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Monday, March 17, 2003

mediawatch

From Wall Street to Your Street


It is difficult to read The Wall Street Journal without reaching for the Maalox. A report datelined March 5, Irbil (i.e., Erbil), northern Iraq, and written by Asla Aydintasbas, is a good example. Its headline asked, “When Will Americans Come?” with a subhead that explained, “Here in northern Iraq, they’re getting impatient for freedom.” Ms. Aydintasbas is described as a writer for the Turkish daily Sabah as well as an adjunct fellow at the Western Policy Center in Washington, DC (more on this at the end). Maybe it’s just me, but, frankly, I immediately get suspicious when I see an article in The Wall Street Journal by a Turkish journalist in defense of Kurdish “freedom.”

Ms. Aydintasbas’s lead into her reportage is categorical, to say the least: “It is hard to imagine another place where Americans are more popular these days.” Undoubtedly. Her first eyewitness to this American popularity is “a young Kurdish driver” (hers, I assume), who tells her, “plain and simple”: “We like the son of ‘Haji Bush,’ because he will fight Saddam for us.”

Haji Bush? Perhaps Ms. Aydintasbas is reprising the old Ottoman tradition by which Christians who visited Jerusalem also became hajis — or to use the more common Greek term, hadzidhes. In any case, the use of the evocative foreign honorific — which in another time and reportage would surely have been sahib — is the sort of couleur locale that’s part-and-parcel of the safari-cum-flak-jacket reporting “on the ground” that passes for journalistic acumen nowadays. The problem is that, somehow, something tells me that while Ms. Aydintasbas’s “young Kurdish driver” thinks the world of “Haji Bush,” there might be other opinions among his compatriots about the American president who, after all, actively fomented and then quickly abandoned (or, depending on your point of view, betrayed) their rebellion of 1991, leading to its bloody repression by Saddam Hussein — and, not at all incidentally, to the forcible exile of roughly one million Kurds.

As it turns out, Ms. Aydintasbas is an inexpert propagandist — and a transparent disinformant. She gives her game away by the third sentence, which follows the “plain and simple” declaration of affection for both Hajibush and Hajibushoglu (i.e., 41 and 43). I quote: “Others — young and old, Kurdish or Turkmen, shopkeepers and politicians — echo similar sentiments about ending the reign of brutality in Baghdad.” Again, plain and simple: young and old, shopkeepers and politicians, and — oh, yes — Kurds or Turkmen. Kurds or Turkmen? But isn’t northern Iraq Kurdish? Indeed, hasn’t it been seen for years as the core of a possible future Kurdistan? Who are the Turkmen?

The simple answer is an ethnic Turkic minority estimated to total anywhere from 500,000 to 800,000. There is another answer, however, which is far less simple: the Turkmen are actually almost as teeming in northern Iraq as the Kurds, since there are allegedly 2.5 million of them. Two and a half million? But who says that? Who else? Turkey, of course — and that’s where things quickly become more complicated.

How do you translate Cyprus into Kurdish?
According to The New York Times, there are roughly 3.8 million Kurds in northern Iraq. (Obviously, population figures for the region are hardly reliable, but the generally accepted ones can be used prudently and indicatively). That means that half a million is just over 13 percent while 800,000 is a smidgen over 21percent of that figure. If, for the sake of argument, we split the difference between 13 and 21 (and thus err on the side of generosity to the Turkmen minority), we come up with 17 percent. Seventeen percent is, of course, uncannily close to the figure of 18 percent that constituted the segment of the total population of Cyprus that was ethnic Turkish at the time of the Greek-instigated coup and Turkish invasion in 1974.

At this point, I suspect that it is already clear to the reader how “complicated” things in northern Iraq will become following the US occupation of the country as a whole. In Cyprus, of course, until its national liberation struggle in the Fifties, there was no history of intercommunal conflict worthy of mention. As Christopher Hitchens perceptively observed long ago, the “trite and cynical view” of age-old enmities between Greek and Turkish Cypriots was nothing but “the psychological counterpart of partition” (Hostage to History: Cyprus from the Ottomans to Kissinger, p. 27). Specifically, it was a witches’ brew concocted by the British, who, in their desperation to retain control of the island, managed to convince Turkey of the “advantage” to the latter of inciting division and — thanks to the always-willing collaboration of Greek fascism, guided in this instance by the hideous and homicidal George Grivas — essentially led Cyprus to where it finds itself at the moment. Can it be accident or coincidence that, in northern Iraq today, Turkey has (again, as so often in the past) discovered a minority that it declares it will “defend” in the most bellicose fashion (and whose size it represents as being three to five times larger than it actually is)?

“Ancient” minorities
There is another, older and even more apposite, precedent for what is happening today in northern Iraq, however. Following the First World War, the Ottomans gave up the sancak of Alexandretta (which also included Antioch) to (what was then) French-mandated Syria. According to official French figures of the mid-Thirties, out of a population of 220,000, the sancak had 85,000 Turkish-speaking Sunni Muslims, or about 39 percent of the total. In the fall of 1936, as France began the process of abandoning its mandate, Turkey demanded that the League of Nations exclude Alexandretta from any future and independent Syria. Soon thereafter, bloody intercommunal riots broke out between ethnic Turks on the one hand, and Syrians and Armenians on the other. Nevertheless, although 61 percent of the area’s inhabitants were opposed, Turkey — in what proved to be Mustafa Kemal’s ultimate “gift” to his country — swore to defend Turkish national “rights” and “honor.” Indeed, Kemal, who was essentially dying at that point, threatened France that he would resign from Turkey’s presidency and volunteer to fight for the sancak!

In the end, coercion won out, phony elections were held, which unsurprisingly secured “a suitable result” (to quote from Andrew Mango’s biography of Atatürk) of a razor-thin “majority” for the area’s Turks, and the French surrendered the sancak to Turkey in June 1939 (two months and a week before the outbreak of the Second World War and less than a year after Kemal’s death). The area was renamed Hatay, after Khitai, an ostensibly (if decidedly uncertain) medieval Turkic group, and also as a nominative nod to Atatürk’s pet ideological obsession, the Hittites, who the “father of Turks” thought of as the forefathers of Turks. To this day, Syria has never conceded the fait accompli that was forced upon it. Alexandretta, however, is now Iskenderun, the port from which the US is now preparing to attack (what else?) northern Iraq. (In case anybody is interested, Antioch became Antakya).

Neo-Ottoman fantasies
Which brings us back to northern Iraq, and Ms. Aydintasbas. There is only one mention of the city Kirkuk in her article, to wit: “I visited a Turkmen family, forced to leave its ancestral hometown of Kirkuk in 1991 as part of Iraq’s ‘Nationality Correction’ campaign, ethnically cleansing the city of Turks and Kurds.” Kirkuk is the heart of northern Iraq’s oil fields. It is also, in the words of the founder of modern Kurdish nationalism, Mullah Mustafa Barzani, “the heart of Kurdistan.” And yet, in a particularly clumsy ideological distortion, Ms. Aydintasbas misrepresents it as something entirely different: she refers to it as the “ancestral hometown” of a Turkmen family that suffers ethnic cleansing because it is a “city of Turks and Kurds”! Within one sentence, in other words, and by an audacious act of intellectual sleight of hand, we’ve gone from Turkmen to Turks. If anybody believes that this profound ideological and conceptual elision is insignificant or just a “mere,” innocent “slip” of the pen, they’ve already become victims of an insidious stratagem.

Furthermore, in her “evenhanded” and “neutral” description of Kirkuk as a city equally of Kurds and Turks, Ms. Aydintasbas leaves the reader with the subconscious — and deeply mendacious — belief that northern Iraq is actually equally divided between Kurds and, at the very least, some kind of ethnic Turkic people. This kind of “objective,” seemingly impartial journalism so beloved by the American media is in fact the most disingenuous and dangerous type of ideological discourse since it disguises the most egregious distortions and disinformation.

Funny, how Suleimaniyah reminds me of Wall Street
Ms. Aydintasbas is clearly a propagandist; fortunately, as I wrote above, she is also unusually hamfisted. Indeed, her “journalism” verges on self-parody. I quote: “Iraqis inside government-controlled areas have quietly nicknamed President Bush ‘Abu Abdallah,’ an endearing name, or ‘Abu Jinan’ — a pun on ‘Father of Jenna’ — meaning ‘Father of Paradises.’ A well-known religious leader at the central mosque in the regional capital, Suleimaniyah, says ‘I welcome even the Jew Sharon if he can liberate us from Saddam.’” I will let the reference to 43 as “Father of Paradises” pass (although to some Americans he is quickly becoming the president from hell). The notion, however, that a “well-known religious leader at the central mosque” of any Muslim community in the world would countenance “liberation” by “the Jew Sharon” is the kind of stupendous stupidity that only a cretin, or the most credulous reader of The Wall Street Journal, would accept without choking on the sheer inanity of it all.

I mean, how dim does The Wall Street Journal think its readers are? What makes it so difficult to take Ms. Aydintasbas’s piece seriously is precisely its breathtaking nonsense — which is why one is inclined to think that there’s got to be some other reason for any self-respecting editor to allow this kind of drivel to survive her/his scissors. Unfortunately, the only other reasonable answer I can come up with is good old-fashioned, tried-and-true, cut-and-dried disinformation multiplied by (for the self-respecting editor) toeing the boss’s predetermined line.

Unless one has read this article, it is difficult to describe its combination of wide-eyed gullibility and shameless ideological advocacy. I can quote endlessly, but I’ll restrict myself to two more (essentially random) examples (from a 12-paragraph, 1,133-word piece).

Ms. Aydintasbas writes that: “In the smoke-filled meeting rooms, conferences and workshops in London, Washington or northern liberated Iraq, [the roughly seven million Iraqis who live outside the regime’s control] have been discussing Iraq’s new constitution, the ‘de-Baathification’ of its institutions, truth and reconciliation, and disarmament. One exile admits that they are looking at Germany’s de-Nazification, and even at the Federalist papers.” From her pen to Allah’s ear. At a time, however, when the Pentagon is already announcing that the US will pay both for Iraq’s entire Saddam-vetted bureaucracy (over two million strong) and a good part of his current armed forces to remain in place once the war is over, “regime change” becomes a singularly speculative concept indeed. In the event, it seems that any “de-Baathification” that does occur will hardly assume even West Germany’s limited de-Nazification at the end of the Second World War. (As for that oh-so-warm-and-fuzzy image of millions of Iraqis poring over The Federalist Papers, the less said, the better.)

The last example: “‘I am dreaming of Baghdad,’ a giant of a man, a former member of the elite Republican Guard who joined the opposition in 1993, tells me. The other day, there was a homecoming party for resistance fighters who are secretly returning from Detroit, London, and the Netherlands for the final day of reckoning. Every little scene — old friends embracing; a debate about the national anthem of free Iraq; the arrival of a secret envoy from a large tribe in the government-controlled areas — is strangely touching. The mountain air is brisk with confidence.” Again, let us forgo that Byronic (or is it Nietzschean) mountain air “brisk with confidence,” or old “friends” (the Journal would never use the word “comrades”) embracing, or unquestionably fascinating debates about new national anthems, and get to the heart of darkness in this excerpt: “a giant of a man, a former member of the elite Republican Guard who joined the opposition in 1993,” now dreams of Baghdad. I’m sure he does. I’m also sure, however, that his dreams are probably nightmares for his fellow Iraqis.

Saddam Hussein came to power in 1979; the Gulf War was fought in 1991. Suffice it to say that if I were a reporter, those two facts in themselves would make me deeply suspicious of any “former” Republican Guard (and “giant of a man”) who deserted Saddam Hussein in 1993 — but, then again, I obviously don’t possess the perspicacity or intellectual credentials needed to work for one of the elite institutions of American journalism.

Separating the information from the infomercial
I want to cap this textual criticism with some comparative journalism. After reading Ms. Aydintasbas’s piece, I went to the Internet and did about 97 seconds worth of (re)searching before I came up with a genuinely objective report on northern Iraq written last summer, just at the time that it was clear that the Saddamite bee in President Bush’s bonnet was going to bode ill for the peace of the world. It was, naturally, written by a European journalist for a European newspaper — but neither French nor German (which we know to be “anti-American”) but Swiss: Entitled, “A Moment of Decision for Iraq’s Kurds,” it was the work of Amalia van Gent and was published in the English edition of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on August 6, 2002. It is about one and a half times the size of Ms. Aydintasbas’s report, so I will only quote three paragraphs. The difference in analysis speaks for itself (but, of course, Ms. van Gent is clearly a journalist).

…Like every Kurd, Sami Abdul-Rahman [the Kurdish vice-premier in Erbil] longs for the fall of the Baghdad ruler; to the Kurds, Saddam Hussein is the incarnation of evil and the memory of the period of his rule is a nightmare. Like most of his people, he too fears that the Kurds could once again become the plaything of international interests. The memory of 1975, or of 1991 — when President Bush Sr. called on the Kurds to revolt against Saddam, but then sat back passively while Iraqi tanks smashed Kurdish cities and forced more than a million Kurds to flee to the mountains of Turkey and Iran — these memories operate as a trauma in the collective Kurdish consciousness. And the trauma of betrayal determines the actions of the Kurdish elite to this day. “We have too much to lose,” says political veteran Abdul-Rahman….

The thing that worries [Kurdistan Democratic Party “defense minister” Bruska] Shawais most, however, is the possible reactions of neighboring countries in the event of a war….Turkish hostility toward the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq is evident along the old trade road which runs from Baghdad through Kirkuk to the northern Iraqi city of Zacho and then via the border crossing at Habur into Turkey….Since the start of this year Turkey has either kept the border crossing closed or has allowed only a fraction of normal traffic to pass through — which is intended as a warning that it can block the economy of northern Iraq if it chooses to do so.

According to press reports, in mid-July, when a high-ranking American delegation turned up in Ankara looking for support for a military move against Saddam, the Turkish leadership laid down a number of conditions: there must be no establishment of an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq — that would be a casus belli for Turkey; even the creation of a federated Iraq along ethnic lines is unacceptable to Ankara (my emphasis); moreover, oil-rich Kirkuk must not come under Kurdish control, and finally, the Turkmen minority — Ankara’s protégés in Iraq since 1991 — must be granted extensive rights.

While I have learned during the last three decades of my life as a thinking being and a citizen of this Republic to trust the European press — especially that of old Europe — much more than ours, I also have to admit that The Wall Street Journal stands in a unique category all by its incredible self. A mere two days after the Journal published Ms. Aydintasbas’s febrile fantasy, The New York Times ran a story (March 7) by correspondent David Rohde entitled, “For Kurds, Big Menace is an Incursion by Turks.” It was datelined — where else? — Erbil, Iraq. I quote selectively:

American and Turkish officials say Kurdish threats and fears are exaggerated, but Kurds are now declaring Turkish soldiers as much of a threat as Saddam Hussein….

Kurdish opposition to Turkish forces is vehement….[Nasreen] Sideek, 35, a Harvard graduate, former political prisoner and leading government minister, is an unlikely voice of protest here. She and other Kurdish officials insist that resistance to the Turks be non-violent. But she says that the explanation for it is simple: decades of bitter interactions with the Turkish military. “They are very arrogant, very misbehaved, very brutal and very cruel,” Ms. Sideek said….

“I’m sorry,” Ms. Sideek said. “As an Iraqi and as a Kurd, the most destabilizing issue will be Turkey.”…Ms. Sideek said she fears the United States will trade away the Kurds’ autonomy in its negotiations with Turkey….

In 1991, after the United States encouraged and then backed away from a Kurdish uprising, Ms. Sideek and three of her brothers fled as Iraqi forces advanced. “It was the most disastrous and disappointing day in my life,” she said.

Two days later (March 9), in its Sunday edition, the Times published another dispatch by David Rohde, entitled, “Where They Hate Saddam, and Dread the U.S.” I will quote only the first three paragraphs:

Mansour Ismael calmly announced that 23 relatives…died in Saddam Hussein’s 1988 poison gas attack on the city of Halabja in northern Iraq. Eight years old then, he survived with his parents by cowering in a basement for a week. But 5,000 other Kurdish Iraqis died.

In the same calm voice, the 23-year-old college senior announced that Mr. Hussein alone was not responsible for the attack. He said the gassing was secretly approved by the United States. “I think that it was only an experiment,” he said, meaning a scientific experiment. “That’s my point of view.”

Several of his friends from Halabja voiced similarly suspicious attitudes toward the United States. One predicted that Washington would stand back and secretly allow Mr. Hussein to gas the Kurds again to gain international support for an attack on Iraq. Another said he believed the Iraqi government’s version of events in Halabja — that three Central Intelligence Agency operatives carried it out and Iraq was not involved. A third said the United States wanted to invade Iraq to create a larger Israel.

So much for Haji Bush and all the Bushmen.

And one last nagging question
Only a lunatic would dispute the fact that most Kurds in northern Iraq would give their lives to a man and woman to be rid of Saddam Hussein and his horrific apparatus of repression and extinction. Only the most feeble-minded naïf would then make the leap, however, that the Kurds look to the United States as their “liberators.” Allies, undoubtedly — especially temporarily — but liberators, never. We should be clear about these things before the bullets start flying, and maiming, and murdering. Unfortunately, one of the reasons Americans are so confused about this war is that the nature of the “news” upon which we so depend for our decisions about supporting or opposing our government is based on grotesque mis- and disinformation.

One last point, of extraordinary importance for Greek Americans: As I mentioned at the outset of this piece, Asla Aydintasbas is an adjunct fellow at the Western Policy Center in Washington, DC. The Western Policy Center is a think tank founded and financed by Greek Americans. Obviously, the question immediately arises as to why a small group of Greek Americans is financing a “policy center” in which Ms. Aydintasbas is an adjunct fellow and, presumably, a formulator (or at least analyst) of policy. We have no answer — but we do have some ideas. Those ideas — and whatever answers they lead to — will, however, have to wait for our next mediawatch.

Peter Pappas is co-founder of greekworks.com.
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