Bricks in the wall of incomprehension about the Middle East
Leafing through the summer 2009 edition of Washington’s “Democracy: A Journal of Ideas”, I stumbled across an interesting critique of the U.S. media performance in the run-up to, during, and after the U.S. invasion of Iraq – a central theme of the last quarter of my new book, Dining with al-Qaeda.
In the article, Leslie Gelb and Jeanne-Paloma Zelmati made useful points in their survey of the failure of the “elite press” to be critical enough of U.S. policies. But as the only correspondent who reported from Iraq in the year before the war for one of the newspapers they refer to, the Wall Street Journal, I believe we should add other factors into the account.
As Gelb and Zelmati say, grand publications still have the resources, expertise and vocation to be key examiners of government policy; that Administrations and Congress cannot be trusted to give an unbiased version of their own role in events; that think tanks can be superficial and ideological; and that news stories often stress politics above understanding of policy, usually due to non-specialist writers’ lack of substantive knowledge. I also welcome the finding that stories by reporters in the field stand up better to the test of time than those written from cubicles in Washington DC.
The authors’ recommendations are also fine as far as they go: editors should support reporters to mount challenges to the system; news should be analysed more; field reporters should be rotated through Washington; and journalism schools should do more succinct, quick analysis of coverage. Still, as I try to explain in the caption of the accompanying photo, foreign correspondents like me faced more fundamental issues as we tackled the onrush of the Iraq war, problems that are endemic in reporting anything about the Middle East in a U.S. newspaper.
These include the fact that readers like, and editors look for, stories with American characters, transparent motivations and happy endings, which build a quite unrepresentative picture of the region. We often pulled punches in order not to disturb Americans’ comfort zones, minimizing the bloody side of the violence, caricaturing the boiling hatreds, and stepping lightly round the Western role in stoking up at least 15 major wars and revolutions that have devastated Middle Eastern societies over the last century.
We thus all played small roles in constructing artificial narratives instead: an Arab-Israeli “peace process” that has never proceeded anywhere, a misleading scenario of regional struggle between “moderates” and “radicals”, a myth of American neutrality and analysis confused by one-size-fits-all labels like “Islam”, “Arab world” and “terror”. Over decades, the “elite press” has thus helped build a wall of incomprehension between American readers and the realities of the Middle East. Unsurprisingly, the average American has a hard time understanding what’s going on anywhere in the region, let alone in Iraq.
Additionally, in the specific case of the Journal, readers’ and policy makers’ opinions in the run-up to the war were surely swayed by long, regular and prominent articles in the opinion pages by hard-line Israelis, making what soon proved to be fallacious assertions about America’s interest and duty to invade Iraq. At the same time, for much of the 2000-2002 period, the Journal‘s news pages didn’t even have a dedicated Israel correspondent.
It was hard to see all this while working in the field, and I only came to this fuller realization of what lay behind our 2002/2003 frustrations while writing Dining with al-Qaeda. At the time, being a reporter trying to alert the U.S. to the folly of the Iraq war felt like being a blade of grass flattened by a gale force wind of pro-war sentiment. I often just felt depressed, even emasculated, and understood how tempting and empowering it must have felt to be able to join the pro-war charge.
It is humbling to realize that this flattened-grass effect is how journalists in authoritarian regimes feel all the time. I remain thankful that, unlike them, and unlike the man from Mosul above, I was not trampled underfoot as well. In the Journal‘s news pages, my editors were honest and rigorous, and they did usually print my dissident stories, even if the problems mentioned above tended to distort, diminish and delay our coverage.
For instance, it was only in January 2003 that I started working up a full analysis of the historic folly of invading Iraq (or any other Middle Eastern country). It was two months before we could all agree that it was ready to grace the front page of the newspaper. That was on 19 March — the day before the tanks started rolling in.