"Dedicated to exposing the lies and impeachable offenses of George W. Bush"

Arab view SOTU: "liberation" means occupation, "freedom" means war, "victory" means victims"
By Christopher Dickey
February 1, 2006

Feb. 1, 2006 - Prime time in the United States falls in the darkest hours before dawn in the Middle East—prayer time, in fact, for the Muslim faithful, the moment when the muezzin calls out (most often on a cassette tape over loudspeakers) that prayers are better than sleep. So only a few people in the region listened to President George W. Bush deliver his State of the Union address last night. But they know the message, now, almost as well as they know the call of the muezzin; it has been repeated so often, so relentlessly, and so mechanically. The difference is that many believe the muezzin, and few believe Bush.

We shouldn't be surprised. The State of the Union, perhaps more than any other speech the president makes, defines the way the administration wants to see its world. But its narrative is so foreign to the thinking of most people in the Arab world that they've come to hear Bush's language as a kind of code: "liberation" means occupation, "freedom" means war, "victory" means victims, "reconstruction" means chaos, "democracy" means following directives from Washington. Bush, whatever his intentions—and I think he should be credited with some good ones—has come to be seen as a caricature, talking about strength and determination, projecting an image of stubbornness and confusion.

Journalists from the region are trapped in a sort of twilight zone between these two relentlessly opposite versions of the past and proclamations about the future. "You are caught between two extremes and neither is right," says Ayman Safadi, editor in chief of Jordan's Al Ghad newspaper. The United States comes with its agenda, but with no real understanding, while the old guard in the Middle East is unwilling to admit it has failed, decade after decade, to deliver on its hollow promises of dignity and progress. In the midst of contradictions, people cling to traditions "in their bubble of anachronism," says Safadi. Those who are attacked or denigrated by the Bush administration, like the Baathist regime in Syria, find themselves lionized by the Arab public. Those applauded by Washington are dismissed as pawns. The result on the ground is often the opposite of the Bush administration's stated desires. "Democracy has a new enemy in the region, which is the support [for democracy] by the United States of America," says Safadi.

For foreign correspondents trying to report the realities on the ground, the situation is even more problematic than for local journalists. To get through the barriers of spin and prejudice, they have to get out in the field. Yet Iraq, which is the most important battleground of ideas right now, is also the most dangerous battleground, period. It was obvious even two years ago that as our need for in-depth coverage of Iraq was going to increase, our ability to report the story would decline. Even so, the situation is worse now than any of us imagined.

"These wars are not only difficult to report, but increasingly difficult to survive," says Martin Bell, who covered 11 conflicts for the BBC from Southeast Asia to the Balkans. "Those [journalists] who have died in three years in Iraq now outnumber those who died in Vietnam in 12." In the last week we have seen the videotaped desperation of freelance American reporter Jill Carroll, whose search for truth and humanity in Baghdad led to her abduction by a ruthless gang of kidnappers. We have heard of the grim wounds suffered by ABC anchorman Bob Woodruff and cameraman Doug Vogt while trying to cover the Iraqi military north of Baghdad. And as journalists, local and international, fail to penetrate the knot of contradictions around vital issues in the Middle East, that just leaves the door wider open than ever for the spin and the dogmas of the contending parties.

It is so much easer, so much safer in every sense, to cover the gloss on events by one side or another, accepting rhetoric and the show of conviction as if these were substitutes for truth. Bell remembers an American TV correspondent telling him years ago, "All you need in television is sincerity, and if you can fake that, you've got it made." President Bush has learned that lesson, of course. "Democracies replace resentment with hope, respect the rights of their citizens and their neighbors, and join the fight against terror," he declared in one breath, and very sincerely. Yet in another he decreed that the leaders of the Hamas-dominated Palestinian legislature elected last week "must recognize Israel, disarm, reject terrorism and work for lasting peace." Does he believe that the voters who picked Hamas by a landslide did not know what it stood for? The sad truth is that the Palestinians had little faith left in the peace process they'd seen for the last 13 years. It might indeed be wise of Hamas to take Bush's advice, but who is he to offer it? Almost certainly, his declarations will make it harder for the Hamas leadership to bend, even if it wants to.

Strangest of all was the way Bush took on Iran, "a nation now held hostage by a small clerical elite that is isolating and repressing its people," he said. "Tonight," he went on, "let me speak directly to the citizens of Iran: America respects you, and we respect your country. We respect your right to choose your own future and win your own freedom. And our nation hopes one day to be the closest of friends with a free and democratic Iran."

In fact, Iran has had a more full-blown experiment with democracy than any of its neighbors. When Bush came to office, there were hopes the process could grow. Instead of nurturing that possibility, Bush declared Iran part of the "Axis of Evil" in his first State of the Union address. As that same small clerical elite subsequently closed out democratic options by shutting down the critical press and limiting the lists of candidates, the Bush administration was largely passive. Now, its interest in Iranian democracy appears mainly an extension of its fight against Iran's nuclear research program—which is widely popular among even those Iranians who detest the mullahs.

Ultimately, democracy is taught better by example than by declaration, and here, too, the Bush administration has failed in the eyes of many Arabs and Muslims. It's not that people in Iraq or Lebanon, Iran or Egypt do not want a voice in their governments, clearly they do. And they want change. They pray for it. But none of the changes they've been shown so far have been adequate to their hopes. Nor has their ever-growing contact with truth and justice the American way led them to see it as a shining example. The essence of democracy is public accountability. Bush famously said after the 2004 elections, when the Iraq debacle was clear for the world to see, that he'd had his "accountability moment" and been vindicated by popular vote. Perhaps so. But since then, tolerance in the Middle East for his preaching, or that of the American public, is very low, leaving Arabs and Muslims to continue searching elsewhere for the answers to their prayers.
© 2006 Newsweek, Inc.