A. Loewenstein Online Newsletter

What’s a dictator’s wife to do?

Posted: 18 Oct 2011

As Syria continues to groan under intense violence between government troops, opposition elements and unknown outside forces, this story in the UK Independent is eerie:

Vogue magazine famously called her a “rose in the desert”, while Paris Match proclaimed she was the “element of light in a country full of shadow zones”. But when Syria’s glamorous First Lady invited a group of aid workers to discuss the security situation with her last month, she appeared to have lost her gloss.

During the meeting, British-born Asma al-Assad – who grew up in Acton and attended a Church of England school in west London – came face to face with aid workers who had witnessed at first hand the brutality of her husband’s regime. Yet according to one volunteer who was present, the former investment banker and mother of President Bashar al-Assad’s three children appeared utterly unmoved when she heard about the plight of protesters.

“We told her about the killing of protesters,” said the man, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution. “We told her about the security forces attacking demonstrators. About them taking wounded people from cars and preventing people from getting to hospital … There was no reaction. She didn’t react at all. It was just like I was telling a normal story, something that happens every day.”

Future war mongers, lessons how to get corporate hacks on side

Posted: 18 Oct 2011

Gawker has a little piece of recent history that reflects the (usually squalid) relationship between the mainstream media and US military:

Public relations is about “relationships.” Flacks develop “relationships” with reporters by calling them and yelling at them until the reporters start to realize, before they write something, that an unpleasant conversation might ensue. So they start to be…more careful. We recently came across an internal email written by Daniel Senor, the former spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, that summed up the dynamic in crystalline fashion.

In August 2003, Senor was in Baghdad and serving as the public face of the rapidly devolving occupation of Iraq under Paul Bremer. He wrote an email to Dorrance Smith, a former ABC News producer who was serving as a media adviser to the CPA, laying out the “issues” he was facing in getting positive TV coverage in Iraq (we obtained the email via the Freedom of Information Act). Senor’s main problem? TV correspondents and producers weren’t in Iraq long enough for Senor to get his hooks in them:

“Some print reporters have made a long-term commitment to their Iraq bureaus (e.g. Rajiv Chandrasekeran of the Post & Alissa Rubin of the LA Times are each here for another year). They know they’ve got to deal with us for a while, and their reporting reflects it. The television correspondents/producers are the opposite. They come in and out on 3-week stints, and therefore find no need to invest in their relationships with Bremer & Co. They just do a bunch of hit-and-runs—2 weeks of ‘Iraq has gone to hell —US bodybags piling up, blah blah blah.’ How do we get longer commitments?”

Blah blah blah. For the record, Rubin and Chandrasekeran are both good reporters (though Chandrasekeran’s a bit of aprima donna). But when you’re in it for the long haul—in any beat, really—you have to deal with certain realities. You realize that you’re going to have to see Dan Senor’s face every day, and he’s reading every word, and next time you start to write about the body bags, you think about it. You start to invest in your relationship with Bremer and his staff. And your reporting reflects it.

A blinkered view of the war on terrorism

Posted: 17 Oct 2011

My following book review appeared in last weekend’s Sydney Sun Herald newspaper:

The Triple Agent
Joby Warrick
(Scribe, $32.95)
Reviewed by Antony Loewenstein

The war in Afghanistan is the longest in modern American history. This year has been the most deadly for Afghan civilians.

British MP Rory Stewart wrote in The New York Times that the presence of foreign troops and private security was inflaming the situation and making peace impossible: “Helmand is less safe in 2011 with 32,000 foreign troops in the province than it was in 2005, when there were only 300.”

Amid this chaos sits the CIA, the highly secretive (and largely unaccountable) organisation given the job, by successive US presidents, of tracking, capturing or killing supposed insurgents and bringing “victory”. This book documents one infamous case of how horribly wrong and misguided this stated aim can be.

In December 2009, a group of senior CIA operatives were based in Khost, Afghanistan, and were ready to greet Humam Khalil al-Balawi, a man they believed was the ultimate al-Qaeda insider who would give America invaluable intelligence on the terrorist organisation. Instead, he detonated a bomb strapped to his chest and killed seven CIA operatives, a deep blow to the agency.

The mercenary company Blackwater is front and centre of the story, often in charge of protecting CIA installations and officers in conflict zones, despite a troubling human rights record.

Such firms have been invaluable to America’s war machine since the attacks on the US on September 11, 2001, without which Washington could not fight its countless battles around the world.

This Pulitzer Prize-winning book reads like a thriller but is infused with a deep sympathy for the war America is fighting in Afghanistan and the “war on terror” in general.

For example, US drone attacks in Pakistan are only seen as “killing terrorists”, whereas the facts tell a different, more disturbing story.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism recently released a study that found hundreds of civilians had been killed by drones since 2004.

Author Joby Warrick does not seem too concerned with such details, praising the supposed heroism of drone pilots killing remotely from back in America. But Warrick knows how to tell a cracking story and the importance of this book is to reveal the legal black hole of Washington’s actions globally, and the cultural and social ineptitude of US forces in countries they occupy.

This is an insider’s book written by a journalist who admires his countryfolk entrusted with allegedly defending the homeland.

Few doubts are expressed and the work closes with the killing of Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan.

It is framed as a retribution for the CIA deaths – a closing of the circle.

American foreign policy has never looked so tawdry and obsessed with revenge.

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