It must have seemed like a journalist’s dream interview. Six newspaper reporters were invited to the White House in October 2003 to speak to US President George W Bush, on the eve of his Australian visit. The Australian‘s Editor-at-Large, Paul Kelly, was one of the chosen ones ‘Kelly, fourth from left at table,’ read the accompanying photo and flew to Washington from Sydney to get close to the most powerful man on Earth.
Kelly penned a love letter. ‘George W is tanned and fit,’ he wrote:
He wears a light blue-grey suit, light blue shirt with red tie. He is businesslike and friendly, looks you in the eye and engages like all good US politicians do. But wait for it he’s funny, he tells jokes and his body language is relaxed and comfortable. A long way from the wooden wonder of the silver screen.
Kelly didn’t reveal any of Bush’s jokes, but clearly basked in the glow from the US President. He went on:
In the flesh, his passion is stronger and more convincing. This is a man who knows who he loves, likes and hates. He returns, over and over, to the terrorists, the cold-blooded killers that will inevitably make or break his presidency. You feel in a physical way what you knew only in an intellectual way that terror shapes his every waking moment, from the early morning security briefing until his early retirement, typically before 10pm.
By the time Bush started talking about Australia, Kelly could barely contain his excitement:
Bush sees Australia through Howard or through Howard’s eyes. Australians are tough, maybe like Texans, they won’t be intimidated, and they love freedom and democracy. I begin to feel patriotic. But does Bush grasp that we have turned cynicism into an art form?
It was a case study in journalistic obsequiousness, common in much of the mainstream media since September 11, 2001. Reporters are now expected to express nationalistic and patriotic fervour in times of crisis. Sides are to be taken and allegiances shown. Kelly travelled to Washington and chose to discuss Bush’s clothing choice, while continuing the Murdoch Empire’s unashamed and unquestioning support for the Bush Administration. Kelly became the Court Reporter.
The Australian‘s Foreign Editor, Greg Sheridan, was upset last week after the routing of the Republican Party in the US mid-term elections and the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld followed by news that he, along with others in the Bush cabal, may soon face a war crimes tribunal. ‘There is much tragedy in this,’ he wrote, but assured his readers that nothing much would change in US policy towards Iraq. A few days later, Bush signalled that change would occur soon. For the umpteenth time, Sheridan’s direct line to the White House must have been faulty.
Paul Kelly told me in July 2006 that, although he opposed the Iraq war in 2003 on ‘strategic’ grounds, critics should be careful not to blame the American intervention for the current chaos. ‘There are risks in mounting that sort of argument into an excuse or an apology for the present insurgency in terrorism,’ he said. Like his Murdoch colleagues, Kelly seemed incapable of interpreting events outside an ‘us and them’ dichotomy. Was Kelly seriously suggesting that opposing the war on anything other than strategic grounds was giving comfort to terrorists?
An air of unreality also permeated the Sydney Morning Herald’s Peter Hartcher column last week:
Even as Bush bowed, Howard, the man Bush once called the ‘man of steel,’ stood firm and unbending. The Australian leader is an international political and historical oddity the last leader of any of the nations of the ‘coalition of the willing’ who remains in power and seeking re-election, a curiously untouched island of calm in an international sea of recrimination.
Perhaps Hartcher thinks the media operates in a parallel universe to the political arena, or perhaps he simply doesn’t understand the implication of his statement.
The main reason that Howard has remained ‘untouched’ in Australia is precisely because journalists such as Hartcher have refused to hold him to account and challenge him on the global ramifications of the Iraq war. They’ve blindly accepted the ‘stay the course’ rhetoric. Where are the questions on Iranian influence, US use of torture and ‘extraordinary rendition’ and US-backed death squads? The lack of self-awareness was stunning.
Thanks to Fiona Katauskas
Leaving the parochial Australian media behind, the New York Times recently published one of the most intriguing essays about Iraq for some time. Dexter Filkins profiled Ahmad Chalabi, the key feeder of dodgy WMD ‘intelligence’ to the Bush Administration in the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Chalabi now blames the Americans for the Iraq disaster, and accuses the main players, including his friend, former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, of not believing that the Iraqis were capable of running the country after Saddam was deposed.
‘In Wolfowitz’s mind, you couldn’t trust the Iraqis to run a democracy,’ Chalabi said. ‘ œWe have to teach them, give them lessons, in Wolfowitz’s mind. œWe have to leave Iraq under our tutelage. The Iraqis are useless. The Iraqis are incompetent. ’
‘What I didn’t realise,’ Chalabi said, ‘was that the Americans sold us out. I’ve been a friend of America, and I’ve been its enemy,’ he said. ‘America betrays its friends. It sets them up and betrays them. I’d rather be America’s enemy.’
Chalabi may be a charlatan and liar, but he’s also been a mightily effective political player. His words have a ring of truth about them. The invasion and occupation were illegal and immoral, but it’s still important to understand the reasons for the failure of ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom.’ Yet nearly four years since the first bomb dropped on Baghdad, we are still barely hearing from Iraqis themselves.
Soon after the March 2003 Iraq invasion, while I was working at Fairfax, I had a conversation with a senior editor at the Sydney Morning Herald. I asked why the paper, in the run-up to the war, barely ran any Arab or Iraqi voices either for or against the invasion. ‘I never thought of that,’ came the reply. I was momentarily stunned, but shouldn’t have been. It was not deemed necessary to hear Iraqi opinions. Instead, we were bombarded with a never-ending list of Middle Eastern ‘experts’ from Australia, the UK and US. If Iraqis were seen or heard, it was simply to confirm the prejudice in the audience’s mind: Arabs were vicious, ungrateful and ‘terrorists.’
In the years since, nothing has changed. Many Iraqis are writing about the war and its consequences,
often in English, in the Arab media and blogs. Why are we not hearing these people? It is as if only Westerners have the right to pontificate about ‘our’ war.
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