Bin Laden’s mistake..

If you read nothing else this weekend in the papers, make sure you read The Australian’s Middle East correspondent, Nicolas Rothwell, on the colossal blunder Osama Bin Laden made when he attacked America on September 11 2001, and the massive quakes it set off in the Middle East and around the world.
Rothwell is a consistently intelligent, informed and subtle writer whose stories on the Middle East I’ve been following closely since he was posted there. Unlike the SMH’s Paul McGeough, he does not focus mainly on the Americans and their effects on the region, but more on the region’s people–both ordinary people and those in the public eye– and their reactions to the new and rapidly evolving circumstances. In his time there, he has covered everything from Kurdish politics to the delights of a Syrian perfume seller’s shop, and he brings a great eye for the manifold complexities of humanity, and a willingness to watch, listen, and take careful note, without preaching to the converted, being gung-ho, or thrusting his good self into the spotlight, as too many ‘reporters’ do. Having been to the Middle East–to the United Arab Emirates, and having family who have lived both there and in Saudi Arabia, for years, plus having connections here with at least a part of the Arabic community, through the Arab-Australian literary magazine Kalimat, I believe Rothwell’s analysis to be closer to the complex human truth of the region than that of any other Australian writer on the region, and indeed better than most Western reporters in general. I hope his columns from the Middle East will be turned into a book.
Here’s the link to the piece in the Inquirer section of the Weekend Australian,
here

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C.L.
2022 years ago

Sophie, here’s Mark Steyn on a similar theme:

“Over at Britain’s Guardian, meanwhile, the poor chaps are desperately trying to give credit to anyone but the reviled Bushitler. Here’s how Timothy Garton Ash opened his disquisition: “Has Osama bin Laden started a revolution in the Middle East?”

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

It’s good to focus on the peoples of the Middle East, but I don’t see that it’s a criticism of Paul McGueoch for him to write about the Americans and what they’re up to. The logic of Nicholas Rothwell’s argument is that American intervention precipitated the changes he (rightly) sees as positive. The American presence in the Middle East, and its involvement in power politics there, is a fact of life and should be reported and analysed.

James Farrell
James Farrell
2022 years ago

Sophie

Paul McGeough has written plenty about Kurds, and I’m sure he can do as good a carpet seller – or whatever – piece as the next man. I suspect that what you really like about Rothwall is that he by and large approves of the war. But as long as you choose a Murdoch newspaper you will get the attention to the ‘manifold complexities of humanity’ that you find so satisfying. Would I be very rash in guessing that you find Greg Sheridan a more subtle and observant than, say, Hamish McDonald?

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

I don’t think there’s a necessary coincidence between one’s choice of journo and one’s own politics. For example, I suspect I would be well to your right, James, yet I find Greg Sheridan an absolutely infuriating journalist. Obviously he thinks that if the world worked as it should he would be Australia’s Foreign Minister, not the hapless Alex.

Rothwell is very good writing from the Mid East but I actually found him a better journalist when he was writing about indigenous issues and rural Australia.

Michael Warby
2022 years ago

The easiest way to check Paul McG’s qualities as journalist is simply to read his articles after a delay. His major piece prior to the Iraqi election reads extremely badly now.

It is one thing to report on the Americans. It is quite another to see the region through a prism mainly concerned with the USA and projecting on the people of the Middle East categories clearly derived from reactions to the US and its policies.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

It’s not an original point, Rob, but Greg Sheridan’s latest series of columns appear to reflect the recent hospitality he enjoyed from the Turkish government. Cash for comment?

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

ps – to Michael Warby. I’m not a regular reader of Paul McGueoch (whose surname is almost impossible to spell – speaking as a Bahnisch, Bhagwan, Bahnscih, Bahnisck, Bahnswich) but journalism is the art of the analysis of the moment and I think it’s unfair to go back and read his columns with hindsight. Gerard Henderson seems to be making an artform of criticising other columnists for “failed predictions” but I’m sure any audit of Hendo over the long term would turn up the same scenario.

We’re comparing apples with oranges – Rothwell is writing an ex post facto opinion piece, while McGueoch’s pieces are daily reportage.

James Farrell
James Farrell
2022 years ago

‘…to see the region through a prism mainly concerned with the USA and projecting on the people of the Middle East categories clearly derived from reactions to the US and its policies.’

Michael, if you think McGeough is biased against the Bush Aministration, that’s a rather garbled way of saying it. Actually, if you’d just had your house flattened by a bomb and half your family wiped out, the categories would be pretty straightforward.

James
James
2022 years ago

Mark thinks it “unfair” to go back and read a journo’s columns with hindsight. Why? Does he mean that it would be better to disregard them at first sight?

I subscribe to the “New Yorker”, and I receive the editions about two weeks after they reach the newstands in the US. It was interesting to read Seymour Hersh’s pieces on the Iraq war in early 2003, as he turned out to be wrong about pretty much everything two weeks after the magazine had gone to print.

If a journalist is simply reporting day to day affairs, then there is no reason to imagine that a look at hindsight would find fault. But if somone writes that the “upcoming election will be a failure” (or somesuch), why shouldn’t one use hindsight to assess their credibility?

As for McG, he has written many, many times about Iraq being “on the brink of civil war”, which from the first instance struck me as being complete nonsense. To have a civil war you need two sides. In Iraq you have maybe 98% of the population pretty keen on the idea of democracy and getting on with their lives and a few thousand islamo-anarchists whose mission is to see post-invasion Iraq fail, and whose means appears to be to kill as many Iraqis as they can. Even Sunnis who boycotted the election are now scrambling to get a piece of the democratic action. Civil war? Really?

The problem for McG (and others) is that he’s painted himself into a corner. Invasion disater, not enough troops, brutal Iraqi summer, republican guard, quagmire, Stalingrad, looted antiquities, failed elections, civil war…

But it would be “unfair” to call someone on such a record?

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

Good point, James. Now that journalism has moved so far away from ‘reportage’ to commentary and opinion masqerading as reportage – McG being a prime example – I think it’s wholly reasonable to hold them to account post facto.

Generally speaking, journalists don’t look too good after the event. I remember some unintentionally hilarious commentary after the 1993 election – which nobody thought Keating could possibly win until about one week out from the poll – along the lines of ‘it was obvious from the beginning that Hewson was doomed’. Obvious to whom? If it was obvious to journalists at the time they certainly kept quiet about it as they kept banging on about the ‘unwinnable’/’unlosable’ election.

A lot of journalists will be eating humble pie over Iraq, I suspect, though they will mitigate thd unpleasantnes of its taste with as generous a spoonful of sour grapes as they can manage.

The blogosphere is making the hacks irrelevant anyway.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

It all depends what standard of journalistic “objectivity” you want to hold people to. If they’re just to report the facts, then they ought not to make any predictions at all. But readers want some context, and some sense of where informed people on the ground think the situation might go next.

The problem with the media generally – as well as political commentary – is that it tends to swing from excessive pessimism to excessive optimism like a see saw. Given the level of violence and death, and the very large parts of Iraq where order was basically non-existent, as well as the reluctance of the Sunni population on the whole to participate in the elections, civil war may have seemed a reasonable call at the time. I get the impression now that everyone is assuming it’s a straightforward road to democracy from here on in.
It’s probably not. Generally, the coverage in magazines like the Economist is quite objective and balanced – although I don’t agree with the magazine’s ideology, it seems to me that the measured perspective on both the prospects for the success of democracy and the factors working against it (which can’t be underestimated) is a reasonable assessment at this point in time.

I, for one, sincerely hope that the outcome in Iraq, and Lebanon, and Palestine is a good one.

I note also that it’s consistent to have opposed the war (which was *not* fought on the grounds of bringing democracy to Iraq, but on fairly narrow legalistic grounds shakily resting on Saddam’s defiance of UN resolutions, and exaggerated claims which have now been utterly exposed as to the supposed threat he posed to the West) and to support the peoples of the Middle East in their hopes for democracy.

Of course, genuine democracy may not deliver what the US wants – in the sense that any regime that’s likely to emerge in Iraq is bound to be an Islamic regime and the odds are to gain legitimacy it will probably be anti-Israeli and anti a continuing US presence. But that may be the outcome of self-determination, and thus should be accepted by those who have a genuine interest in democracy. Democracy’s delivered us the Howard government, which obviously I don’t like, but it doesn’t mean that I don’t support parliamentary democracy in Australia, even if I think it could be far more democratic than it is.

So, in the contest of James’ comment –

“But if somone writes that the “upcoming election will be a failure” (or somesuch), why shouldn’t one use hindsight to assess their credibility?”

Maybe so, but that’s how things looked at the time to a large section of the US foreign policy community (go back and read the issue of Foreign Affairs that came out before the election) and for that matter to Allawi who at times it seemed wanted to delay the election. So hindsight is always dangerous. I suspect that most measured commentary would have tried to assess the likelihood of the elections’ being a success as well as of their being a failure. To make such an assessment, I’d argue, is not necessarily evidence of lack of objectivity or bias – that may be present in some commentary – but we really do look to journalism to tell us how a situation may play out.

sophie
sophie
2022 years ago

James Farrell, yes, I did and do support the war–because I was and am very very supportive of the ousting of Saddam and the possibility for Iraqis to vote for themselves–but you are wrong first of all in saying that Rothwell has always been totally in support of it(if you read his pieces over a long period, you will see his thinking has evolved over time), and secondly in supposing I prefer Greg Sheridan to Hamish McDonald. Like Rob, I find Sheridan often extremely irritating. He does write some good stuff sometimes–for instance, the other day, he wrote a very good op-ed piece about why it would be a very bad idea to start a ‘guest worker’ thing here, but quite often he writes boastful, name-dropping stuff about his friends and acquaintances in high places which I find intensely annoying and rather embarassing. He is also sometimes categorical about things and appears to think he has the answers on what are often fluid and uncertain situations.
Rothwell is a good writer precisely because he has the humility to know he doesn’t have all the answers or indeed any. He doesn’t, to me, appear to have vested interests or pre-digested ideas, whether pro or anti American. He has written about how some of the US troops for instance don’t understand the society they were dropped into, but he does it in such a way that you know he’s not using it as some kind of rhetorical stick to beat the Administration with, but because he can see both the situation of the soldiers, and the situation of the Iraqis. And he doesn’t say anywhere that what he is saying is necessarily the full picture. I vastly prefer that to McGeough’s obvious determination to paint the picture in the blackest terms, constantly denigrate the Americans for being idiots who don’t understand that dreadful ‘hornets’ nest’ of the ME(unlike his good self, who does!) and constantly patronises the people he’s writing about. In the end you feel he gives the impression that he is determined to both find the Americans as arrogant and dumb imperialists and the Arabs as sly, devious and violent wretches of whom only tyranny and treachery and tribalism can be expected.
Problem was he came to the ME with ideas firmly in place. You can’t do that, not in reporting, and certainly not in reporting on a situation as complex, fluid and unpredictable as this one.

sophie
sophie
2022 years ago

a quick apology, James F, for saying you’d aid that Rothwell was totally in support of the war–I see now rereading your comment you said ‘by and large’. My comment still stands, however. Rothwell’s stance still seems to me to be a much more complex one than you suggest. And as to the crack about Murdoch papers–well, I read the Fairfax ones too, you know. Why is why I can comment on McGeough!
In fact I read a very wide cross section of papers, not only Aussie, but Arab(albeit in English), French, American and many many others, not to speak of blogs and news web sites! I’d be bored stiff just reading the Oz!

James Farrell
James Farrell
2022 years ago

My apologies too. Greg Sheridan was a bad example. No one with any taste could enjoy him, whatever their politics. I actually haven’t read that much of Rothwell. As for McGeough, my impression before the invasion, i.e. in early 2003, was that he was pretty detatched. Nor did he underplay the jubilation of many Iraqis in the immediate aftermath. He became more critical later as he sensed that the Americans hadn’t done their homework and or built bridges with the tribal leaders.

For what it’s worth, while disagreeing I fully respect the opinion of anyone who cautiously supported the war. I don’t have much patience, on the other hand, with anyone on either side who thinks the rights and wrongs of the matter are obvious.

Jason Soon
Jason Soon
2022 years ago

here’s an unapologetically realpolitik but clever contrarian perspective on ‘encouraging democracy in ME’ from a paleoconservative

http://isteve.blogspot.com/2005/03/why-does-our-war-on-islamism-target.html

Why does our War on Islamism target anti-Islamists?

One of the recurrent ironies of the the Bush policy is how it constantly beats up the anti-Islamist elements in Islamic countries. Deposing the secularist Baath regime in Iraq in favor of the Grand Ayatollah is only the best known example. Lately, Syria has moved high on our target list, even though the ruling family of Syria, the Asads, are Alawites, a minority sect so heretical that most Muslims don’t even consider them Muslims. Because of their precariousness, the Alawite-led Syrian government encourages, according to the U.S. government, religious toleration and pluralism, while discouraging (sometimes with artillery barrages) Muslim fanaticism.

Now, it is frequently argued that American support for religiously moderate Arab dictators like Mubaruk in Egypt encourages Islamism, but, of course, we’ve never liked the Syrian dictatorship, so, by this logic (such as it is), they should be the perfect solution for us. But, of course, there are fewer perfect solutions in the Middle East than even in the rest of the world.

The best argument for Bush’s policy of encouraging Islamic extremism is the get-it-out-of-their-system theory, the idea that the only way the Arabs will learn that Muslim fanaticism is a bad idea is by letting the Muslim fanatics runs their countries for a few decades. Perhaps. Perhaps not. But it sure seems like an expensive way we are going about implementing such a tricky and fragile strategy.

Michael Warby
2022 years ago

Mark, as I made no comment on Nick R, I wasn’t comparing him with Paul McG. My comment was entirely about Paul McG.

And the piece I cited was purporting to tell us what was likely to happen based on the alleged opinions of the Iraqi people. He was wrong about the first because he turned out to be wildly wrong about the second. That is a fairly basic failure of analysis.

James, regarding being garbled in my accusation of bias, I was expressing a critique which was rather more specific than simply saying he’s biased (an easy accusation to make often difficult to prove to people’s satisfaction). And it seems to be a fundamental problem with Paul McG’s approach is that he does not start with analysis based on the realities on the ground. He starts from an approach which plays very well to anti-American sentiment, but demonstrably poorly for understanding what is actually going on.

He is in stark contrast to, say, David Pryce-Jones, who can be quite critical of the Americans, but based on a deep knowledge of the region.

As for holes in the ground — surely the same applies even more to insurgents who deliberately target civilian gatherings such as funerals. One of the silliest tropes in mainstream reporting is that the insurgents are so angry at American treatment of Iraqis that they express their anger by targeting other Iraqis. In reality, it is jihadis expressing their hatred of democracy in general and Sunni revanchists expressing their hatred of any dispensation that doesn’t put them in charge — as they were under the Ottomans, the British, the monarchy and the Baathists. Which at least makes their targeting rational, rather than bizarre as under the Robert Fisk-style reasoning of “it’s about the Americans”.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Michael, I was referring to the comparison in Sophie’s post.

James Farrell
James Farrell
2022 years ago

Michael, I think it’s a bit disingenuous to portray Pryce-Jones as some sort of model of balance and subtlety. The guy wrote a sensationalist account of the inherently barbaric and antidemocratic nature of Arab culture (I could never reconcile this with the notion, equally prevalent among supporters of the invasion, that the Arab peoples are thirsty for democracy), and a pin-up boy of right-wing bloggers.

I fully expect you to admire people like that, and I respect your views entirely as I said above. What irks me is when someone with strong opinions on some divisive issue confects to put on a different hat as a connoisseur of thougthful and nuanced journalism and, low and behold, the finest journalists just happen to be the ones who agree with those opinions, confirming that sharp intellects always reach the same conclusions.

James Farrell
James Farrell
2022 years ago

Lo and behold, I mean. Got to keep those connoisseurs happy.