Saturday, May 21, 2005

One big happy European family 

That's precisely why the Euro-establishment hates New Europe:
Czech President Vaclav Klaus said Thursday he hoped France would vote against the European constitution later this month.

"I am not sure what the outcome of the French referendum will be but I sincerely hope France votes against the constitution," Klaus, a eurosceptic and vocal critic of the constitution, told AFP.

Asked why he believed all the countries that had voted on the constitution so far had ratified it, Klaus said he attributed it to a lack of public debate.

"To my great regret they have not been listening to the arguments against it. The constitution has been ratified by European bureaucrats and intellectuals who are exactly the group who will benefit from it," he said on the sidelines of a seminar on the European constitution in Prague.
Meanwhile, political storm already rages across the continent; while the elites are desperately trying to shore up the support, the blame game ("who lost the EU?") has already begun, as have speculations about the likely fall-out.

With just one week to go before the 29 May referendum, the opinion polls in France suggest that the EU constitution will go down 53 to 47 per cent. The support for the constitution's two main cheerleaders, Chirac and Prime Minister Raffarin, is also going south, plunging to 39 and 21 per cent respectively. When faced with a political crisis of this magnitude, many in France do what the French normally do in those circumstances - blame Great Britain:
The yes-no debate has boiled down to a central theme: the role of free-market capitalism, or what the French call liberalism. Does the constitution protect France from this "Anglo-Saxon" system, or does it condemn France to servitude in an EU that is merely a British-led trading zone?
Whichever way the referendum goes, Britain is the winner - a proposition arguably not shared by the British themselves, who hardly feel thriumphalist. A leaked memo from a former UK Minister in charge of European affairs blames Chirac's lackluster leadership on the troubles in France:
The French political class campaigning for a "yes" vote on May 29 suffers from a "lack of leadership in explaining, defending, promoting the EU... not as an extension of France and French interests," Denis MacShane wrote.
Prophetic words, considering they were written a month and a half ago. A dirty little secret in Great Britain is that the French "non" might throw big enough a spanner into European works to absolve Tony Blair from having to hold Britain's own referendum any time soon. Blair wants the UK to join in the new and improved Union, but it is arguable whether a majority of his countrymen and women share his enthusiasm for the EU. After the difficult last few months, Blair is unlikely to want to further tarnish his legacy by unsuccessfully trying to ram through a Europe vote. This poison chalice might have to wait for Blair's successor, Chancellor Gordon Brown, a mean farewell gift from Tony, as he rides into the sunset sometime over the next year or so.

On June 1, it's Holland's turn to go to the polls, and it looks like the referendum will go down by an even bigger margin than in France - the latest polling has the "no" vote leading by 54 to 27 per cent. The Dutch referendum is non-binding (the parliament will make the ultimate decision), but the main political parties are promising to take the result strongly into consideration if the turnout exceeds 30 per cent. Ironically, just as in France, the "no" campaign is being run mainly by the left, which is hoping to get an added morale boost from the French "no".

No wonder, with the stakes so high, the pro-integration forces are in overdrive. Germany's Schroeder and Poland's Kwasniewski both arrived at a summit with Chirac at Nancy, warning of dire consequences should the EU's founding state turn and devour its own child. "Europe needs France... France is facing a great responsibility, the responsibility of not letting down other Europeans," said Schroeder, with a hint of desperation. "A negative French response could be difficult to explain to the Poles," argued Kwasniewski. I'm not sure how much appeal the German and the Polish leaders have within the French electorate, but their entreaties are not nearly as bizarre as the new German invasion sweeping the country:
Those French citizens who thought they would spend a quiet day at the Louvre this week have found themselves assaulted by German youths, dozens of them, intent on plying them with blue-and-yellow flags, heaps of literature and long, impassioned arguments.

"I'm asking you, as fellow Europeans, to think about whether you want my people to retreat back into our old history," Hans-Stefan Stemmer, a 20-year-old Berlin university student, told a bewildered elderly couple in fluent French the other day in the museum's elegant courtyard. They declined his offer of European Union flags, but said they'd think about his entreaties.

Mr. Stemmer and hundreds of his comrades are part of a desperate last-ditch effort this week by leaders across Europe to persuade the French to vote in favour of adopting the European Union constitution in a May 29 referendum.
First they came with guns, now they come with little flags. As they say, first time a tragedy, the second time a farce. But considering Europe's bloody history, I'll take the farce any day.


The Y-front affronts 

The Underpantsgate scandal continues to unfold, with Saddam now threatening through one of his legal representatives to sue the British tabloid for his unwanted exposure:
"We will sue the newspaper and everyone who helped in showing these pictures," said Saddam Hussein's chief lawyer Ziad Al-Khasawneh, speaking from Jordan.
"The Sun" is unrepentant:
The Sun newspaper said it would fight any legal action and said it planned to publish more photos on Saturday...

The Sun's managing editor Graham Dudman defended the decision to publish the images.

"People seem to forget that this is a man who is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of men, women and children and all that's happened to him is someone has taken his picture," he told BBC Radio 4's PM programme.

"This is a sort of modern-day Adolf Hitler. These pictures are an extraordinary iconic news image that will still be being looked at the end of this century."
Many of my readers, I'm sure, will argue that the facts the military authorities are treating this matter very seriously and that one of the most disgusting characters of the late twentieth century will launching a legal action to protect his dignity, allow for only one conclusion: the world has gone mad. On the other hand, one could think that for all the apparent absurdity of the situation, this is precisely what makes us different - that even in the midst of a struggle against people who blow up women and children, videotape beheadings and slaughter infidels, we don't forget who are or what we stand for. Not that we get any credit for it, either from their or our own home-grown critics.

The reactions in Iraq to Saddam Unplugged have been predictably mixed: "Some Iraqis said the photos were just the latest in a series of insults to Arabs and Muslims. Others said the humiliation is just what the imprisoned 68-year-old former dictator deserved." In the former category, the previously quoted Ziad al-Khasawneh said the photos "add to acts that are practiced against the Iraqi people, and of course we remember what happened in Abu Ghraib and we remember what happened in Guantanamo."

Sadly, he's right. "We" - the world - don't remember and couldn't give a shit about what Saddam "happened" to do to over a million Iraqis, Iranians and Kuwiatis, or for that matter what "happens" every time Islamofascists have any power. All that "we" care about is what a few dozen idiots have done in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.

The Arab media - with the exception of Al-Arabiya - has been very squeamish about broadcasting the pictures:
Jihad Ballout, a spokesman for the Al-Jazeera network, said his network did not show the pictures because it had ethical and professional concerns. "The photo is demeaning to Iraqis," he said, adding that "from the professional side, it is not news."
It might or might not be news - what isn't these days? - but I'm happy that after years of broadcasting violence and mayhem directed against the infidels, Al Jazeera is finally concerned about hurting people's feelings. I take it that next time jihadis release a video of a hostage begging for his or her life before being executed, Al Jazeera will can it as demeaning to the Westerners. Pictures of a 68-year old in his underpants are demeaning to Iraqis, pictures of naked Iraqis on a leash aren't. Go figure.

I'm not the one to make fun of other people's surnames - although hey, been on the receiving end often enough - but Jihad Ballout? Particularly commenting on scandal involving underpants?


Friday, May 20, 2005

"If this is how liberals support the troops, then could they please f*cking STOP already?" 

An American serviceman serving overseas emails me in the aftermath of the Korangate (or is it Toiletgate?) and the latest scoop by "The New York Times" about the abuse at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan:
No wonder the rest of the world thinks we’'re the evil ones. We're the ones telling them we are, over and over again. How about a story where the Army Major carries a dying Iraqi kid in his arms, visibly distraught at the carnage those bastards lay on little kids every day? How about a power plant coming on line, or kids going to a new school, or a market with free people shopping, or the 30 attacks that DIDN’'T go off because of the other 99% of interrogations that went according to plan? Nope, it's just those evil, war-mongering, blood-for-oil soldiers, doing what "everybody knows" they do when no one's looking. With the "news" coming out of Iraq 100% bad, there's no reason to expect anyone who relies on the media for information to have any positive thoughts on the effort there, no matter what their political standing. Even my family back home is starting to think it's a Vietnam-style "quagmire". Al-Qaeda couldn't get better PR service if they paid for it, and the media are providing gladly and free-of-charge!

If this is how liberals support the troops, then could they please f*cking STOP already? Don't tell those of us in the military you "support the troops", and then spend 110% of your time and print space breaking your necks to paint us all as bloodthirsty criminals because of the acts of a few – all as a thinly-disguised way to grind a political axe with a President with which 90% of the media has a deeply personal beef. It isn't fooling anybody – especially "the troops". We're perfectly aware that, to the media, we are expendable pawns in a political chess game, and we resent the hell out the very real damage they do to us every single day. And they wonder why the military votes overwhelmingly Republican as a block? Give me a break!
This is Army Major Mark Bieger:

You won't be seeing it too much in the media because I'm sure some new photos of abuse will show up pretty soon.

As Elisabeth Bumiller of "The New York Times" said to Scott McClellan at the White House press conference: "Are you asking them ["Newsweek"] to write a story about how great the American military is; is that what you're saying here?"

Not asking; just hoping, once in a while.


Emperor wears no clothes 

(hat tip: Drudge)

No, it's not the latest Calvin Klein ad. Britain's biggest selling tabloid, "The Sun", has today's scoop. In the tradition of "Page 3 girls", comes "Page 1 dictator", semi-nude.

In the current political climate, the top brass aren't happy - and are trying to pre-empt the inevitable media outcry about prisoner abuse and humiliation (well, maybe not):
U.S. military officials are condemning the release of photographs -- published in a popular British tabloid -- showing Saddam Hussein in prison, promising an aggressive investigation and steps to assure the breach never happens again...

In a statement released Friday by U.S. military officials in Baghdad, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) condemned the release of the images.

"These photos were taken in clear violation of DoD directives and possibly Geneva Convention guidelines for the humane treatment of detained individuals," a Defense Department statement said.

"Multi-National Forces-Iraq is disappointed at the possibility that someone responsible for the security, welfare, and detention of Saddam would take and provide these photos for public release."
Dear me, at least his Koran hasn't been flushed down the toilet (interesting question though; does this life-long secularist who over the last decade or so opportunistically turned to Islam have a copy in his cell?).

The Geneva Convention indeed can be interpreted to prohibit displaying certain (but certainly not all) types of photos of prisoners of war, and Saddam has been granted the POW status by the US. The photos are said to have been taken a year ago, so seeing that Saddam is now in Iraqi custody and awaiting a trial by an Iraqi tribunal, we're talking about a possible past violation - which brings up an interesting legal point: surely, it should be possible to show photos of POWs at some point in time after they have ceased to be POWs, if only for historical reasons.

Anyhow, the Geneva Convention aside, the photos of Saddam in his old ugly underwear should be plastered on every wall throughout Iraq and the Middle East. Nothing demystifies as much as reality, particularly those who for so long have tried to control it. Behold, Saddam - just a flesh and blood loser on the wrong side of history.


Travling for abuse 

The "fake but accurate" defense in the "Newsweek" controversy continues to roll on. As Kevin Drum notes (hat tip: James Taranto):
By the time this is all over, I suspect the Pentagon is going to be sorry it ever made a fuss over the Newsweek item in the first place. Every reporter in town is now going to start investigating this stuff, and the results are not likely to be pretty. Stay tuned for a fusillade of deeply researched stories about allegations of religious desecration by American troops starting in about a week.
Reuters reports:
In January 2003, the US military issued guidelines to personnel at the base that included the order: "Ensure that the Koran is not placed in offensive areas such as the floor, near the toilet or sink, near the feet or dirty/wet areas."

"The guidelines didn't come out of nowhere. You don't get such orders unless there's some problem, concern or controversy," said a US official who asked not to be named.
(More on the guidelines, which are quite strict, for example prohibiting non-Muslim US personnel from touching Koran, here.)

No, guidelines don't come out of nowhere, but it doesn't mean there has to be a sinister explanation behind them. The US Army has since the beginning granted the detainees the right to their own copy of Koran, but it is quite conceivable that the Army administration did not catch on straight away to just how strict the religious rules concerning handling of Koran are. Maybe the original infraction, which led to guidelines being implemented, amounted to a soldier merely touching the book, which one is not supposed to do without first purifying oneself. Maybe the detainees complained that they had nowhere safe to store their copies (subsequently little nets were given to all detainees so that the book can be placed there and hung from the ceiling to get it as far away as possible above the impure floor).

In any case, even if the guidelines were prompted by instances of purposeful as opposed to innocent mishandling of Koran, the very fact that the guidelines were put in place some two years ago, long before any public controversy over this issue had erupted, shows that accountability mechanisms within the US Army were working very well. That, ultimately, is why the Army deserves respect - not because it is staffed by angels, but because it faces up to its human mistakes. And this, in turn, means that for the past three years the crusading madia has not been unearthing and breaking any new stories, merely airing the dirty laundry of cases already being investigated and in many cases prosecuted by the military authorities.


Walk a mile in their shoes 

In every story I read about the failings of the reconstruction effort in Iraq (and God knows there are many, as President Bush himself admits) - about the slow pace or the lack of real progress despite the effort so far, and about the consequent frustrations of the Iraqi people - I get the impression that the journalists, while in possession and aware of all the relevant facts, somehow in the end fail the grasp the totality of the problem.

Take, for instance, the question of electricity supply. Both the American and the Iraqi authorities are doing their best to make sure that more people have greater access and more reliable supply than before, but these efforts are being continually hampered by three factors.

Firstly, there is the general state of the power grid at the time of the liberation. In one word, it was shambles, because for the last two decades Saddam chose to spend Iraq's oil bounty on costly foreign wars and on keeping himself in style. Brig. Gen. Thomas P. Bostick, commander of the Army Corps of Engineers Gulf Region Division says that when workers get down to repair a generator or a turbine, they often find they have to do "wholesale rebuild of those items or replace them completely. So the cost is much higher than initially estimated." Reconstruction becomes a matter of repairing the damage not just of the last few years but the last few decades.

Secondly, nothing remains static, including demand. People are complaining that they are not getting enough electricity, but they also want and need a lot more than they were getting before the liberation, mostly because the improved standards of living, at least for a large part of the population, mean that more people are now happy owners of a whole lot of energy-consuming electrical appliances they weren't able to afford in the past. According to General Bostick, the demand has increased from about 5000 MW before the liberation to around 7000 to 8000 MW today. Thus the reconstruction effort has to run to stand still.

Finally, there are the insurgents and terrorists who are constantly sabotaging the grid. These people couldn't give a stuff about the wellbeing of ordinary Iraqis, whom they merely use as pawns in their war, thinking (rightly, unfortunately) that less electricity there is, the more frustrated the Iraqis will be at the US and their own government rather than at the insurgents who are blowing up the pylons and attacking power stations.

And so, in story after story, the reconstruction authorities are portrayed as negligent, wasteful, inefficient or incompetent, when faced with a depilated system, rising expectations, and saboteurs who destroy almost as fast as the authorities build, their work is simply not progressing enough.

It's time for a bit more perspective. My modest proposal: before "The New York Times", or any other major mainstream media outlet writes another negative piece about the reconstruction, they should try the following:

1) move from the publishing ivory towers into disused premises of "The Chattanooga Daily Express-Examiner";

2) accept that your readers now demand that you bring out an extra edition every day on top of the one you already do; and

3) try to do it while somebody constantly keeps blowing the fuses in your office, crashing the computers, and putting spanners in the printing press.

But as ABC News' Terry Moran told Hugh Hewitt,
There is, Hugh, I agree with you, a deep anti-military bias in the media. One that begins from the premise that the military must be lying, and that American projection of power around the world must be wrong. I think that that is a hangover from Vietnam, and I think it's very dangerous. That's different from the media doing it's job of challenging the exercise of power without fear or favor
. When the media puts itself in an automatic antagonistic position to the military (and the authorities generally) it’s hard to expect that reporting will be informed by empathy and understanding.


Eason Jordan in drag 

Linda Foley, president of the Newspaper Guild, accuses the US troops in Iraq of "targeting and killing" Arab journalists. La Shawn Barber has the latest.

Wonder whether Foley's folly extends to those "Arab journalists" who videotape the attacks on the Coalition forces and put up the footage on jihadi websites.


No connection 

Repeat after me, there was no connection whatsoever between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda:
The regime of Saddam Hussein rejected repeated requests from Jordan to hand over Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who now heads al Qaida in Iraq, the Jordanian king said in an interview published today.

King Abdullah II told the pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat that Jordan exerted “big efforts” with Saddam’s government to extradite al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian sentenced to death at home for terrorist activities.

“But our demands that the former regime hand him over were in vain,” Abdullah said.

“We had information that he entered Iraq from a neighbouring country, where he lived and what he was doing. We informed the Iraqi authorities about all this detailed information we had, but they didn’t respond,” the king said.


Thursday, May 19, 2005

Donald trumps the towers 

New York property tycoon Donald Trump has unveiled his design for "bigger, stronger and better" twin towers to replace the World Trade Centre destroyed on September 11, 2001.

Denouncing the existing plans for rebuilding Ground Zero as the "worst pile of crap architecture I've ever seen", Mr Trump argued that erecting two new, even taller twin towers was the only valid response to the terrorists…

Describing the Freedom Tower as an "empty skeleton", Mr Trump said its construction would be a capitulation. "If we rebuild the World Trade Centre in the form of a skeleton ... the terrorists win. It's that bad," he told reporters gathered in the lobby of his Fifth Avenue Trump Towers headquarters in Manhattan.
I have to agree with Donald on this one. The best monument to the almost 3,000 people who lost their lives on September 11 is for life and normalcy to resume on the site. It would also be a more fitting response to those who brought the towers down and intended to bring America to its knees with them – you can't destroy us or our way of life, because whatever you manage to tear down we'll put up again, even bigger and better.

What does everyone else think?


Stalingrad of the Southern Front 

It was remiss of me to forget the 61st anniversary, but BBC’s On This Day has reminded me that on 18 May 1944, Polish troops have finally put their red and white flag on the ruins of the monastery at Monte Cassino, in Italy, after the fourth and the final Allied assault on the famous mountain and surrounding positions (by American, British, Hindu and New Zealand troops), in one of the hardest fought battles of World War Two.

The gorgeous baroque monastery (the original founded by St Benedict in the fifth century) has been rebuilt after the war following its total destruction in bombing raids and the assault. I went there in 1988 and the bus journey up the hair-pin road to the peak was harrowing enough, so I can hardly imagine what it was like to advance up the heavily fortified slopes under constant German fire. The Polish cemetery at Monte Cassino is in my humble opinion the most beautiful military cemetery in the world, spreading under a giant cross on a gentle slope of Mount Cairo, which overlooks the monastery hill. My great-grandfather had fought there and survived, over a thousand of his brothers-in-arms lost their lives in five days of the final assault.


Dust off your pajamas... 

If you want to find out more about the cutting edge of the new media, read John Hawkins’s interview with Marc Danziger, one of the people behind the new and exciting project Pajamas Media.

And if you are a blogger who wants to join in, send an email to join "at" pajamasmedia.com with your name and the name of your blog. Oh, and mention that Chrenkoff sent you.



This is in very early stages yet, but there are some intriguing stories coming out of Spain, suggesting that there might have been more to the Madrid bombing than meets the eye: just what was the relationship between some members of the anti-terror police and the terrorists themselves, and has the Spanish centre-right government been set up to take the fall?

As I said, early days yet, but certainly some interesting questions are being raised.

Barcepundit is keeping tabs on this unfolding investigation by a Spanish newspaper here here and here.

See also Frank J Gaffney at NRO, and Fausta at Bad Hair Blog.

Update: Chester has got a nice chart to illustrate all the strange connections.


More Koran desecrations 

A Muslim group on Wednesday demanded a public apology from online bookseller Amazon.com for its part in delivering a used copy of the Koran with the words "Death to all Muslims" scrawled across the inside cover.

Los Angeles graduate student Azza Basarudin, who ordered a used copy of the holy book through Amazon.com from a third-party, said that when she discovered the message "I actually dropped the book."
Thank God the dropping was accidental; if it was deliberate, Basarudin could have been prosecuted in Pakistan. In any case, Amazon has been quite apologetic:
The Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) said Basarudin brought the matter to them about two weeks ago. The Council contacted Amazon.com who have apologized to Basarudin, refunded her money, sent out a new copy of the Koran and issued her a gift certificate.

Amazon said it had also suspended Pennsylvania-based Bellwether Books, which packaged and mailed the Koran in question, from selling the Koran and had asked for an internal investigation.
But apparently it's not enough:
The MPAC said it wanted Amazon to issue a public apology and condemnation and establish a zero-tolerance policy toward sellers and employees.
(here's the actual MPAC press release.) Which seems to put a pretty high onus on sellers (and re-sellers) of second-hand books, who now apparently have to leaf through every book to check whether one of the previous owners hasn't scribbled something inside that could be construed as offensive to any of the potential future buyers. I've picked up in my days many a second-hand political book with nasty comments written on the margins about ideological positions I hold dear, but it never occurred to me to complain to the second-hand bookseller in question, or to engage services of a professional grievance body.
The MPAC spokesperson Edina Lekovic says the desecrated Koran was part of a "cult of hate that may exist and may be on the rise."
Possibly at "Newsweek". Make no mistake, I don't approve of sacrilege or desecration directed against Christianity, Islam or any other religion, and people who write "Death to all Muslims" have obviously been visited by the stupidity fairy –and deserve our scorn - but to turn some anonymous ignoramus' sribblings into a cause celebre and to speak in this context of a "cult of hate" is a sad example of rhetorical inflation at a time when another "cult of hate" that definitely exists and has been on the rise over the last few decades is flying passenger airplanes into skyscrapers, beheading hostages, and killing women and children with car bombs.


France and the world 

I've had some fun at France's expense this week, but on a serious note, one of regular guest bloggers, Sophie Masson, now takes a closer look at the origins of the French foreign policy and the problem of France's uneasy relationship with the rest of the continent and the world.

Sophie, by the way, has a new book out, "Walking in the Garden of the Mind", a collection essays and short stories on fantastical, folkloric, mythological and spiritual themes.

France in the world

Like the US, France attracts more than its fair share of both love and hate. People outside France are often quite unbalanced when it comes to this hexagonal-shaped country in the inner west of Europe: either they regard it as the home of charm, style, a musical language, romance, good food, good living and what have you (a famous German proverb, for instance, depicts ultimate bliss as 'living like God in France'); or else they regard it as the home of arrogant, unprincipled, dishonest and surly, swaggering people who try to throw their weight around too much in the world and look down on everyone else (as in the attitudes depicted by Arthur in his report on fellow Europeans' attitude to France and the French).

Few people appear to be neutral, as they might be about almost any other country in Europe. In recent times, this fissure has become deeper and deeper, as the French Government's swaggering attitude re US Government policy has won them both praise and pillorying. French people generally regard both Francophilia and Francophobia with a shrug, though the national sardonic sang-froid has rather deserted them recently, and anti-Americanism--which is in fact, for most people, merely an extension of that old bugbear, anti-Anglo-Saxoness--is making a comeback. Many Americans feel betrayed by that, and by France's apparent willingness to side with its enemies. As a Frenchwoman, but also an Australian, and a firm believer in the war to destroy Saddam Hussein, I can understand the anger felt in the US--but I cannot accept the traducing of my mother country as some kind of uniquely devious or wicked nation. It's a country like any other, with both good and bad: what sets it apart is that, like the US, it has a strong inner core of self-belief, a belief in a civilizing mission, a mission of destiny. As a visitor to the US, and out of long knowledge of France, where most of my family still lives, I feel in fact the two countries have a great deal more in common than either might be willing to admit. The reactions of other countries to each shows that plainly. Isn't the US accused of arrogance in much the same way? It's not for nothing the two countries were linked by revolution (though those revolutions were very different--and the French support for the US revolution was principally for reasons of blacking England's eye).

These days, France still sees itself as a rival for influence on the world stage with the US, and its Machiavellian policies are not really cosying up to America's enemies so much as trying to position France as a major world player, if only in terms of influence. It's seen as following France's national interest (though I think the results are not good, and in fact not in France's interests at all). France is not a pacifist nation, like modern Germany--still less is it soft on terrorism (one of the US experts in the field of Islamist terrorism, Dr Daniel Pipes, who is hardly a left wing apologist, has said France has got a much better grip on it than Britain, for example.).

France is a contradiction. It is a country that accuses the US of unilateralism, but that has always gone its own way, without asking permission; a proud country that finds it hard to cope with the fact that it's no longer a major power in the world, a country that has always seen itself as besieged by enemies that it must trick and foil with Gallic cleverness (Alas, these schemes often fall flat on their faces, as pride, the French undoing, blinds them to the realities of other nations' capabilities. This is part of the reason for the French catastrophe in World War II: it was not appeasement but blindness to the German potential that caused both the collapse of the Army and the setting up of the Vichy regime--in part, the Vichy people thought they could trick the Nazis). In the modern world, it is flailing around because it's become obvious to all but the political class that France is not only impotent in international power plays, it is rapidly losing ground in the battle for ideas, culture, language to 'perfidious Albion' and its offshoots, such as the US. It doesn't have the consolation prize of Britain, which has managed to accept that it's now a second-string power and that its Empire no longer exists, because its cultural influence--including in the matter of the US--has been so broad and far-reaching. (Though a certain amount of prickly familial resentment exists in Britain re the US' power, of course).

The one big thing France thought it had got going for it in the modern world, until very recently, is the EU. From a long way back, a dream of European unification under benevolent French tutelage has existed in France. Chirac recently spoke of the EU as 'the daughter of 1789' (this constant reference to the French Revolution--which started well but quickly turned into a bloody and tyrannical nightmare, the template for all other such revolutions since--is one of the things that most irritates me about modern French politics. It's as if the country didn't exist before 1789! ) But in fact the dream of unified, French-guided Europe has existed since Louis XIV. Later, the revolutionaries certainly wanted to export their ideas to all of Europe and declared war on everybody so as to force liberty, equality and fraternity down all throats, willing or unwilling; and Napoleon of course was a prime exponent of it too.

French defeat since then made the dream recede; but it was revived before World War II by several politicians, including the Socialist Pierre Laval (who later, under Nazi occupation, became the head of the French puppet government which replaced the Vichy regime, after the Nazis lost patience with it and established direct control over all of France. After the war, he was shot as a collaborator. ) Laval, who actually, paradoxically, hated the Germans (as did many French people of his generation--not only for WWII but WWI as well) had both the French blindness of thinking he could trick the Nazis, and the utopian idea that, guided by France, the barbaric Germans could be defanged in a united Europe that would only 'superficially' bear Nazi lineaments . Of course he was utterly wrong in both, and he paid for his criminal cynicism and Machiavellism with his life, but his idea, cleaned up and sanitized and stripped of its ugly association with the occupation, was resurrected after the war. That's because it wasn't just Laval's dream; many politicians of the time, especially De Gaulle, believed fervently in European unification. It was an idea which had great currency amongst most of the victors of the war, in Europe generally. The unspoken motive for the formation of the EU was a wish to bind Germany with links of wary and patronizing friendship, something that could be done safely as the country was completely stripped of all moral certainty after the hideous revelations of just what the Nazis had done.

But in France's case it was also a question of reviving ideas of French glory and influence, simmering away since the Napoleonic era. It was a way in which the country could exert a much bigger influence than its size warranted. France would be the driving political and cultural and social and bureaucratic motor of the EU; it's no accident that the European parliament is based in Strasbourg, in eastern France, while the bureaucratic centre is in a French-speaking city, Brussels, capital of Belgium. The Germans would pay and pay for their humble readmittance into the human race by being the economic motor; the other founding countries were regarded as makeweights. Another unspoken idea was that there would be no Anglo-Saxon interference; the feeling against Britain joining the EU was as strong in France as in Britain! (De Gaulle himself, who perhaps owed more to Britain than any other French politician, was intensely against Britain joining the EU and blocked any notion of it while he was alive).

When that changed--mostly because the other countries wanted no more French interference and domination than they'd wanted German--the impetus began to slip away from France. Little by little, her position within the EU has been eroded, and the entry of the ex-Soviet bloc countries recently has been the last straw for dreams of a Frenchified Europe. Little by little, France came to realize that her claims to a unique position in Europe--by dint of her superior culture and her civilizing mission--were not shared by other Europeans, who could see the advantages of the EU but had absolutely no intention of kow- towing to French ideas. This, coupled with growing cynicism in the French electorate about politicians, especially Chirac (whom most people consider, generally fairly, to be clinging to Presidential office only because he doesn't want to be impeached on charges of corruption), a dislike of interference by Brussels in everyday affairs, a complete contempt for the European parliament, and a fear of being 'swamped' by cheap labor from the poorer countries of the enlarged EU, has led to a tide of rage, resentment and revolt, a movement that has turned more and more against the EU, despite the desperate pleadings of politicians.

That is the background against which the current anti-EU constitutional treaty feeling has to be looked at. I think that the Constitution, which after all was written by a most patrician French politician, the supercilious Gaullist, Valery Giscard d'Estaing, was originally conceived as an attempt to push back the guiding reins into the hands of France. Looking at the documents and pamphlets that as a French voter you are sent as background to the vote at the end of the month, you can see that French national feelings are being constantly alluded to, sometimes directly, as when you are told that France's voice will be greatly enhanced under this treaty, which will give it 12 percent rather than 8 percent of the vote in the Council of Ministers. Sometimes, it's indirect, coded references, like saying that 'isolated' countries' won't be able any longer to 'put a brake' on 'European progress'. Could it be that that 'isolation' consists of a body of water called the Channel? The cheerleading of all the stuff French voters are sent is quite remarkable--nowhere is there any space given for the 'no' case, it is simply ruled as being beyond the pale, beneath notice.

This arrogant, patronizing lecturing on the part of the Government is part of the reason why the contradictory French people are turning against it--if the reviled Chirac and co think it's a good idea, then it must be a bad one, or at least treated with huge suspicion. They also completely disbelieve the claims that France will be made stronger within this revamped Union, and indeed in recent times many people have astonishingly pointed to Britain as the example they should follow, in its independent stance towards the EU. The euro is also seen as a disaster by many French people--though they were told over and over again that everything would be great, and instead, prices rose, and people felt poorer. Meanwhile, Britain, which had rejected the euro, forged ahead.

The media, which until recently has just assumed that of course the great unwashed would be easily led into accepting the treaty, are beginning to panic over the possibility of a 'no' vote; and the Socialists, who at first supported it in terms of its lofty adherence to just about every politically-correct slogan possible, now scent the direction the wind is blowing and are running to catch up with the surly population(Plus they are also very much out of sympathy with the 'new' Europe of the ex Soviet bloc countries and fear a 'conservative' takeover of the whole thing.) . The whole situation is a perfect crucible of the uncomfortable position France, as a nation, and as a people, feels itself to be in at present--at the losing end of just about everything, even the cherished EU.

Speaking of the coming referendum, read the most colorful Conservative politician Boris Johnson, writing in "The Daily Telegraph" (hat tip: Dan Foty):
Here we are in Britain, with well over half of us preparing to vote No, as soon as we are given a chance, because we think the European constitution means yet more interference and regulation from Brussels. There they are in France, in a state of gibbering paranoia, because they think the constitution is an "Anglo-Saxon plot" to export croissants from Tesco and populate the Trois Vallées with ski instructors from Surbiton.

The French seem to be against it for precisely the reasons - free trade and competition - that moderate Euro-sceptics should be broadly for it; and British Euro-sceptics are against it for precisely the reasons - more regulation and interference - that your average French Lefty should be in favour of it. We can't both be right. One of us must be mad, and the answer (I suppose I would say this, but it is true) is that the French Non campaign has seized the wrong end of the stick with awesome tenacity.
Sophie makes, I think, a very important point – the EU might have sounded like a great idea for the French when it was just an exclusive club of mature, social-democratic, welfare states – but with the absorption of New Europe (and there’s more to come), united Europe is suddenly a lot more liberal and a lot more conservative at the same time (in traditional European senses of these words) - more free-market oriented, more pro-American, less controllable.


Fatwa via SMS 

A bad news and good news:
A young Saudi who went to Iraq to fight with Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi but changed his mind and returned home has warned there are hundreds more Saudi recruits like him in Iraq. "The reality, when it comes to the recruitment of young Saudis to the Jihad, is much more serious than they think. From just the Saudi region of Qasim, 300 young men have left for Iraq," the repentant recruit, named only as S.F.R., has told the Saudi newspaper al-Watan.

"There are activists in Saudi Arabia for the Jihad cause who recruit the young men," said the former recruit. "They only seek to convert those between 21 and 25 years old," he added. "They said that Jihad was a religious obligation and that our brothers in Iraq needed help. Their speeches were also backed up by the media, who showed us the seiges of Fallujah and Ramadi and the attacks on Muslims."

The aspiring mujahideen, whose three friends also came back from Iraq with him, offers some hope, however, revealing that the jihadi recruitment phenomenon has been limited by the fatwa issued by the Mufti al-Sheikh, who banned Saudis from leaving for Iraq to fight. "Many young men left and then came back after the issuing of the fatwa, which only allowed Iraqis to take part in the Jihad," the young man told al-Watan. "We did the same. We were already in Syria inside a vehicle, not far from the Iraqi border, when we receieved an SMS which talked of this fatwa. That convinced us that it was better to go back home."

A few days ago the pan-Arab newspaper al-Hayat interviewed two young Saudis who refused to blow themselves up in a car bomb attack in Iraq. The two were already in the country but were discouraged by al-Qaeda's new method of running the Jihad, which is based solely on the use of suicide car bombers. Once in Iraq they learned from one of their group's leaders that the only contribution they could make to the Jihad was to board one of the many vehicles ready to be used as a car bomb and launched at a target, and no other form of fighting was planned.
Another reminder that Saudi Arabia remains the most important front in the war on terror.


Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Shredding the appeasers 

From "don't hold back and tell us what you really think" files, Australia's outspoken Foreign Minister Alexander Downer does what few of his counterparts elsewhere would do - he tells it like it is. In a speech at New England University in New South Wales (yes, we also have our own New England), Downer has gone down the bad memory lane and ripped the opposition Labor Party to shreds over its foreign policy record, accusing it of appeasing firstly the Nazism, then communism, and finally Saddam. "Only the [Liberal/National] Coalition is unequivocally committed to supporting the global struggle for freedom," he said.
"In a time when bipartisanship was imperative in the national interest, [Labor leader] Curtin had chosen from 1935 on to placate the international socialists, pacificists and anti-conscripts within his own party... Even as late as the Munich crisis of September 1938, Curtin persisted with a policy of isolationism and failed to acknowledge the threat posed by Nazism."
The 1970s Labor legend (mostly in his own mind), Prime Minister Whitlam got reminded about recognizing the Soviet sovereignty over the Baltic states, taking loans from the Baath Party, ignoring the Indonesian invasion of East Timor, and finally his shameful attitude towards the Vietnamese boat people, whom he feared would make another anti-communist, non-Labor constituency in Australia, "like the f***ing Balts".

Lastly, today's Labor gets a tongue-lashing over adopting "a little Australia" policy consistent with a "pattern of weak Labor leadership nationally, particularly on the issues of appeasement, isolationism and shirking international treaty obligations".

Now, not even Condi, black knee-high boots or not, would be this honest about the left. After we get Bolton as the ambassador to the UN, maybe we should try Downer for the Secretary-General.


Hate us, we're French, part 2 

It looks like the "No" side might get the upper hand in the French referendum on the EU constitution. Sadly, if that happens, it will be for all the wrong reasons:
In the TNS-Sofres poll, 54% of Socialist voters said they now planned to vote no, 4% more than at the end of April, while support for the yes camp among the voters of the ruling centre-right - while still at 71% - had slid 6%.
So the French center-right electorate is still rather overwhelmingly in favour, the Socialists less so, with the rest of the opposition coming from Le Pen's far-right and the communists. So why is the left mainly driving the "No" vote?
Mainstream left opposition, led by the former Socialist prime minister Laurent Fabius - who yesterday became the first French Socialist ever to be interviewed in the Communist daily L'Humanité - has focused on the claim that the constitution enshrines a free-market vision of Europe that is incompatible with France's social values, and that adopting the treaty will amount to waving goodbye to French jobs and French public services...

"Anxiety about unemployment, the fear of a liberal, free market Europe that may destroy French jobs, has returned," said Brice Teinturier, director of political polling at TNS-Sofres. "The controversy over a free-market Europe being fanned by the leftwing no camp is having a marked effect, as is a general loss of momentum in the yes camp."
Yep, if the EU constitution goes down in flames in France in less than two weeks' time, it will be because a very significant section of the French electorate thinks that the EU is too right-wing.


"With respect, who made you the editor of Newsweek?" 

A headline I saw this morning:
Newsweek retracts story that killed 16
A headline I am unlikely to see tomorrow:
Islamists retract riots that killed 16
This is the sad aspect of life: words can be corrected, but deeds cannot be undone. As all those who have been falsely accused or defamed know, the mud sticks. Accusations get the screaming headlines on page one, erratas are proverbially published on the bottom of page 54. As Ronald Reagan's secretary of labor Ray Donovan said upon his acquittal, where do I go to get my reputation back?

Free press and independent judiciary are essential parts of democracy, and the consequences of their often costly stuff-ups is the price we pay for their otherwise positive overall contribution to the public good. The problems arise when the press and the judiciary start pursuing agendas of their own, or when their work is used by others to pursue their agendas. The best two paras written on the problem with the mainstream media – over to you, James Taranto:
It's not just that the media are biased against conservatives and Republicans, though they certainly are. It is that they see every war as another Vietnam and every supposed scandal as another Watergate--at least when Republicans are in the White House, which they usually are.

The obsession with Vietnam and Watergate is central to the alienation between the press and the people. After all, these were triumphs for the crusading press but tragedies for America. And the press's quest for more such triumphs--futile, so far, after more than 30 years--is what is behind the scandals at both Newsweek and CBS.
Many in the media are trying to downplay the "Newsweek" incident because the US has already such bad image around the world that it couldn't possibly get any worse - or as "The Los Angeles Times" editorialized, "For all the administration's huffing and puffing about Newsweek getting the story wrong, it has produced such a catalogue of misdeeds at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo that almost any allegation is instantly credited abroad ... The US has already been convicted in the court of world opinion for its treatment of its prisoners, and that's the administration's fault, not Newsweek's."

According to the "LAT", the solution was simple: "Shutting down Guantanamo and giving suspected terrorists legal protections would help restore our reputation abroad. Crowing over Newsweek's mishap won't."

A more balanced coverage wouldn't go astray either. After spending the last three years reducing the American war effort to Abu Ghraib, Gaunatanamo and assorted other incompetence and brutality, to complain that America's image worldwide is so poor that people will now believe anything smacks somewhat of the chutzpah of a man who killed his parents and pleaded to the court for leniency on the account that he is now an orphan.

Meanwhile, Matt Drudge reports that the White House press corp did not take too well Scott McClellan’s telling off "Newsweek":
Q: With respect, who made you the editor of Newsweek? Do you think it's appropriate for you, at that podium, speaking with the authority of the President of the United States, to tell an American magazine what they should print?
Well, with respects, the media, who made you the elected politicians and military leaders to tell them how they should run a country and conduct a war? It seems another great case of a glass jaw - the media likes to dish it out but can't take it. It’s only to be expected, thought, that in an adversarial climate where the media consciously or subconsciously considers itself a political force (that's, after all, is what being the Fourth Estate is all about), a sort of permanent opposition to the government (particularly, as Taranto noted, when it's the right that's in power), the same rules will be applied to it as to all the other political players – including scrutiny and criticism.
MR. McCLELLAN: Look, this report caused serious damage to the image of the United States abroad. And Newsweek has said that they got it wrong. I think Newsweek recognizes the responsibility they have. We appreciate the step that they took by retracting the story. Now we would encourage them to move forward and do all that they can to help repair the damage that has been done by this report. And that's all I'm saying. But, no, you're absolutely right, it's not my position to get into telling people what they can and cannot report...

Q: Are you asking them to write a story about how great the American military is; is that what you're saying here?
God forbid that that anyone could actually think that the American military is great, or that there might be two sides to a story that are worth printing.

In a related development, Dan Rather has received journalism's highest recognition, the Peabody Award, for the work of "60 Minutes" on a story exposing conditions within the Abu Ghraib prison:
Rather received extended applause after telling the crowd, "Never give up, never back up, never give in while pursuing the dream of integrity filled journalism that matters."
Well said.


May the Dark Side be with you 

My open letter to George Lucas seems to have generated mostly positive response as well as some spirited debate in the comments sections. In reactions or related stories:

La Shawn Barber is won over by arguments that the Empire are the good guys.

David Adesnik at Oxblog asks "what if the entire six-film saga really is just Rebel propaganda?"

Patrick Ruffini starts a photoshop contest on the topic: what if Lucas is right?

And Flit(tm) thinks that I'm Jar Jar Binks.


And the Golden Palm for the most anti-American film goes to... 

There's a surprise:
The dark underside of the United States has taken center stage in several films at Cannes this year, capped on Monday with a scathing attack of past and present racism in America by Danish director Lars von Trier.
Von Trier, who's Danish, seems to be motivated by a sort of an artistic vendetta: "We are all under the influence -- and it's a very bad influence -- from America... In my country everything has to do with America. America is kind of sitting on the world. America has to do with 60 percent of my brain and all things I experience in my life, and I'm not happy about that... I'd say 60 percent of my life is American so I am in fact an 'American' too. But I can't go there and vote or change anything there. That is why I make films about America." Give this man a vote and shut him up.

But as the story notes, von Trier, the "60% American", is not the only one for whom bashing the world's only superpower has become the sure way to artistic recognition among the cosmopolitan sophisticates swarming in the south of France. So what's on offer?

Von Trier's "Manderlay" - "about a fictional Alabama plantation where people are living in 1933 as if slavery were never abolished, staggered festival-goers with a disturbing portrayal of America that fails, even today, to come to terms with its racist past." I am staggered too, that a lurid fantasy taking place 70 years ago is supposed to be a commentary about a contemporary America.

Gus van Sant's "Last Days" - "about rocker Kurt Cobain's drug-induced demise and suicide while parasite friends ignored his distress."

Atom Egoyan's "Where the Truth Lies" - "with Kevin Bacon as an over-sexed, over-drugged celebrity."

David Cronenberg's "A History of Violence" - "a portrayal of redneck American bloodletting."

Robert Rodriguez's "Sin City" - "with Bruce Willis needs no further explanation."

Wim Wenders' "Don't Come Knocking" - "about an over-the-hill Western hero's steep fall with alcohol and drugs."

Out of 21 films in the competition, and out of 8 films that take place in America, that's not bad. Add to that the out-of-competition favorites "The Power of Nightmares" and "Revenge of the Sith", now sadly, because of George Lucas' statements, perceived as a political indictment of American foreign policy, and no wonder that Cannes is such a hit among Europe's glitterati.


Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Torturous arguments 

A minor controversy in Australia - the head of the Deakin University Law School, Professor Mirko Bagaric has co-authored a paper, which argues that torture should be legalized in certain emergency, life-and-death circumstances, such as imminent and deadly terrorist attack. A controversial stance (at least amongst the intelligencia), but nothing new, and certainly nothing that Professor Dershowitz has already not written about.

Professor Bagaric also sits on the Government’s Refugee Review Tribunal, which among other things, hears appeals against decisions to refuse refugee status and deport people from Australia. This prompted Greens Senator Kerry Nettle to call for Bagaric’s sacking from the Tribunal:
"I don't think that somebody who puts forward a view that torture should be legalised is somebody that I would want making decisions about whether people are being treated properly in detention centres in this country.”
It's a bit of a stretch to suggest that because somebody who advocates torturing terrorists in certain circumstances cannot hear cases involving refugees who might have themselves been tortured - but in any case, Bagaric has already stood down from the Tribunal.

By the way, Senator Nettle and her Green colleague Senator Brown have done their darnest to try to prevent the liberation and thus the democratization of Iraq. I don’t think that somebody who puts forward a view that millions of people should languish under a brutal dictator is somebody that I would want to sit in Parliament making democratic decisions for me and other Australians. But the few percent who voted for Senator Nettle apparently don’t see any contradiction.


Hate us, we're French 

Why be hard on the Americans for disliking the French, if all their continental neighbors seem hardly more charitable? From the latest opinion survey (hat tip: Dan Foty and Joe G.):
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Britons described [the French] as "chauvinists, stubborn, nannied and humourless". However, the French may be more shocked by the views of other nations.

For the Germans, the French are "pretentious, offhand and frivolous". The Dutch describe them as "agitated, talkative and shallow." The Spanish see them as "cold, distant, vain and impolite" and the Portuguese as "preaching". In Italy they comes across as "snobs, arrogant, flesh-loving, righteous and self-obsessed" and the Greeks find them "not very with it, egocentric bons vivants".

Interestingly, the Swedes consider them "disobedient, immoral, disorganised, neo-colonialist and dirty".
The article notes that "the knockout punch to French pride came in the way the poll was conducted. People were not asked what they hated in the French, just what they thought of them. 'Interviewees were simply asked an open question - what five adjectives sum up the French,' said Olivier Clodong, one of the study's two authors and a professor of social and political communication at the Ecole Superieur de Commerce, in Paris. 'The answers were overwhelmingly negative'."

Europeans are hardly one big happy family, with plenty of negative stereotypes to go around, but even so, the results of this survey are surprising with the apparent inability of fellow Europeans to say anything nice about their French brothers and sisters. There is probably a political aspect to all this dislike; just as America and the Americans generate a lot of negative emotions on the account of their prominence in world affairs, so the French, who style themselves as the leaders of Europe, cannot help but to attract resentment from others.

But I have a feeling that there is a lot more to the survey results than just politics. After all, when America is concerned, most foreigners are still at pains to distinguish between the government, which they hate, and the people, to whom they supposedly still (albeit increasingly less so) have a much more positive attitude. The fact that France's neighbors get so personal would suggest to me that politics or no politics, this is what happened when you have to share a crowded continent with others for century after century. Familiarity, clearly, breeds contempt.


The water (closet) torture 

As American Expat in Southeast Asia, among others, reminds us, the stories of flushed or otherwise desecrated Korans are a few years old now, and he points to a March 2003 "WaPo" article quoting a group of Afghan prisoners released from Guantanamo, who claimed that
American soldiers insulted Islam by sitting on the Koran or dumping their sacred text into a toilet to taunt them.
A way of caution to all the fellow bloggers trying to demonstrate the apparent absurdity of the claim about flushing Koran down the toilet by pointing out that the holy book is too big to fit through the pipes. I don'’t think anyone can assume that Korans were indeed successfully flushed down; it'’s enough for a desecration to occur if the books were merely dropped into a bowl and water flushed over them.

Whether these stories are credible at all I touched upon briefly earlier. If true in any way, the tactic strikes me as stupid and counterproductive. Taunting religious sensibilities of people already thought to be religious fanatics doesn'’t sound like a great way to break them or get useful information out of them.

It'’s true that in the past these and similar stories did not cause riots throughout the Muslim world -– I think the difference is that this time “"Newsweek”" did not report just the claims of detainees but the supposed conclusions of an official American investigation. It is a sort of a backhand compliment both to the Western mainstream media as well as to the American authorities that the assorted anti-Americanists around the world will give them enough credence and credibility while decrying the Great Satan himself (remember, too, the pivotal role that the Pakistani cricketer-turned-opposition politician Imran Khan had played in publicizing the story in the Muslim world as part of his feud with President Musharraf).

In addition, some experts are agreeing with President Karzai that the riots were far from spontaneous, and are pointing their fingers at Caliphate enthusiast called Hizb ut-Tahrir. Coincidentally, this is the same group that the Uzbek dictator Karimov is conveniently blaming for inciting the recent troubles in his country.

The group is not listed by the American government as a terrorist one, mostly because it specializes in political agitation rather than car bombing. Be that as it may, Hizb ut-Tahrir certainly bears watching carefully. Just like the mainstream media.


Inbox blitzkrieg 

How much the times have changed - and how typically. Over sixty years ago, Germany had released onto an unsuspecting world a virus called Nazism.exe which quickly spread through all of Europe and adjoining land and sea areas, causing untold misery and destruction. Today’s German virus doesn’t even do any nasty things to your hard drive, merely politely suggests you read one of the articles linked to in an email, some such articles coming from respected publications like "Der Spiegel". The general tenor is certainly revisionist and quasi-fascist: Germany was hard done by and crimes were committed against her too (such as bombing of Dresden), Turks are bad (they committed genocide on the Armenians in 1915), and multiculturalism is also definitely a problem.

So, contra Marx’s dictum that history repeats itself, first time as tragedy and the second time as a farce, the second time is more like a nuisance.

National socialism has limited appeal throughout the West, mostly among brainless skinheads and sections of the intelligencia, who while always ready to decry it at home (in fact they tend to see its manifestations everywhere), support its violent expressions throughout the Middle East, under the guise of romanticizing the brave and righteous resistance to American imperialism. I’m afraid the virus of anti-Americanism is now far more pervasive than ramblings of Hitlerian nostalgists, and it doesn’t need a computer nasty to keep spreading its message.


An open letter to George Lucas 

Dear Mr Lucas

This might be a good opportunity to thank you for many hours of entertainment that your two "Star Wars" trilogies have provided for me with. I'm not one of the "Star Wars" fanatics, but I've watched the five films so far several times over the years. I most fondly remember watching the first trilogy in the late 1970s and the early 80s at the movies, when I was a boy living in the then communist Poland. Your space saga of Luke Skywalker and his fight against Darth Vader, the Empire and the Dark Side has proved as big a hit on the other side of the Iron Curtin as it did in the West.

You might be aware that all of us who saw the "Star Wars" trilogy throughout the communist world saw it as an entertaining, yet still nonetheless powerful commentary on the current world events. We simply couldn't escape the conclusion that the militaristic and freedom-crushing Empire with its legions of stormtroopers is a futuristic version of the Soviet Empire, which had conquered and enslaved hundreds of millions of people like myself. For us, of course, Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and all the others fighting to restore the Republic were brave oppositionists and freedom fighters in the truest sense of the word. Like the Western movie goers, we too cheered when the Death Star was destroyed (twice), but whereas for our counterparts in the Free World this was just a great cinematic climax, for us it embodied the hope ("A New Hope", if you pardon the pun) that one day the specter of totalitarianism will vanish and we will be free again.

Apparently, however, we were wrong - we didn't read your movies correctly.

I noted with interest your recent remarks in Cannes:
"Star Wars" director George Lucas says that although he wrote the original film during the Vietnam War, his six-part saga could apply to the war in Iraq.

"In terms of evil, one of the original concepts was how does a democracy turn itself into a dictatorship," Lucas told a news conference at Cannes, where his final episode had its world premiere.

"The parallels between what we did in Vietnam and what we're doing in Iraq now are unbelievable.

"On the personal level it was how does a good person turn into a bad person, and part of the observation of that is that most bad people think they are good people, they are doing it for the right reasons."
Yes, we were very wrong indeed - to you, the Empire was the United States of America, and if that's the case, then the brave rebels could only be all those people around the world fighting the American Empire - the Castros, Che Guevaras, Ho Chi Minhs, Pol Pots, and by extension, the Brezhnevs and the Mao Tse Tungs of this world. You, of course, live in the Free World, and as such you have the right to believe that your country is the most powerful force for evil operating in the world. But just for the sake of completeness and historical accuracy, can I just mention that whatever the sins of the United States - and I certainly understand well enough that no country is perfect - your rebels, both when fighting for power and when finally in power, ended up being responsible for the death of tens of millions and enslavement of hundreds of millions; the Luke Skywalkers and Han Solos of the last century gave us gulags and re-education camps, terror famines and political prisons; they institutionalized cults of personality, stifled every human freedom and impoverished whole nations.

May I also add that whatever your thoughts about the United States and its supposed descent from a democracy into empire, had the Rebels won, you would have never had a chance to film a critical allegory on your own government. At best, your artistic output would have consisted of short features about the 150% increase in the wheat harvest, and at worst - if you had stayed true to your conscience - you would be dreaming your "Star Wars" trilogy from behind bars.

Over the course of the last three years, the United States and her allies have managed to depose two truly despicable regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq and today are trying to bring the gift of freedom and democracy - things that you enjoy every day probably without giving them much thought - to tens of millions of people who have never known them before. You might well think that Anakin Skywalker's painful transformation into Darth Vader is somehow a perfect analogy for the political journey of George W Bush, but I have a sneaking suspicion that movie fans in Baghdad will have already recognized Darth Vader as one of their own - with a moustache rather than a black helmet. He, too, had two children, although they didn't turn up quite as cute as Luke and Leia. They names were Uday and Qusay.

I will still go and see "The Revenge of the Sith" when it opens in Australia in a few days' time, and I will not stop enjoying the other five films just because I read their message differently to what you intended.

But if in your mind, it's the United States that has slowly transformed itself into an evil Empire, and therefore, logically all those who stand up to it are our story's true heroes, than I have to say that the Dark Side is very strong indeed, and I have crossed over a long time ago. If America is the Empire, then please prepare a black helmet and uniform for me too.


Monday, May 16, 2005

Flushing America’s Afghan successes down the toilet 

Newsweek magazine said on Sunday it erred in a May 9 report that U.S. interrogators desecrated the Koran at Guantanamo Bay, and apologized to the victims of deadly Muslim protests sparked by the article.

Editor Mark Whitaker said the magazine inaccurately reported that U.S. military investigators had confirmed that personnel at the detention facility in Cuba had flushed the Muslim holy book down the toilet.

The report sparked angry and violent protests across the Muslim world from Afghanistan, where 16 were killed and more than 100 injured, to Pakistan to Indonesia to Gaza. In the past week it was condemned in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, Malaysia and by the Arab League.

On Sunday, Afghan Muslim clerics threatened to call for a holy war against the United States.

"We regret that we got any part of our story wrong, and extend our sympathies to victims of the violence and to the U.S. soldiers caught in its midst," Whitaker wrote in the magazine's latest issue, due to appear on U.S. newsstands on Monday.

The weekly news magazine said in its May 23 edition that the information had come from a "knowledgeable government source" who told Newsweek that a military report on abuse at Guantanamo Bay said interrogators flushed at least one copy of the Koran down a toilet in a bid to make detainees talk.

But Newsweek said the source later told the magazine he could not be certain he had seen an account of the Koran incident in the military report and that it might have been in other investigative documents or drafts.

Whitaker told Reuters that Newsweek did not know if the reported toilet incident involving the Koran ever occurred. "As to whether anything like this happened, we just don't know," he said in an interview. "We're not saying it absolutely happened but we can't say that it absolutely didn't happen either."
We all make mistakes – including myself – fortunately none of my lapses have managed to plunge a whole country into riots, resulting in many deaths and numerous injuries, send every country between Tunisia to Indonesia into a frenzy of pronouncements and demonstrations, embarrass the government of the United States and set back good relations and diplomatic efforts with the Islamic world. I guess blogs still have a long way to go.

Personally, having been documenting "Good news from Afghanistan" for a year now, it pains me to see that a lot of good-will patiently built up on the ground by the Coalition forces over the past three years has been arguably undone by a few sentences in a news magazine.

To be sure, we’re still none the wiser if an incident or incidents of this sort ever happened. Unless such reports rely on independently confirmed testimony of American personnel who were either involved or witnessed it, we’re facing the inherent problem of unreliability of other sources. The Al Qaeda manual does, after all, instruct all its captured operatives to automatically claim torture and mistreatment in prison as a propaganda tactic. It takes little imagination to assume that incarcerated jihadis are ready to accuse their captors of every crime under the sun, the juicier the better, and blasphemy and sacrilege of course top the bill. And the media is ever ready to report it. Should a particular story collapse in a heap, you can always run the "fake but accurate" line – trust us, it’s happening but we just can’t prove it at the moment.

Interestingly, the riots throughout Afghanistan have been used by the mainstream media over the past few days as a "gotcha!" on the Bush Administration to prove that the situation in Afghanistan is not as rosy as previously claimed, and that we haven’t won in that theatre. Thus, in a truly bizarre feedback loop, the mainstream media has actually managed to generate bad news from the war on terror where there was very little before, thus helping it to report more bad news in accordance with its general negative line on Afghanistan. I’m not claiming in any way that it was done on purpose, but it certainly provided the Administration’s critics with some useful ammunition and gloating material.

Coincidentally, before "Newsweek"’s (or "NEWSWEEK"’s – Roger Simon: "BTW, am I the only one who finds Newsweek always referring to itself in UPPER CASE to be repellent? It reminds me of people who post in caps on the Internet. You're always suspicious they're lying." Or shouting to try to hide weakness in their argument) mea culpa, President Karzai was blaming the riots on those who are opposed to his country’s close links with Washington. Not wanting to be too harsh on the mainstream media, he was pretty close to the truth, although not quite in a way he expected.

Meanwhile, "Newsweek" itself has been trying to shift the blame on the Afghans:
Such stories may spark more trouble. Though decrepit and still run largely by warlords, Afghanistan was not considered by U.S. officials to be a candidate for serious anti-American riots. But Westerners, including those at NEWSWEEK, may underestimate how severely Muslims resent the American presence, especially when it in any way interferes with Islamic religious faith.
The statement about "how severely Muslims resent the American presence" runs contrary to both anecdotal as well as more solid evidence (such as opinion polling, or the fact that a meeting of one thousand tribal elders and representatives from around the country a few days ago agreed that the continuing American military presence in Afghanistan is still necessary.

All this seems like an ex post facto rationalization – observing after shaking a beehive how much we have underestimated the bees’ dislike of human beings.


Normalcy 1, Bigotry 0 

Reliable Iraqi sources in Jordan said Iraqi President Jalal Talabani has recently met with "an Israeli military figure" who presented the president with a letter from Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, ynet reported Sunday. Jalal Talabani

The sources further added, without providing details on where the meeting took place, that Talabani responded with a letter addressed to Sharon in which he emphasized positive developments in Israeli-Iraqi relations are expected within the next three months, including the exchange of diplomatic representatives between the countries.
"Reliable" Iraqi sources always somehow seem to be found in Jordan, don't they? If true, then it's another positive development towards normalization of the situation in the madhouse of the Middle East, but it could also be a part of the long-standing campaign to smear the Kurds and the new Iraqi government in the eyes of the region's Arabs. Either way, there's been many stories already (a lot of them from the Iranian media, but also from Seymour Hersh) about covert Israeli intelligence and commercial activities in Northern Iraq. Hopefully, one day the region will be normal enough to allow for overt relations.


This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?