Thursday, February 10, 2005

My Football Team

Reading the cover story of this month's Atlantic, as well as the Frank Smyth article I referenced in a prior post, made me realize the extent to which people allow pre-conceived ideological leanings to determine their interpretation of a given event. Perhaps more than ideological predisposition it is the "team mentality," since in many ways the stances taken contradict their own ideologies, but are assumed for the sake of the team or group with which they identify.

Oh, Inverted World

The modern Republican party has really become a case in point in this regard - diverging from its core principles of conservativism to embrace a radical new agenda that is inverting the political discourse in this country. The
Armchair Generalist points to this memorable post by the Kung Fu Monkey which captures the wonderment at this metamorphosis (with a healthy dose of humor):

No, seriously. Remember Republicans? Sober men in suits, pipes, who'd nod thoughtfully over their latest tract on market-driven fiscal conservatism while grinding out the numbers on rocket science. Remember those serious-looking 1950's-1960's science guys in the movies -- Republican to a one.
They were the grown-ups. They were the realists. Sure they were a bummer, maaaaan, but on the way to La Revolution you need somebody to remember where you parked the car. I was never one (nor a Democrat, really, more an agnostic libertarian big on the social contract, but we don't have a party ...), but I genuinely liked them....

A sad chuckle, a little head shake. "Who's going to pay for this?" they'd say, frowning over national budgets. "Where are the facts? The research?" They'd take out their little red pens and buzzkill our little dreams of nationalized health care or solar-powered windmills or maglev trains, and then go back to banning pornography while secretly screwing around on their wives. But you know what? A lot of times, they were right.

We needed those guys. They were a dull but crucial part of the national dialogue. (And they knew their scotches. ) Now ... a void....

How did they become the party of fairy dust and make believe? How did they become the anti-science guys? The anti-fact guys? The anti-logic guys?
The Left is also no stranger to such contortions. The Iraq war in particular has led to some very improbable alliances and endorsements, and at times, what appears to be an aversion to democracy - at least along the fringes. Frank Smyth laments the apparent apologias for the Baathist Sunni insurgents from certain quarters:

...the January 30 election represents a triumph not for the United States but for Iraq's Shi'ite majority, which is now moving toward the kind of self-empowerment and self-determination that it has long deserved. Progressives familiar with Iraqi history can understand why neither Shi'ites nor Kurds have much love for Sunni Arab Ba'athists, thousands of whom are currently anti-American insurgents. But some anti-war figures, like novelist and activist Arundhati Roy, have not only minimized the roots of today's indigenous Iraqi insurgency but have unabashedly apologized for the indiscriminate use of violence against Iraqi civilians. "[I]f we were to only support pristine movements, then no resistance will be worthy of our purity," said Roy in a speech in San Francisco last summer.

Anti-war activists like Roy have long championed the poorest of Iraqis, whose children suffered the most in the 1990s under U.S.-backed, UN economic sanctions. But how many of these same anti-war activists have been willing to acknowledge that most of these Iraqis were Shi'as and that they suffered domestically under Saddam?...
Smyth goes on to note that a certain bias that permeates the far Left, which assumes that America's motives are always nefarious and therefore its opponents' goals always laudable, has led some to champion factions that are decidedly unprogressive.

The one Iraqi Shi'ite group that has been lauded by some anti-war columnists is the al-Mahdi militia led by the young cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. His father - a widely revered cleric - and two brothers were all murdered by Saddam, whose administration tortured and killed hundreds of Shi'ite clerics. The young al-Sadr later ordered his followers to rise up against U.S. troops after the chief U.S. occupying authority in Iraq, Paul Bremer, closed down his movement's newspaper. The irony of progressives' support for al-Sadr is that he is among the most socially reactionary of Iraq's Shi'te leaders (he has not earned the status of cleric) and has, in his opportunistic search for allies, reached out to the misogynist, anti-democratic mullahs who run Iran....

What progressives forget when comparing El Salvador and Iraq is that El Salvador's insurgents were nearly all Marxists of one stripe or another. In contrast, Iraq's anti-American insurgents are nearly all right-wingers of one stripe or another - either Sunni Arab nationalists or Islamic Wahaabi fundamentalists - and despise most Iraqi leftists, including the Iraqi Communist Party.
Smyth closed his article with an important admonition to both the Right and the Left:

It is time for Westerners of all political persuasions to finally start seeing Iraq's richly diverse people for who they are instead of kicking them like footballs to try to advance a political agenda.
Indeed, the Iraqi people have been treated like footballs and worse by many politicos with an agenda. As mentioned above, certain elements of the far Left have shown a peculiar amnesia for Saddam's abuses, and a bizarre penchant for celebrating repressive elements currently operating in Iraq. On the one hand, the plight of the Iraqi people has been a story of convenience for the Right: highlighted both in the early 1990s (around the time of Gulf War I) and in recent years around the invasion of Iraq. Unfortunately, the time preceding, and in between, those episodes was marked by a distinct lack of interest from that same side of the political spectrum. As the Atlantic article points out, the period prior to Gulf War I was one in which the Right coddled the nascent Hussein regime (including providing it with money, intelligence, chemical weapons precursors, dual use items, etc) despite its flagrant human rights abuses.

Iraq's reliance on chemical weapons was well known in Washington, D.C., where monitoring of the war at one point indicated almost daily use. Saddam's suppression of minority groups and political dissidents was also well known. U.S. diplomatic relations with Iraq had been broken off in 1967, as a result of tensions over the Palestinian conflict and, specifically, the Six-Day War. But of course times had changed. Ronald Reagan had won the U.S. presidency. Saddam Hussein was a distasteful character, but he was seen now to be fighting the good fight against the radicals of Tehran. In 1982 the State Department quietly removed Iraq from its list of state sponsors of terrorism. Donald Rumsfeld, who had served as secretary of defense under Gerald Ford, arrived in Baghdad in 1983 on the first of two trips as a special envoy. His purpose was to open a dialogue - which to the Iraqis meant to make friends. Rumsfeld met with the foreign minister, Tariq Aziz, and touched on mutual concerns, including oil exports, pipeline construction, and especially the need to defeat the theocracy in Iran. Near the end of the meeting Rumsfeld mentioned Iraq's violation of human rights and its use of chemical weapons as troublesome, but made it obvious that such worries would not interfere with the rapprochement under way. In a separate meeting with Saddam Hussein he did not mention these issues, and kept the encounter positive. Diplomatic relations were restored in 1984.
While the plight of the Kurds became a rallying cry for Gulf War I, their brutal repression barely raised a peep from the Reagan administration. Similarly, though the George H. W. Bush team relied on reports from human rights groups to build the moral case for confronting Saddam in Kuwait, the Americans literally stood aside as Saddam's forces crushed a Shiite uprising in the South in that war's immediate aftermath that resulted in tens of thousands of civilian casualties.

Ironically, the Right seeks to once again claim the moral high ground, and act as if they have been championing human rights all along. The need to assert their team's infallibility has led some to assert that the Right, not the Left, was outraged at Saddam's actions in the 1980's and 1990's, despite the historical record which directly contradicts this. A recent post on the right-leaning
Daily Demarche sparked a conversation in the comments section in which one of the site's authors, Dr. Demarche, made the following claim about torture occurring at Abu Ghraib under the American military's stewardship:

I do not seek to excuse them by saying Saddam did worse - rather I am asking where was/is the outcry over what he DID do...? [emphasis added]
Another commenter took the argument one step further:

And, the world didn't react to Saddam. Human rights groups reacted to Reagan but not Saddam. People marched against Bush and Iraq, but they said nothing about Saddam and Iraq.[emphasis added]
One Woman's Crusade

In their effort to establish the sanctimony of the Right vis-a-vis Iraq, some pundits have completely distorted recent history. I would like to introduce the good Doctor, and his fellow commenter, to a remarkable women who was the subject of the cover story in this month's Atlantic:

She is Hania Mufti, a Jordanian by birth and upbringing but a longtime Londoner, and recently a resident of Iraq. Mufti is forty-seven. She is a tall, gaunt woman, with dark blue eyes, cropped hair, and usually a cigarette in hand. Her experience in life has made her spare, reserved, and judgmental. As such she is no apologist for the occupying Americans. Indeed, much of her time now is spent looking into abuses by U.S. forces and the Iraqi government they installed. But for twenty years she has been the most persistent investigator of the former regime's crimes. It is because of her efforts - along with those of a few people like her, a small circle of her friends - that the war makers of Great Britain and the United States were able to cite human-rights violations as a justification for their invasion, and that Saddam Hussein and his lieutenants will now be brought to trial. Mufti is an unusually private person, who shuns public attention and exerts her influence increasingly through backroom discussion as well as through published reports. But whether she desires this credit or not, there is no escaping the fact that behind the headlines about crimes and justice stands the mass of work that she and her associates have done. [emphasis added]
The article goes on to describe how Mufti, working first through Amnesty International and later with Human Rights Watch, has been the driving force behind a litany of reports that have chronicled and condemned the numerous human rights abuses occurring in Iraq that most of the world cared little for at the time of the reporting.

...Hania Mufti was given the Iraq brief at Amnesty International. It was a difficult and thankless assignment of the sort generally handed from one newcomer to the next. But Mufti by then had grasped the seriousness of this work - its consequences for people on the ground - and she applied herself to the problems in Iraq with persistence and intelligence. Penetrating the walls of secrecy around the regime was not easy. Travel to Iraq was impossible, as was safe communication by telephone or mail, and London itself was full of Iraqi spies.

Throughout the 1980s, the London staffers said every year about Iraq, "Now, this year, let's finally get the bastards," and of course every year they did not. They worked resolutely nonetheless, publishing the accounts that Mufti and her supervisors judged to be real, no matter how fantastic they seemed. In 1985, for instance, in a report titled "Torture in Iraq," along with a standard litany of police methods (the beatings, shockings, burnings, stretchings, cuttings, breakings, and penetrations that were ordinary for this regime), they went public with information they had received about a bizarre plasma-harvesting program, under which prisoners at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison were killed by being strapped down and drained rapidly of their blood. The writing was typical of Mufti's early work.
Dr. Demarche, that is a small part of the outcry about what Saddam "DID do." It was hidden in plain sight. No, Amnesty was not giving Saddam a free pass and only focusing on Reagan. They, and other similar organizations, were working tirelessly, without thanks, in order to keep the record alive and apply pressure where they could. Just ask Hania Mufti.

Amnesty International had been tracking Iraq for years, and refusing to give up no matter how great people's frustration at the lack of progress there. Now, like the worst tyrants, Saddam Hussein seemed to be growing more dangerous with age. Amnesty was in a position to understand that this was no longer just another repressive Middle Eastern government at play.
Some of the things Mufti and her colleagues had to deal with were staggering. The interviews they had to conduct, sometimes in hostile and dangerous places, and the stories they had to hear repeated over and over again would have driven away the passive or non-committed actor. The article tells of the many incidents covered in the numerous reports: torture, mass murders, mass graves, mass rapes, and other unthinkable atrocities. Here is one parade of horribles concerning interrogation and torture techniques (warning - graphic violence):

...the investigators heard stories of other methods: of boring a hole in the leg with a drill; of castration; of tying a string around the penis and tightening it; of hammering nails into hands; of inserting bottle necks, sometimes broken, into the rectum; of pumping air into the anus, particularly of young boys; of extinguishing cigarettes in eyeballs; of burning and blinding people with acid and caustic substances; of subjecting people to extremes of heat and cold and thirst; of various forms of mock execution.
That partial list should be enough to hold the tongue of some moral relativists on the Left who claim that the torture and abuse committed by American military and civilian personnel was the equivalent of that which occurred under Saddam's auspices. It was not the same in either scope or intensity.

As for claims that Amnesty was hopelessly partisan, and more concerned with Republican administrations than human rights abuses, consider this passage:

The report was ready for release in December of 1990, at a time when the buildup of the American-led military coalition was nearly complete, and war seemed close at hand. An intense argument broke out within Amnesty International about the morality of going public with a document likely to be used to help justify a war that would be fought essentially over oil, as they saw it, and that inevitably would kill hundreds if not thousands of innocent civilians, not to mention legions of hapless Iraqi draftees. Mufti believed firmly that the report had to be issued, that the human-rights movement could not remain silent about the abuses being perpetrated, and that in any event the decision to go to war had already been made. She was right, of course, and her argument prevailed. Sure enough, President George H.W. Bush used the report in a television interview with David Frost, during which he said that he had handed it to his wife, Barbara, and that she had read about two pages of it before saying, "I can't read any more." If true, her reaction was sane and self-protective. It is not clear whether President Bush read the entire document. He labeled the crimes it described as "primeval." Or completely modern, as the mood may be.
Non-Zero Sum Game

By viewing politics in terms of a zero sum game, many partisans are left with an absolutist conception of the world that is threatened by an objective application of the facts - or any admission of wrongheadedness. If my side gives any ground, the other side gains, or so the story goes. In truth, both ends of the spectrum (especially at the extremes - although for the GOP that is increasingly becoming the norm) are riddled with inconsistent narratives adopted for expediency's sake, rather than for their historical accuracy. Progressives must take caution to maintain a clear line of vision about exactly what the stakes are in terms of human rights and progressive values in Iraq. The Right would be wise to remember that the Left has been crucial in building the moral case that the Right relies on to make their case, and thus human rights groups do have standing to criticize our own transgressions. And that's just for starters.

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