Podcast • April 14, 2011

Pratap Mehta: Pakistan’s Perpetual Identity Crisis

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Pratap Bhanu Mehta (30 minutes, 14 mb mp3) Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a political theorist and intellectual historian based in New Delhi, is leading us through another reflection on ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Pratap Bhanu Mehta (30 minutes, 14 mb mp3)

Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a political theorist and intellectual historian based in New Delhi, is leading us through another reflection on the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan.

The reconsideration of partition is a critical, current existential question not only for South Asians, but also for Americans who watch the continuous outrages from Taliban and CIA sanctuaries inside Pakistan. It’s a question on many levels — terrorism, geopolitics, ethnicity and religion — but, Pratap Mehta says, “it’s fundamentally the question of the identity of a country.”

In his telling of the partition story, the contemporary reality of Pakistan grew out of a failure to answer a core challenge of creating a nation-state: how do you protect a minority? It’s Mehta’s view that the framers of the modern subcontinent — notably Gandhi, Jinnah & Nehru — never imagined a stable solution to this question. He blames two shortcomings of the political discourse at the time of India’s independence:

The first is that it was always assumed that the pull of religious identities in India is so deep that any conception of citizenship that fully detaches the idea of citizenship from religious identity is not going to be a tenable one.

The second is that Gandhi in particular, and the Congress Party in general, had a conception of India which was really a kind of federation of communities. So the Congress Party saw [the creation of India] as about friendship among a federation of communities, not as a project of liberating individuals from the burden of community identity to be whatever it is that they wished to be.

The other way of thinking about this, which is to think about a conception of citizenship where identities matter less to what political rights you have, that was never considered seriously as a political project. Perhaps that would have provided a much more ideologically coherent way of dealing with the challenges of creating a modern nation-state.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta with Chris Lydon at the Watson Institute, April 12, 2011.

Unlike many other Open Source talkers on Pakistan, Pratap Mehta does not immediately link its Islamization to the United States and its 1980s jihad against the Soviets. Reagan and his CIA-Mujahideen military complex were indeed powerful players in the rise of Islamic extremism in Pakistan, he agrees, but the turn began first during a national identity crisis precipitated by another partition, the creation of Bangladesh in 1971.

Suddenly, Mehta is telling us, Pakistan could no longer define itself as the unique homeland for Muslims in the subcontinent. In search of identity, and distinction from its new neighbor to the east, Pakistan turned towards a West Asian brand of Islam, the hardline Saudi Wahhabism that has become a definitive ideology in today’s Islamic extremism.

Mehta is hopeful, though, that in open democratic elections Islamic parties would remain relatively marginalized, that despite the push to convert Pakistan into a West Asian style Islamic state since 1971, “the cultural weight of it being a South Asian country” with a tradition of secular Islam “remains strong enough to be an antidote.”

Podcast • June 10, 2010

Steve Kinzer’s ‘Reset’ Roles for Turkey and Iran

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Stephen Kinzer. (44 minutes, 21 mb mp3) Stephen Kinzer is a journalist of a certain cheeky fearlessnes and exquisite timing. In his new book he’s ahead of the ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Stephen Kinzer. (44 minutes, 21 mb mp3)

Stephen Kinzer is a journalist of a certain cheeky fearlessnes and exquisite timing. In his new book he’s ahead of the game again.

The ink was barely dry on Kinzer’s Reset: Iran, Turkey, and America’s Future, when events conspired late in May to demonstrate his logic in action. It was the sort of crack in the hegemonic eggshell that had to show up sooner or later, when leaders of rising powers — from that restless tier of less-than-permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, or what Parag Khanna calls The Second World — would announce themselves on the main stage with an idea that Uncle Sam and NATO hadn’t thought of first. And suddenly, out of a hat, there they were together in Tehran: President Lula of Brazil and Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey and President Ahmedinejad, their host, with an agreement to off-load Iranian uranium and avert a nuclear-proliferation crisis with Iran and a sanctions campaign at the United Nations. The seriousness of the diplomatic initiative seemed to be certified by Hillary Clinton’s hauteur in dismissing it — then further by Tom Friedman’s ugly trashing of it. But PM Erdogan held his ground: “This is the moment to discuss if we believe in the supremacy of law or in the law of the supremes and superiors,” he said. And the example stands. Mariano Aguirre writes on the indispensable openDemocracy site: “it is a watershed in the configuration of a new multipolar world.”

Steve Kinzer’s Reset is a bold exercise in reimagining the United States’ big links in the Middle East. His essential question is: what if Turkey and Iran, of all nations, are to be our critical partners in stabilizing the region — not Saudi Arabia and Israel? Not the least of my questions is: how dare an ex-New York Times reporter try to shape history, after writing so much of it? I asked him whether Washington’s objection to the Brazil-Turkey-Iran triangle was perhaps less to their nuclear-fuel deal than to their presumption in advancing it:

I think there’s still a residue of anger at Turkey for its refusal to let American troops through to invade Iraq in 2003. That might be the beginning of this whole process. There are still some people in Washington who are angry at Turkey for not doing that, and in fact at one point Turkey was even being blamed by senior Bush Administration officials for helping to cause the crisis in Iraq because they didn’t allow us to launch that kind of invasion.

I also think there’s a mindset that tells people in Washington: when we decide something, the NATO allies and everybody else that considers themselves our friends have to go along. The idea that another group of countries in the world is going to suggest, “We live here, we know this neighborhood, and we have a different idea,” is something the US is still very uncomfortable with. The mindset says we need to hold onto the kind of power that we’re used to having, and this to me is one of the biggest problems that my book and others are trying to address…

There is such an inertia in the foreign policy-making process that any original thinking is crushed immediately as the germ of some terrible plague… So although I like to think I’ve come up with an interesting approach to the Middle East… what I really would like to get across as a bigger message is: let’s think big. Let’s come up with some new ideas. The century changed. The Cold War is over. But our policies, particularly in the Middle East, have not changed… Keeping yourself stuck in the same rut is going to intensify these interlocking crises…

Stephen Kinzer in conversation with Chris Lydon in Boston, June 8, 2010.

Steve Kinzer — once the Times’ man in Central America, then Berlin, Istanbul and Tehran — reminds you what a newspaperman’s virtues are good for, all the better when freed from his newspaper chains.

Podcast • December 19, 2008

Grand Strategy: Posen on Obama

Barry Posen is a very smart, connected foreign-policy “realist” who runs the MIT Security Studies Program.  He was one of those prized 33 policy types who signed the New York Times ad in September, 2002, ...

barposBarry Posen is a very smart, connected foreign-policy “realist” who runs the MIT Security Studies Program.  He was one of those prized 33 policy types who signed the New York Times ad in September, 2002, arguing that “War with Iraq is not in America’s National Interest.”

He isn’t always right.  A little more than a year ago, he was pretty sure that Dick Cheney would get his last big wish in office, a thundering strike on Iran:  “There will probably be a series of air raids,” Barry Posen begins, that will leave the mullahs’ regime standing but lethally enraged, and will thicken the air of a universal American confrontation with Islam. And then…?  But he wasn’t so far off. “It’s going to take an accumulation of costly mistakes to turn the elite in this country toward a policy of realism and a policy of restraint,” he said to me.  Perhaps a decisive presidential election would set another direction.

Or perhaps not. Posen argued “The Case for Restraint” in The American Interest Online:

“The United States needs to be more reticent about the use of military force; more modest about the scope for political transformation within and among countries; and more distant politically and militarily from traditional allies. We thus face a choice between habit and sentiment on the one side, realism and rationality on the other… ”  

In James Der Derian’s global security class at Brown University this month, Barry Posen read the Obama tea leaves and appointments — and judged that the President-elect may yet be in the grip of habit and sentiment in the realm of strategy:

Judging from the cast of characters and even judging from things that President-elect Obama has said himself, he’s not very far from the grand strategy consensus I described and in fact, in some ways, you could say, based on things he’s said, he’s even more energetic about certain things. And certainly some of the people he’s advised are more energetic. You know, I can find you somewhere in my briefcase…chapter and verse from say Susan Rice about the need not just to do something about Darfur, but to do very, very forward things about Darfur. Senator soon-to-be Secretary of State Clinton same. The president-elect has talked about humanitarian miliary intervention as if its something you should do. Samantha Power is a friend and advisor of his. So you could easily come to the conclusion that the change is going to be at the tactical level. The kind I talked about, you know, more emphasis on international institutions, more emphasis on diplomacy and, you know, probably more emphasis on doing something about nuclear weapons.

But if you believe that president-elect Obama does have a kind of a sense of proportion, a sense of priorities, a sense of scarcity, an ability to weigh, then I think you can look at this whole panoply of things that are there in the consensus and sort of say what’s likely to be priority and what’s likely to be second priority, right? And something’s got to give.

So my own guess is, when I take off this grand strategy prescriptive hat that I had on and try to assess what’s more likely, I think there’s a set of inter-connected issues that start in North Africa and end somewhere on the Pakistan-India border that are in some sense all have to be addressed at once and this was sort of the message of the Baker-Hamilton Commission… So if you look at all the things that need to be done there: some attention to the Palestinian-Israeli dispute, attention to the Indian-Pakistani dispute, trying to get out of Iraq, trying to do something about Iran’s nuclear program, trying to decide what to do about Afghanistan because there’s a lot of loose talk about escalation but also some other talk that says maybe we better stop and think, right? And these things all have somthing to do with the other, right? So addressing all those things would be a project for an administration. Eight years, address those things. Fix one or two. Prevent the rest from going completely to hell; you’re a hero, right? So that project alone, which they’re out front on and they’re stuck with, I think is going to drive their activity.

Podcast • October 10, 2008

Andrew Bacevich: The End of Exceptionalism

Andrew Bacevich incandesces with the rage of a serious professional: with a West Pointer’s scorn for political weasels and embarrassment at incompetent generalship; with a citizen’s horror at the Long Peace that became the Long ...
Andrew Bacevich incandesces with the rage of a serious professional: with a West Pointer’s scorn for political weasels and embarrassment at incompetent generalship; with a citizen’s horror at the Long Peace that became the Long War — war today as “a seemingly permanent condition.” He burns with a Nieburhian realist’s dread of our imperial self-destruction; with a father’s remorse at the loss of his son and namesake on Army duty in Iraq. Representative prat boys in Bacevich’s account (and there are many of them) are the “insufferable” Doug Feith, #2 in the Rumsfeld Pentagon who was dubbed by General Tommy Franks “the stupidest fucking guy on the planet,” and also the same Tommy Franks, who spun the vulgar celebration of himself as an all-conquering hero in quick wins over the Taliban and Saddam Hussein.
The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism is the distillation of Andy Bacevich’s fury. It is the single best stab I’ve read at accounting for the general “meltdown,” the political, military, financial, cultural and moral disarray we are still heading into; and amazingly it’s a best-seller (7 weeks on the New York Times list, as high as #4 in hardcover non-fiction). The short form of a compact book is this: bullying abroad cannot sustain an orgy of consumption back home. Or conversely, as Bacevich puts it: “A grand bazaar provides an inadequate basis on which to erect a vast empire.”

In Bacevich’s neat-but-not-too-neat formulation, a single year set the trap we’re now in — the twelvemonth between August 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union started to sink, and August 1990, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and dared the US and its allies to undo the deed. American mythmaking spun the first into a war victory, not Russia’s internal collapse, and it hyped the second, an overmanned police action, into a world-historical invitation to redesign the Middle East. Thus did hubris gear up for nemesis.

Not the least appealing thing about Andy Bacevich is that his mind is in motion. I first encountered him six years ago, in the week that the Bush Doctrine (written for “the boys in Lubbock,” as the president said) foretold an era of unilateral arrogance, pugnacity and preemption. On a panel with Andy before a mass of Boston University freshman, I blurted out the Founders’ warning against empire and Jefferson’s caution about a “decent respect to the opinions of mankind.” My memory is that Andy Bacevich blew me off and argued that the Bush Doctrine was no worse than the Clinton record. He had just published a half-hopeful account of American Empire. We recall that symposium in our conversation the other day:

I may have said ‘there is an American Empire; get used to it,’ because my own evolving, and there’s no question about it, evolving thinking about US foreign policy especially after the Cold War ended, persuaded me that we needed to think in terms of an imperial presence. We need to see that we’re imperial, not to brag about it but to recognize the course we had embarked upon and where it had brought us. If you insist, and many people in my conversations and talks insist on this, we’re not an empire, we don’t have colonies, we’re not like Britain, we’re not like Rome. In a formal sense you can make that case, you know we don’t have colonies that’s true, but we are an empire in the most fundamental sense in terms of our expectations, the expanse of our influence, the prerogatives that we insist upon. Now if I said ‘we’re an empire; get used to it,’ I’m guessing what I meant was we’re an empire and by recognizing that we’re an empire it might be possible for us to manage the empire in ways that the empire will be sustainable. That the empire might at least minimize the moral offenses that it commits. That an empire can be managed in a way to serve the larger interests and purposes of a variety of people. I don’t think empires have to be evil and oppressive and stupid. Now the direction that my thinking has evolved since that time 6 years ago is I’ve become persuaded that at least with this administration that its recklessness, its arrogance, its hubris has been very much at odds with the notion of an empire wisely managed. And the actions of this administration have so squandered American power and influence in the world that they have rapidly accelerated the decline of the American empire. Again, it’s not that I’m interested in the empire as such. I am interested in the well-being of the United States of America. And I think this administration has done great damage to our well-being.

Andrew Bacevich of Boston University and The Limits of Power in conversation with Chris Lydon, September 30, 2008

Podcast • September 18, 2008

Torture, Part 3: the Philip Gourevitch version

In our third go at this miserable business of sanctioned American torture, Philip Gourevitch turns it around, Pogo-style. We have met the victims, he says in effect, and they are us. Click to listen to ...

In our third go at this miserable business of sanctioned American torture, Philip Gourevitch turns it around, Pogo-style. We have met the victims, he says in effect, and they are us.

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Philip Gourevitch (58 minutes, 27 mb mp3)

Philip Gourevitch (photo: Andrew Brucker)

Even if you want to put it into culture war terms, or a war of our principles versus theirs, or our civilization versus theirs – we’ve violated the principles that we claim our civilization stands for, in order to fight off this threat to our civilization. That’s what’s so incoherent about it. That’s where, when I look at these photographs from Abu Graib, when I look at the story, a lot of what I wrote this book for is to ask not ‘why did we go?’ and ‘how did we de-humanize them? and do these things to them?’ It’s ‘how did we do this to ourselves? Why are we doing this to ourselves?’ Maybe the best way to get us to stop doing it is not to ask why are we doing this to them – why are we doing this to ourselves?

Philip Gourevitch of Standard Operating Procedure, in conversation with Chris Lydon in James Der Derian’s global security seminar at Brown’s Watson Institute, September 17, 2008

Philip Gourevitch’s book, Standard Operating Procedure, is of course the hard-cover partner of the Errol Morris movie.

Gourevitch‘s eye and story-telling pen are as powerful as any thousand pictures from Abu Ghraib. This is his reading, for example, of the interrogation (with the help of dogs) of a prize prisoner called “AQ” (for Al Qaeda) before he turned out finally to be a used-car dealer in Baghdad, a man of no political or security interest:

Once again Smith moved in with the animal. In one picture you see it lunging, ears back, a black blur of muscle and jaw… Smith is in the picture, crouching over the dog, restraining him and urging him on at the same time.

It does not seem possible to amplify the drama of this moment, but the look on AQ’s face does just that. He has the horrified, drawn-back, and quivering expression of a thoroughly blasted soul. It is all there in his eyes, moist and mad with fear, fixed on a mouthful of fangs. What secrets does he have that we want so badly, but are so precious to him that he endures this day after day? The answer in AQ’s case was none. Once again at Abu Ghraib they had the wrong guy, or they had the guy wrong, and when they realized this after several months of dogs and bondage and hooding and noise and sleeplessness and heat and cold and who knows just what other robust counter-resistance techniques, they told him to scram, and closed his case. The pictures of AQ on that night before New Year’s are the last known photographs of our prisoners on the MI block at Abu Ghraib, which seems fitting, because these pictures don’t leave much to the viewer’s imagination, except the obvious question: if you fight terror with terror, how can you tell which is which?

Philip Gourevitch, Standard Operating Procedure.

As Abu Ghraib was the sequel to Guantanamo, our classroom conversation with Philip Gourevitch flows out of our session two days earlier with Philippe Sands — and Sands’ point that the criminal torture story began with President Bush’s dismissal of the Geneva Conventions in February, 2002 and “migrated” from there. One of the Morris-Gourevitch interviews with the investigator Tim Dugan gets it all into a nutshell, in the vernacular:

Tim Dugan was summoned to join a meeting with Colonel Pappas to discuss the interrogation of this fresh crop of Saddam cronies. Pappas explained that he’d just got off a conference call with General Sanchez and the secretary of defense. “He said, ‘We’re starting a special projects team, and we’re going to break the back of the resistance. Anybody who doesn’t want to volunteer for this has to leave the room. And if you volunteer, you can’t talk about this to anybody,'” Dugan said. “We all volunteered and he said all approach techniques were authorized. Someone asked, ‘Even dogs?’ And he says, ‘yep, even dogs.’ He’s like, ‘We got a chance to break this unlawful insurgency, and the people in an unlawful insurgency have no protection under the Geneva Conventions.'”

Dugan thought that was pretty definitive. “If the fuckin’ secretary of defense designates the motherfucker an unlawful insurgency, I mean, what the fuck am I supposed to say? It’s an unlawful insurgency, wouldn’t you think? He’s the second-highest motherfucker in the country during the war.”

Philip Gourevitch, Standard Operating Procedure.

Podcast • September 17, 2008

Philippe Sands’ Torture Team

First, the Spencer Tracy “verdict” from “Judgement at Nuremberg” (1961). Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Philippe Sands (45 minutes, 21 mb mp3) Who will pay for the illegal abuse of detainees at Guantanamo? ...

First, the Spencer Tracy “verdict” from “Judgement at Nuremberg” (1961).

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Philippe Sands (45 minutes, 21 mb mp3)

Who will pay for the illegal abuse of detainees at Guantanamo? If violations of the Geneva Conventions — and specifically of Common Article 3, against torture, cruelty and “outrages upon personal dignity” — are “‘war crimes,’ punishable as federal offenses,” as Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the Hamdan case two years ago, who will prosecute them?

Will Americans and the US government initiate an examination of the record — and of our national conscience? Or are we waiting for a prompt from abroad — waiting, in effect, for Donald Rumsfeld or Antonio Gonzalez to get their version of the Pinochet “tap on the shoulder,” as they’re strolling on a sidewalk in London, Berlin or Mexico City?

Philippe Sands of Torture Team: “…doing nothing is not an option.”

In his book Torture Team and in our conversation, Philippe Sands aims such questions at the top tier of his own legal profession. Who will hold to account the lawyers who gave President Bush the very bad advice that the Geneva rules, the US Army manual on interrogation, and the long tradition against torture (President Lincoln’s order in 1863 was that “military necessity does not admit of cruelty”) did not apply to the Al Qaeda suspects picked up after 9.11? And then: what about the lawyers who gave Donald Rumsfeld a green light to introduce abusive interrogation at Guantanamo in the autumn of 2002?

Torture Team can be read as a fiercely accusatory extension of Jane Mayer’s argument in The New Yorker and her book, The Dark Side, that “but for the lawyers this would not have happened.” Philippe Sands brings to bear an English barrister’s perspective and a generous investment of shoe leather in the US. He interviewed a large cast of principals and credits the marvelous openness of American society for his access to (among others) Rumsfeld’s chief counsel William “Jim” Haynes; the first commanding officer at Guantanamo, Major General Michael Dunlavey and his counsel, Lt. Col. Diane Beaver; the Navy’s General Counsel who blew the whistle on enhanced interrogation, Alberto Mora; the Pentagon’s aggressive Undersecretary for Policy Doug Feith, and the apparently witless chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers. But then he turns scathingly to the judgment that ideology, and lawyers, drove the mission to create something new: a “legal black hole” in which designated persons would be stripped of their humanity and all their rights.

That is precisely what the system of rules that the United States had done so much to put into place after the Second World War was intended to avoid. It comes back to Spencer Tracy in Judgement at Nuremberg: the dignity of even a single human person is what our values are about. There are no legal black holes. The moment you go down that route you undermine the entirety of who it is we believe we are, and what it is we believe we’re doing… I think there was a conscious decision to remove international legal constraints (and U.S. legal constraints — after all, that’s why Guantanamo is outside the US) which would limit the ability of the administration to adopt new techniques of interrogation. The legal black hole was the removal of international constraints on interrogation as part of an ideological drive to increase executive power and remove the shackles of international law. It has failed miserably.

Philippe Sands in conversation with Chris Lydon, September 15, 2008.

The press and popular culture didn’t help us notice what was underway, Sands observes. Notably, the Fox TV hit, 24 (another Jane Mayer subject) was as insidiously wrong about the long-term issues as Judgement at Nuremberg was once eloquently right. Sands also makes you wonder about the elite legal establishment — most particularly Harvard Law School, training ground of principals like Alberto Gonzales and Jim Wright and home base of the inescapable advocate of “torture warrants,” Professor Alan Dershowitz. But the hard focus here is on the legal minds who used a devious process to create a lawless prison (seedbed, not least of Abu Ghraib) that became an even more monstrous symbol of American power out of control.

The choice we don’t have, Philippe Sands argues, is to do nothing about this stain on the American reputation, the American soul.

Podcast • May 9, 2008

Errol Morris’ "Feel-Bad" Masterpiece

Lynndie England with “Gus” at Abu Ghraib Errol Morris’s Standard Operating Procedure is a shocking, depressing work of art that might tell you almost nothing you didn’t know in your bones: that the torture chambers ...
abu ghraib

Lynndie England with “Gus” at Abu Ghraib

Errol Morris’s Standard Operating Procedure is a shocking, depressing work of art that might tell you almost nothing you didn’t know in your bones: that the torture chambers at Abu Ghraib were a perfect kernel of the war on Iraq. See the movie anyway, for confirmation or as penance. It is a blood sample of a gross policy of humiliation, emasculation, sophisticated mental cruelty and pitiless domination in the Arab Middle East. Errol Morris makes no bones about it. He says: we are looking at icons of American foreign policy:

One of the most infamous photographs from Abu Ghraib is a photograph of Lynndie England: 20 years old at the time; 5 feet tall, I believe under 100 pounds, holding what in effect is a tie-down strap [on] a prisoner named ‘Gus’, who is naked on the ground. The photo is taken by Lynndie England’s then boyfriend Chuck Graner. Well, the photograph of course has fascinated me for many, many reasons. Here would be the central reason. I believe the picture is a graphic representation of American foreign policy, pure and simple.

errol morris

Errol Morris: “the word is denial”

Pictures become iconic for some reason. They answer a certain idea we have. It’s not just simply by happenstance. Oddly enough I know that that method of removing Gus from his cell had been approved by the medical authorities at Abu Ghraib. There was nothing “illegal” about what was happening. But in fact the photograph is absolutely appalling, because part of our foreign policy — and make no mistake about this — was this idea that American women should be used to humiliate Iraqi men, without a thought of course that this might be degrading to the American women as well. It’s not something that was devised by a handful of MPs on one tier at Abu Ghraib. It was part of our foreign policy.

And one of the things I find most appalling is that the photographs were used to blame a handful of MPs, really letting everybody else off the hook, as though nobody else was involved and this was just a few guys on this one tier. By the way Abu Ghraib was not one one tier or two tiers. It was a city. There were close to 10,000 people in there — a vast concentration camp in the middle of the Sunni Triangle. The pictures are misleading in that respect as well. They made you think you were dealing with something much, much smaller and more confined than the reality of what was there.

Filmmaker Errol Morris, talking about Standard Operating Procedure at the Watson Institute at Brown, May 7, 2008.

A lot of pretty forgettable questions buzz around Standard Operating Procedure. There are Errol’s own philosophical distractions: is it true that “seeing is believing”? Or must we commit ourselves to “believing” before we can “see” the truth of these pictures. Do photographs in fact encourage us not to look (or think) further? Then there are the critical nit-picks: can we credit the witnesses that Errol Morris paid to be interviewed? Do some visualizations and reenactments belong in the picture?

There’s a darker set of political questions, nested like those Russian dolls, around many levels of cowardice, scapegoating and denial of responsibility for Abu Ghraib. Only a few lost souls (and no civilians) went on trial for the wholesale dirty-work. The officer class and the political chiefs excused themselves. The voters in 2004 seemed to absolve George Bush in reelecting him. And by now moviegoers (in a stampede to get behind the armor of Marvel Comics’ Iron Man) have made it clear that they don’t much want to see S.O.P. or any other movie about the war in Iraq. See Errol Morris’ movie anyway, and take your kids. It’s sickening, but your kids should know what was done in our name — and what their kids, too, will pay for those world-famous pictures.

Podcast • April 18, 2008

Patrick Cockburn: The New War in Iraq

We are asking the bravest reportorial hand on the ground in Iraq, Patrick Cockburn of The Independent from London, to make a coherent picture of the news of the war — starting with the flight ...

We are asking the bravest reportorial hand on the ground in Iraq, Patrick Cockburn of The Independent from London, to make a coherent picture of the news of the war — starting with the flight of under-equipped and under-committed Iraqi Army units from their assigned war on Muqtada Al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army… and, among other things, the assassination of Muqtada’s brother-in-law in Najaf and, of course, General David Petraeus’s plea in Congress for an extension of the American “surge.” Cockburn’s strongest theme is that the Bush team in Baghdad is in fact fomenting a civil war within the Shia majority — a war that the government troops don’t want to fight and cannot possibly win against Muqtada Al-Sadr’s militias in Baghdad and elsewhere.

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Patrick Cockburn (40 minutes, 18 mb mp3)


Patrick Cockburn

Patrick Cockburn:The US forces in Iraq are beginning a new war against a new enemy in Iraq. For five years after the fall of Saddam Hussein, the US was confronting (fighting) the Sunni Arab community — about 20 percent of Iraqis, or 5 to 6 million people. Now in the last few months it’s confronting a large part of the Shia community — those that are loyal to Muqtada Al-Sadr, his Sadrist movement and the Mahdi Army, which really represent the Shia poor. But, you know, one Iraqi official who’s not sympathetic to Muqtada was saying to me the other day that the Shia are a majority of Iraqis and Muqtada’s followers are a majority of the Shia. So this is probably 30 to 40 percent of the whole population. This is a massive new confrontation that the US is undertaking in Iraq.

CL: And why is the US undertaking it?

Patrick Cockburn: I think it’s a misjudgment. It think that rather as in 2003 they thought it would be easy to confront the Sunni — I remember going to endless press conferences in Baghdad where we used to have Jerry Bremer, the US viceroy, and various American generals all saying we were fighting the remnant of the old regime of Saddam Hussein. It was obviously untrue but they may well have believed it. This time around there seems to be the idea that if we eliminate Muqtada things will come right. But this won’t happen, because Muqtada’s supporters are too well integrated into Iraqi society. There are too many of them. They’re too committed. They’re not going to give up. This isn’t just a political party. It’s a religious movement.

Patrick Cockburn, Author of Muqtada

(Scribners, 2008), in conversation with Open Source, April 2008

Patrick Cockburn: The most convincing evidence that the surge isn’t working, in terms of restoring security to Baghdad and central Iraq, is that we have 3.2-million Iraqi refugees — that’s about one in nine Iraqis — who’ve fled to Jordan or Syria or within Iraq. Living in appalling conditions, money running out, poor health. I’ve been to refugee camps where there’s no fresh water, where cholera is beginning. And they don’t go home! These are the best judges of what the real security situation is in Iraq — not Senator McCain, not me. But these people who if they felt they could go back to their homes in some security, if they and their children could be safe, they’d do it tomorrow. But they’re not because they know it’s not true; they know it’s as dangerous as it ever was. And that’s really what everybody should remember when they’re asked: how is the surge doing, or for an optimistic moment they think things are getting better in Iraq.

Patrick Cockburn, Iraq correspondent of the London Independent, in conversation with Open Source, April 2008