraq and the Middle East, there is no way it can do so without tying the values it is peddling in the region to those of small town America.

Friday, October 3, 2003

Exile and the empire - Edward Said, Fouad Ajami and the immigrants' song

The death of Edward Said, like that of any influential figure, unleashed a flurry of activity. Much was made in particular of the author's approach to the concept of exile, so that, paraphrasing the title of Said's memoir, he felt out of place in a wilderness of parallel worlds: the United States, the Middle East and Europe.

I was never the kindest of commentators to Said, largely because he never seemed to put together what he had exuberantly taken apart. However, in Said's defense, being the product of privileged Middle Eastern cosmopolitanism can be an enthralling, but also a cruel destiny. The admixture of cultures and sensibilities is never easy to manage, let alone rationalize. That is why as one tries to better understand Said's legacy, it is difficult not to also mention his enduring nemesis: Middle East scholar Fouad Ajami.

There was much of the Greek tragedy in the inevitability, but also the consummate symmetry of the Said-Ajami rivalry. On the one side was the left-leaning Palestinian, on the other the increasingly conservative Lebanese Shiite. Where Said regarded Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon as a dark time for the Palestinian national movement, Ajami saw it as a defining moment for Shi'ite affirmation, since it allowed the community to rid itself of the Palestinians, and also to challenge the Maronite-Sunni axis that had until then largely managed power relations in Lebanon.

You could take the contrast further and argue that the antagonism was a foreseeable by-product of the two men's contending attitudes toward Arab nationalism. Maybe Said, as a Palestinian Christian, was always more likely to sympathize with a secular ideology that affirmed the independence of a broad Arab nation. Maybe Ajami, the Shiite, was necessarily predisposed to regard Arab nationalism as little more than a contraption to secure Sunni domination.

More interesting than the two men's overt political differences, however, was how their relationship came to be fed by startlingly different approaches to America and its power. That's because the rivalry between Said and Ajami was, deep down, a conflict over how to integrate into the United States.

It was inevitable that Said would come to view the US with an increasingly critical eye. He, simply, saw the foul destiny of the Palestinians as a consequence of American support for Israel. More fundamentally, by the late 1970s Said had developed a worldview that left little room for gray zones, since he had come to regard the West-East relationship as one between dominator and dominated. In developing this dichotomy, Said was too moved by moral outrage to ever truly reconcile his disapproval of the most powerful dominator, the United States, with a recognition that it could also, in some way, represent transcendent benevolence.

Ajami well understood Said's dilemma, for he sharply rejected its logic. As he perhaps saw it, Said was alienating himself from his environment, and the reason for this was his inability to keep a foot in one world. By being multifaceted, Said had become merely contradictory. Ajami, in contrast, hailed from the desolate world of southern Lebanon, where one didn't look backwards when departing, and where single-mindedness and the obliteration of nostalgia was an emigrant's only true weapon.

By his own admission, Said succumbed to the dangers of partial integration, since he never quite felt at home anywhere. As his more devoted disciples today lament, his tragedy was that he died before the Palestinians could achieve statehood. Yet how very odd to hear such a phrase, which collapses two distinct worlds—the Upper West Side of Manhattan and the Occupied Territories—into a single, essentially Palestinian narrative, while leaving entirely unsaid what Said represented for America.

Ajami had no such difficulties. To his credit—since hardness is a virtue—he has insisted that he is exclusively American and only "originally" Arab. In so doing, he implies that embracing America means saying "yes." Said, in turn, believed it meant saying "no."

This impossible dialogue has led to two great gaps in both Said's and Ajami's works. Said always displayed a prickly unwillingness to delve into the American psyche, perhaps fearing it would erode his indignation with the U.S. Ajami, in turn, has increasingly banished the Palestinians from his writings, so that they have become the elephant in his living room—increasingly obvious for remaining unmentioned.

So, which of the two men better integrated into America? Said always played the outsider, but only in America could his paradoxes have been so well honed, his opposites so well exploited. Ajami, in contrast, decisively cut the umbilical cord with the old country and in recent years has moved steadily toward the center of political power. Yet his not looking backwards means always having to stare ahead. Few play that game well. The temptation to catch a glimpse of one's past can be unyielding.

As they grappled with America, and with each other, Said and Ajami surely came to understand that, aside from their political differences, they were two sides of the same immigrant experience. Neither found the magical formula of America because it was there staring at them, and it said that no single formula exists. Ajami and Said may not have liked each other, but the death of one American cannot have been met with indifference by the other, because the success of one was partly that of the other.

Thursday, September 18, 2003

Spanish Inquisition - Defending Taysir Alouni and Al-Jazeera's lies

In a column written during the Iraq war, scholar Edward Said described the Al-Jazeera correspondent Taysir Alouni as "impressible." It was an odd choice of words since the definition of the word—"capable of being impressed; sensitive"—was not quite what Said had in mind given the phrasing of his sentence. What he really seemed to be saying was that Alouni was capable of impressing.

Whatever Said's real meaning, we now know that Alouni may have indeed been impressible when covering Osama bin Laden and his acolytes. If Spanish magistrate Balthasar Garzon is right that Alouni was an active member of Al-Qaeda, his reporting may have been intended to advance the group's agenda.

Alouni's culpability will be determined in a court of law, so there is no need to impart guilt just yet. Though Al-Jazeera and the Arabic media in general have depicted the journalist as an Arab Vaclav Havel, it is difficult to get worked up over his fate. He will surely be accorded more due process than were the victims of the Taleban or former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, whose regimes Alouni helped sustain through his systematically biased and unimpressive reporting.

Alouni has become a poster boy for the Occidentalist crowd, those who view the U.S. through the same distorting lens that Western Orientalists allegedly do the East. However, if it is proven he was an Al-Qaeda mole, this might have beneficial consequences for the new Middle Eastern media, forcing Arab publics to demand higher standards from their correspondents. With several members of Al-Jazeera's staff having been accused months ago of working for Iraq's intelligence services, the station might even engage in introspection.

More likely, however, the charges against Alouni will be overtaken by allegations in the Middle East that he fell victim to yet another anti-Arab conspiracy. Instead of reform, the Arab media may opt for stubborn retrenchment.

What makes the Alouni case interesting is the ambiguous role Syria might have played in it (Alouni is originally Syrian), and the double standards employed by the journalist's Arab sympathizers. A day after Alouni's arrest, the daily Al-Hayat reported that Syria's intelligence services had warned the Spanish authorities of the journalist's "suspicious activities" and told them they had been watching him for years. Syria accused Alouni of being a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, which explains why the journalist is barred from visiting Syria.

The story raises a question. It is now established that Syria knew of Al-Qaeda's activities in Germany before September 11, 2001, and handed over to the US valuable information its agents had gathered there. A leading light of Al-Qaeda's German operation was Mamoun al-Darkazanli, a Syrian Muslim Brother. While his relations with Alouni are unclear (the Spaniards have a videotape of a wedding where Darkazanli was present with Alouni's brother-in-law), one can't help but wonder whether Syria played a greater role in Alouni's arrest, and in outing his possible contacts with the German network, than Spain is letting on.

Spain's critics have entirely ignored the Syrian angle to the case. This highlights the double standards implicit in the sharp contrast between Arab outrage at Alouni's detention, and the indifference last December that greeted the arrest of Syrian journalist Ibrahim Hamidi, for writing a story in Al-Hayat the authorities deemed "inaccurate." It's instructive that Alouni's supporters, particularly those in the Arab world, have adopted a high-profile defense of the journalist, under the assumption that in the West such campaigns bear fruit.

When Hamidi was arrested, however, both he and his advocates cautioned against public pressure, fearing this would induce the Syrian authorities to extend his incarceration. The subtle approach worked and Hamidi was released sooner than many people expected. What was remarkable, however, was how sullenly silent the Arab media and public remained throughout his ordeal and afterwards, as if to say it is only acceptable to protest detentions of Arabs in the West.

It is conceivable that Alouni is a pawn in a game bigger than he is. He was always a grating embodiment of what respectable journalists should avoid becoming: a purveyor of propaganda who occasionally got the story right. However, that doesn't necessarily make him a murderer. Nor does his alleged membership in Syria's Muslim Brotherhood, whose obliteration, we might recall, the West placed high up in its inventory of Syrian misdeeds during the 1980s.

But what is apparent is how Alouni has already been declared innocent by an Arab public that has regarded his arrest as more than a mere criminal case. Many in the region realize that if Alouni is guilty, this will discredit their own reading of current Middle Eastern affairs, which Al-Jazeera has played such a prominent role in shaping. If one of their favorite journalists is a con man, Arabs will lose yet another one of their illusions—one holding that Alouni and his comrades proved Arab correspondents could tell the truth, albeit their truth.

The Arab world is too impressible when it comes to Alouni. It was always a mistake to put such faith in a certifiably partisan reporter. But dashed illusions are commonplace in this part of the world, where the propensity is to defend the liar and persecute the truth-teller.

Thursday, August 21, 2003

The Man Who Isn't There - Why we shouldn't worry about a Powell vacuum

There was much hand wringing two weeks ago when it was reported that Secretary of State Colin Powell would not be staying on for a possible second Bush term. Though Powell and the White House denied the story, the real question was whether the secretary's departure would be such a great loss.

Powell is one those men who exudes credibility, even when his record tells a different tale. Ever since he became secretary of state in January 2001, the ever-popular Powell has drifted from one slip-up to the next, particularly in the Middle East. Yet many—particularly in the Middle East—continue to regard him as the sole rational official in an administration of kooks. Even as Powell's list of failures increases, so does his standing.

Looking back on what Powell has done in three years, his legacy seems remarkably thin. Indeed, the foreign policy initiative has always seemed to be in the hands of his bureaucratic rivals. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice took point on relations with Russia early on in the administration; later, ties with Europe and NATO were hijacked by the Pentagon; and recently on North Korea, Powell has deserved a hefty share of the blame for the administration's lack of a clear-cut strategy on how to confront Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions.

But it's in the Middle East that Powell's futility has been most apparent. The secretary's first overseas visit was to the region, where he sought to impose "smart sanctions" on Iraq. Powell didn't have real support for the plan in Washington, and Iraq's neighbors predictably rebuffed him. Syrian president Bashar Assad did promise to cut off illegal Iraqi oil exports through Syria, and Powell used this to emphasize the success of his tour. However, Assad subsequently ignored the pledge, embarrassing the secretary and helping sink the smart sanctions scheme altogether.

In the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Powell was more careful. Like his predecessor Madeleine Albright, Powell sensed the conflict presented him with a lose-lose situation, and initially steered clear. That made sense inasmuch as President George W. Bush had no intention of putting his personal credibility on the line to resolve the imbroglio. However, this allowed Powell to validate his lethargy, as he never sought to use even limited advances on the Palestinian-Israeli track to build up a semblance of Arab and international support for the Iraq war.

Iraq was Powell's Waterloo. He showed that he had lost the initiative within the Bush administration, but also that he was incapable of delivering his erstwhile friends, the Europeans, to a UN resolution sanctioning war. When Paris and Berlin rebuffed him, Powell was livid. He found himself alienated both from Europe's powerhouses and from those in Washington who felt Powell had led them on a wild goose chase at the Security Council.

Unlike another former secretary of state, James Baker, Powell failed to take advantage of the aftermath of the Iraq war. While he understood it was time to move on the "road map," and even pushed the peace plan forward, he never got a hold of the policy: Powell couldn't prevent Bush's dithering when dealing with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, or cut into pro-Israel sympathies at the White House and Pentagon. He brought Bush to the river—or rather the Red Sea—but has been unable to make him drink the waters of true Palestinian-Israeli peace.

A secretary of state who can't get things done, who persistently abides a glass half empty, is better off going home. Powell is a competent man who, like William Rogers, former President Richard Nixon's first secretary of state, will be forgotten a generation hence. And like Rogers, whom Henry Kissinger made irrelevant, Powell has been repeatedly overtaken by more vigorous colleagues. The reason is that he embodies stalemate in an administration that has come to epitomize the contrary.

Where but again in the Middle East has Powell's appetite for the status quo been so evident? The State Department has long favored stolid continuity in its transactions with Arab governments. This has protected relations often painstakingly forged, while also guaranteeing that other Washington bureaucracies wouldn't take advantage of tectonic shifts in regional affairs.

That's one reason why the US has spent decades embracing thugs in the Middle East. Successive administrations did advise friendly Arab despots to reform. However, the State Department never pushed too hard, both because this threatened to disturb otherwise comfortable relationships, and because during the Cold War hard-pressed regimes could always bolt in the Soviet Union's direction.

Powell is merely the latest agent of an inbred State Department aversion to change. It is indeed odd to see how so many Arabs regard him as a friend, though he is the one who has most counseled leaving their regimes alone—the very same regimes most Arabs systematically complain are oppressing them. If Powell and the State Department had their way, the Middle East would remain a redoubt of authoritarian kleptocracies for generations to come.

One needn't approve of Washington neoconservatives to point out that they're the ones who have relocated the foreign policy debate to where it should be: in the realm of innovation. They have welcomed change, not deadlock. If Powell leaves office it may create a dangerous imbalance in a second Bush administration, but it surely won't cost it many new ideas.

Thursday, August 7, 2003

Paper Lion - Opening up Syria, but closing a newspaper

At regular intervals we hear of reformist impulses in Syria. President Bashar Assad intends to appoint a new reform-minded government; the Baath party has been barred from interfering in the executive branch; the banking sector is opening up to privatization; Syria's sole privately owned newspaper, Al-Domari, has been closed down. Everywhere, it seems, reform is in the air.

Couldn't slip the Al-Domari line by you, could I? Indeed, even as Damascus was abuzz with talk of a new government to replace that of the forlorn Prime Minister Muhammad Mustafa Miro, even as Syria's civil society revival committees cautiously welcomed the decision to reduce the Baath's control over the government apparatus, the country's two-year-old satirical weekly, founded by cartoonist Ali Firzat, saw its license revoked because it stopped publishing in May. Syrian press law mandates license revocations after three months of non-publication.

According to Al-Domari's staff, however, the newspaper wasn't able to publish these past months because of harassment by the regime. When the paper sought to print last week and dodge the three-month condition, the state and security services intervened to ensure it would not be distributed. Firzat has said he would appeal the decision, telling the Associated Press: "The newspaper's closure is a result of a struggle between the reformists and those who stand to lose from reform."

Al-Domari's lawyer, Anwar Buni, a member of Syria's Human Rights Association, was more to the point: "This decision was outrageous and contrary to the law and the constitution. It also runs counter to all that which has been said about media freedom, democracy and slogans of reform and development."

Buni's statement summarized what is really at stake in Syria, namely reducing the wide gap between the regime's often-vacant rhetoric on reform, and the real thing. In his phrase were echoes of Eastern Europe two decades and more ago, where independent-minded voices cut through the falsehoods propping up their autocratic systems to unchain what Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz called the "captive mind."

Firzat and Buni have displayed much courage, affirming that authentic reformers in Syria will not sing to an empty audience. A visit to Damascus will prove that, just as it will show a leadership that has still not resolved the dilemma of how much change is acceptable before the regime itself is threatened. Indeed, the real question Assad must answer is whether he and his fellow modernizers can fine-tune their system into convalescence, or whether the only option is to completely overhaul it.

Assad remembers that the former Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, tried to renovate his political system from within, only to be swept away by those wondering: "Why the communists if we want improvement?" Assad has been more cautious, ruminating about the so-called Chinese model, which blends dominant state power with economic development. The only problem is that the Chinese model has depended on prosperous capitalism and its restriction to specific geographical areas, prerequisites Syria shows no signs of approximating.

For there to be genuine reform in Syria, the regime must do much more than what it is doing now. A tardy change of government or the modest opening up of the banking sector is hardly enough. Even the decision to bar the Baath from executive power is merely a reheated idea first thought up by the late president, Hafez Assad. Despite his tremendous authority, he was unable to implement it.

True reform must also address an issue the Syrian opposition has ignored: the Syrian military presence in Lebanon. It would be outlandish for a reform-minded Syrian regime to advocate more openness at home while sanctioning continued domination next door. In seeking to transform the Soviet system, Gorbachev rightly felt a need to dismantle the USSR's network of protectorates in Eastern Europe. Assad, if he is sincere, will have to do the same in Lebanon.

Few would welcome Syrian reform more than the Lebanese, who must have a role in helping bring it about. Lebanon, with all its shortcomings, is Syria's primary gateway to a more liberal and tolerant order. Well, that's not quite true if Iraqi democracy takes shape. But Lebanon is manageable, Iraq is not. Both neighboring states demand change from Syria, one that goes beyond ornamental efforts to amend a bankrupt system merely to preserve it.

We'll be certain Syria is changing when Al-Domari returns to Damascus' kiosks, but also when it becomes one of many independent publications that can say what they please about those in power, without paying the ultimate price.

Thursday, July 17, 2003

Radical Cheek - Who's rad?

One of the splendid media sagas in the last two years has been the movement of journalist Christopher Hitchens from political left to right on Afghanistan and Iraq. What prompted this were the September 11 attacks against New York and Washington, and Hitchens' subsequent assessment that the greatest threat to democratic humanism came from what he termed "Islamic fascism."

Swinging from left to right is a venerable tradition, with countless former radicals having put down in the bosom of conservative conformity. This was the case, for example, of Peter Collier and David Horowitz, who graduated from being editors of the radical Ramparts magazine in the 1960s to manufacturing biographies of prosperous American grandees. Another pilgrim on the rightward trail was Norman Podhoretz, who, armed only with bituminous prose, stands father and father-in-law to two of America's most prominent neo-conservatives.

Hitchens is in a second category, stimulated less by the pull of right-wing conformism than by resentment against the left's willful ignorance. Last year he ended a two-decade-old relationship with the left-wing The Nation magazine because, as he saw it, the magazine was "becoming the voice and the echo chamber of those who truly believe that (US Attorney General) John Ashcroft is a greater menace than Osama bin Laden." Hitchens' point was that the parochial hatreds of the American left had thrown its sense of priorities dangerously out of whack.

This echoed what Hitchens' hero, George Orwell, wrote in two of his books, Homage to Catalonia and The Road to Wigan Pier. For both writers ideology is an obstacle to a commonsensical assessment of right and wrong: Orwell couldn't stomach that the left, through its fealty to the Soviet Union, overlooked the worst torments wrought by Stalinism. Hitchens couldn't accept that the Bush administration's critics were too busy attacking the president on Afghanistan and Iraq to realize they had become objective allies of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein.

Hitchens' sentence has been excommunication from the dismal radical paradise. Some of his detractors hint it was money that made him prostitute himself to the political right. Others say that his poison was power, and that with Washington leaning heavily to the right, Hitchens had to convert. Still others saw his metamorphoses as the outcome of a political mugging by the left after the Sidney Blumenthal affair, when Hitchens revealed that the former Clinton aide, a friend, had lied to protect the president.

Only rarely has it been said that Hitchens' denunciations are sincere. And almost never has it been suggested by those on the left that he, more than they, embodies what it means to be a radical—one who sees criticism as something necessarily following the observation of abhorrent actions, not the computation of political costs and benefits as they pertain to one's allies or enemies.

Such calculations, however, have permeated the thinking of the anti-Iraq war coalition in the West, more specifically its left-wing constituent that has posited equivalence between the American conflict with Saddam Hussein and its own battle with the Bush administration. There has been a steady stream of articles and commentaries along these lines in recent months, scarcely interrupted by the discovery of mass graves in Iraq.

To examine at close range the tortured arguments of a bankrupt radicalism, turn to an article by Ammiel Alcalay in last week's issue of the always enlightening Al-Ahram Weekly, titled "Politics and Imagination: After the Fall of Baghdad." Alcalay, who teaches in New York, begins his comment by lamenting the decline of radical internationalism, dating its last gasp to the late 1960s. If the militant urge has been moribund for that long, it could be time for Alcalay to ask why.

However, it is when mentioning Iraq that Alcalay shows the real difficulties in the left's critique of the war against Saddam. He writes: "Iraq has been subjected to severe humiliation, vanquished by the former ally of their most bitter oppressor, asked to feel liberated by those who starved and suffocated them through a decade of the most draconian sanctions ever devised."

All the ingredients of the left's antiwar discourse are found in that clumsy phrase: the invalid heaping together of George W. Bush's administration with previous administrations that did indeed cultivate ties with Saddam; the flimsy allegation that it was the US that starved and suffocated the Iraq people, when it was the Baath regime that did so by abusing an oil-for-food system administered by the UN; the fake identification with Iraqi humiliation, as if three decades of maltreatment by the Tikritis was anything but humiliating; and the hypocritical insult against Saddam, inserted to disguise the fact that the passage is really directed at the US.

It is to Hitchens' credit that he broke with the left before engaging in the verbal gymnastics of his former comrades. His story, however, is a microcosm of a greater problem faced by Western radical intellectuals: An inability to define what radicalism truly means today and to confuse it all too often with anti-Americanism.

Tuesday, July 1, 2003

Roman Scandal - Bogus evidence from a bogus reporter

It was with perverse pleasure that I learned over the weekend that an Italian journalist named Elisabetta Burba had admitted to turning over counterfeit documents to the US embassy in Rome last year suggesting that Iraq had sought to buy uranium from Niger. It was based on these that President George W. Bush made his faulty allegation in his 2003 State of the Union address about Iraq's nuclear weapons capability.

According to wire reports, Burba, who works for the Silvio Berlusconi-owned magazine Panorama, received the documents from a source who "in the past proved to be reliable," and whose identity Burba did not disclose. She told the Milan daily Corriere della Sera in an interview published Saturday: "I realized that this could be a worldwide scoop, but that's exactly why I was very worried."

Burba went on to tell the newspaper that she traveled to Niger to verify the authenticity of the documents. She said she "was suspicious because the documents spoke of such a large amount of uranium—500 tons—and were short on details on how the uranium would be transported and arrangements for final delivery." Upon returning from her trip, Burba declared that the documents were probably fake, approving Panorama's decision not to publish them.

But then what did the "worried" Burba do? Under normal circumstances she could have published a story on the documents, asking who was behind the forgeries; or she could have put the papers through a shredder. Burba did neither. She took the documents to the US embassy where they were shown to the CIA, sent to the State Department in Washington, and later used as evidence for President Bush's claim.

Why should this story evoke personal pleasure? Because on September 11, 2001 Burba was in Beirut as the homicide attacks in New York and Washington were taking place. She later wrote a commentary in the Wall Street Journal stating that the Lebanese had applauded the attackers, observing: "The offspring of [the] great [Phoenician] civilization were celebrating a terrorist outrage. And I am not talking about destitute people. Those who were cheering belonged to the elite of the Paris of the Middle East."

In Reason and elsewhere I wrote that Burba's conclusions were based on "flimsy evidence, reliance on hearsay, and awe-inspiring laziness." In two instances, key deductions didn't come from observations at all, but from what social companions told her. One evening, for example, she heard "some loud noises" in the Christian part of Beirut and asked what these were. "Probably they are celebrating the attacks," someone responded. A surprised Burba asked, "You mean the Maronite Christians are also celebrating?" Came the reply: "Yes, they also feel betrayed by the Americans."

That wasn't news, I protested, it was the chambermaid exchanging gossip with the milkman. How Burba managed to get her article into a premier international newspaper was astonishing. It was also dangerous, because those were the days when the Bush administration was hunting for enemies, and Lebanon could have paid a heavy price for being seen as a country endorsing terrorism.

Now I feel a sense of vindication. It was a pleasure, but not a surprise, to learn that Burba betrayed her profession. Despite the fact that she and Panorama considered the Niger documents forgeries, Burba still handed them over to the Americans and then avoided mentioning the story when Bush made use of her material.

More bluntly, Burba provided forgeries to the Americans, kept quiet later on when she knew the Bush administration was using the documents to substantiate a falsehood, and is today trying to cover up the whole thing by claiming that she always doubted the Niger documents were real anyway. That's not shoddy journalism; that's Nixonian deceptiveness.

Observers will surely bring up the Berlusconi link to ask whether Panorama was doing the bidding of the Italian prime minister, its owner, when it gave the US administration evidence it was happy to later manipulate. Up to now there is no evidence of this. However, Burba's behavior hardly enhances the magazine's credibility or an impression that it is politically independent.

Then again the Lebanese expected no better from someone who pilloried them with extreme prejudice two years ago. Here we were blaming Burba for being a dreadful journalist. Now we see that she's actually a dangerous impostor.

Thursday, June 5, 2003

Up From Ba'athism - The autobiography of an individualist

Yesterday, the UK Guardian newspaper began publishing the ruminations of Salam Pax, the celebrated young Iraqi (real name unknown) whose personal blog from Baghdad allowed many thousands of people to have an inside view of the Iraqi capital before, after and even, for a thrilling few days, during the American assault.

Salam Pax's Dear_Raed website is said to get about 1,000 visitors a day. That may be peanuts when compared to, say, Glenn Reynolds' Instapundit, which receives an average of 55,000 visitors a day, and has tallied well over 15 million hits since it started. However, numbers don't tell the whole story: Salam has become, for better or worse, one of the more influential mediums in the west for following what goes on in Iraq.

It was inevitable and (considering that Salam Pax's opinions and observations were no worse or better than many blog postings out there) unfair that his appeal would hinge largely on acceptance of his personal identity. For months, Salam's sharp comments from Baghdad were a source of heated debate. The skeptics wondered how an obviously Westernized Iraqi could so easily post interesting material on a blog written in totalitarian Baghdad. Surely Salam didn't exist, they insisted, he was an invention of the Iraqi intelligence services or the CIA. More recently he was damned as a Ba'ath princeling. Moreover, Salam admitted to being gay, which seemed too frank for an Arab to be entirely believable.

Salam responded on his site by saying: "I am not anybody's propaganda ploy, well except my own." Throughout much of the war he couldn't update his blog, fueling speculation he had been arrested. Then the Guardian found Salam and convinced him to write a weekly Baghdad blog for the paper, strongly indicating he did indeed exist. On Monday, the journalist Peter Maass added to the mystique by writing in Slate that Salam had been his interpreter, though he withheld his name.

What does one make of the Salam Pax phenomenon, at least in the context of the Arab world's tribulations? Blogger purists might lament Salam's co-optation by the Guardian (he himself humorously likened the move to "selling his soul"), but this introduction into the mainstream was a fitting climax for a supposedly liberal Arab who, while he was not shredded by the Iraqi system, apparently had no sympathy for it. And the metamorphosis came through the use of a simple form of information technology that made it possible to circumvent an autocratic regime in a very small way.

A second thing Salam Pax has done is offer the West, and particularly the United States, what it believes to be a middle class voice from the Arab world that it can understand. This is essential in a post-September 11 environment when American and Arab societies have been thrown together, both politically and culturally, in a way that is entirely new in more than a century of American-Arab relations. How representative is Salam? The question is irrelevant; he reflects a strand in Iraqi society that many Westerners simply didn't know existed, but which they feel they intimately know.

Third, Salam has become that rare thing: an Arab pop icon, one unknown in his own world (where his gayness encourages anonymity), but utterly credible abroad. Surely there is excess in bestowing on Salam the responsibility of grand Iraqi interpreter, one he might not merit and claims not to want. However, it is also hardly surprising when the former interpreters were members of a Middle East academic priesthood that has had relatively little to offer on Iraq's current predicament. Salam and his imitators have almost naturally inherited part of their role.

One might protest that Salam's significance is almost entirely a function of how he is perceived in the West. That's true. But Arab cultural autarky has invariably lined the road to perdition in the Middle East. The value of Salam Pax is that he speaks as an individual, one who has taken a chance on contacting the outside world and dealing with it on its own terms. And this has been his way of reaffirming that he is Iraqi.

Tuesday, April 1, 2003

Command Performances - The civilian-military conflict over the conduct of war.

Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime, by Eliot A. Cohen, New York: Free Press, 288 pages, $25

"Good morning, good morning!" the General said,
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of 'em dead,
And we're cursing his staff for incompetent swine.

Thus begins Siegfried Sassoon's seething 1917 poem "The General," on the bungling bloodletters commanding the British army during World War I.

"He's a cheery old card," grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.
But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

In July 1917, Sassoon's bitterness led him to issue a public denunciation of Britain's political authorities, one directed more specifically against "the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed." The rage was perhaps inevitable: In times of war, the quality of the armed forces is -- or is perceived as -- a reflection of the worth of their civilian overseers. And after two injuries and two medals for bravery, Sassoon was entitled to denounce a war whose objectives, he felt, had been distorted.

Eliot A. Cohen, a professor at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Affairs in Washington, D.C., and member of the Defense Advisory Board, might well understand. He argues in his latest book, Supreme Command, what might seem an obvious point: that during wars civilian leaders have a right, even a duty, to intervene in military affairs. This is opposed to what Cohen calls the "normal theory of civilian-military relations," which, he underlines, pervades thinking on military affairs today. That theory holds that politicians define grand policy in wars, but that it is up to the military to implement policy without civilian interference.

Cohen writes that "political leaders must immerse themselves in the conduct of their wars no less than in their great projects of domestic legislation....They must demand and expect from their military subordinates a candor as bruising as it is necessary....Both groups must expect a running conversation in which, although civilian opinion will not usually dictate, it must dominate....That conversation will cover not only ends and policies, but ways and means."

Cohen then devotes most of his book to laudatory profiles of four statesmen who took an active role in the particulars of war and thus brought about victory: Georges Clemenceau, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, and David Ben-Gurion. Cohen admits that this "great man" approach might open him up to accusations of hero worship. But when he quotes Henry Kissinger (who doubtless was speaking in the first person) saying, "Great men are so rare that they take some getting used to," Cohen unintentionally raises a serious question about his own thesis. If great men are so rare, then how relevant are their performances to defending the principle of civilian control in military affairs? How do their lessons apply to the bevy of less extraordinary leaders, if not downright mediocrities, who generally govern?

Cohen is right that sensible societies shouldn't trust generals to navigate the myriad curvatures of war without civilian oversight. But since he provides no absolute canon to guide ordinary leaders (nor can such a canon really exist), his argument in favor of civilian dominance can easily backfire when politicians fail to grasp their limitations. Cohen effectively leaves his readers with one of two approaches when assessing the wartime legacy of civilian leaders. Readers can either assume that the outcome of a war justified the means used or argue, as Tolstoy did in War and Peace, that since war is a game of infinite variables, leaders are mere cogs in an unfathomable machine. The utilitarian argument is hopelessly biased in favor of the victors; the Tolstoyan outlook explains why strict guidelines of behavior are impossible.

Nor does one get much illumination in a chapter titled "Leadership Without Genius." Cohen uses the sorry outcome in Vietnam to conclude that the Johnson administration's management of that war was an example of how civilian leadership shouldn't have acted. He concludes that the problem in Vietnam was not that the civilians tied the military down -- a spurious indictment resurrected by conservatives to rationalize America's defeat -- but that they didn't tie the military down enough to provide the bewildered armed forces with a clear sense of direction and priorities.

This assessment raises a question: If leaders err when failing adequately to counterbalance their military establishments, might not an uninspired leader's excessive prying also bring a military venture to disaster? It is not just the manner of overseeing war that a leader must consider but also the tactical excellence of his oversight. Despite brief involvement in the Blackhawk War, Lincoln wasn't a military man. But he intuitively grasped that the Union's priority was the destruction of the Confederate army, not the capture of Richmond. In contrast, Hitler's rerouting of two Panzer groups around Moscow in July 1941 delayed a German attack against the Soviet capital, allowing the Red Army to regroup. Cohen provides no overarching rule allowing us to say why Lincoln was right and Hitler wrong, except that one won and the other lost his war.

A civilian leadership that oversees military matters faces another dilemma: how to prevent military officers, in their turn, from playing politics. The innumerable leaks from the Pentagon in the current run-up to war in Iraq made it plain that soldiers were on a policy-shaping rampage. Though their judgment on the desirability of war may have been useful, it was also a flagrant violation of civilian authority to make it public. Still, leaks work: The armed forces are now reportedly preparing for a classic large-scale campaign in Iraq, suggesting they overcame the inclination of Defense Department civilians toward a smaller operation.

Admittedly, it is not easy in a democracy to shut the armed forces up. In open societies the onset of warfare demands a public debate, making it unreasonable to tell the one institution most concerned to keep its peace. But even the armed forces don't necessarily think monolithically when it comes to these issues. For example, when the Clinton administration contemplated intervening in Kosovo in 1999, the NATO commander, Wesley Clark, irritated his more reluctant Pentagon bosses by taking his case for war directly to administration officials. The top brass didn't care for Clark's politicking and later effectively ended his career. That was hypocrisy. Clark's mistake was not in playing politics but in doing so -- and winning -- against his own tribe.

In portraying his four paragons, Cohen mainly sticks to detailing events in the leaders' wartime careers that prove his hypothesis. He insists his purpose is not to defend his subjects, but he sets boundaries to the debate in such a way that their reputations are rarely tarnished. Few deny, for example, that Lincoln was a great man, but is it realistic when using him as a model for civilian authority in wartime to ignore his suspension of habeas corpus and imposition of martial law? These were military decisions that had a significant political impact. Cohen acknowledges this point but lamely uses Lincoln's abuse of civil liberties as an illustration of his "steel."

Similarly, in looking back on Ben-Gurion, who no doubt was crucial in bringing about Israeli statehood, is it legitimate to disregard his sponsorship of the Dalet Plan of April-May 1948? As the Israeli historian Benny Morris writes in The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem 1947-1949 (1987), "The essence of the plan was the clearing of hostile and potentially hostile forces out of the interior of the prospective territory of the Jewish State, establishing territorial continuity between the major concentrations of the Jewish population and securing the Jewish State's future borders before, and in anticipation of, the Arab invasion." Morris notes that the plan justified the expulsion of Palestinian civilians. In judging Ben-Gurion's wisdom, one must ponder whether, by using his army to expel Palestinians from his future state, he ensured decades of bitter Arab antagonism and helped promote the militarization of Israeli society and an expansionist streak that validated the disastrous occupation and settlement of the West Bank and Gaza.

To be fair, Cohen never assumes infallibility in his subjects. But once one evokes the potential for fallibility, an obvious question arises: How will the book's lessons be applied in the martial age of George W. Bush? In a jacket blurb, William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, recommends the president read Cohen's book. What the neocons want Bush to learn is that it's up to him and his civilian aides, not the brass hats, to set the pace in the Middle East, particularly Iraq.

Fair enough. But the successful civilian wartime leader is the one who has a clear sense of his political objectives. With Bush, the only certainty is his yearning to fight. It's hard to tell what the administration's long-term aims in Iraq might be. Indeed, it is apparent that a possible Iraq war is different things to different officials. Some see it solely as a means of getting rid of Saddam, while others ponder reshaping the entire Middle East. Bush has united his advisers through his vagueness, while also allowing them diverse readings of what should come next in the Gulf, ignoring his own role as the paramount unifier of purpose.

Cohen probably would not accept this abdication as an example of suitable leadership. Bush, in his inability to define persuasive and coherent aims in Iraq for the American public and, perhaps more important, for his own armed forces (who are preparing to elect Tommy Franks as a successor to Saddam), has failed to do what even leaders without genius must.

One is reminded of Ravi Shankar's retort at the 1971 Concert for Bangladesh when the public applauded what they thought was a sitar improvisation: "Thank you. If you appreciate the tuning so much, I hope you'll enjoy the playing more." Many are applauding Bush's tuning, confusing it with the performance. Yet nothing indicates he really knows the tune in Iraq.

Thursday, March 27, 2003

Destroyed but saved? Three riddles from the second Gulf War

Having been carpet-bombed by CNN, Al-Jazeera, the BBC, and several other weapons of mass media, I've decided to watch the latest Gulf war differently than that of 1991. Rather than trying to figure out what is happening on the ground, where Iraqi resistance has held me up, I found it useful to focus on more arcane, miscellaneous aspects of this war.

Here are some items on my checklist. For example, what happened to Iraq's former military chief-of-staff, Nizar Khazraji? Recently, Khazraji, who fled Baghdad some years ago, was languishing in Denmark while a magistrate investigated his possible war crimes against the Kurds during the 1980s. The general had hoped to use a US invasion of Iraq to resume contact with his onetime comrades and help overthrow the regime of Saddam Hussein.

On March 17, Khazraji disappeared from the Danish town of Soroe, and his family put out word that Iraqi agents had possibly kidnapped him. No one, least of all the magistrate investigating Khazraji, truly bought this. It now seems his flight was planned. Several reports, all unconfirmed, suggested Khazraji had made his way to the Gulf to help the American war effort.

Two things are interesting in the affair. First, did the US help Khazraji flee, undermining a judicial inquiry in a sovereign country? There is no evidence it did, but if Khazraji were to appear at the door of American commander Tommy Franks, would he be turned away? And if he were not, how would Denmark (a "coalition of the willing" member) feel about being allied to someone it had placed under house arrest?

A second item of attention is the US mania for declaring key Iraqis dead. I have distracted myself in the past days by ascertaining which departed official was later resurrected. Soon after the war began, US sources claimed three Iraqi officials, Taha Yassin Ramadan, Izzat Ibrahim, and Ali Hassan al-Majid, had been killed in the "decapitation attack" of Wednesday.

However, Ramadan later appeared at a press conference, while The New York Times quoted military sources as saying that Ali Hassan al-Majid had been the target of a Friday attack on Baghdad—confirming he had survived his earlier elimination. Only Izzat Ibrahim remains unaccounted for. The real loser, however, is the Bush administration, which again stalwartly tried to dispute assertions that it was Saddam Hussein who addressed Iraqis on Monday.

Lying is fair in war, but losing credibility is silly. While the press corps becomes angrier at the fluff Franks is throwing its way in Qatar, Iraq is winning the public relations battle. When the commander of Iraq's 51st Division told Al-Jazeera that he had not surrendered as coalition officers stated, he did something remarkable: he proved that Iraqi information minister Muhammad Saeed al-Sahhaf, who had denied the story, could tell the truth.

A third item of interest is the fate of the so-called Rumsfeld doctrine. In planning the war, the secretary of defense advocated a strategy of military calibration, whereby his forces would use speed to outmaneuver the Iraqis, while exerting only enough force to ensure victory. His idea was to avoid a massive assault that would kill many Iraqi civilians, make the US unpopular, and so undermine postwar American political objectives.

Lined up against Rumsfeld were supporters of the Powell doctrine. This holds, among other things, that US forces must use overwhelming firepower in war, for their own safety. Epitomizing this doctrine was the massive bombing of Iraqi soldiers in Kuwait in 1991, before ground troops ever entered the fray. The question today is whether the US, as it faces tough Iraqi resistance, will jettison Rumsfeld's style and fall back on Powell's?

If it does, this would splendidly invert roles in Washington: Rumsfeld, who is considered a fire-eater, would emerge as the restrained one—someone who wants to use force sparingly to avoid casualties and reduce Iraqi resentment. The Powell-ites, who are seen as moderates by association with the reluctant warrior, Secretary of State Colin Powell, would, instead, be seen as favoring a strategy that ensures few American, but many Iraqi, casualties.

Each of these three items is fundamental for a deeper understanding of the Bush administration's intentions in Iraq. Khazraji, whatever his checkered past, may well be a linchpin in the strategy to turn the Iraqi army against Saddam. This suggests Washington will be less than discerning when it comes to including former regime figures in a postwar administration.

The fascination with the health of the Iraqi leadership speaks to a noxious administration yearning to resolve the complex Iraqi issue with a single bullet or cruise missile. This approach is absurd given that Iraqis are fighting with abandon, and not just because they believe their leaders to be alive and well. There is nationalism involved, and the US has erred in playing this down.

And finally, the debate between Rumsfeld and Powell may seem esoteric, but it underlines the dilemma the US faces in its efforts to control Iraq. Rumsfeld's method makes sense: you cannot convert Iraq to democracy and pro-Americanism by pounding it into the dust. But if you do not do so, there is a chance the US might not triumph militarily at all.

How the US resolves this dilemma is the real issue today, and that's what I'll be watching for when we next hear a US official declare that Iraq has to be destroyed in order to be saved.

Wednesday, March 19, 2003

Iraq's New Rulers - Handicapping the postwar administrators

Barring a last-minute flight into exile by Saddam Hussein and his family, the United States will be launching its war on Iraq within the next few days. While the best possible outcome will be a short, decisive and low-casualty war, the question of who will wage the peace remains open.

While the American press has been quiet on the possibilities of a postwar administration, Arab papers are already sketching the outline of Iraq's interim government. Quoting U.S. officials, the London-based Al-Hayat sees an American occupation that divides Iraq into three zones—a northern district that includes Kurdistan, a central one that includes Baghdad, and a predominantly Shiite southern district. The staffing decisions for these districts will be our best early indication of the Bush administration's postwar intentions, as well as its understanding of the situation it is taking on.

Each zone will be run by an administrator reporting to retired army general Jay Garner, according to the London-based Saudi paper Al-Sharq al-Awsat. He heads the Pentagon's Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, the occupation's civil authority. The person slated to handle the central district is former US ambassador to Yemen Barbara Bodine, the Bush administration's response to Gertrude Bell, who helped govern Iraq for Britain after the First World War.

Bodine's résumé suggests she is an old style State Department regionalist. Though she received a degree in political science and Asian studies, she later shifted her attention to the Arabian Peninsula, twice serving in the Office of Arabian Peninsula Affairs at the Bureau of Near East Affairs. Bodine was stationed in Baghdad as Deputy Principal Officer, and in 1990 she was deputy chief of mission in Kuwait when the Iraqis invaded. For once the State Department put an ambassador in the right place when she was dispatched to Yemen, a natural link between Asia and the Arab world.

Bodine was in Yemen during the USS Cole bombing. A dispute with the FBI, which was investigating the attack, hinted that she may be an official with some skill at handling local sensitivities. Bodine barred an FBI special agent from returning to Yemen because she objected to the bureau's heavy-handed presence in the country and its desire to arm agents with rifles and heavy weapons. Press reports suggested she wanted to assuage Yemeni cultural sensibilities, even though she has defended American intervention through counter-terrorism operations.

If Bodine's prospective appointment is designed to reassure the Iraqis of the benign nature of a US occupation, her boss, Jay Garner, will prove a harder sell. Garner famously signed onto an October 12, 2000 statement by the archconservative Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, which praised the Israeli army for having "exercised remarkable restraint in the face of lethal violence orchestrated by the leadership of a Palestinian Authority that deliberately pushes civilians and young people to the front lines."

The statement noted: "What makes the US-Israel security relationship one of mutual benefit is the combination of military capabilities and shared political values—freedom, democracy, personal liberty and the rule of law." That Garner himself benefited from the security relationship is well known: As president of California-based defense contractor SY Technology, he oversaw the company's work on the US-Israeli Arrow missile defense system.

David Lazarus recently reported in the San Francisco Chronicle that Garner's former company is also working on missile systems the US will use against Iraq. Not only does this appear to be a conflict of interest, it also happens to be peculiar politics. As Ben Hermalin, a professor at UC Berkeley who studies professional ethics, told Lazarus: "You have to wonder what the Iraqis will think of this guy and how much trust they'll place in him."

To focus solely on Garner's ties with Israel and US defense contractors might be unfair. The general was also involved in Operation Provide Comfort, the humanitarian effort to help the Kurds after their debacle in 1991, when Iraqi forces swept through Kurdistan.

It is premature to draw too many conclusions from Garner's and Bodine's appointments. Nor is it yet clear what will happen in the northern and southern occupation districts, which are to be administered by two other retired generals—perhaps a sign of US uneasiness with Kurdish and Shiite intentions. However, one cannot help but presume that Bodine will be a comforting but powerless civilian façade for an operation run mainly by the military.

That's because authority will probably be concentrated less in Garner's civil administration than in the US military command under General Tommy Franks. Franks should feel at ease with three former generals working alongside him. The question, however, is whether the Iraqis will.

Wednesday, February 12, 2003

His master's voice - "Bin Laden" speaks.

Osama bin Laden is back, though ever more spectrally, preferring the anonymity of the audiocassette to the vanity of video. The language is more mystical, the tone wearier; bin Laden may have already begun his heavenly ascent.

That, or maybe video cameras are hard to come by wherever bin Laden presently resides. Or, perhaps, Al-Qaeda's leader is reluctant to flaunt his purported physical ailments, despite the audacious words.

Several aspects of bin Laden's recording—if it was indeed his voice on the tape—merit a mention. The first is that it puts an end to an academic debate within the Bush administration on possible ties between Iraq and Al-Qaeda, while simultaneously exacerbating the political debate on the issue.

The academic debate was mainly between the US defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, and part of the intelligence community. While intelligence analysts argued that an Al-Qaeda-Iraq alliance was ideologically unlikely, Rumsfeld held that the two sides could put ideology aside against their common enemy—the United States. Bin Laden's tape confirmed this.

However, this only complicated the political debate, since nothing in what bin Laden said proved that Al-Qaeda and Iraq were collaborating. Indeed, his harsh words for Iraqi president Saddam Hussein suggested the opposite. A more relevant question is how each side can help the other, and the tape demonstrated that bin Laden had only advice to offer.

US secretary of state Colin Powell's efforts to hold the tape up as proof of an Al-Qaeda-Iraq axis were unconvincing. With suspect haste, US officials declared the recording genuine, ignoring passages showing bin Laden only really expressing solidarity with the Iraqi people, not their regime—a view often articulated (if far less virulently) in the Arab world and Europe.

Another interesting feature of the tape was bin Laden's account of the Tora Bora battle in Afghanistan. He explained that 300 militants had succeeded in resisting continuous American air assaults, while "the US forces dared not break into our positions," and asked: "Is there any clearer evidence of their cowardice, fear and lies regarding the legends about their alleged power?"

Bin Laden used the battle both as a strategy lesson for the Iraqis and as a way of casting his own conflict with the US in a heroic light, thanks to Tora Bora's similarities with events from Islamic history.

There was little of value in bin Laden's strategic ruminations. The Al-Qaeda leader offered two stock observations: First, that a motivated group, even when outnumbered, can defeat a larger military force; and that once a new Gulf war starts, the Iraqis, in the words of the Caliph Omar, should "take the ground as a shield" until the enemy runs out of ordnance.

More noteworthy was bin Laden's situating Tora Bora in Islamic history. He mentioned the Battle of Yarmuk of 636, when a Muslim army annihilated the more numerous Byzantines. However, the parallels between Tora Bora and the Battle of Badr, where the prophet Muhammad defeated a superior Meccan force, were more compelling even if inadvertent: Muhammad, too, had 300 men and won thanks to faith, military will, and Meccan cowardice.

It is unclear what this means, if anything, in terms of bin Laden's psychological progression. But one thing is increasingly obvious: He is taking on the persona of a secluded militant guru, a latter day Hassan Sabbah, willing to bless all signs of anti-Western hostility as if they were his own work. While this co-optation is adroit, it also means bin Laden is elevating himself to the level of spiritual guide over conflicts where he actually has no influence.

Has bin Laden kicked himself upstairs to the boardroom, where the prestige is higher but the influence lower than in management? Most likely he doesn't have a choice, though he must be contemplating a comeback. According to Pakistani journalist Ahmad Rashid, writing in the Wall Street Journal, this comeback is scheduled for spring, when the Taliban and Al-Qaeda plan an offensive against allied forces in Afghanistan, to coincide with an Iraq war.

Meanwhile, the FBI director, Robert Mueller, has again described Al-Qaeda as "the most immediate and serious threat" to the US. Even the highest-ranking government officials can't seem to stick to a script that reserves that niche for the Iraqi regime.