Sunday, March 30, 2003

Colonialism Redux?

I love my country and its ideals passionately, but a sense of history is not always our strong suit, especially other people's history. Our egocentric culture, can blind us to the other side. When perplexed briefers try to explain the unexpected resistance and concurrent lack of uprising by oppressed Iraqis, they attribute it all to repression by a despotic regime. That may in part be true, but Iraqi dissidents also have little reason to trust us. It was only yesterday when a President Bush abandoned them and benignly watched their brutal slaughter. It's hard to see why anyone would want to chance that again under what is assuredly seen by them as the reign of the Bush "Crown Prince." But I think the underlying problem may be much more profound. Saddam may be a brutal dictator, but his people seem to be saying "he is our brutal dictator." The trouble with this invasion of foreign troops is that it raises the ugly head of Colonialism, something not far from the immediate memory of Iraqis. Perhaps Americans could introduce a greater measure of democratic governance, but they are asking, "is it our governance?" And let's not forget that our most visible "willing" coalitionist, the British, were a principal, and not welcome, Colonial power in the region just scant decades ago.

Forget whether you believe the threat Iraq posed to the world community is credible. Perhaps that is our issue, but it isn't theirs. As many experts have told us, the Arab world suffers from chronic low esteem. It infuriates their youth — makes them lash out and do unspeakable things. Feeding that unease is that people in the West, people who don't even share their belief system, feel it's their right and obligation to reengineer Arab societies, impose what many in the region see as an alien way of life. "Been there done that," they say. All these dictators in the region may be bad, but they represent emancipation from Colonialism. In fact, one might argue that the single most important issue for the Muslim world is the potential of return of Colonialism.

Listen to the rhetoric and it's clear that it has become the overriding issue in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the consistent deal breaker. Ironic as it may seem, the Israelis, who played an active and critical role in ousting the British from Colonial rule after World War II (some among them, like the founders of a predecessor of today's Likud party, using terrorist tactics), are now seen as a Colonial power close to home on the West Bank. It's not that Jews worship differently from Muslims, it's that they are perceived as alien occupiers, not inconsequentially a Western rather than Near Eastern society. People fighting for their real or perceived homeland are not dispassionate combatants. They don't just sit down, have a cup of tea and work things out. Nobody wants to be reminded of Viet Nam and this conflict hopefully will end quite differently, but the Vietnamese were fighting for their homeland. It shouldn't be lost on us that in the end, the Southerners whom we desperately tried to Americanize, cast their lot and loyalties with their Northern countrymen, however repressive they may have been.

So, looking at this Iraqi incursion in the context of Colonialism, one really has to wonder if it's winnable in the long term. George Bush truly wants to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi street. Something which, despite now using more politically correct language, he probably still sees as a Crusade. I don't think that works. I know it wouldn't work if someone came to these shores with similar designs wanting to impose their cherished system on us. Perhaps Iraq was a threat. Perhaps they harbor terrorists. Surely their citizens suffer under a monstrous dictatorship. But refashioning them in our image, however great it might be, seems a human conceit. My theological training tells me that only God has that power.

Saturday, March 29, 2003

Embedded and Under Control

Ed Murrow stood roof top in London watching the bombs and inventing modern broadcast journalism. Spoken journalism came out of war, and Morrow's boys were the best in the business, were and remain. They were in the thick of it, identified with "our side" in a war where right and wrong were easily defined. They worked with some restriction, but nonetheless with an independence that they maintained for the rest of their professional lives. Another group of independent journalists walked the streets of Saigon and through the marshes of a hostile country side. They saw horror and they reported it straight and independently to the great consternation of LBJ, another generally controlling US President from Texas. From the 40s through Watergate journalists held sway and the news was found on broadcasts.

I shudder for Ed Murrow's memory every time a CNN reader passes the baton and wishes her or his successor a good "show." News is a show today, with its obsequious anchors telling the girls and boys what a good job they're doing as if they were arbiters, much less practioners, of a good job. Then there is that obnoxious music, specially composed theme songs to communicate the drama underscoring the "showness" of it all. Frank Rich calls it the Mediathon with its laser-like focus on the simplistic singular as if we were all too dumb to handle more than one fact at a time or collectively possessed the attention span of a two year old or Alzheimer's victim. And the greatest insult of all, thanks to Ted Turner who, rather than having been a visionary destroyed journalism as we once knew it, is that it goes on regurgitating the same stale news 24/7. If I hear another pundit say what a great job of reporting is being done on the same bit of information I've heard for two days straight, I most certainly will be violently ill.

And now we have embedded journalists. Forgetting how damaging it probably is for any of us — adults and children — to watch war so close-up, the idea of this melding of warrior and reporter as comrades in arms has some very disturbing ramifications. Every administration, regardless of party or ideology, seeks to manage and spin the news. FDR was a master at it. But few have managed this closely, and I don't know of any that set up a $2Millon briefing theater in the field. But embedding the journalists goes a step further. Listening to their reports it's clear that these guys are trying their best to put a good face on things, to stand up for their comrades in the field. You can't blame them and you have to admire them. These uniformed kids beside them need and deserve all the support they can get. But one has to wonder if an embedded journalist will ever uncover a Mi Lai? I'm not suggesting one is happening or would happen. All of us hope and pray for the best. But war is hell and good people sometimes do bad things in the heat of battle — bad things that really are bad and need to be reported by independent journalists. During the first Bush war, the press complained that it was left out of the loop. I guess it was George H.W.'s revenge for having himself been left hanging during Iran Contra. No such complaints this time, because George W's team believes in the old management adage that keeping the adversary close is the best way to neutralize. Embed the suckers and keep them under control. Ed Murrow where are you when we need you so desperately?

Tuesday, March 25, 2003

The T Word

Donald Rumsfeld uttered the T word in his press conference yesterday. He called Iraqi soldiers who shed their uniforms, pretended to be surrendering civilians and then came out shooting, terrorists. Clearly these guys were breaking the accepted rules of military etiquette and civilized war. But aren't those oxymorons. War is the least polite and the most uncivilized thing we do. What is a soldier who is outgunned and outnumbered but still believes in his cause to do? What would Rambo have done? There is nothing wrong with believing in your cause (and I have no doubt that those who support this war believe in its rightness), but it's critical to understand your opponents' point of view – to envision how they see the world. Only then can one understand what they will do and why they will do it. Isn't protection of home an hearth a basic right that we Americans espouse, even to the degree that ordinary citizens can fire registered weapons against invaders? Think about an Iraqi soldier who twelve years ago was ousted by an outraged world for invading the sovereign and far less powerful nation of Kuwait. What is he thinking now when a huge world power invades his home? Don't tell me our Special Ops and CIA people are walking the streets in Baghdad in full dress uniform or that they have never engaged in any military act in civvies. Are they terrorists? Of course not. Terrorism is not part of this war equation. Name calling doesn't help the situation.

You many not agree with Don Rumsfeld, but his brain power is undeniable. He is perhaps the smartest and most articulate of the entire Bush team. Rumsfeld doesn't use words lightly and his press conferences are vehicles for getting the Administration's point across, selling them if you will, much as he did during the Afghanistan conflict. Those of us who questioned this war did so because we were unconvinced of its necessity. The Bush administration put forth a series of arguments among them the immediate threat of weapons of mass destruction and the brutality of the regime that demanded liberation for an oppressed people. All their arguments required a leap of faith. I am not saying their contentions were wrong, only that they never demonstrated the proof necessary to commence a war. The weakest of all their arguments was in making a connection between Saddam and Bin Laden, between Iraq and 9/11. The more you repeat something, the more you can convince a portion of the population, especially in a society which relies on and is so influenced by often repeated advertising slogans. But repetition doesn't make it correct. That said, it works. A recent poll suggested that 61% of the public believes our March into Iraq does have a 9/11 connection. So the introduction of the word terrorist into mix was intentional supporting a strategic marketing purpose. Calling these desperate soldiers terrorists confirms and supports the unproved theory that Iraq is a partner in terrorism. It's calculated to put fire in the belly of an unnerved nation.

Some may be disturbed to read my continuing critique of this war now that our kids are in harms way. I understand that, but like many other Americans of my age, it took me far too long to oppose war in Viet Nam. My enthusiasm for Camelot and my pain at my hero JFK's violent death, clouded my judgment. I have always regretted being a laggard. I won't make that mistake again. That's especially true since we now lack voices like those of Martin King, Wayne Morse and Bill Fulbright. I feel for the troops, fear for them, want them to come home safe and soon. They are our nation's children and I can't even imagine what it would mean to lose one of my precious sons. I love my country and no less the world in which I live. I fear for both. My father delivered one of the principal addresses at the 1963 March on Washington. His message was clear: in the face of what you think is wrong, silence is the worst of all crimes. Silence in this instance is simply not in the cards.

Saturday, March 22, 2003

At What Cost?

My 35 year old son told me yesterday that for the first time he was ashamed to be an American. That caught me short. As the first American-born in our family — a month earlier I would have come to life in Nazi Berlin — this country and its freedom means a lot me. So, too, with other immigrant families (that's probably most of us) some who escaped tyranny of one sort of another around the globe and some who simply sought greater opportunity. So here we are a polyglot of nationalities who, regardless of why we came, often maintain strong ties to our ancestral land whether it be Ireland, Ghana, Japan or, yes, France. Here we are in an age where barriers have melted along the information super highway linking all of us together on this small planet. Here we are with an Administration that thinks and acts unilaterally and evokes memories of once great, but fallen, Empires that we know only from history books. Here we are belittling and disdaining the opinions of allies who not only have fought side by side with us, but from where most of us came even if separated by a generation or two. The idea that we could go it alone in a world so inexorably linked by modern transportation and technology is so counter intuitive as to be laughable.

It really doesn't matter how you stand on this war in Iraq. The fundamental question is whether it makes any sense at all to alienate our friends in order to overthrow a two-bit dictator whose threat is, to say the least, questionable. I don't know how long this war will last, but WWII and Viet Nam lasted years. The worst case estimates talk of Baghdad in weeks. That doesn't seem like a very great threat. Can we really go it alone in this world? Can we be an economic engine without trading partners. Throw that French wine down the drain, but what if all those people whom we say we don't need stop buying Coca-Cola and Boeing airplanes? And what about all this ethnic and religious hatred, to paraphrase John Dean "a cancer growing on humanity?" Doesn't our aggressive separateness, our passionate assertion of rightness only mirror that of those whom we profess to despise?

I don't like this war. Don't agree with it. I love America, the country which provided haven for my family, which permits me to freely, and even disrespectfully, to disagree with the President. I don't like this war, but more fundamentally I don't like where it may be leading us. I am wounded by my son's expression of being ashamed, and chagrinned that I feel a little bit like that myself. That's a high cost — too high.

Friday, March 14, 2003


It's been widely reported that George Bush continues to sleep soundly and comfortably apparently undisturbed by the events of the day. Then why am I having so much trouble sleeping, and why are so many other ordinary people like me having the same problem? I think the contrast says a lot about our situation and about why so many have taken to the streets here and around the world questioning his march toward war. There is a huge disconnect here. Bush looks into the world and may mouth words about the awesome responsibility, but essentially his sanguine, sure of himself and certain of the outcome. Perhaps he knows something that we don't, but I seriously doubt it. We look out with a combination of being far less certain and simply being scared. Donald Rumsfeld speaks glibly of our ability to fight on many fronts with or without the British. But his grandkids aren't sitting in a practice dessert foxhole. The parents of those who are at the front may share his hopes, but when your child is at real risk you tend to be less certain. And, despite all their training and self-discipline, those kids on the sand are scared too. To be sure, leaders can always fall casualty to war, but it's the common folk, people like us who usually bare the brunt and the greatest risk.

It doesn't bother me that there are those, even in high places, who feel that there may be times to stand our ground and fight to protect ourselves or to combat tyranny. How could a child of German Jewry feel that? What does concern me is that Mr. Bush and one would assume others in his team aren't losing sleep about it. That's so unnatural that it's scary.