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.