Mourning In America

A New York Democrat on politics, journalism, and the Mets

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Saturday, December 06, 2003
Does Bush Even Know That People Are Dying? In response to criticisms about the President's failure to attend any funerals of military men and women killed in Iraq, the White House has frequently noted that he had "written" to each family.

This statement has generally been thought to mean that he was writing personal letters to each family. This was a logical assumption, given the gravity of the matter. We could also draw on his father's well-known habit of handwriting detailed notes to a wide variety of acquaintences. A nice image. Too bad that, like the image of Bush carrying a turkey to the troops, it's based on a lie.

Newsweek this week reports that the missives are actually form letters, with the same generic language used to describe each death. Surely the toll hasn't grown large enough that the White House can't manage to find enough interns to personalize the letters a bit more?

We know Bush doesn't read the papers. We know he doesn't go to the funerals. We now know he doesn't write the condolence letters. Does he know that people are dying? Perhaps if he did, he'd start taking the failings of our nation's intelligence and security strategy apparatus seriously.

More About al Arabiya Than Anyone Wants to Know Fellow blogger Lighten Up, Francis takes issue with this post, in which I questioned the effectiveness of the Iraqi Governing Council's move to shut down the Dubai-based (and Saudi-financed) al Arabiya satellite network's Baghdad offices (undertaken with the full support of the Bush administration).

Mike K. says he has no problem stopping "fascist Wahabi [sic] propaganda (in this case Saudi Arabia's al-Arabiya network)." This raises two issues -- first, the Bush administration's action didn't stop the broadcasts. So even if you believe that the network should be blocked, this administration hasn't come up with a plan to address that. But more on that later, first, let's examine whether it's as bad as Mike K. believes.

In a moderately deep web search, I failed to find any other source that agreed with Mike's take. The best impartial overview of al Arabiya is from the BBC here.

There are definitely positives and negatives. First off, a point for the prosecution. Contrary to the stories my earlier post was based on, several observers said the IGC's real opposition to al Arabiya grew not out of its broadcast of a tape purportedly of Saddam's voice, but out of its broadcast of a videotape of masked men calling for the murder of IGC members -- shortly before one was shot in September. Apparently, it wasn't until Saddam's voice entered the picture that the Bush administration could be brought on board. Frankly, the direct link between a broadcast and a murder is a more compelling argument against the network than the case based on the Saddam tape, which was less of a direct threat and more clearly news.

But while that fact works against them, there's mitigating evidence, too. Al Arabiya isn't beloved on the other side, either. Its Ramallah offices were allegedly shot up by members of the al Aksa Martyrs Brigade who were unhappy with its depiction of Yasser Arafat in reports on internal Palestinian Authority politics.

Al Arabiya does claim to be more "fair and balanced" than better-known counterpart al Jazeera, but its fairness is generally marked by more sympathy for Arab governments. As a founder told the BBC: "We are not going to make problems for Arab countries... We'll stick with the truth, but there's no sensationalism."

That stance seemed to suit the Bush administration (itself not noted for hard lines against most undemocratic Arab governments) just fine. Back in June, President Bush gave the network an exclusive interview [scroll down]: Not the way you'd expect the President to handle a Fascist propaganda tool.

Still a Diversion Regardless of whether this convinces you that al Arabiya is on the side of the angels or the devil, it's all a distraction. The point in my post wasn't whether they deserved to be put out of business. It was whether, A) The ban would do any good (I said no, both because Saddam is newsworthy enough that he would have no problem finding 10 other networks to broadcast his tapes if he couldn't get them to al Arabiya), and B) It was actually doing harm, by giving our opponents throughout the world an easy chance to claim that our committment to freedom is not backed by our actions.

Mike K. and his friends seem to think that the charges of hypocrisy are worth it, because shutting down the Baghdad bureau silenced a voice of fascism. I hate to break ti to him, but we didn't knock the station off the air -- we forced their reporters out of the country. Al Arabiya's broadcasts continue to be popular in Iraq (although not as popular as Al Jazeera, or the Iranian channels). We gained nothing, and suffered a public relations hit. This move was a fiasco.

Thursday, December 04, 2003
Don't Eat the Turkey!

Apparently the bird President Bush was photographed proudly presenting in Baghdad last week was not edible -- it was a "trophy turkey," specially roasted and "primped" by the army's food vendors to adorn the chow line.

The White House says there was no deception intended -- no one knew the turkey would be there, and they didn't direct the President to pick it up. They didn't comment on what it says that, left to his own devices, the President managed to find the inedible food.

But the Washington Post article above notes that another heavily-publicized aspect of the trip is not holding up under scrutiny -- most notably the widely repeated story about the tense moments over the Atlantic when a British Airways pilot allegedly spotted the plane. First the White House said Air Force One's pilot tried to throw the BA captain off the scent by claiming to be a much smaller plane. Then, they claimed the cover story came from British ground controllers. Now, British Airways says "it didn't happen."

Who's Obsessive? Meanwhile, the White House has revealed that First Lady Laura Bush is mulling a Christmas trip to Afghanistan (in odd contrast to the secrecy surrounding Bush's Baghdad adventure). Are these guys really so fixated on Hillary that they feel the need to mirror all of her movements?

Wednesday, December 03, 2003
Fighting the Wrong War The President can insist that Iraq is the central front of the war on terror all he wants (and he does!), but this poll indicates that Americans either: A) disagree, or B) think we're losing. 70% say the war has not reduced the risk of terrorism.

Again, we all know why we have to stay until we set things right. But is anyone going to force the President to provide a reasonably defensible argument for why we went, and how he intends to win? If, as planned, Bush accelerates the troop drawdown next summer to gear up for his re-election campaign, it's hard to see that 70% coming down.