Commentary Magazine


Topic: food aid

Flotilla Incident — Constructive Criticism

When Israel is attacked — physically or rhetorically — the impulse of all friends of Israel (myself included) is to jump immediately and totally to its defense. That is a commendable impulse; certainly far preferable to the knee-jerk anti-Israel animus displayed by much of the world. But unflinching support for Israel’s right to defend itself should not preclude occasional criticism of the manner in which it exercises that right — just as being a supporter of the United States and its armed forces in general should not preclude one from criticizing specific operations, for instance the way in which the Iraq war was conducted from 2003 to 2007. Indeed, one can argue that those of us who were critical of the Bush administration’s conduct of the war ultimately helped to make possible the turnaround that occurred when President Bush jettisoned his senior war managers (Rumsfeld, Abizaid, Casey) and implemented the surge — a policy they had stubbornly and foolishly opposed.

So Israel is now going through a period of reflection and self-criticism similar to that which occurred after the troubled 2006 campaign against Hezbollah. That resulted in a more successful operation against Hamas (Operation Cast Lead in December 2008-January 2009). I hope that the constructive criticisms that I — and other pro-Israel commentators — have lodged of the manner in which the Gaza flotilla was handled will lead Israeli policymakers to be more adept in dealing with similar challenges in the future. My critique (I wrote that the operation was morally and legally justified but handed a public-relations victory to Israel’s enemies) was actually mild compared with many of those heard in Israel itself. For instance, Ari Shavit — a respected Haaretz columnist who is a hawkish liberal – wrote:

During the 2006 war in Lebanon I concluded that my 15-year-old daughter could have conducted it more wisely than the Olmert-Peretz government. We’ve progressed. Today it’s clear to me that my 6-year-old son could do much better than our current government.

As another example, there is this comment made to Atlantic blogger Jeffrey Goldberg, who is in Israel right now:

I happen to be around a lot of Israeli generals lately, and one I bumped into today said something very smart and self-aware: “Does everybody in the world think we’re bananas?” He did not let me respond before he said, “Wait, I know the answer: The whole world thinks we’re bananas.” I asked this general if this was a good thing or a bad thing. After all, Nixon seemed bananas and he achieved great things internationally. So did Menachem Begin. This is what the general said, however: “It’s one thing for people to think that you’re crazy, but it’s bad when they think you’re incompetent and crazy, and that’s the way we look.”

Unfortunately — and it pains me to say so because I want only the best for Israel — I think that unnamed general is right.

Those who continue to defend the handling of the Gaza flotilla make essentially three points: (a) there was no credible alternative; (b) Israel would get criticized no matter what it did; and (c) Israel cannot give the “international community” a veto over its right of self-defense.

Start with the first point. Knowledgeable Israeli commentators agree with me that there likely were alternative courses of action to stop the flotilla without sending a small group of naval commandos into the middle of a melee — a situation for which they were unprepared. The Jerusalem Post writes:

One question that needs to be asked is why the government approved the IDF’s plan to put troops on the ship via helicopter instead of perhaps sabotaging or diverting them. Flotilla 13, the naval commando unit that raided the ships, is expert in sabotage.

According to one former top navy officer, one option was to use tugboats to push the ships off course. Another option was to damage the ships’ propellers, prevent them from sailing into Gaza and forcing them to be towed to Ashdod.

A third option was to board the ships quietly and not by helicopter.

“There were several options that the IDF had before sending troops onto the ship,” the former senior officer explained, “It is not clear that those options were completely exhausted.”

In the Wall Street Journal today, Israeli security analyst Ronen Bergman (who, like I do, describes the operation as a “fiasco”) reminds us that such alternatives have been employed before:

In 1988, 131 members of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) who had been deported from the Palestinian Territories following the outbreak of the first intifada intended to set sail to Gaza from Limassol, Cyprus. Their boat, called Al Awda or the Ship of the Return, was accompanied by 200 journalists. ….

On Feb. 15, hours before it was due to set sail, the empty ship was blown up in Limassol harbor by a team of Mossad agents and frogmen from Flotilla 13 (the Israeli equivalent of Navy Seals). The team was led by Yoav Galant, then a young officer and today a major general in the IDF. The operation was a success. There were no casualties on either side and the PLO gave up on the idea of sailing to Gaza.

What about the argument that Israel would get criticized no matter what it did? That even if its agents sabotaged or disabled the pro-Hamas vessels without risking an open confrontation, it would still be pilloried? There is some truth to this, but there is criticism and then there is criticism. It would get a lot less blowback for such a low-profile operation than for a shoot-out on the high seas that left nine “peace activists” (actually pro-Hamas activists) dead.

Israel should be willing to risk international opprobrium when it faces a true existential threat. It needs, for example, to retaliate for Hamas rocket strikes, as it did with Operation Cast Lead. No state can allow its territory to be attacked with impunity. Israel also needs to seriously consider the possibility of bombing Iranian nuclear facilities no matter the denunciations that such an operation would inevitably bring; the potential payoff is worth the public-relations cost. But the Mavi Marmara was not an existential threat; it was not loaded with missiles or other weapons. It was a provocation, an act of political theater — and Israel should have been smart enough to avoid playing the part scripted by its enemies. Even letting the ship dock in Gaza would have done less damage to Israel than the manner in which it was stopped.

The justification for the boarding was that Israel couldn’t allow the Gaza blockade to be broken. I’m sympathetic to the need to maintain the blockade (which Israel has every right to do), but as Ronen Bergman points out, Israel has let other ships breach the blockade before without catastrophic consequences:

In August 2006 two ships carrying peace activists and food aid set out to Gaza, again from Cyprus. Under instructions from then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the vessels were boarded at sea without resistance. After a search uncovered no weapons, the ships were permitted to continue on toward the Strip. The Israeli naval forces went home, Hamas declared victory, and that was that.

The ultimate irony here is that the Israeli boarding was meant to prevent a recurrence of such Hamas aid convoys. Yet the shooting aboard the Mavi Marama has had the opposite effect — by handing an unearned propaganda victory to Israel’s enemies, it is encouraging them to repeat the same tactics. Three more ships are being readied for another Gaza flotilla. If and when they do sail, I trust that the Israeli government will learn from experience and not walk into another trap set by its enemies.

When Israel is attacked — physically or rhetorically — the impulse of all friends of Israel (myself included) is to jump immediately and totally to its defense. That is a commendable impulse; certainly far preferable to the knee-jerk anti-Israel animus displayed by much of the world. But unflinching support for Israel’s right to defend itself should not preclude occasional criticism of the manner in which it exercises that right — just as being a supporter of the United States and its armed forces in general should not preclude one from criticizing specific operations, for instance the way in which the Iraq war was conducted from 2003 to 2007. Indeed, one can argue that those of us who were critical of the Bush administration’s conduct of the war ultimately helped to make possible the turnaround that occurred when President Bush jettisoned his senior war managers (Rumsfeld, Abizaid, Casey) and implemented the surge — a policy they had stubbornly and foolishly opposed.

So Israel is now going through a period of reflection and self-criticism similar to that which occurred after the troubled 2006 campaign against Hezbollah. That resulted in a more successful operation against Hamas (Operation Cast Lead in December 2008-January 2009). I hope that the constructive criticisms that I — and other pro-Israel commentators — have lodged of the manner in which the Gaza flotilla was handled will lead Israeli policymakers to be more adept in dealing with similar challenges in the future. My critique (I wrote that the operation was morally and legally justified but handed a public-relations victory to Israel’s enemies) was actually mild compared with many of those heard in Israel itself. For instance, Ari Shavit — a respected Haaretz columnist who is a hawkish liberal – wrote:

During the 2006 war in Lebanon I concluded that my 15-year-old daughter could have conducted it more wisely than the Olmert-Peretz government. We’ve progressed. Today it’s clear to me that my 6-year-old son could do much better than our current government.

As another example, there is this comment made to Atlantic blogger Jeffrey Goldberg, who is in Israel right now:

I happen to be around a lot of Israeli generals lately, and one I bumped into today said something very smart and self-aware: “Does everybody in the world think we’re bananas?” He did not let me respond before he said, “Wait, I know the answer: The whole world thinks we’re bananas.” I asked this general if this was a good thing or a bad thing. After all, Nixon seemed bananas and he achieved great things internationally. So did Menachem Begin. This is what the general said, however: “It’s one thing for people to think that you’re crazy, but it’s bad when they think you’re incompetent and crazy, and that’s the way we look.”

Unfortunately — and it pains me to say so because I want only the best for Israel — I think that unnamed general is right.

Those who continue to defend the handling of the Gaza flotilla make essentially three points: (a) there was no credible alternative; (b) Israel would get criticized no matter what it did; and (c) Israel cannot give the “international community” a veto over its right of self-defense.

Start with the first point. Knowledgeable Israeli commentators agree with me that there likely were alternative courses of action to stop the flotilla without sending a small group of naval commandos into the middle of a melee — a situation for which they were unprepared. The Jerusalem Post writes:

One question that needs to be asked is why the government approved the IDF’s plan to put troops on the ship via helicopter instead of perhaps sabotaging or diverting them. Flotilla 13, the naval commando unit that raided the ships, is expert in sabotage.

According to one former top navy officer, one option was to use tugboats to push the ships off course. Another option was to damage the ships’ propellers, prevent them from sailing into Gaza and forcing them to be towed to Ashdod.

A third option was to board the ships quietly and not by helicopter.

“There were several options that the IDF had before sending troops onto the ship,” the former senior officer explained, “It is not clear that those options were completely exhausted.”

In the Wall Street Journal today, Israeli security analyst Ronen Bergman (who, like I do, describes the operation as a “fiasco”) reminds us that such alternatives have been employed before:

In 1988, 131 members of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) who had been deported from the Palestinian Territories following the outbreak of the first intifada intended to set sail to Gaza from Limassol, Cyprus. Their boat, called Al Awda or the Ship of the Return, was accompanied by 200 journalists. ….

On Feb. 15, hours before it was due to set sail, the empty ship was blown up in Limassol harbor by a team of Mossad agents and frogmen from Flotilla 13 (the Israeli equivalent of Navy Seals). The team was led by Yoav Galant, then a young officer and today a major general in the IDF. The operation was a success. There were no casualties on either side and the PLO gave up on the idea of sailing to Gaza.

What about the argument that Israel would get criticized no matter what it did? That even if its agents sabotaged or disabled the pro-Hamas vessels without risking an open confrontation, it would still be pilloried? There is some truth to this, but there is criticism and then there is criticism. It would get a lot less blowback for such a low-profile operation than for a shoot-out on the high seas that left nine “peace activists” (actually pro-Hamas activists) dead.

Israel should be willing to risk international opprobrium when it faces a true existential threat. It needs, for example, to retaliate for Hamas rocket strikes, as it did with Operation Cast Lead. No state can allow its territory to be attacked with impunity. Israel also needs to seriously consider the possibility of bombing Iranian nuclear facilities no matter the denunciations that such an operation would inevitably bring; the potential payoff is worth the public-relations cost. But the Mavi Marmara was not an existential threat; it was not loaded with missiles or other weapons. It was a provocation, an act of political theater — and Israel should have been smart enough to avoid playing the part scripted by its enemies. Even letting the ship dock in Gaza would have done less damage to Israel than the manner in which it was stopped.

The justification for the boarding was that Israel couldn’t allow the Gaza blockade to be broken. I’m sympathetic to the need to maintain the blockade (which Israel has every right to do), but as Ronen Bergman points out, Israel has let other ships breach the blockade before without catastrophic consequences:

In August 2006 two ships carrying peace activists and food aid set out to Gaza, again from Cyprus. Under instructions from then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the vessels were boarded at sea without resistance. After a search uncovered no weapons, the ships were permitted to continue on toward the Strip. The Israeli naval forces went home, Hamas declared victory, and that was that.

The ultimate irony here is that the Israeli boarding was meant to prevent a recurrence of such Hamas aid convoys. Yet the shooting aboard the Mavi Marama has had the opposite effect — by handing an unearned propaganda victory to Israel’s enemies, it is encouraging them to repeat the same tactics. Three more ships are being readied for another Gaza flotilla. If and when they do sail, I trust that the Israeli government will learn from experience and not walk into another trap set by its enemies.

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The Koreas: Sanctions Effectiveness Watch

The most informative development in the Korean ship-sinking case this week is the silence of China on the matter, something South Korea’s press has addressed in pointed fashion. The Chinese announced on the 19th, moreover, that their ambassador would send a deputy to Thursday’s high-level diplomatic briefing from the South Korean government rather than attending it himself. Editorial staffs in Seoul interpret this as de facto support for North Korea’s position in the confrontation. They have reason to.

In the month before the sinking of South Korean navy corvette Cheonan (on March 26), North Korea extended to 2028 China’s lease on the eastern port of Rajin, which sits on the Sea of Japan. China is modernizing the port extensively for commercial use; Japan and South Korea have the obvious concern that China might begin sending warships there as well. In the month after Cheonans sinking, North Korea switched partners in its flagship tourism venture from South Korea to China. China’s tourists lost no time in taking advantage of that opportunity: the first tourist train from China entered North Korea on April 24. Tourism is a latecomer to the burgeoning trade between China and North Korea, which reportedly hit an all-time high in the first two months of 2010.

China’s proprietary relations with North Korea face an aggressive rival in Russia, which obtained a new 50-year lease on the Rajin port in March and plans to connect the port to its eastern railway system. Maintaining China’s position as Pyongyang’s principal patron is high on Beijing’s priority list, which explains why the Chinese welcomed a rare visit from Kim Jong-Il in early May and allowed North Korea to capitalize on that trip with its first-ever national display at the World Expo in Shanghai. (The chirpy cluelessness of MSNBC’s coverage here is priceless.) Neither the Cheonan incident nor reports in April that Pyongyang is planning a third nuclear test threw a damper on the fraternal amity blossoming in Northeast Asia.

The sense among China’s leaders that they have the latitude to display their true intentions in Korea has grown markedly in the last year. It was never accurate to perceive China as a like-minded ally of the U.S. in the Six-Party talks but, as late as April 2009, Beijing was still making a show of acting from common interests. That it no longer does can be attributed largely to the passivity and incoherence of the Obama administration. The administration’s only serious diplomatic response during the tense period after Cheonan’s sinking was to offer food aid to North Korea if it would rejoin the Six-Party talks.

But China has other examples to draw from as well, such as Obama’s unrealistic handling of Iran. The parallels between the Iran and Korea situations include, of course, multiple rounds of toothless international sanctions and U.S. bluster unsupported by any effective action. In the case of the Cheonan sinking, they also include a very specific analogue: the North Korean naval weapons involved. The analytical team’s finding is that North Korea used a Yono-class “midget” submarine to launch a former-Soviet-style 21-inch torpedo — the world’s most common type — at the South Korean corvette. Iran has produced seven Yono-design hulls as its Ghadir class since 2007, has fitted them to launch 21-inch torpedoes, and began adding them to the fleet in 2009. Iran, like North Korea, has been under UN sanctions throughout that period.

The most informative development in the Korean ship-sinking case this week is the silence of China on the matter, something South Korea’s press has addressed in pointed fashion. The Chinese announced on the 19th, moreover, that their ambassador would send a deputy to Thursday’s high-level diplomatic briefing from the South Korean government rather than attending it himself. Editorial staffs in Seoul interpret this as de facto support for North Korea’s position in the confrontation. They have reason to.

In the month before the sinking of South Korean navy corvette Cheonan (on March 26), North Korea extended to 2028 China’s lease on the eastern port of Rajin, which sits on the Sea of Japan. China is modernizing the port extensively for commercial use; Japan and South Korea have the obvious concern that China might begin sending warships there as well. In the month after Cheonans sinking, North Korea switched partners in its flagship tourism venture from South Korea to China. China’s tourists lost no time in taking advantage of that opportunity: the first tourist train from China entered North Korea on April 24. Tourism is a latecomer to the burgeoning trade between China and North Korea, which reportedly hit an all-time high in the first two months of 2010.

China’s proprietary relations with North Korea face an aggressive rival in Russia, which obtained a new 50-year lease on the Rajin port in March and plans to connect the port to its eastern railway system. Maintaining China’s position as Pyongyang’s principal patron is high on Beijing’s priority list, which explains why the Chinese welcomed a rare visit from Kim Jong-Il in early May and allowed North Korea to capitalize on that trip with its first-ever national display at the World Expo in Shanghai. (The chirpy cluelessness of MSNBC’s coverage here is priceless.) Neither the Cheonan incident nor reports in April that Pyongyang is planning a third nuclear test threw a damper on the fraternal amity blossoming in Northeast Asia.

The sense among China’s leaders that they have the latitude to display their true intentions in Korea has grown markedly in the last year. It was never accurate to perceive China as a like-minded ally of the U.S. in the Six-Party talks but, as late as April 2009, Beijing was still making a show of acting from common interests. That it no longer does can be attributed largely to the passivity and incoherence of the Obama administration. The administration’s only serious diplomatic response during the tense period after Cheonan’s sinking was to offer food aid to North Korea if it would rejoin the Six-Party talks.

But China has other examples to draw from as well, such as Obama’s unrealistic handling of Iran. The parallels between the Iran and Korea situations include, of course, multiple rounds of toothless international sanctions and U.S. bluster unsupported by any effective action. In the case of the Cheonan sinking, they also include a very specific analogue: the North Korean naval weapons involved. The analytical team’s finding is that North Korea used a Yono-class “midget” submarine to launch a former-Soviet-style 21-inch torpedo — the world’s most common type — at the South Korean corvette. Iran has produced seven Yono-design hulls as its Ghadir class since 2007, has fitted them to launch 21-inch torpedoes, and began adding them to the fleet in 2009. Iran, like North Korea, has been under UN sanctions throughout that period.

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Time to Invade Burma?

Today, the United Nations World Food Program suspended the shipment of relief supplies to Burma, also known as Myanmar. The country had been ravaged by Cyclone Nargis on Saturday.

The suspension was prompted by the Burmese junta’s seizure of supplies that the agency had already sent. “All of the food aid and equipment that we managed to get in has been confiscated,” said the UN’s Paul Risley. “For the time being, we have no choice but to end further efforts to bring critical needed food aid into Myanmar at this time.”

Previously, the government blocked almost all disaster assistance offered by the international community, including the United States. According to official statistics, almost 23,000 have died. Shari Villarosa, the top U.S. diplomat in Rangoon, says the toll may have already exceeded 100,000.

The UN says the flights will resume tomorrow, but we do not know whether they will in fact be allowed to land. Yet at this moment we are sure of this: Burmese are dying only because their government, which insists on handling disaster assistance itself, has proven utterly incapable of doing so. Bernard Kouchner, the French foreign minister, has therefore raised the possibility that the United Nations invoke its “responsibility to protect” and deliver aid to Burmese citizens without their government’s permission. Such an action would save lives, but it probably would trigger conflict with the militant regime. So the issue arises: Is the world willing to invade Burma?

Invade? The international community cannot “protect” the Burmese people from a military government without employing military means. The United Nations, of course, is not prepared to use force. So Burmese by the tens of thousands will perish.

Of course, there are good reasons not to start a war against the junta this week. There are, for instance, tens of millions of other people who urgently need to be shielded from the tyrants who threaten their lives, and we cannot forcibly help all of them now. Yet even if the international community had the capability to do so, I doubt it is ready for dozens of simultaneous “interventions.” It’s not ready for even one. How do I know that? The United States undertook an obligation to protect the people of Iraq from the murderous Saddam Hussein. And we can see what the rest of the world now thinks of that.

Today, the United Nations World Food Program suspended the shipment of relief supplies to Burma, also known as Myanmar. The country had been ravaged by Cyclone Nargis on Saturday.

The suspension was prompted by the Burmese junta’s seizure of supplies that the agency had already sent. “All of the food aid and equipment that we managed to get in has been confiscated,” said the UN’s Paul Risley. “For the time being, we have no choice but to end further efforts to bring critical needed food aid into Myanmar at this time.”

Previously, the government blocked almost all disaster assistance offered by the international community, including the United States. According to official statistics, almost 23,000 have died. Shari Villarosa, the top U.S. diplomat in Rangoon, says the toll may have already exceeded 100,000.

The UN says the flights will resume tomorrow, but we do not know whether they will in fact be allowed to land. Yet at this moment we are sure of this: Burmese are dying only because their government, which insists on handling disaster assistance itself, has proven utterly incapable of doing so. Bernard Kouchner, the French foreign minister, has therefore raised the possibility that the United Nations invoke its “responsibility to protect” and deliver aid to Burmese citizens without their government’s permission. Such an action would save lives, but it probably would trigger conflict with the militant regime. So the issue arises: Is the world willing to invade Burma?

Invade? The international community cannot “protect” the Burmese people from a military government without employing military means. The United Nations, of course, is not prepared to use force. So Burmese by the tens of thousands will perish.

Of course, there are good reasons not to start a war against the junta this week. There are, for instance, tens of millions of other people who urgently need to be shielded from the tyrants who threaten their lives, and we cannot forcibly help all of them now. Yet even if the international community had the capability to do so, I doubt it is ready for dozens of simultaneous “interventions.” It’s not ready for even one. How do I know that? The United States undertook an obligation to protect the people of Iraq from the murderous Saddam Hussein. And we can see what the rest of the world now thinks of that.

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Another “Global Crisis”

Today, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that the recent increase in food prices has become a “real global crisis.” His comments come after weeks of food riots in Haiti, Egypt, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Ethiopia. The Thai and Pakistani governments have had to call out troops to protect crops. Cambodia and Kazakhstan are banning grain exports. Stores in the United States are limiting purchases of rice. North Korea faces famine. Is this a job for the UN?

Perhaps not. On Sunday, Jean Ziegler, the UN’s special rapporteur on the right to food, accused the West of causing starvation in poor countries through, among other things, the promotion of biofuels and the maintenance of farm subsidies. “This is silent mass murder,” he said. Multinationals, for their part, are responsible for “structural violence.”

Ziegler also attacked commodity markets. “And we have a herd of market traders, speculators and financial bandits who have turned wild and constructed a world of inequality and horror,” he noted. “We have to put a stop to this.”

What we have to put a stop to is the UN promotion of world government and socialism. The solution to rising global food prices–they have increased 83 percent in the last three years according to the World Bank–is not more UN food aid, which has undermined agriculture in fragile states. The answer is allowing markets to work. Increasing food costs, after all, will encourage further farm production.

And let me add this: there is no right to food. There is, however, a right to live in a free society where people have the ability to provide for themselves. Unfortunately, the UN has yet to appoint a special rapporteur for common sense.

Today, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that the recent increase in food prices has become a “real global crisis.” His comments come after weeks of food riots in Haiti, Egypt, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Ethiopia. The Thai and Pakistani governments have had to call out troops to protect crops. Cambodia and Kazakhstan are banning grain exports. Stores in the United States are limiting purchases of rice. North Korea faces famine. Is this a job for the UN?

Perhaps not. On Sunday, Jean Ziegler, the UN’s special rapporteur on the right to food, accused the West of causing starvation in poor countries through, among other things, the promotion of biofuels and the maintenance of farm subsidies. “This is silent mass murder,” he said. Multinationals, for their part, are responsible for “structural violence.”

Ziegler also attacked commodity markets. “And we have a herd of market traders, speculators and financial bandits who have turned wild and constructed a world of inequality and horror,” he noted. “We have to put a stop to this.”

What we have to put a stop to is the UN promotion of world government and socialism. The solution to rising global food prices–they have increased 83 percent in the last three years according to the World Bank–is not more UN food aid, which has undermined agriculture in fragile states. The answer is allowing markets to work. Increasing food costs, after all, will encourage further farm production.

And let me add this: there is no right to food. There is, however, a right to live in a free society where people have the ability to provide for themselves. Unfortunately, the UN has yet to appoint a special rapporteur for common sense.

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Geldof’s Bush Interview

Bob Geldof interviewed George Bush aboard Air Force One for a must-read piece in Time magazine. It should come as no surprise that it takes an individual outside of journalism and politics to cut through the fog of false perceptions about the president. Here’s Geldof on Bush’s “Africa story”:

It is some story. And I have always wondered why it was never told properly to the American people, who were paying for it. It was, for example, Bush who initiated the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) with cross-party support led by Senators John Kerry and Bill Frist. In 2003, only 50,000 Africans were on HIV antiretroviral drugs — and they had to pay for their own medicine. Today, 1.3 million are receiving medicines free of charge. The U.S. also contributes one-third of the money for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria — which treats another 1.5 million. It contributes 50% of all food aid (though some critics find the mechanism of contribution controversial). On a seven-day trip through Africa, Bush announced a fantastic new $350 million fund for other neglected tropical diseases that can be easily eradicated; a program to distribute 5.2 million mosquito nets to Tanzanian kids; and contracts worth around $1.2 billion in Tanzania and Ghana from the Millennium Challenge Account, another initiative of the Bush Administration.

While expendable legislators in New Hampshire and elsewhere waste taxpayers’ money on proceedings to impeach George Bush, Geldof—a man who’s spent decades staring humanitarian crisis in the face—gets to the heart of the President’s sense of morality and responsibility in history:

Bush adds, “One thing I will say: Human suffering should preempt commercial interest.”
It’s a wonderful sentence, and it comes in the wake of a visit to Rwanda’s Genocide Memorial Center. The museum is built on the site of a still-being-filled open grave. There are 250,000 individuals in that hole, tumbled together in an undifferentiated tangle of humanity. The President and First Lady were visibly shocked by the museum. “Evil does exist,” Bush says in reaction to the 1994 massacres. “And in such a brutal form.” He is not speechifying; he is horror-struck by the reality of ethnic madness. “Babies had their skulls smashed,” he says, his mind violently regurgitating an image he has just witnessed. The sentence peters out, emptied of words to describe the ultimately incomprehensible.

Geldof goes too easy on China, and he’s disappointingly clichéd on Iraq. But even there, he evinces a natural respect for Bush that’s vanished from the sphere of public criticism. In all, it’s an indispensible character portrait of the president.

Bob Geldof interviewed George Bush aboard Air Force One for a must-read piece in Time magazine. It should come as no surprise that it takes an individual outside of journalism and politics to cut through the fog of false perceptions about the president. Here’s Geldof on Bush’s “Africa story”:

It is some story. And I have always wondered why it was never told properly to the American people, who were paying for it. It was, for example, Bush who initiated the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) with cross-party support led by Senators John Kerry and Bill Frist. In 2003, only 50,000 Africans were on HIV antiretroviral drugs — and they had to pay for their own medicine. Today, 1.3 million are receiving medicines free of charge. The U.S. also contributes one-third of the money for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria — which treats another 1.5 million. It contributes 50% of all food aid (though some critics find the mechanism of contribution controversial). On a seven-day trip through Africa, Bush announced a fantastic new $350 million fund for other neglected tropical diseases that can be easily eradicated; a program to distribute 5.2 million mosquito nets to Tanzanian kids; and contracts worth around $1.2 billion in Tanzania and Ghana from the Millennium Challenge Account, another initiative of the Bush Administration.

While expendable legislators in New Hampshire and elsewhere waste taxpayers’ money on proceedings to impeach George Bush, Geldof—a man who’s spent decades staring humanitarian crisis in the face—gets to the heart of the President’s sense of morality and responsibility in history:

Bush adds, “One thing I will say: Human suffering should preempt commercial interest.”
It’s a wonderful sentence, and it comes in the wake of a visit to Rwanda’s Genocide Memorial Center. The museum is built on the site of a still-being-filled open grave. There are 250,000 individuals in that hole, tumbled together in an undifferentiated tangle of humanity. The President and First Lady were visibly shocked by the museum. “Evil does exist,” Bush says in reaction to the 1994 massacres. “And in such a brutal form.” He is not speechifying; he is horror-struck by the reality of ethnic madness. “Babies had their skulls smashed,” he says, his mind violently regurgitating an image he has just witnessed. The sentence peters out, emptied of words to describe the ultimately incomprehensible.

Geldof goes too easy on China, and he’s disappointingly clichéd on Iraq. But even there, he evinces a natural respect for Bush that’s vanished from the sphere of public criticism. In all, it’s an indispensible character portrait of the president.

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The Other Fallujah Reporter

“The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers.” — Thomas Jefferson

I just returned home from a trip to Fallujah, where I was the only reporter embedded with the United States military. There was, however, an unembedded reporter in the city at the same time. Normally it would be useful to compare what I saw and heard while traveling and working with the Marines with what a colleague saw and heard while working solo. Unfortunately, the other Fallujah reporter was Ali al-Fadhily from Inter Press Services.

Mr. al-Fadhily is unhappy with the way things are going in the city right now. It means little to him that the only shots fired by the Marines anymore are practice rounds on the range, and that there hasn’t been a single fire fight or combat casualty for months. That’s fair enough, as far as it goes, and perhaps to be expected from a reporter who isn’t embedded with the military and who focuses his attention on Iraqi civilians. The trouble is that Mr. Al-Fadhily’s hysterical exaggerations, refusal to provide crucial context, and outright fabrications amount to a serious case of journalistic malpractice.

Some of what al-Fadhily writes is correct. The economy and infrastructure really are shattered. Unemployment is greater than 50 percent, as he says. It’s true that most Iraqis – in Fallujah as well as everywhere else – don’t have access to safe drinking water. But he proves himself unreliable, to put it mildly, after only one sentence: “The city that was routed in November 2004 is still suffering the worst humanitarian conditions under a siege that continues.”

There is no “siege” in Fallujah. He is referring here to the hard perimeter around the city manned by Iraqi Police who prevent non-residents from bringing their cars in. It’s an extreme measure, no doubt about it. But it keeps the car bombers and weapon smugglers out. Iraqis who live in Fallujah are free to come and go as they please. The non-resident vehicle ban is a defensive measure, like a national border or castle moat. Its purpose is to prevent a siege from the outside.

My colleague (of sorts) at least acknowledges that “military actions are down to the minimum inside the city.” He adds, however, that “local and U.S. authorities do not seem to be thinking of ending the agonies of the over 400,000 residents of Fallujah.”

This is nonsense on stilts. Marines distribute food aid to impoverished local civilians. The electrical grid is being repaired now that insurgents no longer sabotage it. Solar-powered street lights have been installed on some of the main thoroughfares and will cover the entire city in two years if the war doesn’t come back. Locals are hired to pick up trash that went uncollected for months. A new sewage and water treatment plant is under construction in the poorest part of the city. Low-interest microloans are being distributed to small business owners to kick start the economy. American civilians donate school supplies to Iraqi children that are distributed by the Marines. Mr. al-Fadhily would know all this if he embedded with the U.S. military. Whether or not he would take the trouble to report these facts if he knew of them is another question.

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“The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers.” — Thomas Jefferson

I just returned home from a trip to Fallujah, where I was the only reporter embedded with the United States military. There was, however, an unembedded reporter in the city at the same time. Normally it would be useful to compare what I saw and heard while traveling and working with the Marines with what a colleague saw and heard while working solo. Unfortunately, the other Fallujah reporter was Ali al-Fadhily from Inter Press Services.

Mr. al-Fadhily is unhappy with the way things are going in the city right now. It means little to him that the only shots fired by the Marines anymore are practice rounds on the range, and that there hasn’t been a single fire fight or combat casualty for months. That’s fair enough, as far as it goes, and perhaps to be expected from a reporter who isn’t embedded with the military and who focuses his attention on Iraqi civilians. The trouble is that Mr. Al-Fadhily’s hysterical exaggerations, refusal to provide crucial context, and outright fabrications amount to a serious case of journalistic malpractice.

Some of what al-Fadhily writes is correct. The economy and infrastructure really are shattered. Unemployment is greater than 50 percent, as he says. It’s true that most Iraqis – in Fallujah as well as everywhere else – don’t have access to safe drinking water. But he proves himself unreliable, to put it mildly, after only one sentence: “The city that was routed in November 2004 is still suffering the worst humanitarian conditions under a siege that continues.”

There is no “siege” in Fallujah. He is referring here to the hard perimeter around the city manned by Iraqi Police who prevent non-residents from bringing their cars in. It’s an extreme measure, no doubt about it. But it keeps the car bombers and weapon smugglers out. Iraqis who live in Fallujah are free to come and go as they please. The non-resident vehicle ban is a defensive measure, like a national border or castle moat. Its purpose is to prevent a siege from the outside.

My colleague (of sorts) at least acknowledges that “military actions are down to the minimum inside the city.” He adds, however, that “local and U.S. authorities do not seem to be thinking of ending the agonies of the over 400,000 residents of Fallujah.”

This is nonsense on stilts. Marines distribute food aid to impoverished local civilians. The electrical grid is being repaired now that insurgents no longer sabotage it. Solar-powered street lights have been installed on some of the main thoroughfares and will cover the entire city in two years if the war doesn’t come back. Locals are hired to pick up trash that went uncollected for months. A new sewage and water treatment plant is under construction in the poorest part of the city. Low-interest microloans are being distributed to small business owners to kick start the economy. American civilians donate school supplies to Iraqi children that are distributed by the Marines. Mr. al-Fadhily would know all this if he embedded with the U.S. military. Whether or not he would take the trouble to report these facts if he knew of them is another question.

He claims seventy percent of the city was destroyed during Operation Phantom Fury, also known as Al-Fajr, in November 2004. This is a lie. If he really went to Fallujah himself, he knows it’s a lie. It’s possible that as much as seventy percent of the city was damaged, if a single bullet hole in the side of a house counts as damage. I really don’t know. It’s hard to say. But I saw much more destruction in nearby Ramadi than I saw in Fallujah. Even there the percentage of the city that was actually destroyed is in the low single digits – nowhere near seventy percent. And I spent triple the amount of time in Fallujah as in Ramadi. I didn’t personally see every street or house, but I followed the Marines on foot patrols every day and never once retraced my steps.

You don’t have to take my word for it. Look at Google’s interactive satellite image of Fallujah from space. You can clearly see which parts of the city were destroyed and which weren’t. Most of the damage is in the north. Some of the blanks spots you’ll see are empty lots, some are cemeteries, others are destruction from war. Even if all the blank spots in the city were sites of destruction, the percentage of the total area destroyed is far closer to zero percent than to seventy. Mr. al-Fadhily’s exaggeration is on par with the libelous claim that the Israel Defense Forces killed thousands of people in the Jenin refugee camp in April of 2002 when the actual number was a mere 52.

“All of the residents interviewed by IPS were extremely angry with the media for recent reports that the situation in the city is good,” he wrote. “Many refused to be quoted for different reasons.”

This is about as believable as his seventy-percent destruction claim. What media reports from Fallujah are the residents talking about? Fallujah is very nearly a journalist-free zone. Mr. al-Fadhily and I are practically the only ones who have been there for some time. Google News finds hardly any articles filed from the city aside from mine and his. Noah Shachtman published a Fallujah piece in Wired recently, but it’s unlikely that anyone there came across it. It’s also not very likely that the Arabic-language satellite channels Fallujah residents have access to are bursting with reports of good news from the former insurgent stronghold.

Anyway, the situation in the city isn’t good. Not at all. What it is is non-violent. It’s not a war zone anymore. The infrastructure and economy are only just now beginning to slowly recover because the war, until recently, made rebuilding impossible.

“Many residents told IPS that US-backed Iraqi police and army personnel have detained people who have spoken to the media,” al-Fadhily wrote.

Some Iraqis may well have said this. The idea that Americans were setting off car bombs was another theory that made the rounds in Fallujah not long ago. Only the most paranoid or irresponsible of reporters would bother to publish such claims without a dash of skepticism or evidence.

I have been to the Iraqi Police jail in Fallujah. It’s a terrible place that probably ought to be investigated by Human Rights Watch or the like. (The Marines I spoke to insist it is an abomination.) The Iraqi Police force gets, and deserves, a lot of legitimate criticism. But the idea that its officers arrest citizens for talking to journalists is about as plausible as the silly claim made by Iraqis in Nassiriya recently that the Americans dumped a shark in a Euphrates River canal to frighten people.

Mr. al-Fadhily quotes many disgruntled Iraqis. That’s all fine and good. I, too, heard lots of complaints. There’s plenty to gripe about. Fallujah is a broken-down, ramshackle, impoverished wreck of a city. It was ruined by more than three years of war. What else can you expect of a place that only stopped exploding this summer? But if the best possible scenario ever unfolds, if peace arrives even in Baghdad, if the government becomes truly moderate and representative, if rainbows break out in the skies and the fields fill with smiling children and bunny rabbits, somebody, somewhere, will complain that Iraq has been taken over by the imperial powers of Kentucky Fried Chicken and Starbucks.

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