Sunday, October 17, 2004

American Journalists Are Too Trusting of Foreign Governments, Taking Their "Opinions" at Face Value

One of the most bedeviling things in writing about (and exposing) anti-Americanism is the tendency of Americans (both residents and expatriates, both common citizens and media journalists) to take the positions of foreigners (both the opinions of their citizens and the official policies of their governments) at face value — something they would never do at home.

Americans are perfectly willing to take the declarations and statements of Washington with a pinch of salt, to say the least (and a very good thing that is, too), but then when they hear the statements of foreigners about American foreign policy or any other subject, really (either while travelling, from their news media [domestic or foreign], or — when it is American members of the news media themselves who are concerned — when they report from foreign capitals or even from the countryside) they listen to the self-serving pontificating (or ranting and raving) with scarcely a second thought.

Case in point is Bernard Gwertzman's New York Times interview of Guillaume Parmentier, in which the Council of Foreign Relations consulting editor simply asks the director of the Center on the United States at the French Institute for International Relations to state his views (it would be better to say France's views, or the official views decided by the élite for their countrymen — although I'm not sure if Parmentier fits in more with the élite deciding or the countrymen repeating). Gwertzman never once questions France's motives for opposing the war (or the relative failure of the French media to report on the oil-for-food scandal) or asks any questions that are the least challenging.

Then, there is Roger Cohen, David E Sanger, and Steven R Weisman's longish, (supposedly in-depth) New York Times article on the new world order since the Iraq conflict, an article that is replete with subheads such as "A World Alienated" and "A Question of Consultation", and that states at one point:

…a new spectrum of relations with Washington has emerged. At one end are estranged allies like France and Germany, angered by the war, convinced it is a losing struggle, alarmed by America's use of overwhelming power.
This is taken at face value.
France's and Germany's reactions are taken at face value. The seriousness and maturity described in the positions that they express (anger, conviction, alarm) is taken at face value. And their corollary, the mockery or consternation that they express towards American policy, is taken at face value.

Unheard of, not even to be considered, are Realpolitik and double-dealing, for one thing. Greed is another. And Pavlov-type reactionism is a third. (Not even to speak of a combination of the above). Not to be considered, either, are double standards. And the corollary of double standards, positions and statements on policy that are self-serving. As for any talk of disloyalty, conscious or unconscious, don't even consider that!

(On the other hand, the countries that chose to follow Washington are said to have chosen to "fall in line". Untouched upon, ignored, and supposedly unimportant are the facts that they chose to resort to action — rather than to remain passive bystanders; that action meant that they agreed to put their armed forces in harm's way; and that their leaders put their political careers at stake in the process.)

Read how a diplomatic spat with Spain is treated:

On … the day of [Spain's national] parade, tensions rose further when the American ambassador, George L. Argyros, skipped the entire event. That annoyed Spanish officials, who said they had been expecting him.

"I didn't plan to attend the parade for many reasons, principally because last year the current president, Zapatero, did not stand up when the American flag passed by," Mr. Argyros told the Spanish wire services EFE and Europa Press …

Mr. Zapatero, who was the opposition leader last year, indeed remained seated as American troops marched in front of him, though he stood for the troops of other nations.

Can you imagine the hoopla if George W Bush or Powell or Rumsfeld had made the point to publically snub a foreign flag in an official ceremony? This would be considered a scandal of the gravest type, even had it been done before they had made it into government. And rightly so. The Spaniards' condescending attitude is not helped when one hears the recent remarks of the afrancesado's defense minister and when one reads of Zapatero, sitting tranquilly in his safe armchair in Madrid, his troops not (or no longer) involved in Iraq, and gratuitiously calling on Uncle Sam's allies to follow his lead and pull their troops out.

The reaction of the New York Times to all that is to relativize it, minimizing the snub (an insult, really, one of a gratuitious nature, and not just to the current administration) of el caniche de Chiraque, relativizing the spat, and suggesting that both nations are equally at fault.

The "current disagreements" follow "the recriminations over the parade" in Renwick McLean's vocabulary, joining phrases such as "The back-and-forth follows weeks of growing strain between the governments", and "it appears that whenever one of them might be ready to shake hands and move on, the other raises a fist." Charming.

With an article on Gerhard Schröder's reaffirmation of his country's opposition to Iraq, the New York Times does it again. It waxes eloquently about the German government's firmness and the German public's reasoned opinion (that happened, just happened, quite accidentally, to support the government of… Germany). Not a word is mentioned about how this might have been, if not a disloyal move towards an old ally, at least proof that the proselytizing about a relationship with John Kerry being more conducive to cooperation was misleading.

In taking his firm position against the Iraqi invasion, Mr. Schröder was widely supported by the German public, which remains convinced that the invasion was a disastrous mistake. It would be politically difficult for any German government to deploy troops to Iraq, certainly as long as armed opposition there continues.
(Interestingly, the International Herald Tribune changes Richard Bernstein's wording to make the Germans' firmness, rationality, commitment to principles, even heroism appear even stronger.)
In taking his firm position against the Iraqi invasion more than two years ago, Schröder was widely and solidly supported by the German public, which remains deeply persuaded that the invasion of Iraq was a mistake that has led to disastrous results. From that point of view, it would be very difficult politically for any German government to deploy troops to Iraq, certainly as long as armed opposition there continues.
Not a word about the the fleet of BMWs Saddam Hussein bought for himself, his family, and the members of his régime (along with French perfume, Chinese ping-pong tables, etc…)

Ah, finally! The New York Times does mention oil-for-food. In an editorial. But what does it do? First, it relativizes the oil-for-food scandal by suggesting it is ever so complicated:

So much flak has been thrown at United Nations programs to constrain Saddam Hussein's oil revenues and weapons purchases by those charging corruption that the average citizen must be reeling in confusion.
Quite a different image from any scandal implicating Uncle Sam, huh? There, no amount of flak thrown is ever too much, is it now (Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, WMD, etc…)? Then, the editorial waxes reassuring:
The emerging scandal is already under multiple investigations in this country, in Iraq and at the United Nations.
I.e., don't fret, everything's being taken care of, and if you do read anything about it, it can only by somebody whose nature is unduly obsessive (not lucide), even unbalanced or extremist. Indeed, the editorial goes on to say as follows:
But nothing that has surfaced so far suggests that the sanctions were failing in their main purpose, that the Bush administration's precipitous invasion was necessary or that the United Nations is fatally hobbled by corruption or incompetence.
After hearing about how Kofi Annan has responded "wisely" to the scandal — i.e., a piece of reassuring phrase meaning that (unlike the Bush administration) we can safely trust the UN not only to conduct a fair investiation, but to be quite willing to do so — and prior to hearing about how "Iraqi oil money [may have] poked holes in the sanctions" — meaning nothing really that important happened — we read the following. (Notice that the issue is of a "difficult", i.e., complex, nature, meaning that it is something that you, and we, and everybody, cannot allow oneself to judge lightly. Nay, more than that: it is a "more difficult issue", i.e., "more difficult" to explain, that is, we are going to have to make an extra effort and stretch to find a convenient way to explain this. And, reader, you must not allow yourself to judge the situation. Quite a different tone of voice and attitude from "the Bush administration's precipitous invasion".)
A more difficult issue is posed by the behavior of U.N. Security Council members. Prominent figures in Russia and France were reportedly made the main beneficiaries of Iraq's largesse, presumably in the hope that they would influence their governments to favor Iraq. But these nations were sympathetic to Iraq from the start. And the accused French and Russians legitimately complain that the Duelfer report listed their names before any guilt had been established, while the names of American companies and individuals who got oil vouchers were kept secret, emerging only in news reports.
"They legitimately complain". The complaint may be legitimate, but in the larger view of things, would't it be more appropriate if the French announced a determination (a credible one) to get to the bottom of things? Isn't that what the New York Times should be calling for? Am I wrong, or isn't this akin to Donald Rumsfeld, instead of responding to the Abu Ghraib scandal as he did, deciding to complain that illegal picture-taking had been going on inside the Baghdad prison?

What the editorial is saying, basically, is take sides and weave double standards: Be prepared to put into doubt any Washington decision (or failure to decide) at a moment's notice; and if something turns up, even minimal, gnaw it to the bone and pursue it to the ends of the Earth. But, everything other nations, and their administrations, and their media, and their public opinions, do and say, that is supposed to be taken at face value. "But these nations were sympathetic to Iraq from the start." See? That explains it… It was that simple… No judgment at all about whether sympathy to Saddam's Iraq in any way could have been wrong, in any sense of the question. No willingness to even start questioning whether the "peace camp's" attitude might have derived from their ugly and illicit money deals.

I have written before of how the Transatlantic Intelligencer made an in-depth study of how American papers such as the New York Times blindly trust in European assurances of such matters as the "legend of the squandered sympathy".

In that perspective, read also John Rosenthal's take on Deborah Sontag's New York Times article on Tariq Ramadan

Finally, read Deborah's essay on what the Europeans say to your face and what they say behind your back… And if anyone is reading this at the New York Times office, this is the kind of stuff you reporters should be finding out on your own!

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