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DAWN - Editorial; November 22, 2006

November 22, 2006

Regional peace moves

THE stunning reprimand dealt by US voters in mid-term Congressional elections to the Bush administration’s Iraq policy has opened several doors of opportunity for a re-evaluation of the Middle East scene. The damage inflicted by America’s misguided policies, fully backed by Britain, is so colossal that it almost seems irreversible. According to a news agency tally, in the first 20 days of this month alone, more Iraqi civilians have been killed than in any month since April last year, which shows that the conflict is worsening rather than becoming more manageable. But efforts to reverse the course of events in Iraq and the Middle East must be redoubled to establish peace in the region and to prevent other countries in the neighbourhood from also being swept by unrest. It is in this context that recent moves to seek a negotiated solution seem so welcome.

Humiliated at the polls, the Bush administration has sounded not too averse to the British idea of talking to Iran and Syria to find a way out of the quagmire. These are two countries with a vested interest in peace in their neighbourhood, although both have been distrusted and ostracised by Washington for refusing to do its bidding. A new approach to Tehran and Damascus may now be possible by the western powers, and it should bring rewards. In an obvious effort to keep the initiative in its own hands, Iran has said that it is ready to host a summit with Syria and Iraq — which have just restored diplomatic relations after 24 years — and it was reported yesterday that Iraqi President Jalal Talabani was due to travel to Tehran on Saturday. Not so long ago, before the Congressional elections, it appeared as if both Iran and Syria were being readied for the kill to divert attention from the mess created in Iraq and Afghanistan. But better sense has now prevailed and it is the duty of the international community to mark out a roadmap where regional players can be encouraged to discuss issues that after all impinge the most on their own security. There was no Al Qaeda in Iraq before the US undertook its offensive against the country and, even if by dictatorial force, sectarian rivalries were kept in check. To many Iraqis, the Saddam days must look like days of peace and order.

On May 2, 2004, President Bush had officially proclaimed victory in Iraq while addressing cheering troops from the decks of the USS Abraham Lincoln safely anchored off San Diego. That victory claim now lies in tatters. It is important that the regional initiative for a solution to the Iraq crisis currently shaping up should be backed by everyone. More, it should be expanded to cover also the belligerent attitude of Israel, which too may be somewhat more amenable to reason after its humiliation in Lebanon when it tried to swallow more than it could possibly digest. Israel’s predatory policies predate the troubles invited on his head by Saddam Hussein himself (his invasion of Kuwait) and then those caused by the US quest for regime change and capture of Iraqi oil resources. If we look around us at the rise in religious fundamentalism and militancy, much of it can be traced to the pampering of Israel’s imperialist expansionism in the Middle East at the cost of the Palestinians. The situation has been worsened by the occupation of Iraq, which has a link also to the strengthening of Israel to subdue the Arabs.

Journalist’s ‘disappearance’

THE mysterious ‘disappearance’ of Dilawar Khan Wazir, Dawn’s correspondent in South Waziristan who also works for the BBC, came as a shocking blow to the press fraternity in Pakistan. Just as we were going to press, a visibly shaken Mr Wazir appeared at the BBC office in Islamabad. But the circumstances in which he vanished and the manner in which an attempt was made to mislead his brother deepens the suspicion that this was more than a simple case of kidnapping for ransom or personal vendetta. A series of mishaps that befell the missing journalist’s family in the last few months also confirms the fear that Mr Wazir had been put on the hit list for his professional work which evidently has aroused the ire of some agencies or groups. This is a direct attack on press freedom in Pakistan.

Wishing to suppress information that journalists like Mr Wazir have been unearthing and disseminating through their media outlets, dictatorial governments with many skeletons to hide in their cupboard have taken to harassing and persecuting media persons — four have been mysteriously murdered since 2005 in Pakistan. Obviously, these journalists were not guilty of any infringement of the law for in that case they could have been put on trial. In the absence of that option, the powers that be or their underlings have made it more convenient to resort to the arbitrary tactic of picking up journalists — as well as others who are personae non gratae for any reason — in complete disregard of legal processes.

The least one can say is that the phenomenon of ‘enforced disappearance’, of which Mr Wazir apparently became a victim, is one of the most brutal practices common to countries ruled by oppressive regimes. It speaks of a government’s arrogance and contempt for the rule of law which prompts it to act as it sees fit in a no-holds-barred fashion. In this case, there are powers who do not want any facts relating to the ‘war on terror’ being waged in Waziristan to be made public. Mr Wazir was doing just that and very professionally. Hence an attempt to suppress information. Gone are the days of press controls that tarnished the image of a country. The ‘disappearance’ of a journalist aims to serve a dual purpose: silence him and send a warning to others.

This security nightmare

IF accounts of landless peasants in the deep, rural hinterland hurriedly getting off the mud track and bowing before the passing vehicle of a feudal lord — with their hands folded in full reverence — sound too distant a reality, the scene in urban Pakistan is all too conspicuous to be missed. While the poor peasant knows he has to pay his respects to the feudal lord in such a humiliating way, urban motorists and commuters are forced off the roads to let a VIP’s long motorcade speed by amid sirens that have replaced the bugle blowing of yore when a despot ruler came to your town, often unannounced.

A similar scene was re-enacted in Karachi on Monday. Large parts of the city came to a standstill with the launching of Ideas 2006, a defence exhibition and seminar attended by President Musharraf and other dignitaries. Schools were closed down for the day on Tuesday to facilitate the free passage of the VIPs who were driven to the excessively guarded venue in the middle of the high-density neighbourhood surrounding Hasan Square. Miles away, in Clifton, where a new park was to be inaugurated, the same exercise was in evidence. A curfew-like situation prevailed, with vehicular traffic diverted to congested side lanes and public transport forced to suspend service altogether. The defence exhibition, now an annual event, is nothing short of a commuters’ nightmare. There is nothing remotely enlightened or moderate about the VIPs’ security apparatus cordoning off large areas of the city, stranding even those in need of urgent medical care. The heavy presence of armed security personnel, flashing their weapons and carrying out random vehicle checks, only reinforces Karachi’s image as a lawless city.

Learning no lessons from history

By Mahir Ali

WHEN, back in the 1960s, George W. Bush successfully manoeuvred to stay out of a war he vehemently favoured in theory, he could hardly have imagined that 40 years hence he would find himself voluntarily travelling to Vietnam, and that too as a guest of its communist government.

If any of the potential ironies crossed his mind when he found himself in Hanoi last week, Bush chose not to express it as he went about his business, managing to avoid almost all contact with ordinary Vietnamese — except, tellingly, in a well-publicised visit to a church. His approach was in stark contrast to that of Bill Clinton, who six years ago became the first US president to visit the country that refused to give up in the face of an all-out assault by the armed wing of American imperialism.

At the height of the aggression, there were half a million US troops in Vietnam. Carpet bombing and chemical warfare were the order of the day. None of it worked, and a frustrated Richard Nixon seriously contemplated the nuclear option. Henry Kissinger talked him out of it, but up to three million Vietnamese and 50,000 Americans nonetheless lost their lives.

It was a little more than 30 years ago that the last of the American forces fled Saigon. Ever since, the US has been striving to overcome the so-called Vietnam syndrome, supposedly responsible for a reluctance to intervene militarily in foreign lands. Unfortunately, far too many Americans have never drawn the appropriate lessons from their nation’s Vietnam experience, choosing to look upon it as a strategic failure rather than as a heinous international crime ultimately thwarted by heroic resistance.

There are, of course, profound differences between Vietnam and Iraq, but there are also echoes of the old conflict in the latest instance of naked aggression, not least in the sense that neither war ought to have been launched in the first place. That thought appears not to have crossed the incumbent US president’s mind in either context. When asked how he felt about being the guest of a former foe, he responded with a Bushism: “History has a long march to it.” He followed this up with another profundity: “Societies change, and relationships can constantly be altered to the good.”

Asked directly about any lessons that may apply to Iraq, he continued his struggle with syntax: “One lesson is ... that we tend to want there to be instant success in the world, and the task in Iraq is going to take a while.” Just as the “task” in Vietnam took a while, presumably? “It’s just going to take a long period of time,” Bush went on to say, “for the ideology that is hopeful, and that is an ideology of freedom, to overcome an ideology of hate.” And, to cap it all: “We’ll succeed unless we quit.”

That seems to imply that the US shouldn’t have quit Vietnam in 1975. But another reading is also possible: could it be that George W. was gazing at the past from the ex-enemy’s point of view? After all, back then the Vietnamese more or less had a monopoly on the ideologies of freedom and hope, while no one since the Nazis has quite been able to match the hatred that Washington selectively propagates.

Whatever one may think of Vietnam’s current status as a one-party state well advanced on the road to capitalism, it would be extremely difficult to coherently argue that the wars forced upon it were in a way necessary to reach this point. If anything, what the Vietnamese logically refer to as the American war helped to entrench communist rule.

Vietnam’s fate — and America’s position in the world — could have been very different had the US abided by the ostensibly anti-colonial Atlantic Charter agreed between Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill in 1941, instead of restoring French rule in Indochina once the Japanese had been driven out four years later. It’s also worth noting that back in 1945 the nationalist Viet Minh forces were keen to establish fraternal relations with the US. Three decades later, Vietnam’s triumph in the war of national liberation was followed by sanctions instead of war reparations.

There are plenty of trends and events in America’s postwar history that could have served as cautionary tales when the invasion of Iraq was being contemplated. But, barring the likes of Noam Chomsky, no one could be bothered to pay attention. That attitude has changed somewhat with Iraq’s steady decline into bloody chaos. But not in every case. And particularly not in the case of Bush, whose evidently incurable intellectual incuriosity renders him resistant to points of view that don’t fit in with his Manichean worldview.

At a news conference in Hanoi last Friday, the US president was asked about a press report that suggested he wanted to send another 20,000 troops to Iraq. “Where was that report?” he responded. Upon learning that it had appeared in The Guardian, he said: “Well, I don’t read that paper often.” Of course not, George.

Reading reputedly isn’t one of George W.’s hobbies, and if he uses current affairs TV as a substitute for newspapers, it wouldn’t be particularly surprising to discover that he largely restricts himself to Rupert Murdoch’s rabidly right-wing Fox News channel, looking askance at marginally less biased networks as hotbeds of liberal intrigue. What, then, would he make of Al Jazeera English (AJE), which finally went on air a week ago?

Members of the Bush administration have on numerous occasions implied that the Arabic version of Al Jazeera is a terrorist network. This attitude has been based on presumption rather than close monitoring, plus a surprising degree of disconcertment over the fact that the Doha-based network approaches the news from a different angle than its western counterparts.

But what about the English channel? Should it be trying to compete with the likes of the BBC, CNN, Sky or Fox on their terms? That’s what The Guardian’s Mark Lawson implied in a comment on the day after AJE formally went on air last Wednesday, lamenting the fact that it had led successive news bulletins with reports of the growing humanitarian crisis in Gaza while paying little heed to local events in Britain and the US. “An English-language broadcaster,” he opined, “will surely limit its audience by continuing this editorial belittlement of the biggest English-speaking cultures.”

This sort of argument comes across as conceited, arrogant and immersed in a colonial mentality. It would have been incredibly silly of AJE to seek to position itself as a substitute for the plethora of local news outlets in English-speaking countries. And it is incredibly dumb of Lawson to suggest that anyone will be turning to AJE for coverage of the Queen’s speech or domestic politics in the US (where, incidentally, the channel is yet to find a cable conduit) or Canada. His comment includes the ridiculous implication that audiences are incapable of purposefully switching between channels.

AJE intends, as far as one can tell, to capitalise on its Middle Eastern base by offering the anglophone world an alternative narrative, a different perspective on international events. Its success will depend on the extent to which it is able to acquaint international audiences with a picture of the Middle East that is more detailed and less inaccurate than the one projected by the western media. Contrary to Lawson’s mean-spirited prognosis, I suspect substantial numbers of people in Europe and the Americas will be keen to tune in, not least out of curiosity.

To make itself more palatable, AJE has opted for the sensible strategy of poaching presenters from rival networks such as CNN and the BBC, including Riz Khan, Rageh Omar and Dave Morash, a gay Jew who will be AJE’s anchor in Washington. Then there is that pillar of the British establishment, Sir David Frost, who, through his high-level contacts in the UK and US governments, satisfied himself that all the propaganda about Al Jazeera’s terrorist connections was a load of balderdash, before signing up. Somewhat unexpectedly, Frost provided AJE with a scoop of sorts two days after its launch. Last Friday he needled his first victim with the notion that western intervention in Iraq has “so far been pretty much of a disaster”. The interview began his response with the words “It has...” That’s a fairly mundane admission by most standards, but it’s probably not irrelevant that the words were uttered by one of the Iraq invasion’s more articulate advocates: Tony Blair. No.10 Downing Street immediately went into spin mode, suggesting that the British PM is in the habit of agreeing with his interlocutors before answering a question. The explanation did not cut much ice, and one would like to think it was a case of Blair seeing little point in denying the obvious.

To his credit, Blair is said to have talked Bush out of bombing Al Jazeera’s headquarters in Doha a couple of years ago (although the network did suffer casualties in Kabul as well as Baghdad). Surprisingly, no one appears to have raised the question of his transatlantic partner’s “betrayal” with the US president — who is likely to be as reluctant to expose himself to AJE as he is to read The Guardian.

Nor can one seriously expect him to pause for a moment and ponder on the surreality of a situation whereby in the world of satellite television, media diversity in the West depends to a substantial extent on an operation bankrolled by the emir of Qatar.