Don’t Mourn, Annotate

Posted January 2, 2007

Categories: Articles

The movie Good Night, and Good Luck depicts how journalist Edward R. Murrow took down the most dangerous U.S. demagogue of his era with a simple, yet elegant, act of annotation. Murrow played excerpts on his CBS news show of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s speeches about the “Communist menace” and then refuted the charges. The lies and half-truths of the Wisconsin senator were laid bare, and that was the beginning of his end.

Even at this dawn of the age of television, when images had begun to capture the public imagination, words were still important. Murrow crossed words with McCarthy and, ultimately, Murrow’s words won.

Today we face a different barrage of words from Washington, but one also drafted in the service of a grand ideological battle. Mindful of the tyranny of images, President Bush attempted in his prosecution of the war in Iraq to imprint pictures of success on the public mind: a hated statue pulled down, a haggard Hussein captured, a victory banner on an aircraft carrier. But those few pictures of putative success have been overtaken by more powerful and more pervasive images. The photos from Abu Ghraib have become iconic. The morning newspaper features more faces of the fallen. A cell phone captures grainy shots of a mishandled execution. On the battlefield of the image, the United States has lost the Iraq War.

So, to rescue his failed Iraq policy with more boots on the ground, the president has had to resort again to words. In his January 10 speech, Bush tried to stir the emotions of the American public with elevated rhetoric about the “stunning achievement” of the 2005 Iraqi elections, about “strong commitment” and “victory in Iraq.” On the face of it, the president’s words were clothed in reason’s garb. But they flew in the face of the reality of today’s Iraq. As Edward R. Murrow memorably said, “Most truths are so naked that people feel sorry for them and cover them up, at least a little bit.”

In the Murrow tradition, FPIF is introducing a new feature, “Annotate This.” Our annotations will subject the words of the powerful to careful scrutiny. Coordinating the new section will be FPIF’s Middle East editor Stephen Zunes. His debut piece, Escalation in Iraq, speaks truth to the president’s power. He analyzes the January 10 speech line by line and turns a presidential monologue into a debate well worth reading.

For an astute analysis of the domestic factors behind the new Bush strategy, check out Jim Lobe and Michael Flynn’s The Push Behind the Surge. In a piece published just before the January 10 speech, FPIF’s Dan Smith challenges the ethos of irresponsibility that underlies the Bush approach to Iraq. Speaking of irresponsibility, Alec Dubro in his commentary Driving the Hearse Blindfolded effectively disputes the notion that the president shouldered any of the blame for the mistakes of the Iraq War.

And FPIF columnist Conn Hallinan zeroes in on what might potentially be the most disturbing reference in the January 10 speech: to Iran and Syria aiding terrorists and the promise to “seek out and destroy” these supporting networks. “Bombast to scare the Iranians?” Hallinan asks. “Maybe, but a number of pieces have fallen into place over the past month that suggest that the Bush administration is also seeking to widen the Middle East conflict, and that time may be running out for Iran.”

Iraq Part Two?

Somalia is proving Karl Marx wrong. History doesn’t seem to be repeating itself, first as tragedy, second as farce. There is nothing farcical about recent U.S. air strikes against suspected al-Qaida operatives in Somalia, which have killed numerous Somali civilians.

As FPIF contributor Najum Mushtaq explains in America Goes into Somalia, Again, “The aggressive U.S. posture, at sea and in the air, has antagonized the Somali people without any significant gain against suspected al-Qaida operatives or their Somali allies. In pursuit of a few individuals, the United States has earned the fury of the masses—in an eerie replay of Black Hawk Down. More importantly, the involvement of American forces seriously undermines Washington’s pious intentions of pushing the Somalis to the forefront of the process to stabilize the war-ravaged country.”

And Stephen Zunes provides some useful context for understanding how Somalia has come to its current crisis. U.S. support for Somali dictator Siad Barre as a pawn in the Cold War chess game against the Soviet Union sowed the seeds of later turmoil.

Misreading Russia

At one time, President Bush looked into Vladimir Putin’s soul and liked what he saw. But Putin no longer ranks so highly among Bush’s allies. And, as FPIF contributor Anna Arutunyan points out in her new policy report Is Russia Really That Authoritarian?, Putin is now widely credited with dragging Russia, with a certain amount of kicking and screaming, back into totalitarianism.

But this view of Putin as a Stalin wannabe, Arutunyan argues, is way off the mark. Compared with his putatively liberal predecessor Boris Yeltsin, Putin has exercised power at home and in the near abroad with far less iron-fistedness. Rather than one-man rule, “Several bureaucracies of power based in personal clans contend for power. And whatever authority Putin once commanded to forge coalitions has been significantly diminished by his announcement that he will step down in 2008.”

And Russia is not exactly a police state. Arutunyan writes, “Amid talk of a nation turning into a police state, the recent ethnic clashes in Kondopoga, rampant crime and corruption, and a demoralized army that is in the news only on the occasion of brutal hazing incidents—all suggest that the police have a great deal less control over the state than either Western pundits or Russian law enforcement officials themselves would like to believe.”

For a 60-Second Expert version of Arutunyan’s report, visit Misreading Russia.

Meanwhile in Turkmenistan, a real Stalin wannabe Saparmurat Niyazov died late last year. As FPIF contributor Kate Watters writes in A New Era for Turkmenistan?, not a whole lot has changed. Civil society activists remain jailed, the upcoming presidential election promises to be unfree and unfair, and the purchasers of Turkmeni energy exports don’t seem put out by the lack of basic freedoms in the country.

Niyazov, like Saddam Hussein, built statues to himself and repressed the masses. Unlike Hussein, Niyazov cooperated in the U.S. “war on terror.” So Niyazov died a natural death, and Hussein went to the gallows.

FPIF, January 18, 2007

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