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A simple question for the president of the United States: If you don?t read the newspapers, how can you criticize the media coverage of Iraq?
A few weeks ago, George W. Bush noted during an interview that while he glances at newspaper headlines, he ?rarely? reads the actual articles because ?A lot of times there?s opinions mixed in with news.? So where does he get his info? Bush said he prefers to be briefed by White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. ?The best way to get the news,? he explained, ?is from objective sources. And the most objective sources I have are people on my staff who tell me what?s happening in the world.? Lately Bush also has been warning the American public not to pay attention to other sources, such as journalists who report that all is not going well in the land of occupation. ?We?re making good progress in Iraq,? Bush said. ?Sometimes it?s hard to tell when you listen to the filter.? The filter is Bushspeak for the media.
With American troops being killed with tragic frequency in Iraq, security there still a mess, Congress uneasy over the latest occupation bill ($87 billion), and the United Nations and U.S. allies far from eager to join in the adventure by sending troops or cash, Bush has adopted the stance often embraced by up-the-creek politicians: blame the media. This comes as no surprise. But what is alarming is that Bush?s view is so thoroughly shaped by Rice (one of his ?most objective? sources), for in the past few weeks she has been presenting a version of reality that could cause one to wonder if she is living in her own (newspaperless) bubble.
A few examples:
In a speech to the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, Rice defended the war in Iraq by saying, ?When the president went to the United Nations in September 2002, there was little controversy about the nature of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein.? Actually, there was much debate. The threat from Iraq depended on what weapons Hussein possessed. Bush was then arguing that Iraq had massive WMD stockpiles; others were questioning that assessment. Isn?t that controversy? Rice also said, ?Let there be no mistake: Right up to the end, Saddam Hussein continued to harbor ambitions to threaten the world with weapons of mass destruction and to hide his illegal weapons activities.? Ambitions to threaten? Before the war, Bush, Rice and Co. had not asserted that Hussein was a danger because of his desires. They claimed he was a threat because of the weapons he supposedly had in hand. And the issue was not ?illegal weapons activities,? but actual weapons. Had that slipped her mind?
Moreover, during a post-speech Q&A, Rice was asked to explain Bush?s doctrine of pre-emptive war, and she provided a confusing and self-contradictory explanation: ?It?s actually just kind of common sense. You?d like to get them before they get you. That?s all it means . . . Now, the Iraqi situation, I would argue, was hardly a case of pre-emption . . . We were hardly in a state of peace with Iraq. This was an outlaw regime that had been repeatedly sanctioned by the international community . . . It was finally time to take action before the threat grew any graver.? Huh? Isn?t that pre-emption? When the national security adviser doesn?t get this right, it?s reason for worry.
Weeks earlier, Rice appeared on The O?Reilly Factor and noted, ?The president took the American people to war because this is a dangerous tyrant who had used weapons of mass destruction before. Three administrations, every intelligence service in the world, the United Nations knew that he had those weapons.? Rice was engaging in wishful revisionism. Bush?s justification for war had not been Hussein?s use of chemical weapons against Iranian troops and Kurdish civilians in the 1980s ? which was before both the Gulf War and the U.N. inspections severely limited Hussein?s WMD capabilities. And not every ?intelligence service in the world? knew Hussein had those weapons. The Defense Intelligence Agency ? the Pentagon?s own intelligence service ? produced a classified assessment in October 2002 that concluded, ?There is no reliable information on whether Iraq is producing or stockpiling chemical weapons, or where Iraq has ? or will ? establish its chemical warfare agent production facilities.?
And in early September, Rice tried to deflect the criticism that the Bush administration had not prepared adequately for the postwar occupation. ?If there was something that was really underestimated [by the Bush White House],? she said, ?it was how really awful Saddam Hussein was to his own people? and how deteriorated the Iraqi infrastructure had become. Rice was being disingenuous. It had not been tough before the war for the U.S. government to suss out conditions in Iraq. Electronic surveillance, satellite photography, interviews with refugees ? all of this could have produced a picture of life within Iraq. Or the CIA could have asked Sean Penn. In mid-October, The New York Times reported on the front page that a yearlong State Department study conducted before the war had predicted many of the problems that have arisen during the occupation. Several government officials told the newspaper that the Pentagon ignored many of the study?s conclusions.
Rice has been consistently mischaracterizing and misrepresenting Iraqi matters. And she is Bush?s main source of news? No wonder he cannot get his facts straight. When Bush addressed the Filipino Congress recently, he compared the transition he wants to achieve in Iraq to the rise of democracy in the Philippines. After all, America, according to Bush, had ?liberated the Philippines from colonial rule.? That observation, though, ignored the fact that the United States ruled the Philippines for five decades before granting it autonomy. Had Rice ? and all the other vetters of this speech ? forgotten about the Spanish-American War?
So Bush proudly eschews The Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, and he replaces them with The Daily Condi. Talk about filters. The president is relying on All the News That Fits the Spin.
ANBERRA, Australia, Oct. 23 ? Minutes after President Bush finished an hourlong meeting with moderate Islamic leaders on the island of Bali on Wednesday, he approached his staff with something of a puzzled look on his face.
"Do they really believe that we think all Muslims are terrorists?" he asked, shaking his head. He was equally distressed, he told them, to hear that the United States was so pro-Israel that it was uninterested in the creation of a Palestinian state living alongside Israel, despite his frequent declarations calling for exactly that.
It was a revealing moment precisely because the president was so surprised.
In his six-day dash from Tokyo to the Philippines to Singapore, Indonesia and Australia, rarely did the searing suspicions of America's intentions ? and the intentions of Mr. Bush himself ? pierce the president's fearsome security bubble. But when they did, they revealed a huge gulf between how the president views himself, and how Asians view George W. Bush's America.
By and large the encounters were painfully polite, even when Mr. Bush decided to take on directly Malaysia's cantankerous prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, who declared that Jews run the world, and run it from the United States. More boisterous in their anti-Bush enthusiasm were the members of the Australian Parliament who heckled him during a speech, shouting that the United States had no right to become the world's sheriff.
White House officials wrote off the first to the anti-Semitic mutterings of a soon-to-be-retired autocrat, and the second to the local traditions of parliamentary decorum here, which bear a close resemblance to Australian rugby rules. But beneath both incidents lay uncomfortable realities for Mr. Bush: Mr. Mahathir's speech drew a standing ovation from world leaders at a major Islamic conference last week ? including American allies ? and polls show that Mr. Bush's approach to the world is deeply unpopular among Australians.
Yet for his part, Mr. Bush seemed determined to show that Iraq was a special case and to dispel the impression held in many parts of the world that he is impatient, trigger-happy and uninterested in building alliances. He sounds like a man who believes himself genuinely misunderstood.
"I've been saying all along that not every policy issue needs to be dealt with by force," Mr. Bush insisted in the conference room of Air Force One as he left Bali and headed here to Australia's capital.
He invited reporters to look at how he is now handling North Korea. Mr. Bush spent most of his visit whipping South Korea, Japan, Russia and China into a common approach ? telling North Korea that some form of written guarantee of the country's security, in return for full disarmament of its nuclear programs, is the best deal it will ever get.
Similarly, he welcomed Europe's intervention to get Iran to stop its nuclear program, saying he was happy to have someone else play the heavy. "It's the same approach," he said, "the kind of approach we're taking in North Korea as well, a collective voice trying to convince a leader to change behavior."
But even some of Mr. Bush's aides concede that Mr. Bush has only begun to discover the gap between the picture of a benign superpower that he sees, and the far more calculating, self-interested, anti-Muslim America the world perceives as he speeds by behind dark windows.
"On a trip like this he can get a glimpse of it, but only a glimpse," one senior official who sat in on several meetings said. "Of course, when you are moving at warp speed, there isn't a lot of time to think about what you are hearing."
Notably missing from this trip were the big crowds that have almost always turned out for a glimpse of the world's most powerful leader. To some extent, that was planned: Thailand, where Mr. Bush stayed the longest for the annual Asian economic forum, gave workers a holiday and made it clear that protests would not be tolerated.
In Indonesia, the Secret Service would not let the president get more than a mile off the grounds of the airport in Bali ? the overwhelmingly Hindu island of the world's largest Islamic nation. The result was that only ordinary Indonesians to see the first American president to to visit their country in more that a decade were selling Coke from a stand outside the airport fence.
Similarly, in Australia Mr. Bush visited only this prim-and-proper capital, where few Australians without government business ever step. (Hu Jintao, the Chinese president, was beginning to take a much more extensive tour of the country as Mr. Bush was leaving.)
All this is in sharp contrast to the last presidential tour of the region, when President Bill Clinton visited Vietnam at the end of 2000, talking to mayors about housing and health care, touring ancient temples and new factories, his car weaving through streets packed five- and six-deep with Vietnamese who said America, once an enemy, was now the path to prosperity.
That, of course, was a different time, and Mr. Bush's aides say Mr. Clinton viewed Southeast Asia through the cheery glasses of economic globalization, while Mr. Bush is forcing governments that would rather turn the other way to face the threats brewing in their own villages.
It is an unpleasant message, and the risk facing Mr. Bush is that important parts of it get lost in translation. In Indonesia and the Philippines, one American official with long experience in Asia noted during the president's tour, "people are tired of hearing that they are the front line of terrorism, and over time they come to blame the messenger."
Mr. Bush, in his exchange with reporters on Air Force One, expressed some regret that he did not have the time to explain himself better. "There was kind of a sense that American believe that Muslims are terrorists," he said, and he tried to defuse that by assuring them that "Americans know that these terrorists are hiding behind Islam in order to create fear and chaos and death." And he tried to explain his Middle East policy, he said, but seemed to acknowledge that his message probably did not sink in.
"I didn't really have time to go in further than that," he said.
-------------------- The above is an extract from my fictional novel, "The random postings of Edame".
In the beginning was the word. And man could not handle the word, and the hearing of the word, and he asked God to take away his ears so that he might live in peace without having to hear words which might upset his equinamity or corrupt the unblemished purity of his conscience.
And God, hearing this desperate plea from His creation, wrinkled His mighty brow for a moment and then leaned down toward man, beckoning that he should come close so as to hear all that was about to be revealed to him.
"Fuck you," He whispered, and frowned upon the pathetic supplicant before retreating to His heavens.
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