The Middle East: Reporting an Enigma
By Alan Caruba
When President Obama delivers a speech on why he is going to send more thousands of U.S. troops and spend more billions on the eight-year-old conflict in Afghanistan, it would be a good idea to better understand why so much of what is reported from the Middle East suffers a great disconnect from the truth.
In 1998, Joris Luyendijk , a Dutch student who had studied Arabic at Cairo University for a year, was offered a job as a Middle East correspondent for a Dutch news agency despite having no experience as a reporter. What followed was his real education about the Middle East and the way it is presented to the West by the news media.
His book about that experience, “People Like Us: Misrepresenting the Middle East” was initially published in the Netherlands in 2006 and has since then it has been translated and published in Hungary, Italy, Denmark and Germany. In October an English edition was published by Soft Scull Press, an imprint of Counterpoint, a Berkeley, California publisher.
Having begun my career as a journalist, I was interested to learn what Luyendijk had taken from his years hopping around the Middle East before and after 9/11 and during the two Iraq wars waged by the U.S. to resolve a problem called Saddam Hussein.
For anyone digesting the news from his morning newspaper or watching it on television, suspecting that it might be biased or wrong, this book that focuses on reporting from the Middle East is a revelation because Luyendijk strives mightily to expose the way the news is manipulated by all the parties involved.
Covering his experiences from 1998 to 2003, the author is refreshingly candid, admitting that, despite his student year in Cairo, he had little or no real understanding of Egypt or the rest of the Middle East.
There is, however, one thing that anyone can understand. The Middle East is composed of dictatorships and the sole purpose of each one is to survive. To do that, their people must be constantly indoctrinated and fearful. That is made possible by rendering them, individually and as a group, powerless. There simply is no such thing as justice or the opportunity to express an opinion in opposition to the leader.
Significantly, those living in the Middle East cannot make an informed judgment of what is occurring around them because they operate two points of view that are very real to them. First is a widely accepted sense of victimhood, and, second, they believe that Israel, ultimately, is manipulating the entire world!
Conversely, Americans who have no contact with the Middle East beyond the headlines and snapshots of bloodshed and warfare are comparably unable to make informed judgments about a people who differ among themselves in many ways.
The Middle East is very different from the West and Luyendijk believes that few in the West are even vaguely aware that those who live there live in a parallel universe; one that functions by the rules of ruthless dictatorships, by tribes, and by a religion that is hostile to all others.
Democracy is not likely to take root in the Middle East and this can be traced to the prevailing religion of the region, Islam. The only reason democracy occurred in Turkey is because the founder of the modern state, Ataturk, isolated Islam from the conduct of governance and that has been backed up by an army that has, thus far, ensured the separation.
The only other democracy in the Middle East is, of course, Israel. Lebanon’s effort has been steadily undermined by Hezbollah, Islamists who are an instrument of Iran.
The news coverage by Western reporters tends not to reflect the fact that Western powers have long supported the gaggle of monarchs and despots in the Middle East, at least until they saw fit to replace them. For this and for its interventions, the people of the Middle East quite naturally see the West as part of the oppression under which they live.
“EVERYONE IS AGAINST US. It’s banged into ordinary Arabs through the media and their education from a very young age, so don’t expect them to be pro-western.”
For a Western journalist, that means having to operate in societies where their reports are closely monitored and where access to events repeatedly reveal how staged they are, whether it’s a mass rally or whether it is those they interview who know that one wrong word can get them imprisoned, tortured, and even killed. The journalists, too, are at risk.
The “truth” in such a place is an impossibility. The “truth” does not exist for those who live in the Middle East and is carefully filtered by the Western news agencies that cover it for people who live thousands of miles away. The task is to report on an enigma.
Citing a group trip to Saddam’s Baghdad arranged by the Cairo Foreign Press Association, Luyendijk says, “It was complete madness. The secret-service minders practically sat on our laps. They’d regularly leave us waiting in lobbies for hours on end without any explanation, and then shove us into taxies for an excursion.”
Though a novice journalist in 1998, Luyendijk quickly “abandoned the idea that you would know what was going on in the world if you followed the news generated by the twenty dictatorships of the region “or reported by the correspondents for Western news agencies.
”There were virtually no reliable and verifiable figures or statistics against which I could I could (report) in a broader perspective.” Information is power and it was controlled by the dictators. The foreign press was and is a pawn in the game.
“When something big happens, the (Western) public wants to know things that the correspondent can’t find out.” The result is a lot of nebulous speculation or regurgitation of previous news.
While those in the West are accustomed to fairly rapid progress, the Middle East defies this because the currents that determine events are rooted in events that may have occurred a hundred or a thousand years earlier.
The hatreds, the lack of trust, the resentments, the rivalry for power, the need to survive, all jostle together in an impenetrable jumble in which one young, Dutch reporter found common human elements, “people like us”, but people whose protests subject them to arrest and execution.
Alan Caruba writes a daily post at http://factsnotfantasy.blogspot.com. An author, business and science writer, he is the founder of The National Anxiety Center.
Afghanistan Will Be Another Vietnam
By Alan Caruba
The next President of the United States of America must decide whether to withdraw our troops from Afghanistan or expand our involvement there. Having lived through the long years of the war in Vietnam, I can tell you that Afghanistan looks and smells like Vietnam. It is the classic wrong war in the wrong place.
In late October, I read a small news item about Parwiz Kambakhsh, 24, an Afghan journalism student who had downloaded and circulated an article about women’s rights under Islam. The news was that his sentence of death had been overturned by an appellate court that reduced it to a mere twenty years in prison on the charge of blasphemy. He can still appeal to the Supreme Court of Afghanistan. This is the state of freedom of speech, press, and thought in Afghanistan.
If you want to know what life was like in the seventh century, Afghanistan is the place to go. It is largely devoid of anything passing for modernity, by which we mean medical facilities, schools, roads, and such. Never mind the telephones and other detritus of modern life, the conversations have not changed in centuries.
Afghanistan shares a long border with Pakistan and Iran. Also bordering it is Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Turkistan, and Tajikistan. None of these places is a tourist destination. All are Islamic.
The only reliable element of Afghanistan’s economy is poppy cultivation for the opium trade which the CIA estimates generates “roughly $4 billion in illicit economic activity.” This is another way of saying that none of this money reaches what passes for a central government except in the form of bribes. It is a major source of funding for the Taliban.
Few Americans were interested in Afghanistan until September 11, 2001. We have had a military presence there for seven years, along with NATO nation components. Much like the “military advisors” that initiated our involvement in Vietnam, today’s generals are calling for more troops.
Afghanistan has been conquered and occupied since the days of Alexander the Great. Nothing much comes of it. It remains a mystery why they bothered. Putting too few or too many troops into Afghanistan does little except to demonstrate the futility of trying to impose one’s will on people who have resisted every such effort for centuries.
Founded as a nation in 1747 when Ahmad Shah Durrani unified the Pashtun tribes, Afghanistan was primarily seen as a buffer between the British and Russian empires. Democracy, as in most Middle Eastern nations, has never taken root there.
It became the graveyard of the Soviet empire after they intervened militarily in 1979 to support a tottering Afghan Communist regime. After they withdrew in 1989, the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. It is now known as the Russian Federation. It is still run by the former KGB. And one wonders why anyone in the U.S. government thinks any good can come of being there?
The Taliban took control after the Russians left and Osama bin Laden found a congenial place in which to plan 9/11. That’s why the first U.S. response to the attack occurred in Afghanistan as U.S., allied, and an anti-Taliban Northern Alliance of tribes were able to drive the Taliban across the border into the frontier provinces of Pakistan and elsewhere.
The U.S. effort to create a democratic government there began with a new constitution and, in December 2004, the election of Hamid Karzai as president. He barely controls Kabul, the capitol. The southern and eastern regions are still beyond control.
In essence, the rule of law barely exists in Afghanistan, if at all, unless you factor in Sharia law which reflects a seventh century approach to justice. The government and all aspects of official life in Afghanistan are so corrupt that even President Karzai’s brother is allegedly on the take.
I am not a military strategist, an expert in foreign affairs, or can lay claim to much more than common sense, so I confess it defies my understanding why the United States and our NATO allies are in Afghanistan. Expecting democracy to succeed in such a primitive and hostile place seems more a justification for military occupation than anything else. The whole place is tribal.
Other than his distaste for our invasion of Iraq and disposal of Saddam Hussein, it is baffling that Barack Obama says that Afghanistan is the “central front” against al Qaeda. The CIA says it has no bases there. The Taliban—outsiders just like us–have their own agenda as seen in their effort to render the place a complete and total Islamic hellhole.
Little wonder, therefore, that word keeps getting out that both English and French military leaders regard Afghanistan as virtually beyond any hope without putting a far greater number of troops there. Millions are being spent as it is. Between 2002 and 2007, Germany spent $80 million to reform its police corps. The U.S. has budgeted $800 million for 2008 to assist its security forces.
In early October, General Jean-Louis Geogelin, France’s military chief, confirmed that British Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith remarks that “there is no military solution to the Afghan crisis” reflected his own views. The Brigadier recommended that NATO lower its expectations regarding a happy outcome to the conflict. It was, he said, “unrealistic and probably incredible” to think that the multinational forces in Afghanistan could rid the country of armed bands.
There are two occupations available to the Afghans. One can either be a farmer raising poppies or one can join an armed band, be it either the government’s, one’s tribe, or the Taliban’s.
In an October 1, 2008 Christian Science Monitor article, it was reported that “The U.S. military is working to put a new strategy in place for Afghanistan and Pakistan that could allow it to expand airfields, preposition military forces and equipment, and prepare for a more robust effort soon against Islamist extremists in the region.” Four more U.S. brigades are poised to be sent to Afghanistan, including one that will deploy in January.
I have my own military strategy. Let’s pull our troops out of Afghanistan and, with their permission, let’s keep enough troops in Iraq to ensure that its government can maintain its security and as a deterrent for any conflict Iran might initiate in the region.
The United States of America has a full plate of problems right now. Expending troops and treasure in Afghanistan strikes me as a bad investment in a very nasty place. It is an invitation to repeat the all the errors of Vietnam.
© Alan Caruba, November 2008