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Covering the 'quagmire'

It's now fairly obvious that those who cover Iraq have placed their bets on a fiasco or "quagmire" and that this conclusion shows in the fiber and detail of their writing.
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Posted Thursday, April 29, 2004, at 11:18 AM PT- I am not a war correspondent, though I have put in some time at the Europa Hotel in Belfast, the Commodore in Beirut, and other places of journalistic legend such as Meikles in Harare and the Sarajevo Holiday Inn. In any case, the emergence of a consensus among a press corps is something one can witness without having to duck the occasional incoming projectile. It was widely agreed in the Manchester, N.H., Sheraton in the early weeks of 1992 that Bill Clinton was a "new Democrat" and the presumptive nominee. There were very few if any Milosevic sympathizers among the Sarajevo contingent (a bias that suited me). There were no more than three Bush-Blair sympathizers in the Kuwait Hilton during the days of the "southern front" in last year's Iraq war, and I know this because I was in that case in the minority. One doesn't have to be an "old hand" to detect the signs of a conscience collective or, if one doesn't care for it, a "herd mentality."

It's now fairly obvious that those who cover Iraq have placed their bets on a fiasco or "quagmire" and that this conclusion shows in the fiber and detail of their writing. I give you a sentence from Jon Lee Anderson's essay "The Uprising" in the current New Yorker:

[A] score or more armed men, most with their faces masked by kaffiyehs and wearing the black turbans of the Mahdi Army, controlled a checkpoint. They were brandishing RPGs and Kalashnikovs at cars. Several of them had yellow U.S. Army-issue grenades. We had been following seven Red Crescent ambulances for a while, and as we drove up, the fighters at the checkpoint and the drivers of the ambulances began shouting Sadr's name. The drivers had decided to join the uprising.

Now, I wasn't there. But I am sure Anderson, an experienced writer about war and revolution, saw just what he says he saw. What I don't know is how well he knew those ambulance drivers personally, and how certain he can be that they "joined" an "uprising" led by "fighters." Nor does he say how he knew. I think, in other words, that exactly the same scene could be rendered in quite starkly different words.

Here's another byline I know of old: Jonathan Steele of the Guardian in London. His is a reliably anti-Bush voice, normally couched in elegant prose. The following is from a report he filed April 5:

Herded into lines by inexperienced police officers, hundreds of would-be Iraqi voters pushed into a sparsely equipped school at the weekend to cast their ballots for the local council of Tar. Deep in the marshes of the Euphrates, the town of 15,000 people was the first to rise against Saddam Hussein in the abortive intifada of 1991. Now it was holding the first genuine election in its history. The poll was the latest in a series which this overwhelmingly Shia province has held in the past six weeks, and the results have been surprising. Seventeen towns have voted, and in almost every case secular independents and representatives of non-religious parties did better than the Islamists.

Aside from that slightly dubious initial word "herded," the article is a model of straight reportage that goes on to record that wives could vote at a time different from their husbands, that proceedings were orderly, and that the religious parties scored well but not that well. You will also notice that the word "intifada," or uprising, is used neutrally. So, which is the more convincing, and more revolutionary—a long line of first-time-ever voters or a few dozen fanatics with Kalashnikovs?

As long as the latter seek to negate the former, the coalition forces are not only right to repress so-called "insurgents" but delinquent if they do not do so. There are vast numbers of Iraqis—as we know from the leaflets distributed in Najaf, and the blogs from Baghdad, and from the hundreds of thousands who are exercising their right of return to the country—who do not wish to live under the rule of demented mullahs. The pulse and heart rate of the society have barely had a chance to register.

Nobody should know this better than Lakhdar Brahimi, the current envoy of the United Nations and a lifetime member of the Algerian FLN. A few years ago, his party and his government were challenged by an extreme fundamentalist movement that actually won the first round of a general election but would probably not have permitted any subsequent one. In any event, the Algerian authorities announced that on no account would they surrender the country to the "insurgency" that followed. They showed themselves willing to kill on an unprecedented scale, employing measures that the U.S. Marines would never be permitted. Repulsive though many of the tactics were, I think the FLN was broadly right. Certainly, Algeria today is a far better society for the outcome, and so is the whole of North Africa and therefore Southern Europe. These are the stakes. It is impossible to lose sight of them for a moment and irresponsible to confer the noble title of rebel or revolutionary on those who showed no courage at all when there was a real tyranny in the land.


I continue to be amazed at the way in which so many liberals repeat the discredited mantra of the CIA to the effect that Saddam Hussein's regime was so "secular" that it not only did not collaborate, but axiomatically could not have collaborated with Islamists. If you can imagine a Hitler-Stalin pact (which, admittedly, a lot of American leftists still cannot), you can probably imagine collusion between discrepant factions with common interests.

In any case, the Saddam regime was not as "secular" as all that. The campaign of extermination waged in northern Iraq by Saddam's army was titled "Anfal" after a verse in the Quran that supposedly licenses total war. The words "Allahu Akbar" were placed on the Iraqi flag after the defeat in Kuwait. The Baath Party became the open patron of Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Palestine. The rhetoric of the Saddamist leadership was exclusively jihadist for the last decade, with special mosques built all over the country in honor of the regime. Now comes a document from the files of the Iraqi secret police, or Mukhabarat, dated March 28, 1992, and headed routinely, "In the Name of Allah, the Merciful and Compassionate." It is a straightforward listing of contacts and "assets," quite unsensational until it comes to the "Saudi front," where we find the name "Osama bin Ladin/he is well-known Saudi businessman, founder of Saudi opposition in Afghanistan, had connection with Syrian division." Of course, this is not a smoking gun.

Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair. His book Blood, Class and Empire has just been republished in paperback.

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