Commentary Magazine


Topic: Starbucks

Strange Herring

Billboard with picture of Jimmy Carter asks “Miss Me Yet?” No.

Reagan Republican gets star on Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Facebook may cause syphilis, MySpace may cause meningitis, and Leon’s getting la-a-a-r-ger.

24 is officially 0. Jack Bauer to become evangelist.

Iran apparently building two nuclear facilities in order to “explode the sun and unleash a legion of semi-mythical half-beasts to rule the galaxy as an expression of our rage.” UN gives plan the “OK.”

Avatar fans learn Na’vi between therapy sessions. Klingon, Vulcan, and conversational Spanish apparently closed.

Starbucks turns 39. In celebration, the price of a Venti Cinnamon Dolce Frappuccino® Blended Crème mocha-choca latte ya-ya, with extra ya-ya, is dropping a dime, to $64.89.

Lady GaGa breaks world record by accumulating one billion hits to her Web video. In other entertainment news, Snooki explores Kierkegaard’s teleological suspension of the ethical as it relates to big hair on this week’s Jersey Shore.

Painters freer than ever to follow their muse. Sad clowns still dominant subject matter, followed by dogs playing poker and Elvis on velvet.

Twenty-five-year-old Frenchman arrested for hacking into Barack Obama’s Twitter account. So no, the president did not Tweet the lyrics to “When Doves Cry” last Thursday.

Silvio Berlusconi calls rival in Italian election ugly, cites Cicero, Machiavelli, and “the tall one” from Laverne and Shirley.

Man sentenced to prison for trying to break into prison after being released from prison. Wreaks havoc with recidivism rates. (“If they put me in general population, I’ll break into solitary confinement,” he warns.)

Steak and deep-fried food prove to be good for you, just as Woody Allen predicted.

British press mocks American animal-rights advocate.

That cutthroat get-ahead-at-any-cost colleague may just be a run-of-the-mill psychopath. Which explains the success of the iPhone.

Sinead O’Connor demands “full criminal investigation of the pope.” Vatican demands full criminal investigation of Throw Down Your Arms.

And finally, Doris Day is America’s No. 1 Favorite Actress. (Oh, so sue me…)

Billboard with picture of Jimmy Carter asks “Miss Me Yet?” No.

Reagan Republican gets star on Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Facebook may cause syphilis, MySpace may cause meningitis, and Leon’s getting la-a-a-r-ger.

24 is officially 0. Jack Bauer to become evangelist.

Iran apparently building two nuclear facilities in order to “explode the sun and unleash a legion of semi-mythical half-beasts to rule the galaxy as an expression of our rage.” UN gives plan the “OK.”

Avatar fans learn Na’vi between therapy sessions. Klingon, Vulcan, and conversational Spanish apparently closed.

Starbucks turns 39. In celebration, the price of a Venti Cinnamon Dolce Frappuccino® Blended Crème mocha-choca latte ya-ya, with extra ya-ya, is dropping a dime, to $64.89.

Lady GaGa breaks world record by accumulating one billion hits to her Web video. In other entertainment news, Snooki explores Kierkegaard’s teleological suspension of the ethical as it relates to big hair on this week’s Jersey Shore.

Painters freer than ever to follow their muse. Sad clowns still dominant subject matter, followed by dogs playing poker and Elvis on velvet.

Twenty-five-year-old Frenchman arrested for hacking into Barack Obama’s Twitter account. So no, the president did not Tweet the lyrics to “When Doves Cry” last Thursday.

Silvio Berlusconi calls rival in Italian election ugly, cites Cicero, Machiavelli, and “the tall one” from Laverne and Shirley.

Man sentenced to prison for trying to break into prison after being released from prison. Wreaks havoc with recidivism rates. (“If they put me in general population, I’ll break into solitary confinement,” he warns.)

Steak and deep-fried food prove to be good for you, just as Woody Allen predicted.

British press mocks American animal-rights advocate.

That cutthroat get-ahead-at-any-cost colleague may just be a run-of-the-mill psychopath. Which explains the success of the iPhone.

Sinead O’Connor demands “full criminal investigation of the pope.” Vatican demands full criminal investigation of Throw Down Your Arms.

And finally, Doris Day is America’s No. 1 Favorite Actress. (Oh, so sue me…)

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The Dubai Effect

Max Boot is quite right that the Middle East needs Dubai, and not only because it embraces modernity and flouts the region’s taboos. It’s also an example of good government, at least by the Arab world’s standards, and good economics if you look past its excesses.

The United Arab Emirates’ most extravagant city-state has a more or less transparent market economy and a degree of personal freedom rarely found elsewhere in the Middle East outside Israel and Lebanon. The government doesn’t micromanage the personal lives of its citizens as in Iran and Saudi Arabia, nor does it smother the economy with heavy state socialism as in Egypt and Syria. Its bureaucracy is efficient — investors don’t spend years acquiring permits and filling out paperwork before they can open a shopping center, a hotel, or a Starbucks. The Islamic religion is respected as it is everywhere else in the Middle East, but clerics don’t make the rules. Read More

Max Boot is quite right that the Middle East needs Dubai, and not only because it embraces modernity and flouts the region’s taboos. It’s also an example of good government, at least by the Arab world’s standards, and good economics if you look past its excesses.

The United Arab Emirates’ most extravagant city-state has a more or less transparent market economy and a degree of personal freedom rarely found elsewhere in the Middle East outside Israel and Lebanon. The government doesn’t micromanage the personal lives of its citizens as in Iran and Saudi Arabia, nor does it smother the economy with heavy state socialism as in Egypt and Syria. Its bureaucracy is efficient — investors don’t spend years acquiring permits and filling out paperwork before they can open a shopping center, a hotel, or a Starbucks. The Islamic religion is respected as it is everywhere else in the Middle East, but clerics don’t make the rules.

Lebanon and Iraq have both been hailed as possible models for the rest of the region, but they aren’t really. Maybe they will be someday, but they aren’t today. Freewheeling Lebanon is more or less democratic, but it’s unstable. It blows up every year. The Beirut Spring in 2005 ousted the Syrian military dictatorship, but shaking off Iran and its private Hezbollah militia has proved nearly impossible. Iraq is likewise still too violent and dysfunctional to be an inspiring model right now.

Many of the skyscrapering steel and glass cities of the Persian Gulf feel like soulless shopping malls. It wouldn’t occur to anyone to suggest that one of these places is “the Paris of the Middle East,” as Beirut has often been called. Dubai’s outrageous attractions and socially liberal atmosphere, however, makes it something like a Las Vegas of the Middle East as a traveler’s destination. And it really is something like a Hong Kong or Singapore as a place to do business.

It features prominently in Vali Nasr’s compelling new book Forces of Fortune, where he argues that the Middle East may finally liberalize politically after it has first been transformed economically by a middle-class commercial revolution. Most in the West haven’t noticed, but that revolution has already begun. And what he calls “the Dubai effect” is a key part of it.

“People in the region who visit Dubai,” he writes, “return home wondering why their governments can’t issue passports in a day or provide clean mosques and schools, better airports, airlines and roads, and above all better government.”

He’s right. Most Beirutis I know look down on Dubai as artificial and gimmicky, but just about everyone else in the region who isn’t a radical Islamist thinks it’s amazing.

It’s different geopolitically, too. The government is more sincerely pro-American than the nominally pro-American governments of Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Michael Yon put it this way when he visited in 2006 on his way to Iraq: “Our friends in the UAE want the Coalition efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan to succeed, and they are vocal about it. While much of the west, including many of our oldest allies, postures on about how the war on terror is a horrible mistake, the sentiment in the UAE is that it would be a horrible mistake not to face the facts about our common enemy, an enemy that might be just as happy to destroy the UAE as America.”

Its leadership has also stepped a long way back from the Arab-Israeli conflict. Neither Dubai nor any of the other UAE emirates have gone so far as to sign a peace treaty with Israel, but they also aren’t participating in the conflict or making it worse. Israeli citizens can and do visit, which is unthinkable almost everywhere else in the Arab world. A rotating tower designed by an Israeli architect is slated to be completed next year. There isn’t a chance that even Egypt or Jordan, both of which have signed peace treaties, would let an Israeli design one of their architectural set pieces.

Dubai has problems, of course, aside from the inevitable bursting of its financial bubble. Its government is a fairly benign dictatorship, especially compared with the likes of Syria and Iran, but it’s a dictatorship all the same. Many of its imported laborers live and work in ghastly conditions, and some are lured there under false pretenses.

It’s flawed, it’s weird, and its overall model of development can’t be ported everywhere else. Only so many cities can build ski resorts in the desert and underwater hotel rooms that go for $5,000 a night. But Dubai’s model needn’t be copied and pasted as-is, and Nasr’s “Dubai effect” is a powerful thing. The city proves to everyone who goes there that when an Arab Muslim country opens up its economy, keeps the clerics out of the saddle, and eschews radical causes, it can build places that are impressive not just by local standards but by international standards as well. If even half its foreign and domestic policies are adopted by its neighbors, the region will be a much nicer place for the people who live there, and less of a headache for everyone else.

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Lebanon’s Third Civil War

The third civil war has begun in Lebanon.

The first war was a short one. Sunni Arab Nationalists in thrall to Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser wanted to attach Lebanon to the United Arab Republic – a brief union of Egypt and Syria. An even larger bloc of Maronite Christians resisted. A nation cannot hold itself together when a large percentage of its population – roughly a third – wish to be annexed by foreign powers.

The second war was a long one. This time, Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organization formed a state-within-a-state in West Beirut and South Lebanon and used it as a launching pad for terrorist attacks against Israel. Again, Lebanon’s Christians resisted, as did Lebanon’s Shias. The second civil war was actually a series of wars that were merely triggered by that first fatal schism.

The third civil war resembles both the first and the second. With Iranian money and weapons, Hezbollah has built its own state-within-a-state in South Lebanon and South Beirut which is used as a base to wage war against Israel. Hezbollah also wishes to violently yank Lebanon from its current pro-Western alignment into the Syrian-Iranian axis. Roughly one-fourth of the population supports this agenda. No country on earth can withstand that kind of geopolitical tectonic pressure. For more than a year members of Hezbollah have tried unsuccessfully to topple the elected government with a minimal use of force, but their patience is at an end and they have turned to war.

My old liberal Sunni neighborhood of Hamra near the American University of Beirut – the best in the Middle East – is now occupied by the private army of a foreign police state. Masked gunmen take up positions in a neighborhood of five star hotels, restaurants, and cafes (including a Starbucks) where students like to hang out while reading books by authors like Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. They burned down Prime Minister Fouad Seniora’s Future Movement headquarters building. They stormed the offices of TV and radio stations and threatened to dynamite the buildings if the reporters refused to stop broadcasting. They seized the property of Saad Hariri – son of the assassinated former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri – and they control all the exits. Member of Parliament Ammar Houry’s house is now occupied. Al Arabiya says they attacked the Ottoman-era Grand Serail, the current prime minister’s office.

Hezbollah used automatic weapons, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, and sniper rifles to seize all, if not most, of West Beirut. The only weapons its gunmen haven’t deployed are its Katyusha rockets, which are useless in urban warfare, and car bombs, which aren’t.

“Hezbollah is not mounting a coup,” Charles Malik writes from Beirut at the Lebanese Political Journal. “They do not want to control ALL of Lebanon. They have no interest in controlling state institutions.”

This is mostly right. As long as Hezbollah gets what it wants, taking over all of Lebanon is unnecessary, as well as most likely impossible. But this is still a coup d’etat of a sort. What happened is, literally, a blow against the state. Until this week, Hezbollah existed both inside and beside the state. Hezbollah now exists above the state, the parliament, the police, and the army. No member of Hezbollah will be arrested or prosecuted as they would in a normal and properly sovereign country.

The army is too weak and divided along sectarian lines to protect Lebanon from internal or external threats. It was sabotaged for more than a decade during Syria’s military occupation and was staffed at the highest levels with Damascus loyalists who have yet to be purged. It is a make-believe army at best, and a part-time tool of the Syrian state at its worst.

The erstwhile prevailing mentality of fragile coexistence and anti-war has all but evaporated. The restrained rhetoric Lebanese people are accustomed to hearing from their leaders is gone. “We are in war and they wouldn’t be able to predict our reaction,” Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah said. “Hezbollah has gained control over Beirut,” said Member of Parliament Ahmad Fatfat, “and has caused a Sunni-Shia conflict that will be extended for years.” “If no compromise is reached, we will be facing a long internal war,” said Suleiman Franjieh, Jr., a former member of parliament and leader of the small Marada militia in North Lebanon aligned with Hezbollah and the Syrians.

Lebanon is a country based on consensus between its more or less demographically balanced Christians, Sunnis, and Shias, and its smaller population of Druze. No sect is allowed by law or social contract to rule over the others. The system, when it works, provides checks and balances. Hezbollah has overthrown all of it. And when the system is overthrown, as it has been in the past, Lebanese have demonstrated that they can and will fight as viciously as Iraqi militias in Baghdad. Lebanon has no shortage of people from every sect and most political movements who will fight dirty urban warfare with little regard for unarmed civilian noncombatants.

Though Hezbollah still occupies West Beirut, the city is reportedly calm at the moment – but don’t expect that to last long. Hezbollah is a Shia army in league with the Islamic Republic of Iran, while West Beirut is mostly made up of hostile Sunnis aligned with Saudi Arabia, France, and the United States. Lebanese blogger Mustafa at Beirut Spring put it plainly: “Expect the fight for Beirut to begin in earnest later with the distinct trademark of an occupied population: Hit and run.”

Even if Hezbollah does withdraw and real calm prevails in the near term, Lebanon has crossed a threshold from which there likely will be no recovery. Quiet may resume, but it will be the quiet of cold war rather than peace.

Hezbollah has always said its weapons were pointed only at Israel, though many knew better. Hezbollah even brags (although it’s not true) that they did not turn their weapons against Lebanese during the last civil war. Both of these lies have now been exposed before the whole world.

There may be lulls in the violence, but there will be no real peace in Lebanon until Hezbollah is disarmed or destroyed.

The third civil war has begun in Lebanon.

The first war was a short one. Sunni Arab Nationalists in thrall to Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser wanted to attach Lebanon to the United Arab Republic – a brief union of Egypt and Syria. An even larger bloc of Maronite Christians resisted. A nation cannot hold itself together when a large percentage of its population – roughly a third – wish to be annexed by foreign powers.

The second war was a long one. This time, Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organization formed a state-within-a-state in West Beirut and South Lebanon and used it as a launching pad for terrorist attacks against Israel. Again, Lebanon’s Christians resisted, as did Lebanon’s Shias. The second civil war was actually a series of wars that were merely triggered by that first fatal schism.

The third civil war resembles both the first and the second. With Iranian money and weapons, Hezbollah has built its own state-within-a-state in South Lebanon and South Beirut which is used as a base to wage war against Israel. Hezbollah also wishes to violently yank Lebanon from its current pro-Western alignment into the Syrian-Iranian axis. Roughly one-fourth of the population supports this agenda. No country on earth can withstand that kind of geopolitical tectonic pressure. For more than a year members of Hezbollah have tried unsuccessfully to topple the elected government with a minimal use of force, but their patience is at an end and they have turned to war.

My old liberal Sunni neighborhood of Hamra near the American University of Beirut – the best in the Middle East – is now occupied by the private army of a foreign police state. Masked gunmen take up positions in a neighborhood of five star hotels, restaurants, and cafes (including a Starbucks) where students like to hang out while reading books by authors like Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. They burned down Prime Minister Fouad Seniora’s Future Movement headquarters building. They stormed the offices of TV and radio stations and threatened to dynamite the buildings if the reporters refused to stop broadcasting. They seized the property of Saad Hariri – son of the assassinated former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri – and they control all the exits. Member of Parliament Ammar Houry’s house is now occupied. Al Arabiya says they attacked the Ottoman-era Grand Serail, the current prime minister’s office.

Hezbollah used automatic weapons, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, and sniper rifles to seize all, if not most, of West Beirut. The only weapons its gunmen haven’t deployed are its Katyusha rockets, which are useless in urban warfare, and car bombs, which aren’t.

“Hezbollah is not mounting a coup,” Charles Malik writes from Beirut at the Lebanese Political Journal. “They do not want to control ALL of Lebanon. They have no interest in controlling state institutions.”

This is mostly right. As long as Hezbollah gets what it wants, taking over all of Lebanon is unnecessary, as well as most likely impossible. But this is still a coup d’etat of a sort. What happened is, literally, a blow against the state. Until this week, Hezbollah existed both inside and beside the state. Hezbollah now exists above the state, the parliament, the police, and the army. No member of Hezbollah will be arrested or prosecuted as they would in a normal and properly sovereign country.

The army is too weak and divided along sectarian lines to protect Lebanon from internal or external threats. It was sabotaged for more than a decade during Syria’s military occupation and was staffed at the highest levels with Damascus loyalists who have yet to be purged. It is a make-believe army at best, and a part-time tool of the Syrian state at its worst.

The erstwhile prevailing mentality of fragile coexistence and anti-war has all but evaporated. The restrained rhetoric Lebanese people are accustomed to hearing from their leaders is gone. “We are in war and they wouldn’t be able to predict our reaction,” Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah said. “Hezbollah has gained control over Beirut,” said Member of Parliament Ahmad Fatfat, “and has caused a Sunni-Shia conflict that will be extended for years.” “If no compromise is reached, we will be facing a long internal war,” said Suleiman Franjieh, Jr., a former member of parliament and leader of the small Marada militia in North Lebanon aligned with Hezbollah and the Syrians.

Lebanon is a country based on consensus between its more or less demographically balanced Christians, Sunnis, and Shias, and its smaller population of Druze. No sect is allowed by law or social contract to rule over the others. The system, when it works, provides checks and balances. Hezbollah has overthrown all of it. And when the system is overthrown, as it has been in the past, Lebanese have demonstrated that they can and will fight as viciously as Iraqi militias in Baghdad. Lebanon has no shortage of people from every sect and most political movements who will fight dirty urban warfare with little regard for unarmed civilian noncombatants.

Though Hezbollah still occupies West Beirut, the city is reportedly calm at the moment – but don’t expect that to last long. Hezbollah is a Shia army in league with the Islamic Republic of Iran, while West Beirut is mostly made up of hostile Sunnis aligned with Saudi Arabia, France, and the United States. Lebanese blogger Mustafa at Beirut Spring put it plainly: “Expect the fight for Beirut to begin in earnest later with the distinct trademark of an occupied population: Hit and run.”

Even if Hezbollah does withdraw and real calm prevails in the near term, Lebanon has crossed a threshold from which there likely will be no recovery. Quiet may resume, but it will be the quiet of cold war rather than peace.

Hezbollah has always said its weapons were pointed only at Israel, though many knew better. Hezbollah even brags (although it’s not true) that they did not turn their weapons against Lebanese during the last civil war. Both of these lies have now been exposed before the whole world.

There may be lulls in the violence, but there will be no real peace in Lebanon until Hezbollah is disarmed or destroyed.

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Most Inadvertently Hilarious Dust Jacket Copy Ever

The following words appear on the dust jacket of My Guantanamo Diary, to be published in June by PublicAffairs:

WHO EXACTLY HAS AMERICA DETAINED ALL THESE YEARS AT GUANTANAMO? THE WORST OF THE WORST? OR THE WRETCHED OF THE EARTH?

Mahvish Rukhsana Khan is an American lawyer, born to immigrant Afghan parents in Michigan. Outraged that her country was illegally imprisoning people at Guantanamo, she volunteered to translate for these prisoners. She spoke their language, understood their customs, and brought them Starbucks chai, the closest available drink to the kind of tea they would drink at home. And they quickly befriended her, offering fatherly advice as well as a uniquely personal insight into their plight, and that of their families thousands of miles away.

For Khan, the experience was a validation of her Afghan heritage–as well as her American freedoms…

Two questions. 1) Where the hell did she get Starbucks chai in Cuba? 2) Is this a joke?

The following words appear on the dust jacket of My Guantanamo Diary, to be published in June by PublicAffairs:

WHO EXACTLY HAS AMERICA DETAINED ALL THESE YEARS AT GUANTANAMO? THE WORST OF THE WORST? OR THE WRETCHED OF THE EARTH?

Mahvish Rukhsana Khan is an American lawyer, born to immigrant Afghan parents in Michigan. Outraged that her country was illegally imprisoning people at Guantanamo, she volunteered to translate for these prisoners. She spoke their language, understood their customs, and brought them Starbucks chai, the closest available drink to the kind of tea they would drink at home. And they quickly befriended her, offering fatherly advice as well as a uniquely personal insight into their plight, and that of their families thousands of miles away.

For Khan, the experience was a validation of her Afghan heritage–as well as her American freedoms…

Two questions. 1) Where the hell did she get Starbucks chai in Cuba? 2) Is this a joke?

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Je Ne Regrette Rien

The New York Times has a bittersweet piece today about a smoking ban in France which has been expanded to include cafés: “Even France, Haven of Smokers, Is Clearing the Air.” The ban, “following the spread of Starbucks and the election of pro-American, fitness-friendly President Nicolas Sarkozy,” has occasioned a small identity-crisis for café-wallflowers and everyday French (there are 12 million French smokers). To many, the coffee-and-cigarette combo is an important communal ritual, the way NFL Sunday and religion are for Americans. The Times piece is accompanied by a terrific, five-minute video showing café-owners and patrons decrying the nanny-state—“we want to live, we want to have fun . . . they’re taking that pleasure away from us,”—while engaging in another French pastime: nostalgic self-regard. Like I said, it’s bittersweet.

The New York Times has a bittersweet piece today about a smoking ban in France which has been expanded to include cafés: “Even France, Haven of Smokers, Is Clearing the Air.” The ban, “following the spread of Starbucks and the election of pro-American, fitness-friendly President Nicolas Sarkozy,” has occasioned a small identity-crisis for café-wallflowers and everyday French (there are 12 million French smokers). To many, the coffee-and-cigarette combo is an important communal ritual, the way NFL Sunday and religion are for Americans. The Times piece is accompanied by a terrific, five-minute video showing café-owners and patrons decrying the nanny-state—“we want to live, we want to have fun . . . they’re taking that pleasure away from us,”—while engaging in another French pastime: nostalgic self-regard. Like I said, it’s bittersweet.

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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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