Hot damn! Op-ed from the Times
IN the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Fareed Zakaria wrote a 6,791-word cover story for Newsweek titled "Why Do They Hate Us?"
Think how much effort he could have saved if he'd waited a few years. As we learned last week, the question of why they hate us can now be answered in just one word: Newsweek.
"Our United States military personnel go out of their way to make sure that the Holy Koran is treated with care," said the White House press secretary, Scott McClellan, as he eagerly made the magazine the scapegoat for lethal anti-American riots in Afghanistan. Indeed, Mr. McClellan was so fixated on destroying Newsweek - and on mouthing his own phony P.C. pieties about the Koran - that by omission he whitewashed the rioters themselves, Islamic extremists who routinely misuse that holy book as a pretext for murder.
That's how absurdly over-the-top the assault on Newsweek has been. The administration has been so successful at bullying the news media in order to cover up its own fictions and failings in Iraq that it now believes it can get away with pinning some 17 deaths on an errant single sentence in a 10-sentence Periscope item that few noticed until days after its publication. Coming just as the latest CNN/Gallup/USA Today poll finds that only 41 percent of Americans think the war in Iraq is "worth fighting" and only 42 percent think it's going well, this smells like desperation. In its war on the press, this hubristic administration may finally have crossed a bridge too far.
Let's stipulate flatly that Newsweek made a serious error. For the sake of argument, let's even posit that the many other similar accounts of Koran desecration (with and without toilets) by American interrogators over the past two years are fantasy - even though they've been given credence by the International Committee of the Red Cross and have turned up repeatedly in legal depositions by torture victims and in newspapers as various as The Denver Post and The Financial Times. Let's also ignore the May 1 New York Times report that a former American interrogator at Guantánamo has corroborated a detainee's account of guards tossing Korans into a pile and stepping on them, thereby prompting a hunger strike. Why don't we just go all the way and erase those photographs of female guards sexually humiliating Muslims (among other heinous crimes) at Abu Ghraib?
Even with all that evidence off the table, there is still an overwhelming record, much of it in government documents, that American interrogators have abused Muslim detainees with methods specifically chosen to hit their religious hot buttons. A Defense Department memo of October 2002 (published in full in Mark Danner's book "Torture and Truth") authorized such Muslim-baiting practices as depriving prisoners of "published religious items or materials" and forcing the removal of beards and clothing. A cable signed by Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez called for interrogators to "exploit Arab fear of dogs." (Muslims view them as unclean.) Even a weak-kneed government investigation of prison abuses (and deaths) in Iraq and Afghanistan issued in March by Vice Adm. Albert T. Church III of the Navy authenticated two cases in which female interrogators "touched and spoke to detainees in a sexually suggestive manner in order to incur stress based on the detainees' religious beliefs."
About the Newsweek matter Donald Rumsfeld had a moral to bequeath the land. "People need to be careful what they say," he said, channeling Ari Fleischer, and added, "just as people need to be careful what they do." How true. If one of his right-hand men, Lt. Gen. William G. Boykin, hadn't been barnstorming American churches making internationally publicized pronouncements that his own Christian God is "a real god" and Islam's god is "an idol," maybe anti-American sentiment in the Middle East, at record highs even before the Newsweek incident, would have been a shade less lethal. If higher-ups had been called to account for the abuses of Abu Ghraib, maybe Newsweek might have had as little traction in the Arab world as The Onion.
Then again, even the administration's touchy-feely proactive outreach to Muslims in the Middle East is baloney: Karen Hughes, appointed with great fanfare by the president in March as our latest under secretary of state for public diplomacy (the third since 9/11), runs a shop with no Muslims at the top - or would, if she were there. As The Washington Post reported, she doesn't intend to assume her duties until the fall and the paperwork for her confirmation has yet to be sent to the Senate. Why rush? It's not as if there's a war on.
Given this context, the administration's attempt to pass the entire buck to Newsweek for our ill odor among Muslims, including those Muslims who abhor jihadists committing murder, is laughable. Yet there's something weirdly self-incriminating about the language it uses to do it. Richard Boucher, the State Department spokesman whose previous boss, Colin Powell, delivered a fictional recitation of Saddam Hussein's weapon capabilities before the United Nations Security Council, said it's "shocking" that Newsweek used "facts that have not been substantiated." Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, attacked Newsweek for hiding "behind anonymous sources," yet it was an anonymous source, an Iraqi defector known as Curveball, who fed the fictions that Mr. Powell spouted to gin up America for war. Psychological displacement of this magnitude might give even Freud pause.
The only thing more ridiculous is the spectacle of the White House's various knee-jerk flacks on cable news shoutfests and in the blogosphere characterizing Newsweek as representative of a supposedly anti-American, military-hating "mainstream media." It wasn't long ago that the magazine and the co-author of the Periscope item, Michael Isikoff, were being cheered by the same crowd for their pursuit of Monica Lewinsky and Kathleen Willey.
As for the supposed antimilitary agenda of the so-called mainstream media, the right should look first at itself. In its eagerness to parrot the administration line, it's as ready to sell out the military as any clichéd leftist. For starters, it thought nothing of dismissing the judgment of Gen. Carl Eichenberry, our top commander in Afghanistan, who, according to Gen. Richard B. Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said the riots were "not at all tied to the article in the magazine."
The right's rage at Newsweek is all too reminiscent of the contempt it heaped on Specialist Thomas Wilson, the soldier who dared to ask Mr. Rumsfeld at a town hall meeting in Kuwait in December about the shortage of armored vehicles. Mr. Wilson was guilty of "near-insubordination," said Rush Limbaugh; the embedded reporter who helped him frame his question was reviled by bloggers as a traitor. Yet Mr. Wilson's question was legitimate, and Mr. Rumsfeld's answer (that the shortage was only "a matter of production and capability") was a lie. As USA Today reported in March, the Pentagon has known for nearly two years that it didn't have enough armored Humvees but let the problem fester until that insubordinate questioner gave the defense secretary no choice but to act.
It's also because of incompetent Pentagon planning that other troops may now be victims of weapons looted from Saddam's munitions depots after the fall of Baghdad. Yet when The New York Times reported one such looting incident, in Al Qaqaa, before the election, the administration and many in the blogosphere reflexively branded the story fraudulent. But the story was true. It was later corroborated not only by United States Army reservists and national guardsmen who spoke to The Los Angeles Times but also by Iraq's own deputy minister of industry, who told The New York Times two months ago that Al Qaqaa was only one of many such weapon caches hijacked on America's undermanned post-invasion watch.
IT is terrible that Newsweek was wrong, though it's worth noting, as John Donvan of ABC News did, that the Defense Department's claim that its story was "demonstrably" false is also an overreach. Almost nothing that happens in the sealed prison at Guantánamo is as demonstrable as, say, Saddam's underwear. But if something good can come out of something bad, the administration's overkill of Newsweek may focus greater public attention on just how much it is using press-bashing to deflect attention from the fictions spun by its own propaganda machine.
Just since the election, we've witnessed the unmasking of Armstrong Williams and Jeff Gannon. We've learned - thanks to Newsweek's parent publication, The Washington Post - that the Pentagon went so far as to deliberately hide the circumstances of Pat Tillman's friendly-fire death from his own family for weeks, lest the truth mar the P.R. advantages to be reaped from his memorial service. Even as Scott McClellan instructs Newsweek on just what stories it should write to atone for its sins, a professional propagandist sits as chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting: Kenneth Tomlinson, who also runs the board supervising Voice of America and other government-run media outlets. He's been hard at work meddling in the journalism on NPR and PBS.
This steady drip of subterfuge and news manipulation increasingly tells a more compelling story than the old news that Newsweek so egregiously botched.