Friday, April 13, 2007

Iraq in the Balance

From The Wall Street Journal, Wednesday, April 11, 2007, BY FOUAD AJAMI, Johns Hopkins University ...

In Washington, panic. In Baghdad, cautious optimism.

BAGHDAD: ...A traveler who moves between Baghdad and Washington is struck by the gloomy despair in Washington and the cautious sense of optimism in Baghdad. ...its government still hunkered down in the Green Zone, and violence is never far. But the sense of deliverance, and the hopes invested in this new security plan, are palpable.

... there can be discerned, through the acrimony, the emergence of a fragile consensus. Some months back, the Bush administration had called into question both the intentions and capabilities of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. But this modest and earnest man, born in 1950, a child of the Shia mainstream in the Middle Euphrates, has come into his own. ...the defining moment for Mr. Maliki had been those early hours of Dec. 30, when Saddam Hussein was sent to the gallows. He had not flinched, the decision was his, and he assumed it. Beyond the sound and fury of the controversy that greeted the execution, Mr. Maliki had taken the execution as a warrant for a new accommodation with the Sunni political class. A lifelong opponent of the Baath, he had come to the judgment that the back of the apparatus of the old regime had been broken, and that the time had come for an olive branch to those ready to accept the new political rules.

.... Few were ready to accept the return of old Baathists to government service. The victims of the old terror were appalled at a piece of this legislation, giving them a period of only three months to bring charges against their former tormentors. This had not been Mr. Maliki's choice--for his animus toward the Baath has been the driving force of his political life. It was known that he trusted that the religious hierarchy in Najaf, and the forces within the Shia alliance, would rein in this drive toward rehabilitating the remnants of the old regime. Power and experience have clearly changed Mr. Maliki as he makes his way between the Shia coalition that sustains him on the one hand, and the American presence on the other. By all accounts, he is increasingly independent of the diehards in his own coalition--another dividend of the high-profile executions of Saddam Hussein and three of the tyrant's principal lieutenants. He is surrounded by old associates drawn from the Daawa Party, but keeps his own counsel.

There is a built-in tension between a prime minister keen to press for his own prerogatives and an American military presence that underpins the security of this new order. Mr. Maliki does not have the access to American military arms he would like; he does not have control over an Iraqi special-forces brigade that the Americans had trained and nurtured. His police forces remain poorly equipped. The levers of power are not fully his, and he knows it.

...Mr. Maliki and the coalition arrayed around him know their isolation in the region. This Iraqi state of which they had become the principal inheritors will have to make its way in a hostile regional landscape. Set aside Turkey's Islamist government, with its avowedly Sunni mindset and its sense of itself as a claimant to an older Ottoman tradition; the Arab order of power is yet to make room for this Iraqi state. Mr. Maliki's first trip beyond Iraq's borders had been to Saudi Arabia. He had meant that visit as a message that Iraq's "Arab identity" will trump all other orientations. It had been a message that the Arab world's Shia stepchildren were ready to come into the fold. But a huge historical contest had erupted in Baghdad, the seat of the Abbasid caliphate had fallen to new Shia inheritors, and the custodians of Arab power were not yet ready for this new history.

For one, the "Sunni street"--the Islamists, the pan-Arabists who hid their anti-Shia animus underneath a secular cover, the intellectual class that had been invested in the ideology of the Baath party--remained unalterably opposed to this new Iraq. The Shia could offer the Arab rulers the promise that their new state would refrain from regional adventures, but it would not be easy for these rulers to come to this accommodation.

... The blunt truth of this new phase in the fight for Iraq is that the Sunnis have lost the battle for Baghdad. The great flight from Baghdad to Jordan, to Syria, to other Arab destinations, has been the flight of Baghdad's Sunni middle-class. It is they who had the means of escape, and the savings. Whole mixed districts in the city--Rasafa, Karkh--have been emptied of their Sunni populations. Even the old Sunni neighborhood of Adhamiyyah is embattled and besieged. What remains for the Sunnis are the western outskirts. ....

Possessed of an old notion of their own dominion, and of Shia passivity and quiescence, the Sunni Arabs waged a war they were destined to lose. .... Behind closed doors, Sunni leaders speak of the great calamity that befell their community. They admit to a great disappointment in the Arab states that fed the flames but could never alter the contest on the ground in Iraq. No Arab cavalry had ridden, or was ever going to ride, to the rescue of the Sunnis of Iraq.

A cultured member of the (Sunni) Association of Muslim Scholars in Baghdad, a younger man of deep moderation, likened the dilemma of his community to that of the Palestinian Arabs since 1948. "They waited for deliverance that never came," he said. "Like them, we placed our hopes in Arab leaders who have their own concerns. We fell for those Arab satellite channels, we believed that Arab brigades would turn up in Anbar and Baghdad. We made room for al Qaeda only to have them turn on us in Anbar."

...They had made their own bed, the Sunni Arabs, but old habits of dominion die hard, and save but for a few, there is precious little acknowledgment of the wages of the terror that the Shia had been subjected to in the years that followed the American invasion. As matters stand, the Sunni Arabs are in desperate need of leaders who can call off the violence, cut a favorable deal for their community, and distance that community form the temptations and the ruin of the insurgency. It is late in the hour, but there is still eagerness in the Maliki government to conciliate the Sunnis, if only to give the country a chance at normalcy.

The Shia have come into their own, but there still hovers over them their old history of dispossession; there still trails shadows of doubt about their hold on power, about conspiracies hatched against them in neighboring Arab lands. The Americans have given birth to this new Shia primacy, but there lingers a fear, in the inner circles of the Shia coalition, that the Americans have in mind a Sunni-based army, of the Pakistani and Turkish mold, that would upend the democratic, majoritarian bases of power on which Shia primacy rests. They are keenly aware, these new Shia men of power in Baghdad, that the Pax Americana in the region is based on an alliance of long standing with the Sunni regimes. They are under no illusions about their own access to Washington when compared with that of Cairo, Riyadh, Amman and the smaller principalities of the Persian Gulf. This suspicion is in the nature of things; it is the way of once marginal men who had come into an unexpected triumph.

...Deep down, the Sunni Arabs know what the fight for Baghdad is all about--oil wealth and power, the balance between the Sunni edifice of material and moral power and the claims of the Shia stepchildren. To this fight, Iran is a newcomer, an outlier. This is an old Arab account, the fight between the order of merchants and rulers and establishment jurists on the one side, and the righteous (Shia) oppositionists on the other. How apt it is that the struggle that had been fought on the plains of Karbala in southern Iraq so long ago has now returned, full circle, to Iraq.

... On its own, mainstream Shi'ism is eager to rein in its own diehards and self-anointed avengers. There is a growing Shia unease with the Mahdi Army--and with the venality and incompetence of the Sadrists represented in the cabinet--and an increasing faith that the government and its instruments of order are the surer bet. The crackdown on the Mahdi Army that the new American commander, Gen. David Petraeus, has launched has the backing of the ruling Shia coalition. Iraqi police and army units have taken to the field against elements of the Mahdi army. In recent days, in the southern city of Diwaniyya, American and Iraqi forces have together battled the forces of Moqtada al-Sadr. To the extent that the Shia now see Iraq as their own country, their tolerance for mayhem and chaos has receded. Sadr may damn the American occupiers, but ordinary Shia men and women know that the liberty that came their way had been a gift of the Americans. ... They behold the Americans keeping the peace of their troubled land with undisguised gratitude.

It hasn't been always brilliant, this campaign waged in Iraq. But its mistakes can never smother its honor, and no apology for it is due the Arab autocrats who had averted their gaze from Iraq's long night of terror under the Baath..... In Baghdad, Americans and Iraqis alike know that this big endeavor has entered its final, decisive phase. Iraq has surprised and disappointed us before, but as they and we watch our adjectives there can be discerned the shape of a new country, a rough balance of forces commensurate with the demography of the place and with the outcome of a war that its erstwhile Sunni rulers had launched and lost. We made this history and should now make our peace with it.

Biased BBC tries to hide

From The Wall Street Journal, April 10, 2007 [emphasis added]...

The BBC's lavish state funding of more than £3 billion a year is usually justified by references to its role of serving the "public interest," which includes scrutinizing government. Now the Beeb is using taxpayers' money to hide its own work from scrutiny.

The issue is anti-Israel bias. The BBC refuses to publish a 2004 report by former BBC editor Malcolm Balen, which the BBC itself commissioned in 2003 after Jerusalem temporarily withdrew all official cooperation with the broadcaster over its perceived bias. The Beeb's shroud of secrecy around the Balen Report raised suspicions that it confirmed Israel's charges.

Steven Sugar, a lawyer, has been fighting a long legal battle to bring the document out into the open. He argues that Britain's Freedom of Information Act, which the Beeb has used itself numerous times to access government documents, obliges the public broadcaster to reveal the report. The BBC claims the law doesn't cover material dealing with the production of journalism. True, says Mr. Sugar, only the Balen Report isn't journalism but "a report about journalism itself." A High Court judge is expected to rule on the case shortly.

The BBC routinely rejects charges of anti-Israel bias, often by noting that it also gets complaints from Palestinians. If both sides are unhappy, the argument goes, the BBC must be getting the story right. This of course would assume that both sides are equally justified in complaining. To pretend that Hamas statements are as reliable as those from accountable Israeli government officials is bias masquerading as even-handedness.

Actually, some BBC journalists don't even pretend to be even-handed. Consider Middle East correspondent Fayad Abu Shamala, who addressed a Hamas rally in May 2001, saying journalists were "waging the campaign shoulder-to-shoulder together with the Palestinian people." The Beeb claimed that Mr. Shamala made his rally remarks in "a private capacity" and that his reporting "always matched the best standards." When Mideast correspondent Barbara Plett said during an October 2004 radio show that the airlifting of Yasser Arafat to a French hospital moved her to tears, the BBC didn't admit that she "breached the requirements of due impartiality" until listeners complained repeatedly.

There are numerous other examples that point to a simplistic narrative that invariably portrays Israel as the aggressor and the Palestinians as mere victims. Emblematic of this mindset is Jeremy Bowen, who was recently appointed as Middle East editor. In January, Mr. Bowen sent what he called a "mini briefing" to BBC senior executives and editors. This email was leaked and provided a rare look into the worldview that informs BBC coverage of the Middle East.

Written during the height of the internecine fighting between Hamas and Fatah, Mr. Bowen explained that "What is the way that Palestinian society, which used to draw strength from resistance to the occupation, is now fragmenting" (emphasis ours). Mr. Bowen seems to have internalized Palestinian propaganda, which likes to speak of "resistance" when what is really meant is terrorism. The word terrorism, by the way, is banned at the Beeb, ostensibly because it's a value judgment. Mr. Bowen continued to see the "death of hope, caused" -- no surprise here -- "by a cocktail of Israel's military activities, land expropriations and settlement building."

In other words, even when Palestinians were killing each other, it was Israel's fault. Talk about the soft bigotry of low expectations: The Palestinians could not possibly be held accountable for their actions. There was no word in Mr. Bowen's "briefing" that Israel had evacuated Gaza and that Palestinians elected Hamas into government, which refuses both to accept Israel's right to exist and to abandon terror.

The BBC's power to influence foreign policy and shape public opinion is almost unparalleled among media organizations. Its radio shows alone attract more than 160 million listeners a week. Many news organizations in Europe follow the BBC's lead, seing it as the gold standard in journalism. Little wonder, then, that according to opinion polls, an increasing number of Europeans consider Israel a pariah state and anti-Jewish feelings are on the rise.

A British all-party parliamentary inquiry late last year into escalating anti-Semitism in the U.K. concluded that "a discussion needs to take place within the media on the impact of language and imagery in current discourse on Judaism, anti-Zionism and Israel."

By avoiding this discussion, the BBC is failing its public interest obligation.

‘You get your film and go home’ (that's show biz...)

From The Spectator, 7/4/07, by Rod Liddle ....

Hebron: ‘So, are you happy now?’ the young Israeli soldier with the machinegun and the sneer asked me, as the Palestinian kid was bundled into the back of a police paddy wagon .... We stood in the middle, not entirely sure what to do. The cameraman, Brian, stopped filming.

... Apparently, some Palestinians were building a large house on this hill when, late one night, some 200 settlers swooped down and took it over, evicting the Palestinians, who have since erected a tent to one side of the dwelling with the Israeli soldiers in between (although not of course, ideologically speaking, really in the middle). Both sides claim legal rights to the land and property, and I have had sufficient dealings with lawyers in the last four years not to delve too deeply into the rectitude of each claim. Just to say that in a normal world, when you buy a house, you exchange contracts and send round a removal van when the last people have left; you don’t creep along in the dead of night with 198 of your friends armed with baseball bats. Also, you usually move in when the house is finished, rather than when there’s no roof.

....What happened on this occasion was this: undoubtedly emboldened by our camera, one Palestinian kid — 15 years old — crosses a line he is not supposed to cross. He walks a bit nearer the house than he should. The cameras are rolling. The soldiers surround him and tell him to clear off, back to his tent. He refuses. He says something vainglorious and declamatory in Arabic about refusing ever to move, and then maybe throws in a few obscenities at one of the soldiers ....At which point, he gets kicked, hard, in the balls, punched in the stomach and shoved in the back of a van.

In the world league-table of atrocities this is small beer — and, for film crews used to operating in tense and dangerous parts of the globe, a familiar and perhaps minor ethical problem. The Israeli soldier was right, though, in his implication: if we had not been there, this would not have happened. If you build it, they will come, etc. The kid was grandstanding for the cameras and, as a result, will get a beating. If we — or some other TV monkeys — had not been there, it would not have happened. We were there to witness injustice; and also, if possible, exacerbate it for the benefit of the viewing public.

The Israeli government is rightly worried that the Palestinians have captured the moral high ground by precisely such tactics, if they are tactics. It is aware that the Palestinian PR machine wins hands down, as it has done since the first Intifada, back in the late 1980s — kids with rocks versus a professional army with heavy ordnance and, behind even that, the USA. And when the TV crews, or the international observers are around, the Palestinians play it up for all it is worth; they know how it will go down with an international audience.

....A little later the Israeli soldier who sneeringly asked if I was happy now returned to where I was standing, smoking and shuffling my feet and, very much off the record, spoke for a while. ...‘I never sleep,’ he said. ‘I just want everything to be quiet, for nobody to get hurt. You turn up and you show this...’ he gestured to Brian, with the camera, ‘but you don’t show the other side. And you know what will happen, when you turn up here with your camera. There will be trouble. And you get your film and you go home. I stay here.’

....I tried to tell him that I hadn’t wanted the kid to go berserk and end up in a police van, that this is journalism and it has to be done so that the world can see what’s going on and make up its own mind. ‘Yes,’ he nodded, ‘it’s what you do, isn’t it? And this is what I do.’...