Iraq Democrats Disappointed

Back last summer, I got into a heartfelt exchange with a friend of mine who’s an Iraqi democrat. His name is Siyamend Othman. He’s a wise and good person, an Iraqi Kurd who’s lived in exile for many, many years, and who worked for a bunch of them as a researcher for Amnesty International in London.
Understandably, he loathes Saddam Hussein. In our exchange last August or so, I was commenting critically on articles he was writing about how an American military victory over Saddam could usher in an era of democratization in Iraq.
I wrote to him, based on my experience of having lived in a war-zone–in Lebanon–for six years back in the 1970s: “I have never believed that democracy can be brought to any country on the tips of bayonets (or the nose-cones of cruise missiles, come to that). I guess for me it is also, to a major degree a human-rights question, since I consider that war itself constitutes a massive assault on people’s rights, and always, always, brings in its train conditions that constitute a continuing assault on human rights for a very, very long time after…”
He wrote back, “I understand where you are coming from and respect the proposition that ‘war (I presume you mean any war) itself constitutes a massive assault on people’s rights’. However, would you hold the same position regarding World War II – the bloodiest confrontation in the history of Mankind? But that was different, I am repeatedly told. Hitler was a menace to humanity; Saddam is a small-time Third World tyrant who has been effectively ‘contained’… Needless to say that establishing the foundations of democracy in post-Saddam Iraq is by no means a foregone conclusion. In all likelihood, it would be a long and painful process with no guaranteed outcome. In my opinion, much will depend on American attitudes. That is why I keep repeating that winning the ‘Battle of Washington’ is as important as winning that of Baghdad. In this endeavour, Iraqi democrats are in dire need of all the help they can get from their Western counterparts, yourself included.”
As I said, Siyamend is a wise and good person. We agreed to disagree– but not before I warned him that putting any faith in the idea that this U.S. administration might have any commitment to democratization or democrats seemed an improbably long bet.
The most recent message I got from Siyamend indicated that he and his Iraqi-democratic friends feel they may now have lost the ‘Battle of Washington’. It included an article his friend Kanan Makiya wrote in the London Observer on Sunday, as well as an Observer article about the growing disillusionment of Kanan and Iraqi opposition boss Ahmed Chalabi over Washington’s recent pronouncements for their plans for a post-Saddam Iraq.
“The United States,” Kanan wrote, “is on the verge of committing itself to a post-Saddam plan for a military government in Baghdad with Americans appointed to head Iraqi ministries, and American soldiers to patrol the streets of Iraqi cities. The plan, as dictated to the Iraqi opposition in Ankara last week by a United States-led delegation, further envisages the appointment by the US of an unknown number of Iraqi quislings palatable to the Arab countries of the Gulf and Saudi Arabia as a council of advisers to this military government. The plan reverses a decade-long moral and financial commitment by the US to the Iraqi opposition… ”
This whole business is truly tragic. It is true that the “Iraqi opposition” is a diverse conglomeration of people. Ahmed Chalabi has been on the lam from Jordan for years for bankrupting thousands of Jordanians through the collapse of his Petra Bank more than 15 years ago. Kanan Makiya got catapulted to fame and fortune in August-September 1990 after he published–under the pseudonym Samir Khalil–a lengthy indictment of Saddam’s misrule that was a tad short on documentation if very long on emotion. In addition, there are ayatollahs-in-waiting massed in their hundreds in exile in Iran. There are Kurdish tribal leaders who wouldn’t even speak to each other for most of the past decade… And then, there are also among the opposition many serious people who are sincerely committed to building a real democracy in their country.
Why on earth did the Iraqi democrats ever put any faith in George Bush?
Makiya, for his part, may well have grown to love the attention he got from being lionized by some segments of the administration. In his Observer piece, he asks coyly, “Is the President who so graciously invited me to his Oval Office only a few weeks ago to discuss democracy, about to have his wishes subverted by advisers… ?”
Well yes, Kanan, maybe the Prez had any “wishes” he ever had for “democracy” subverted a long time ago.
But seriously: discussing democracy— with George W. Bush??

New York Demonstration

I was one of the lucky ones yesterday, at the anti-war demonstration in NYC. That is, New York’s finest (the cops) actually graciously allowed my daughter, her fiance, and me to join the stationary “rally” for which a permit had been given… That is, after the courts had denied a permit for an anti-war march.
We wanted to join a small “feeder march” being assembled by the Quakers at 53d St & 2nd Ave. We arrived on the V-line subway from Brooklyn, got out at 51st and 3d Ave, hoped to cross easily to 2nd Avenue to find the Quakers. (“We’ll just listen carefully for where there’s a big silence,” I told the future son-in-law.)
Fat chance. The cops were not letting anyone cross to 2nd Ave, even. (The rally was in 1st Ave.) At every intersection they had closely guarded barriers, and they funneled us ever further north with promises that we could cross eastward one or two blocks further up… Thousands of anti-war demonstrators from many parts of NYC and elsewhere were being herded north– away from the rally–but moving along good-naturedly. We became quite a large group of people moving north along the broad sidewalks. Why, it even looked like a march!
At 59th St, they finally let us cross east. By then, it was too late to join the Quaker group, so we walked right on over to 1st Ave and walked a couple of blocks south to join the main body of the rally between 56th and 57th Sts. We “arrived” there at just about noon, the time the event was scheduled to begin. We could not see the head of the rally at all, but watched the whole event on a large screen half a block ahead of us.
The prayers and invocations at the beginning were very moving: a black Baptist Bishop, a Muslim imam, a woman rabbi, a Hispanic Catholic, and the keening prayer of the Chief of the Lakota Sioux. Then, there was an amazing constellation of speakers, including my old favorite Archbishop Tutu. Pete Seeger came out, despite the intense cold and his advancing years, and led a song. The crowd around us stamped their feet or jogged in place to try to get warm. Some notable signs I saw: “Stop mad cowboy disease”, “Duct and cover!” and even a quote from Ovid pinned to someone’s backpack.
Shortly after 2 p.m., I needed to leave. Getting out of the pens the police had made for us was almost as hard as getting in. When I did make it back to 2nd Ave, and then again at 3d Ave– each time, there were barricades up with the police still preventing people from moving east to 1st Ave. Some of those people had been trying to get through for the past two hours. Mostly, the police just seemed businesslike and very firm, stamping their feet and exchanging grimaces about the dire cold.
At one of the intersections I passed on my way out, however, the police were all in riot gear, unlike all the others I’d seen. They were standing around seemingly just spoiling for a fight. Nearby were parked coaches from the prison department, ready, I surmised, to be loaded with arrestees. I didn’t have time to stop and make a clear assessment, however.
And just about all the way over to where I got on the F train at 63rd and Lexington, the traffic was at a complete standstill
The effect of the court order banning a march, and of the way the police then played their role, was that a lot of people who had come to join the event, including some who’d come hundreds of miles to do so, were prevented from exercising their right to assemble peacefully. Probably, the effects on traffic and on non-demonstrating New Yorkers, were just as bad or worse than what would have been caused by allowing a well-planned march. The police ended up making a hundred or fewer arrests. But they certainly cleaned up on their overtime.
* * *
DRIVING HOME WITH GARRISON KEILLOR: After the rally I drove south. I had dinner with a family friend at Haverford College, in Philly; drove some more; got in late to the home of another friend in DC; left the car outside; went to bed totally knackered
This morning, I found DC magically blanketed in 7 inches of fresh snow, and more coming all the time. I was eager to get back to my hearth and home here in Charlottesville, Va., and figured the going would only get worse for the next couple of days.
It took 40 mins to dig the car out. I knew the drive would be tough but I had warm clothes, food, water, a cellphone, and set off around the beltway to I-66.
The first couple of hours, I had “Prairie Home Companion” on the radio. Garrison Keillor was hilarious. I really haven’t listened much to him recently.
The most hilarious parts were when he was skewering the Bush administration. Lots of jokes about duct tape– of course. And then, a great riff when they were talking about reports that the “Rapture” long awaited by the evangelicals had just taken place. (Asked whether this was true, the ‘President’ said, “Well, I’m still here, aren’t I?”) I shouldn’t spoil the suspense, in case you’re waiting for the re-runs. But I will just reveal that most of the truly righteous souls taken to glory in the Rapture turned out to be Lutherans…
Here’s the thing, though. If even fairly mainstream entertainers like Garrison Keillor are so openly mocking of the Bushies’ present war preparations and scaremongering, shouldn’t the Bushies be paying a lot more attention to that?
Here’s another thing. I wasn’t around in the US during the Vietnam war. And I know the American involvement there grew up differently from the assembling and possibly imminent activation of a massive invasion force that we see around Iraq today.
But it strikes me that the kind of coalition that I saw firsthand in New York– labor unions, black and Latino organizations, churches and other faith groups, public intellectuals, members of the US Congress, etc etc– is a pretty impressive anti-war force to have assembled already… and thus far, the “really big” phase of the war hasn’t even been launched.
Plus, the international dimension of the peace movement is very evident, and very important. We were trying to rally near the U.N., where just the day before French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin received unprecedented applause for his plea to try to avoid war. We were rallying, too, on the same day as millions of other folks from all round the world…
This is not the 1960s. The worldwide anti-war forces are, I firmly believe, in far stronger shape today.
And then, duct tape??? These guys simply can’t be serious.

FROM NEW YORK, Valentine’s Day

I’ve had a busy couple of days of work here, talking to some really interesting folks about my ‘Violence and its Legacies’ project, and starting to make plans for the research trip I’m planning to Africa in April, as part of the project.
From time to time, the idea of going to Africa in April seems weird. Shouldn’t I be concentrating more on this terrible Bush War in (and around) Iraq??
But I think its important not to become too, too distracted by the Bush War. Other parts of the world do still matter– a lot. And this project I’m working on, which looks at how effective three countries in Africa–Mozambique, South Africa, and Rwanda–ended up being when they sought, eight to ten years ago, to deal with legacies of atrocious violence, is certainly one with lessons that will have relevance everywhere. Including Iraq.
Yesterday, I talked to Alex Boraine, who worked with Archbishop Tutu as Executive Director of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. He’s now head of an organization called the International Center for Transitional Justice, that seeks to advise countries in transition on setting up their own TRCs.  Well, since I was focusing on my African research, we didn’t specifically talk about the idea of a TRC for Iraq.  But it’s not a bad idea.
What the S. African TRC did was significant because it helped to allow the white-minority regime to give up power to the democratic will of the (non-white) majority–and to be reintegrated into the new S. Africa as part of Mandela’s new ‘Rainbow Nation’.
In Iraq and in Syria, we also have the problem of minority-based regimes hanging onto power– with one great motivation for them to do so being their fear of how the majority might treat them if the majority were given a democratic order.
In South Africa, the TRC, and the broader black-white negotiation of which it was a part, allowed the white South Africans to cede power to the majority without fear of bloody retribution…
Wednesday, I talked for the first time to Andrea Bartolli, an Italian national now at Columbia who first came to NYC in the 1980s as the representative at the UN for a Catholic lay-based social-justice organization called Sant’ Egidio.  In that role, Bartolli played a significant behind-the scenes role with the rest of the Sant’ Egidio team who were helping to bring an end to Mozambique’s long-running civil war.  They succeeded in 1992.
Talking to Bartolli was fascinating.  One of the key factors he mentioned that allowed the negotiations between the two sides to the Mozambique war to succeed was the fact that they proceeded largely out of the public eyeof the world’s media, big governments, etc.  Another factor was that at that time, “No-one was even thinking that criminal prosecutions for past atrocities should be part of a peace negotiation– unlike today.”
So instead of criminal prosecutions etc (which became the international flavor-of-the-decade just a few months after Mozambique’s October 1992 agreement), what the Mozambicans did at both the national and local levels, was to state clearly that “the era of war and violence is past”, and to get on with the job of healing and rebuilding.
Bartolli told me he thought it was really important to have a consciously transformative event like the one where the leaders of the two sides there made a joint announcement that the war had ended.  He also noted that while most Westerners have a view of war that is purely instrumental– that “man uses war for his own purposes, a la Clausewitz”– in Mozambique the most common view is that war and violence are forces that themselves take hold of and use people.
Hey, George W, are you listening??
* * *
UNCLE VANYA:  We went to a great production of Brian Friel’s version of the play last night at BAM’s Harvey Lichtenstein Theater.  It seemed as though friel had cut/adapted the play well.  It moved right along.  A wrenching performance by Emily Watson as Sonya; and both Friel and Sam Mendes, who directed, had really succeeded in keeping/capturing Chekhov’s general gestalt of inescapable social decline.
Of course, New York is exhilarating and fun!!!  I guess the anti-war gathering tomorrow is not getting a permit to move, so we’ll be standing around freezingat the rally, listening to Tutu and others speak.
Yesterday, walking around the financial district, we passed a vast, slowly-moving convoy of fully-filled police vans.  The police presence on the subways was not as heavy as the NYT seemed to have portrayed.  In general, the security measures around the city seem to have settled back somewhat from when I was doing similar kinds of meetings here in March ’02.
* * *
NOTES OF 2/13 (but posted a day late):  In New York.  Front pages of most tabloids screaming about Bin Laden’s latest tape.  Audio-tape, that is.  Then, there’s the issue of duct tape: photos of people cleaning out the store shelves of this item which will– Tom Ridge assures us– save our lives in the event of chemical attack.
Mainly, though, New Yorkers seem to be stayng indoors because of the icy grip of winter here.
Today, my latest column in The Christian Science Monitor.  A challenging one indeed.  I wrote it Monday, seeing as how Tuesday I would be driving here to NYC.  The main argument I was making was that in his Feb 5 speech to the UN Colin Powell definitely did NOT establish w/ any credibility that there is a ‘nexus’ between OBL and Saddam (see my previous musings on this, below.)
So the drive here from Virginia was a toughie: swirling snows etc etc.  I heard a few scattered news reports on the car radio, but mainly listened to some Hemingway stories on CD.  I was focusing 100% on driving safely.  Got in maybe 10:30 p.m.
Wed. morning my editor at the CSM calls early, in a panic about the piece. She was right, my careful argumentation did look a little OBE (overtaken by events) in light of the new Osama tape, and the use Colin and his friends were making of it.  (Did you see Maureen Dowd’s great column on that in Wednesday’s NYT? Fabulous!)
So I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and tried to write a new head-and-foot for the piece.  It probaby wasn’t the greatest piece of work I’ve ever done.  But I was under a very tough deadline at that point
The arguments I was making in the piece are little complex.  But duh!  The world is complex!  It cannot be reduced to the war hawks’ simple Manichean view of things.  Jerking the American public into this quite avoidable war on the basis of the administration’s phony argumentation about an OBL-Saddam nexus is still
a really dangerous path to follow.
Plus, as I wrote in the column, by talking up the alleged OBL-Saddam nexus so much, the Bushies seem to have ended up virtually daring OBL to try to make it a reality. A challenge which– surprise, surprise– he seemed eager to take up.
Except he never shook his utter distaste for Saddam and Baathist socialism…

Off to NYC

So much to write, so little time… This afternoon, I’m driving from my home in Charlottesville, Virginia, up to NYC. Going to do some interviews for my continuing research project on “Violence and its Legacies”; also, to see my daughter who’s just moved to Brooklyn. I’ll make a quick foray into DC on the way up. Not sure if I’ll need a gas-mask to protect against the swirling miasma of toxicity in which the city seems to have become gripped.
Yes, yes, I know there are many good people there. Anyway, being on the road will be my test of the Blogger system… The next post will come to you from the Big Apple.

Dangers of Occupation: Taking a lesson from post-war Japan

BOSTON REVIEW: The paper copy of the latest (Feb/March) issue of BR dropped into my mailbox today. Hey, there’s still something special about hard copy– like the way you can mark it up with a real red pen or read it in the bathroom. Anyway, this one is a Special issue on the theme of “War and Democracy”.
Okay yes, I draw it to your attention because there’s a piece by me in it: a fairly long piece of reporting about my December trip to Damascus, and some info about the imprisonment of my Syrian friend and colleague Ibrahim Hamidi.
But in addition, there’s a lot more good stuff, including a piece by John Dower, an excellent, wise historian of modern Japan. Dower directly takes on the arguments heard from some members of the current pro-war crowd, to the effect that “General” Rumsfeld’s war can end up having the same salutary effects for Iraqis as the post-WW2 occupation of Japan had for the Japanese.
(Talking of Rummy, where’s Cheney these days? Back to the secure location?)
Anyway, Dower’s warning for the gung-ho crowd is dire. “The lessons we can draw from the occupation of Japan all become warnings where Iraq is concerned,” he writes, noting the many, many differences between the two cases.
Well, obviously you should read it. (And mine! And mine!)
Trouble is, BR don’t seem to have updated their website yet. So maybe wait a couple of days. Either that, or call ’em and start subscribing to the paper edition…
Someone else who should maybe read Dower’s piece is Rend Rahim Francke, the longtime head of the DC-based Iraq Foundation. January 13, the Washington Post ran an interesting, human-interest-y story by former Middle East reporter Caryle Murphy, who had trailed around Greater DC’s Iraqi-opposition community with her notebook at the ready.
One of her interviewees was Francke, who joked that she would be “on the first U.S. tank” going into Baghdad. Francke confessed to Murphy that she had recently picked up a book at Second Story bookstore about the history of the U.S. occupation of Japan, to learn as much as she could from it.
Maybe that was one of Dower’s excellent books on the subject? Maybe she should talk to Dower as well?
* * *
Also significant in Murphy’s piece was her report that, “Of more than a dozen Iraqi [exiles] recently interviewed, none said they plan to permanently return to Iraq if Hussein is removed.”
And yet, these people are taken seriously as they sit around in their comfy georgetown exile making plans for how Iraq will be governed in the future? Does something smell funny here?
Even Francke told Murphy that she planned to establish only part-time residence in Baghdad after she’d gotten there on her tank.

Blogging in Baghdad

Yesterday, I wrote about how amazing it is to get news from all round the world via the internet. (I won’t mention that the i-net was first brought to the grateful public by DARPA, the Pentagon shop that most recently won fame by sponsoring the Return of John Poindexter and Total Information Awareness. I put that fact in the category of “unintended consequences”, aka “collateral benefits”.)
But here’s an even more amazing thing: blogs from Baghdad. And in the lead-up to this terrible juggernaut of a war…
The one I’ve been reading is ‘Where is Raed? by Raid Jarrar. What I like about Raid’s blog is how immediate, how quotidien, yet how vivid some of his writing is.
I guess some people up to 120 yrs or so had ham radios they could use to communicate across front-lines in a war. When I lived in Lebanon in the 1970s, many people would speak by ground-line phone across that front-line. (My husband at the time, a Lebanese national, had family on both sides of the “Green Line”.) I also remember at the beginning of the Very First Gulf War– the one that started when Saddam invaded Iran, back in 1980– that my then-spouse was covering the Iran side and I was covering the Iraq side, and we would occasionally communicate by telex, through a helpful operator in Kuwait who would re-key our messages from one machine to another. (Kids today don’t even know what a telex is??) Cumbersome click-clacking that was, too.
But now, with cyber-comms, we can get almost real-time communications, multi-media, that cross “front-lines” even halfway around the globe… And in the run-up to such a potentially disastrous war…
What does this mean about the human condition? I’m still trying to figure this out. All help appreciated.
If you don’t have time to go to Raid’s blog, here’s a small excerpt from a Jan 31 posting that for some reason I found very poignant:
“a car ride to al-mansour to get sandwiches, late at night.
10 new sandbag protected trenches seen on the way. appetite totally ruined by thoughts of who will use them and what will happen along these roads.
maybe exploration journey tomorrow to see what else is being done to baghdad.
I am either angry or scared i can’t make up my mind.

Burden of Proof

I guess it’s Sunday in Japan already… Sun quite high in the sky already over that magnificent semicircle of hills that surrounds Hiroshima…
So Ramesh Thakur, a wise Indian scholar who’s the vice-rector of the U.N. University, headquartered in Japan, has a piece in Sunday’s Japan Times that’s worth reading. “Time was when those threatening to go to war had to prove their case beyond reasonable doubt,” he writes. “Today we are asked to prove to the powerful, to their satisfaction, why they should not go to war… There is a sense of helpless anger about hurtling toward a war no one wants. In Canada, Europe and Asia, the depth of alienation from U.S. policy on Iraq is quite striking. In India, people dub it ‘dadagiri’: bullying by the neighborhood tough in a global neighborhood.”
I get so much great email from around the world. What an incredible thing. (And by the way, thanks, Ramesh, for sending me that piece.)
Couple of weeks ago, I got a couple of emails from a Kenyan Quaker pastor called Malesi Kinaro . One of them expressed his real excitement at the results of his country’s mid-January elections. The next one had more about President Bush’s almost unstoppable push toward war against Iraq.
“As I have listened to these tough pro war utterances by Bush I have felt a deep sadness,” Pastor Malesi wrote.
He also wrote about a young woman called Doreen Mayaka, whom his family helped to finish raising after her mother died in the Qaeda bomb attack against the U.S. Embassy (and surrounding buildings) in Nairobi, back in 1998. Doreen was 18 when her mother died, and Pastor Malesi let her write some of her own feelings into his email. Here’s what she said about Bush’s war plans:
“The war between American and Iraq is really scaring me because of the implications it will have on innocent human beings. I refer to my own experience of angered revenge by terrorists toward Americans that left us without our mother who worked for the American Embassy during the 1998 Nairobi Bomb. She was the sole breadwinner of our family. Life without her has been very traumatizing to my brother two sisters and me. Being the first born, I had to immediately take up the role of a mother without any preparations or anything. My sister Debra was only four when our mother died. She never had a chance to know what having a mother means… When I can’t take it any more, the pain of her death becomes too heavy to bear and I always wonder if we really deserved this.
“I don’t understand why innocent Kenyans had to die! Especially my mother who had nothing at all to do with Americans apart from the work she had been given. When it finally hit the Americans, they were now able to understand what we in Africa
had experienced and decided to take action, but their move this round is dangerous. Does it not mean anything to Bush when innocent human beings die? Do we want more deaths when we can choose a different path to get the same needed results? Do we need to prove to the world that we can hit harder than the terrorist or is it better to seek peace and pursue it?
“Yes the terrorists killed my mother and I have forgiven them. I can never be any better if I revenge by involving myself in violence with them… I strongly believe President Bush can [better] seek peace and bring reconciliation than revenge, which will cost more innocent lives.”
So if you’re reading this on a Sunday, give a thought or a prayer to Doreen and everyone else who’s had to struggle with losing a family member to political violence. Come to that, you don’t even have to wait till Sunday…
And then, give a thought to how it is that though a vast majority of people around the world– people like Doreen, Pastor Malesi, Ramesh, or literally billions more like them–are strongly opposed to this war, somehow Prez Bush thinks it’s going to be good for humanity???

U.S. encourages other nations to act on ‘self-defense’ claim

I’ve been thinking more about whether the pitch Powell was trying to make Feb. 5 at the U.N. was aimed more at a domestic or an international audience. Yesterday evening (Feb. 7) I focused in this ‘JustWorld’ blog on the point when Powell was trying to establish a link– through this shadowy Kurdish-Islamist group, Ansar al-Islam– between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. And I said that argument seemed to be pitched much more to the US public than to “mere furrners”.
Then I thought more about something my friends Ralph and Corky Bryant and I talked about on the phone yesterday. Establishing that link between Saddam and Qaeda could also be useful, one or other of the Bryants mentioned, to help the U.S. justify to other governments any decision the Prez might make to go to war alone– or at any rate, in a “coalition of the willing” that might NOT receive a Security Council sanction to go to war.
That’s because so far the U.S. is still a member-in-good-standing of the U.N. And clearly, Powell, good amigo Tony Blair and other people with influence on the Prez think it would be best to keep things that way.
But the U.N.– can you believe this??– doesn’t really like it when individual states or groups of states go around the world gratuitously knocking off governments or government heads whom they don’t like. I mean, how fuddy-duddy can you get? Why don’t they just get with the program of U.S. righteousness and invincibility for gosh-sakes???
But here, in the U.N. Charter we find a possible way to try to square this circle. Article 51 of the Charter spells out that, “Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations..” Well, it might seem a stretch to describe the threatened U.S. assault against Iraq as constituting an act of American “self-defense” responding to what Article 51 seems clearly to imply should have been a prior armed attack against the U.S. (Quite sensibly the U.N. Charter makes no allowance anywhere for pre-emptive attacks.)
So maybe Powell was trying, with his claims about the Qaeda-Saddam link, to lay the basis for future Article 51 claim to other nations– in the event that he fails to get a specific force-enabling resolution through the Security Council? But I’m sure he was also looking to bring onto the war-wagon as many members as possible of the 9/11-scarred American public.

Like Peres, Like Powell?

Colin Powell’s big oral presentation Feb 5 was aimed mostly at other governments– right? Well, put it this way, not wholly right. In fact, a large part of the speech was, by common consent, aimed much more at the US public than at people or governments elsewhere. That was the portion of the speech where he was attempting to establish a link between Saddam Hussein’s regime and al-Qaeda. Scarier still: he argued there’s a link between Saddam’s regime and Qaedaterrorists who are gaining access to biological and chemical weapons…
Very scary stuff for Americans still reeling from the shocks of September 11. But the links Powell talked about, between Saddam and al-Qaeda are not, it turns out, well established by the facts of the matter.
Powell’s case hinged centrally on the alleged links between Saddam’s regime and a predominantly Kurdish Islamic-extremist group called Ansar al-Islam that is based in northern Iraq. (It’s also called “the Zarkawi network”.) “Iraq today harbors a deadly terrorist network headed by Abu Massad Al-Zarqawi an associate and collaborator of Usama bin Laden and his al-Qaida lieutenants,” Powell claimed in his speech to the U.N. He went on to explain that after Qaeda and the Taliban had been routed from Afghanistan, the Zarqawi network–which had previously been running advanced chemical-weapons research and production facilities in Afghanistan, “helped establish another poison and explosive training center camp, and this camp is located in northeastern Iraq. You see a picture of this camp. [shows one of his indecipherable pictures.] The network is teaching its operatives how to produce ricin and other poisons. Let me remind you how ricin works. Less than a pinch — imagine a pinch of salt — less than a pinch of ricin, eating just this amount in your food, would cause shock, followed by circulatory failure. Death comes within 72 hours and there is no antidote. There is no cure. It is fatal…”
Are you scared yet? You’re supposed to be… But here across my electronic transom today comes a report from the International Crisis Group, a sober research-and-analysis outfit run by a former Foreign Minister of Australia and a former President of Finland. The ICG has some analysts on Iraqi affairs who are world-class: objective and well-informed. Their conclusion about “Ansar al-Islam”? “Little is certain about the external connections of Ansar al-Islam, an offshoot of an Islamist movement with a long history in Kurdish politics,” the report writes. “What is clear is that the main support for Ansar al-Islam comes from powerful factions in Iran, its sole lifeline to the outside world.”
Iran? Howzzat again?
In the press release that accompanied publication of the report, ICG Middle East Program Director Robert Malley said of the enclave in northern Iraq where the Ansar al-Islam are holed up: “This is a region outside Baghdad’s control and we see no evidence that Ansar has a strategic alliance with Saddam Hussein. There is no question that the group has brought misery to many people in the area it controls, but it is highly unlikely that Ansar al-Islam is anything more than a minor irritant in local Kurdish politics”.
And this is the “evidence” that links Saddam to Qaeda?
The ICG report is called, “Radical Islam In Iraqi Kurdistan: The Mouse That Roared?” Go read it.
* * *
I note, parenthetically, that one of the strongest and most persistent proponents of the Saddam-Ansar-Qaeda link has been our old friend Bill Safire.
* * *
This kind of “tapping into the general fear regardless of what actually caused it” routine reminds me of what Shimon Peres’ government did in Israel in early 1996. Back then, Israeli voters were– quite understandably– fearful, angry, and traumatized because Palestinian terrorists had set off a string of very damaging attacks in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Some 60-plus Israelis had been killed. Peres was going into an election. He evidently felt he “had to do something!” So he hit back– against the poor longsuffering people of south Lebanon who had suffered many, many tough assaults at Israel’s hands since 1978.
Yes, I know there have been so many Israeli attacks against south Lebanon over the years. Peres’s heroic campaign was the one called “Operation Grapes of Wrath”. The operation’s game plan as articulated by Israeli military leaders involved uprooting as much as possible of the civilian population of south Lebanon, herding them north to Beirut, in the hope that once there they would put pressure on the Lebanese government to start acting against the Hizbollah guerrillas who had been mounting an increasingly effective resistance to Israel’s presence in south Lebanon in the preceding years. (And if such deliberate use of civilian suffering to force political goals is not also terrorism, I’d like to know what it is.)
The operation backfired badly. Because of the sheer density of Israeli bombs dropped it was not surprising that some ended up hitting a U.N.-protected gathering point for civilians in Kafr Qana. More than 120 civilians were obliterated, wiped out, killed. Oh what an embarrassment for Peres. The Lebanese people united around the slogan of rapid Israeli withdrawal– and Hizbollah were more popular than ever before. (Note to Rumsfeld et al: that’s what military overkill does for you, friend.)
And the darnedest thing for Peres, too. He didn’t even get re-elected that time! (He has never actually won an Israeli election.) Funny thing about those Israeli-Arab voters: they didn’t feel like going to the polls to support Peres that time, but stayed home in droves instead How irrational can you get?
Sic tempera, sic mores, I would say (and it’s a pity my Dad’s not around to check the Latin). Anyway, couple of years later, I go to Israel, meet Peres in his elegant office in the Shalom Center in tel Aviv– main form of decoration: pictures of you-know-who doing various things, or awards given to you-know-who. He graciously agreed to answer the questions I had on the research I was doing about the Israeli-Syrian negotiations that had run from 1991 through 1996. (Read the book that I wrote about that. It’s pretty darn’ interesting.) Obviously, His April 1996 campaign against Lebanon played into that…
“So tell me, Mr Peres,” I say, trying desperately to keep my eyes from lingering too long on his startlingly purple-dyed hair, “–can you tell me exactly why it was that you decided you needed to move so hard against Lebanon’s Hizbollah at that time?”
“Terror in the south, terror in the north!” was the best explanation he could come up with at the time. I assume he thought I was quite unaware of the fact that Lebanese Hizbollah and the Palestinian groups that had masterminded the suicide bombs were quite separate organizations, and that I would simply take at face value his “explanation” that if one bunch of folks hits you, then the general sense of outrage you feel because of that makes it quite okay– nay, perhaps even necessary— to go out and get your revenge against a totally distinct third party.
And now, this seems to be Colin Powell’s argumentation. O tempora, o mores.

Powell’s Poor U.N. Presentation

I listened to Colin Powell’s presentation at the U.N. yesterday, read the text carefully. I was sad for so many reasons. Let me count the ways:
(1) Sad to see this good person beating the drums of war.
(2) Sad to think of the war that his presentation–and his having agreed to play this role– has brought us that much closer to.
(3) Sad, actually, to read the content and see how thin and tenuous his case was. It seemed like an insult to the intelligence of listeners– especially, the recycling of the tired old ‘aluminum tubes’ business. Mohamed el-Baradei laid that one to rest a while ago, saying the tubes in question actually could not be helpfully used for nuclear fuel production. So why did Powell drag that one in?? It seems like an insult to Baradei and the rest of us.
Look, I know better than many other people how terribly Saddam has behaved in the past– and most likely, he’s still behaving that way. But if containment worked for Joe Stalin, why on earth would we imagine it can’t work for this regime, whose raw power is a thousand times smaller than Stalin’s??
Feb 4th, I went to see ‘Bowling for Columbine’. (Okay, I was late getting around to it.) But it was good to see it the night before Powell’s speech. I think Mike Moore got it just about right. There’s a huge industry out there dedicated to whipping up the fearfulness of Americans; and that keeps U.S. citizens opting for huge military expenditures, tough police and incarceration, etc– at the expense of the basic social programs which would make our community healthier and safer.