Saturday, September 20, 2003


When faced with a job started but not finished, politicians have an almost universal reaction: change the subject!

Afghanistan is a case in point.

We invaded Afghanistan and threw out most of the bad guys -- al Quaeda and the Taliban. Fine. Is the job finished? It has barely started.

The Karzai 'government' has virtually no authority outside Kabul. Power elsewhere in the country has reverted to the 'war lords'. President Karzai has asked the international community for a $15-20 billion to get the reconstruction job started; the Bush administration has pledged $1 billion, and very few other countries have pledged anything. We have reduced our troop strength there to some 8,000, and the UN peacekeeping force cannot operate safely outside Kabul. American troops are still getting killed. Millions of Afghans are displaced, their homes wrecked by the war. The infrastructure remains a shambles. And the country is again Number One in poppy production for heroin.

After 30 years of war, in a country that has long been an economic, social and political basket case, Afghanistan's 'reconstruction' requires far more resources than the $87 billion the president has proposed for Iraq.

So what has the Bush Administration done? It has changed the subject: to Iraq. And when politicians change the subject, the media tends to follow. The result is that this desperate country has virtually disappeared from the headlines, and is rarely, if ever, raised as a serious issue by those who are running for Mr. Bush's job.

Are we seeing a replay of the past, when we armed what became the Taliban, encouraged them to throw the Russians out, made grandiose promises -- and then walked away?

US credibility throughout the world is at an all-time low. It cannot be helped by our failure to finish what we started. Or is Mr. Bush's tax cut really more important?

Some of the US forces' lapses in Iraq, e.g., failing to protect the priceless treasures of the Iraq Museum, bring to mind another that has been pervasive during this war: that the battlefield images watched 24/7 on US television over the past month are confirmation of American 'press freedom’.

Watching these endless battlefield images, I recalled Dan Rather's interview with Gen. Schwartzkopf after the Gulf War. The interview ended with Dan congratulating the General on the splendid job he did, and I remember wondering what kind of journalism was this? When I was in J-School in the 19th century, and later as an AP reporter, the cult of objectivity was at its height. Just the facts, ma'am. Objectivity has decidedly had its downsides, for example, straight-faced reporting on every word uttered by Sen. Joe McCarthy, no matter how outrageous. And the mythology that any reporter can easily approach a story without any intellectual, ideological, cultural, political, or what-have-you baggage. But, on balance, objectivity has served our people well. This was the lesson Dan Rather forgot. It was the same lesson all of us have recently also found ourselves being seduced to forget.

We all criticize the Arab media for being state-owned and state-controlled -- mere mouthpieces for governments that are, by and large, just as much despotic police states as Iraq. And we are right. But, ask yourself, how much freedom is enjoyed by a journalist 'embedded' with a US military unit? With very few exceptions, every movement of these men and women is controlled by the movements of the units they are attached to.

So we were told that we were seeing what war really is like. Maybe so, but we were seeing it (a) because of the development of the ubiquitous videophone and (b) entirely from an Anglo-American perspective, in which field commanders, not journalists, made the ground rules.

To digress a bit, there is a constant question that TV producers face: are we doing this or that story because it's really newsworthy, or because we have dramatic pictures? TV has consistently demonstrated that it will opt for the latter just about every time. Keep the eye focused on what the viewer will watch! This is especially disgraceful vis a vis American 'local news' broadcasts -- fixated on fires, rapes, murders, rescued cats, and suchlike.

Back to the battlefield and the 'embedded' ones, and the balance that is always the hallmark of great journalism. That this balance was so abysmally absent was not the fault of the 'embedded'; it was the judgment of network and station -- and print media -- management. Thanks to technology, news media anywhere have access to images from everywhere. These are images that show so-called 'collateral damage' (which has to be one of the most putrid euphemisms of our time). While Pentagon and CentCom briefers were busy incessantly touting the surgical accuracy of our 'smart' weapons, ordinary people were getting atomized by 'smart weapons gone astray'.

The Arab world saw plenty of this -- in fact, it was just about all they saw. This was nothing new for them; it's the diet their governments have always fed them (including many confirmed instances of 'staged' carnage). Which makes non-US media even more lopsided than ours was. But we do not expect Middle East media to be either free or objective. That's what we have a right expect from the American press. So where were they?

There is no doubt that most of these horrendous 'collateral damage' events actually happened. Nor is there much doubt that US media had access to all of it. But, with only a few exceptions, the American media spiked it. What we saw of 'collateral damage' was mostly US soldiers going out of their way to airlift horribly wounded kids to field hospitals.

Doesn't that make the press complicit with the Pentagon and CentCom? Over the past month, the US media has by and large looked and acted like a bunch of cheerleaders for those it is mandated to hold accountable. If we fail to do so, we are no better informed than the people of the police states who we accuse of 'managing' the news (while we continue to provide USAID tax dollars to many of them).

The technology that has made it possible for us to 'experience' war is truly breathtaking, and it's likely to get better in the future. But the critical decisions our media needs to make in the future are human, not technological, decisions. By omission, they can continue to be jingoistic boosters. Or they can try to remember what great journalism is supposed to be about.


Since the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime, the media have engaged in non-stop discussions of what it will take to create civil society, and begin to build democracy, in Iraq. Much of this dialogue has been about ‘the Arab Street’, i.e., ordinary working people, and their hatred for the United States. But I submit that the problem is far deeper than ‘the Arab Street’, and that we have seriously under-estimated the challenges we face.

I offer my experiences in Egypt – considered by many to be one of the more moderate Arab states -- as a proxy for Iraq. For several years, not long ago, I managed one of the many programs in Egypt sponsored by the US Agency for International Development (USAID). I was the only American in the program, my staff being entirely Egyptian. All were young university graduates, many with Master’s Degrees from the American University in Cairo – one of the most prestigious institutions in the Middle East. Some had done their university work in the US. All had traveled extensively outside the region, principally to the US and Europe. All were from ‘good’ upper middle class families. They had no leanings whatever toward Islamic Fundamentalism. They were children of privilege. The ‘Arab Street’ they were not.

On one sunny Cairo afternoon, sitting on our 19th floor balcony outside our office overlooking the Nile, I stumbled into a discussion about ‘politics’ with two or three of my most talented senior staff people. Here are some of the opinions they expressed during that conversation:

· The US doesn’t really care about the needs of developing nations. American foreign assistance is merely a tool to further our foreign policy.
· All US foreign policy decisions vis a vis the Middle East are guided by the interests of Israel and the strength of the Jewish lobby in Washington.
· Despite the power of the Jewish lobby, the Christian right hates Muslims and is a major influence on policy makers.
· The Holocaust never happened.
· It happened, but it wasn’t six million killed – there weren’t that many Jews in all of Europe – it was only a million or so.
· The US media, banking system, Congress, labor unions, etc. are all ‘controlled’ by Jews or by Jewish campaign contributions, or both.
· There is no difference between Jews and Israelis, regardless of their location. All Jews are homogenous.
· The US justice system and civil rights are over-rated, available to rich whites only, certainly not to Muslims.
· The US doesn’t really care about Egyptians. The approximately $2 billion in US annual aid to Egypt is ‘payback time’ for Egypt recognizing and establishing diplomatic relations with Israel.
· Israel has more weapons of mass destruction than all the other Middle Eastern states combined, and isn’t a democracy anyway.

Like all the most dangerous lies, some of the above had at least a little germ of truth. But where did these notions come from? Principally, they came from the parents of these young people, from many of their religious leaders, from their teachers and their textbooks, and from a largely state-controlled media putting out a daily diet of misinformation, disinformation, half-truths and vitriol – much of it written by some of the most respected ‘scholars’ in the region. So they literally absorbed these attitudes from their mothers’ milk, and their beliefs were reinforced on a daily basis.

And so it is in Iraq. The Iraqis, like the Egyptians and citizens of most other Middle East nations, will happily accept our aid dollars, tell us what they think we want to hear, and go on believing what they have always believed.

Our government claims to be aware of all this. But ‘nation-building’ is a political dirty word in America because it implies a very long-term commitment of resources, and partners prepared to make similar commitments. In the run-up to the 2004 elections, it is unlikely that Washington will be in the mood for long-term commitments overseas. And if such commitments are made, they will be at the expense of other developing nations just as needy. As for partners (with checkbooks) today we find ourselves just a tad short, and we continue to ignore those – the UN, for example – who might help.

Furthermore, the US is not very good at nation-building. We consistently under-estimate the enormity of the task and the time it will take to succeed (witness Kuwait and Afghanistan). Our government will send the most talented experts from the best consulting firms to deliver our aid programs, and our visionary Congress will expect ‘success’ in perhaps three, four or five years.

The international community cannot help Iraq to become a democracy without the conceptual underpinnings necessary to build democratic institutions. Iraqis, and most other Middle Eastern peoples, have no experience with democratic concepts, structures or institutions. For example, they will fail to comprehend – and most (though not all) will resist – such ideas as separation of church and state, the need for an independent judiciary, a system of checks and balances, and freedom of expression. This should come as no surprise: their governments never expected anything from them save blind loyalty and supine compliance!

Yet here we are. It is apparent that we launched a military operation in Iraq without a viable plan for winning the peace. We can’t do that with ‘smart’ bombs; nation-building is not about technology. Most of those with real experience in nation-building believe that it is far more about changing mass media content; changing the educational system and the attitudes of those who write its textbooks and teach its children; and gaining the understanding and support of community and religious leaders.

The White House and the Departments of State and Defense have access to the world’s deepest experience and finest minds on this subject – people who know the region and its attitudes, customs and mores, speak fluent Arabic, and have a genuine appreciation of the components of nation-building. So where are they? And is anyone listening?

Politicians tend to have time horizons even shorter than quarter-by-quarter CEOs. They also have a penchant for self-congratulation. So while they and most of our nation rightly celebrate our ‘liberation’ of Iraq, we continue to be in serious denial about what lies ahead, right now. Winning the peace does not require politicians who are incessantly running for reelection. Nation-building requires statesmen (and women). It requires people with the vision to acknowledge that the kind of change we wish to bring about in Iraq will take a generation at the least. And, at the end of the day, those making and sustaining those changes will have to be Iraqis.

Anyone in Washington or Baghdad spring to mind with the qualifications to take on that job?

Bill Fisher
May 17, 2003

By William Fisher

Attorney General John Ashcroft’s current ‘road show’ is a major effort by the Bush Administration to head off growing Congressional and other criticism of the USA Patriot Act and as a predicate to the introduction of yet another piece of anti-terrorism legislation, the Victory Act. The Patriot Act gives the Government broad powers to listen to and record our phone conversations, make videos of our lives, search our homes and offices and computers without warrants and let us know about it later, and expel aliens who may “threaten the national security of the United States or the safety of the community or any person.” Suspected al Queda terrorists are to be summarily tried by military tribunals.

Today, sections of the Act, hurriedly passed -- without hearings and with little debate -- in the immediate post-9/11 period, are being challenged by numerous individuals and groups, from the liberal left to the conservative right, including many members of Congress who voted for it. Their concern is that, in attempting to acquire the tools to catch and prosecute the bad guys, the Act gives our government too much power to infringe on the Constitutional rights of all Americans. And it does so largely without the checks and balances that are so central to our system of government.

Ira Meistrich, writing recently in the publication, Military History Quarterly, makes a compelling case that the Patriot Act is far from the first time in American history that concern for national security has resulted in excessive constraints on civil liberties. These have ranged from limiting the free speech of soldiers in the Continental Army during the American Revolution, to passing the draconian Alien and Sedition Laws in 1798 when France and the US were on the brink of war, to Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War, to Woodrow Wilson’s series of anti-dissent laws before and during World War I, to Attorney General Mitchell Palmer’s ‘Red Raids’ following the war, to Roosevelt’s internment of 120,000 Japanese-Americans during World War II, to the infamous antics of the House Un-American Activities Committee and Joe McCarthy’s Cold War witch hunts.

But Meistrich asserts that our Constitution has always shown the resilience to bounce back. He sums up his argument as follows: “The Romans had a phrase for it: ‘inter arma silent leges -- in times of war, the laws are silent,’ as Thomas Jefferson wrote…. But if the laws have been silent inter arma, so far they have always come back in full strength when the crisis has passed.”

In my view – and those of a growing chorus questioners -- it is not nearly good enough to assert that our Constitution is strong enough to bounce back from any ‘temporary’ diminution of our rights. For one thing, these measures are unlikely to be ‘temporary’ – the war on terror will go on into the very distant future. Secondly, the civil rights they threaten are the very cornerstones of our democracy – the attributes we like to think distinguish the US from most of the other nations of the world. The US is supposed to be the ‘gold standard’ of civil liberties and an example to the rest of the world. Yet, many critics of the Patriot Act complain that we are adopting a double standard: urging foreign leaders to show more respect for civil rights while we curtail them at home. Finally, we are right to be concerned because over our history each attack on our civil liberties has caused pain and suffering to many innocent Americans and, perhaps worse, provided a legal, political, atmospheric or cultural precedent for the next attack.

To be sure, throughout our history we have experienced some very real threats from and considerable damage to the US and its citizens. These have always been the rationales used to justify a broad-brush approach to keeping us safe. The real threats of terrorism notwithstanding, the motivations of some of the most heinous abusers of the Constitution are highly suspect -- White House ambitions (Mitchell Palmer), partisan politics (Federalists versus Republicans), power and influence (J. Edgar Hoover), publicity, notoriety and reelection (Joe McCarthy, Martin Dies, Richard Nixon). But the bottom line has always been, however well intentioned, a broad-brush approach leading to widespread and seemingly indiscriminate attacks on our civil liberties.

Dr. Meistrich attempts to inject a calming note into this litany of abuses. He writes: “Time and again, the Constitution has been tested by crisis, and time and again it has proven its resilience. Legitimate concern about the impact 9/11 has had or will have on our basic liberties is appropriate and important, but it is equally important to view these events and actions through the informing lens of history. The record is not spotless, but it is impressive.”

He is right. Many of the most outrageous infringements on our civil liberties have been corrected, or at least acknowledged, over time. But the lens of history is by definition a long-range lens, while the suffering of thousands of innocent people caught up in too-often baseless attacks on their civil liberties over the past two centuries was and is short-term and immediate.

We ought to be able to do better. We ought to be able to figure out how to do in civil society what we now do on the battlefield with ‘surgical strikes’ -- how to catch the bad guys without ruining the lives of ordinary, law-abiding Americans. Today, there is a growing body of evidence that we may be at the beginning of a process to do just that – to save the best of the Patriot Act while avoiding the risks of repeating the mistakes of our past.
For example, Republican Rep. C.L. Otter (R-ID), from the conservative heartland, has sponsored an amendment to a key spending bill prohibiting the implementation of a section of the law facilitating federal agents’ use of secret “sneak and peek” searches, which permit a delay in notification that a search was conducted. The measure is supported by some 300-plus Congresspeople, including more than a hundred Republicans. In the Senate, Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden have introduced a bill to narrow other sections of the law, and Sen. Russell Feingold (D-WI) sponsored a bill to roll back Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which among other things allows the FBI to access Americans’ library records without showing probable cause.
In addition, the American Civil Liberties Union has filed a suit challenging the constitutionality of Patriot Act, particularly Section 215. The ACLU and six Muslim groups argue that the law gives federal agents virtually unchecked authority to spy on Americans. Their suit seeks to have this major section of the law declared unconstitutional on grounds that it violates privacy, due process and free speech rights of Americans.
Says Laura W. Murphy, Director of the ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office: “…There is a growing sense among regular Americans of all political stripes – from the most right-wing to the most left – that the Patriot Act went too far, too fast. Instead of merely taking rational, judicious steps to update and improve our federal police and intelligence resources, it overreaches by eroding basic checks and balances against White House and cabinet-agency power, at the expense of the people’s representatives in Congress and the bulwark of our rights, the courts.”
Moreover, opposition has come not only from ‘the usual suspects’ – the Left – but also from groups such as the American Conservative Union – concerned about the impact of the Patriot Act on their privacy. Says the Union’s chairman, David Keene:
“These infringements on the individual freedoms of American citizens are not part of some plot or conspiracy to deprive us of our civil liberties. The President, the Attorney General and those interested in maximizing individual liberty need to work together to guarantee that we can defend ourselves without altering the nature of the greatest society on earth. The USA Patriot Act was passed in haste and included ideas previously shelved by the Congress, like expanded civil forfeiture and roving wiretaps: ideas that law enforcement wanted, but could never get. When creating sound anti-terrorism legislation, the line should not be drawn at 'what is helpful for law enforcement,' but at what is needed to protect us while preserving the proper balance between preserving civil liberties and our nation's national security needs.”
David Cole of Georgetown University, author of the new book, “Enemy Aliens”, noted in a recent PBS interview that the justifiable fear created by 9/11 not only made quick passage of the Patriot Act quicker; it also created an environment in which the Justice Department has been able to more freely exercise its remedy of choice -- immigration violations -- to round up and detain ‘terror suspects’ without having to provide them with any of the basic protections afforded by the criminal justice system. Because immigration violations are not criminal acts, their alleged perpetrators have no right, for example, to legal representation, and can be detained indefinitely or deported without hearing or notice.
Says Cole: “There have actually been…over 5,000 people detained since September 11th in anti-terrorism initiatives undertaken by the Justice Department. And of those 5,000, only three were charged with any crime related to terrorism. And of those three, only one was convicted, and not actually of engaging in terrorist activity or even planning terrorist activity, but of conspiring to support some unidentified terrorist acts in the unidentified future. So you get 5,000 people locked up on pretexts who had nothing to do with terrorism.”
Cole continues: “I think we absolutely need to use those means that will root out the potential terrorists. But locking up 5,000 innocent people doesn't root out potential terrorists. Making all Arab and Muslim men come in and register simply because they're from Arab or Muslim countries doesn't make us safer. And what these initiatives do is I think play into the terrorist hands. Because what the terrorists want most of all when they attack a democracy, a country like ours, is for us to overreact. For us to violate our own principles. For us to be seen as acting unjustly. Because that then creates the fodder for further recruitment drives. “
The message these voices are sending us is: those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to relive them. That’s a risk we ought to be innovative enough to avoid.




The recent refusal of the Egyptian Government to allow registration of two human rights organizations reminds us once again of some of the strange bedfellows who become America’s ‘strategic allies’ and who regularly receive massive aid from US taxpayers. The billions of tax dollars the US has given to Egypt since Egypt pledged not to try again to destroy Israel demonstrates the primacy of ‘strategic interests’ and ‘national security considerations’ over principle. It may also provide something of a cautionary tale for the people of the United States.

Under a new law governing the activities of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), Egypt’s Ministry of Social Affairs last month rejected the registration of the New Woman Research Center and the application of the Land Center for Human Rights to register a new entity -- Awlad al-Ard (Sons of the Earth). The Ministry’s letter to the two organizations stated, "security agencies do not approve the registration…. "

The New Woman Research Center, founded in the early 1990s, raises public awareness of women's rights issues, including female genital mutilation and domestic violence. The Land Center for Human Rights, founded in 1996, works on economic and social rights issues, primarily in rural areas. The Center has produced a series of reports on agricultural child labor, land tenancy issues, and environmental problems, as well as other topics.

According to the widely respected Human Rights Watch, "these two groups have been spotlighting important human rights issues for years…By refusing to give them legal status, the government has confirmed that the new NGO law is intended to stifle civil society... There is nothing in the law requiring clearance by the security services…In banning these two groups the government has gone beyond even its own restrictive legislation."

The new NGO law, which passed the People's Assembly in 2002 despite widespread opposition from NGOs, significantly tightens state control over these types of organizations. It requires existing groups to apply for registration with the Ministry of Social Affairs, bars groups the state determines to be "threatening national unity [or] violating public order or morals", and prohibits them receiving funds from abroad without ministry approval. The ministry must approve nominees to the governing boards of NGOs and can deny requests to affiliate with international organizations. The ministry can dissolve an NGO at will, as well as freeze its assets and confiscate its property without a judicial order. The law provides criminal penalties for unauthorized NGOs and for those who form "clandestine organizations". In effect, these provisions criminalize many forms of informal or grassroots organizing.

The Land Center is appealing the government's decision. Says Human Rights Watch: "In Egypt as elsewhere, the state has a legitimate interest in registering civil societies, but in a way that allows citizens to exercise their basic political rights…If the past is any guide, the authorities will use this legislation to pounce on any group whose activities cross the very low threshold for dissent in Egypt today."

Against this background – and under considerable behind-the-scenes pressure from the US government -- Egypt’s ruling NDP party has proposed the creation of a new Council of Human Rights. According to the Egyptian government, the Council would be completely independent of the government, headed by leading public figures, and have the power to investigate human rights violations. But many independent and opposition political figures, as well as Egyptian intellectuals, have likened this initiative as tantamount to letting the fox guard the hen-house. Some point out that Egypt is branded by such global organizations as the United Nations Human Development Report (UNDP) and Freedom Watch as undemocratic or authoritarian. And our own US State Department’s annual Human Rights Report is highly critical of Egypt’s human rights record.

Why should all this concern the United States? Because our government considers Egypt a ‘moderating’ force in the Middle East, largely based on its efforts to assist in finding a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its long-standing crackdown on Islamic Fundamentalism, which began long before 9/11. That is the rationale for massive US economic assistance, including programs to curtail corruption, improve education and health services, increase productivity in agriculture, manufacturing and services, strengthen Egypt’s natural and physical infrastructure and, yes, enhance democracy and civil society.

It was Egypt’s ‘war on terror’ (long before that phrase was coined) that gave birth to the so-called Emergency Law back in 1981. It is under this draconian law that thousands of people are detained without charge on suspicion of illegal terrorist or political activity, and that the Egyptian Government uses to infringe on citizens' privacy rights, restrict freedom of the press and curtail freedom of assembly and association.

This is the same law that convicted civil society advocate Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a professor at the American University in Cairo and a dual US-Egyptian citizen, on charges including seeking to harm the reputation of the State and accepting funds from the European Union without government permission. After three trials – and, to our great credit, relentless pressure from the US Government, as well as from UN agencies and human rights groups worldwide -- Dr. Eddin was acquitted. But his prosecution and imprisonment has had a chilling deterrent effect on the activities of human rights organizations.

According to the 2002 US State Department Report on Human Rights, the Emergency Law continues to restrict many basic liberties. Security forces continue to arrest and detain suspected members of terrorist groups. In combating terrorism, the security forces continue to mistreat and torture prisoners, arbitrarily arrest and detain persons, and hold detainees in prolonged pretrial detention. And in actions unrelated to the antiterrorist campaign, local police kill, torture, and otherwise abuse both criminal suspects and other persons.

The importance of Egypt’s vigilance against terrorism cannot be underestimated: it helps to protect the entire international community. The danger is that Egypt will throw away the baby with the bathwater. The reason is that NGOs can too easily find themselves tarred with the same brush as terrorist organizations. The irony here is that the loser will be Egypt itself. NGOs provide myriad services that the Egyptian government can’t or won’t perform. Traditionally, these volunteer-based groups help make societies more vibrant, inclusive, participative and effective.

Which brings us back to the US taxpayers who are helping to finance the current regime and, indirectly, helping it tighten its stranglehold on basic human freedoms. No one expects Egypt – or any other Middle East country – to move from authoritarian police state to democracy overnight. But the US has had substantial aid programs in Egypt for more than 25 years. Is it not time for the US Government to impose the principle of ‘tough love’ on Egypt and the kindred authoritarian regimes we support? Do we not have the right – indeed, the obligation – to demand that overseas beneficiaries of our largesse begin to meet at least the most fundamental criteria of civil society -- beginning with a lot more respect for individual civil liberties?

And do we Americans not have the right -- and no less the obligation – to be relentlessly vigilant lest the sweeping powers given to our own Attorney General under the Patriot Act and other post-9/11 legislation morph into our very own Emergency Law?

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The author has managed a number of aid programs in Egypt funded by the US Agency for International Development.