Monday, March 11, 2019

"Trump likes to say he thinks with his gut—and I believe it." - Christopher Dickey on MSNBC

"Trump likes to say he thinks with his gut—and I believe it."

In my latest appearance on MSNBC on Saturday with Phillip Mena we talked about several recent articles in the World section of The Daily Beast, including those by Ankit Panda on Korean launch preparations; Erin Banco about the Kushner meetings in Saudi Arabia excluding embassy staff (btw, meetings in the UAE did as well); and my updated article on Trump plans to turn traditional, powerful U.S. alliances into protection rackets.

These discussions in the new early-morning weekend show on MSNBC get pretty animated. Usual time, 6:30 am on Saturday. Sometimes Sunday. You might want to set your Tivo, or whatever. And if you agree with these points, do feel free to share widely. There is also an extended thread about this broadcast with links to the relevant stories on Twitter @csdickey

Some relevant quotes:

On possible reaction to North Korea preparations for a rocket launch: "This is a president who never has a credible Plan B. He likes to say he thinks with his gut—and I believe it."

Note: "Fire and fury" was never a credible Plan A or B.

The administration's denial of an Erin Banco report that Jared Kushner excluded embassy staff in Riyadh from his meeting with Mohammed bin Salman: "Our reporter is right and the administration is lying, as usual. ... 

"We don't have a Middle East policy, we have an MBS and Bibi Netanyahu policy."

Might Kushner have been talking about sharing nuclear technology?

Of course that's possible, I noted, and questioned whether it is wise to share weapons and technology with a regime that chops up and incinerates journalists: 

"These are not ethical people, the Kushners, the Trumps. These are not people who stand by the U.S. ... This is all just about venal efforts to collect money from Mohammed bin Salman and his efforts to buy American loyalty, which he has done very effectively."

Regarding Trump's reported desire to turn powerful alliances into sordid protection rackets:

"It's a complete insult to every member to France, Germany, Great Britain and every member of NATO to say that the reason we are in Europe is because we want them to pay us as mercenaries. If that's not a racket, I don't know what is."

Wednesday, March 06, 2019

Book Burning in Baghdad, March 2007

In the early part of this century, I wrote a more or less weekly column for Newsweek Online under the rubric "Shadowland." Some of those are still available in the Newsweek archives, but others have to be excavated from old hard drives. And some appear to be lost forever. This draft from an aging drive was for Shadowland 149, raising themes I would come back to frequently over the years.

I am republishing it today because this weekend I expect The Daily Beast will publish a powerful story by Pesha Magid about the murder in Karbala of Iraqi novelist Alaa Mashzoub, and I think this history is relevant. Freedom of expression in Iraq remains a matter of life and death.

Book Burning in Baghdad

History today is not so much written by the victors as by the vanquished

I was in Spartanburg, South Carolina, a very long way from Baghdad, when I read the news that a street where I once spent a lot time on my visits to Iraq, one where I learned a great deal about its people and their history, had been the target of a massive suicide car bomb.
Al-Mutanabi [also spelled Al-Mutanabbi] was the booksellers’ street. I’d gone there a few times when Saddam Hussein was still in power and it seemed a sad, secretive, paranoid place. But I went there as often as I could in 2003 and 2004, after the American-led invasion that toppled the tyrant, because I thought I could find the spirit of freedom and liberty that our troops were supposed to have brought with them.
What I discovered were a growing number of stalls selling religious tomes and posters, especially iconic portraits of Ali and Hussein, the sainted imams of Shi’a Islam. But, for English speakers, there was also a thriving trade in histories. Under the dictator, quietly and quite illegally, merchants had been photocopying whatever books they could get their hands on that told of Iraq’s past. Now they were anxious to sell them to the ancient capital’s new arrivals.
So I bought a copy of Gertrude Bell’s letters from Baghdad, written when she was a leading architect of British occupation in the 1920s. I acquired a British officer’s account of the grim battles in the swamps of southern Mesopotamia during World War I. (In those days, the Germans --  “The Huns” – supposedly were inciting radical Shiite militias to attack the benevolent English.) I bought a rare copy of the national museum’s catalogue, with wonderful old pictures of dozens of artifacts before they were looted under the unwatchful eyes of American soldiers.
Walking down the booksellers’ street toward the Shah Bander café, where the city’s literati once smoked water pipes, drank coffee, and debated the meaning of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,”  was a little like a stroll through the stacks of a great library, except that the city, the history, the culture and the passion for it, was right there, all around you.
The Reuters dispatch about the bombing yesterday was spare and evocative:
“As firefighters doused the flames which reached up to the third storey of some buildings, papers and book pages fluttered on the ground, some blackened, others bloody. Charred bodies lay almost unrecognizable, half buried in the rubble of shop fronts.”
In Spartanburg, I thought the story of Al-Mutanabi street might be worth sharing. A good friend, poet and naturalist John Lane, had invited me to little Wofford College in this, one of the reddest corners of a very red state, to speak to students and townspeople about press coverage of the Middle East. And I accepted the invitation, not least, because I often feel that Southerners are the only Americans who can understand in their guts the core problem we face in Iraq. They are the only ones ever to have felt the corrosive humiliation of occupation, in their case by northern forces after the Civil War <>. And the memory of that experience, even 142 years after Appomattox, still informs – some would say inflames – their view of the world.
This is not an original observation of mine. The great historian C. Vann Woodward pointed it out in his collection of essays, “The Burden of Southern History.” Writing in the 1960s, during the Vietnam war, he showed that the brutalizing experience of occupation has never become an acknowledged part of the American experience, so policy tends to be “grounded on the legends of success and invincibility” and “illusions of innocence and virtue.” “We sought no territorial aggrandizement, coveted no ‘colony,’ desired no subject people,” said Woodward. “We came to liberate, not to enslave.”
But what Southerners know, if they stop to think about it, is that motives do not matter. It is the fact of occupation, the fact, as Iraqis often put it, that someone is coming into your house and telling you what to do, that leaves such a long-lasting sense of humiliation, with all its concomitant anger. Were the goals of the Federal government laudable? Absolutely: to preserve the Union and to end slavery. And yet, more than 140 years later, in many corners of the South, the resentment remains.
You can get a fine, nuanced and ultimately very disturbing sense of the durable and deeply ingrained anger among the Iraqis from an extraordinary documentary film by Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein due for release later this month: “The Prisoner: or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair.” The earlier non-fiction feature by this husband and wife team, “Gunner Palace,” was a vivid depiction of the occupation in Baghdad during the early days of the war, told mainly from the American soldiers’ point of view. This powerful sequel tells the story of one of the men they took captive.
On the basis of very vague intelligence that was never confirmed, much less presented in court, journalist Yunis Khatayer Abbas and three of his brothers were pulled from their beds one night in September 2003. The allegation made by an unnamed source that they’d somehow plotted to murder the British prime minister during one of his grip-and-grin visits to Iraq.
After lengthy interrogations about everything from their attitudes toward movie star Harrison Ford to their sexual preferences and favorite songs, Abbas and his brothers were transferred to a tent compound at Abu Ghraib prison reserved for prisoners who have not been charged, much less convicted, and have also been classified as having no  intelligence value whatsoever. They were held there for eight months, exposed not only to the lousy conditions, but to occasional mortar attacks by insurgents. While their guards had flak jackets and holes to hide in, the prisoners were defenseless.
Abbas speaks good English in measured phrases, and the extended interviews with him in “The Prisoner” are sometimes quite funny. But the irony does not disguise the anger that will likely endure as long as Abbas and his brothers live, or their descendants remember them, “I am not a terrorist or monster,” he says. “I am not Dracula. I am not a monkey or a cow. I am a man.”
One of Saudi Arabia’s veteran envoys and spokesmen, Hassan Yassin, recently tried to define for me the difference he saw in the world as it is today, and the world as it was in the 1940s and 1950s, when he was growing up. “Today history is made instantaneously and forgotten instantaneously,” he said. “Before, history was made over time and remembered over time.”
I think that’s probably true in our era of non-stop news, or the semblance or news. (The theme I was asked to address in Spartanburg was “Iraq Around the Clock: 24/7 News and the Evil of Banality.”)  But as I was talking in South Carolina it struck me that there’s an important corollary to Yassin’s adage, because some people most certainly do remember.
In the past, history was recorded, and edited, and bent into shape by the victors. But today, when the factual record is at once so overloaded and evanescent, enduring history is written – or spoken into the camera in a film like “The Prisoner” -- by the vanquished. They’re the ones who have lived it, felt it, suffered it, and will not forget it. While Americans change the channel, Iraqis will be remembering for generations.
I thought maybe my fellow Southerners would understand this if I reminded them of a song, “Oh, I’m a Good Old Rebel,”  that many of us heard from other boys when we were in elementary school, a century or more after the end of the American Civil War. And indeed, a few gray beards in the audience did raise their hands when I asked.
There’s one verse that really stands out when I dredge it up from the dusty corners of childhood recollection:

Three hundred thousand Yankees is stiff in Southern dust.
Yeah, we got three hundred thousand before they conquered us.
They died of Southern fever and Southern steel and shot,
But I wish they was three million instead of what we got.

I think my South Carolina audience understood. There was some nodding. There was a fair amount of stillness in the room. But I have no doubt that Iraqis would understand those lines, those emotions, however unjust we Americans may think they are.
After all, U.S. forces did not blow up Al-Mutanabi street. They’re “surging” through Baghdad trying to protect people. They would have prevented the bombing if they could, if anyone had told them that it was a target that needed protecting.
 But, then, how do you defend a country’s history when it’s not your own, when you don’t understand it, when you don’t speak their language, when they don’t want you there? How to you protect a people’s sense of who they are when you are a stranger in their house pulling them from their beds in the small hours of the morning?
That’s a problem that few occupiers have ever learned to address, but it’s one we’re going to have to think about for many years to come.


You may also find this column of interest:

Friday, December 07, 2018

Scenes of "Yellow Vest" Violence in Paris France — It's a Revolt. But Is It a Revolution? My Pics from the Last Two Saturdays

Talked a little about this on CNBC.

Wrote about it on The Daily Beast.

Will be talking about it and writing about it a great deal more on MSNBC and The Daily Beast this weekend.

Taunting police, braving the teargas on Nov 24 
Art gallery on Avenue Kléber damaged on Dec 1

Crowd of gilets jaunes  and casseurs at Arc de Triompher on Dec 1. Graffiti on the monument reads "Yellow Vests Will Triumph" 

Taunting police at the Etoile on Nov 24

Tear gas canisters in torn-up pavement on Dec. 2

Cars burning on Rue Beaujon, a few blocks from my apartment.

Smashed window on Avenue Wagram Nov 24

Woman covering her face in a cloud of teargas near the Etoile on Nov 24

Digging up paving stones to throw a people and things 
Tear gas gun on Dec 1

Looking out through the window of Le Drugstore near Arc de Triomphe on Nov 25, the day after the first riot

Iconic image of "Liberty" smashed by vandals who entered the Arc de Triomphe on Dec. 1 (AP photo I modified for details)

In the middle of the tear gas cloud on Nov 24

Burned out branch of Credit Lyonnais on corner of Rue Monceau

The arsonists had gone to work, and black smoke mingled with teargas on Dec 1

"We'll be back." Dec 2

And yet, every other day of the week the city was calm. This photo is from Wednesday evening, 5:21 PM

Many of the "casseurs," like soccer hooligans, saw the violence and the confrontations with police as a sport. This guy was shooing a video of himself with police coming up behind: "They're charging!"  But they weren't.

The day after Dec 1: This café is right beneath the TV studio where we shoot live shots. I go there all the time. The vandals tried to break into a car dealership next door. If they had set the cars inside on fire, the people in the studio would have been at great risk.

The day after Dec 1, surveying the damage at a burned out lawyer's office at the Étoile. 
Add caption

Plywood and graffiti to ward off vandals on the Champs Élysées — seems to have worked.

Burned out Restaurant La Belle Armée (formerly La Grande Armée) near Étoile.

The Day after Dec 1: "Yellow Vests = Antifa" scrawled on Arc de Triomphe

The night after Dec 1: the graffiti has all been removed from the Arc de Triomphe, and Avenue de la Grand Armée is calm. 
The Day after Dec 1: Lovers on Avenue Kléber

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Your family is in danger. If you love it, read these Beast stories you may have missed at Thanksgiving


Speed Read: The Government Climate Change Report Trump Will Hate

The 1,656-page government report is the most frightening one yet on climate change's devastating effects.


Trump, Who Loves Nukes and Hates Treaties, Is Putting Us on the Road to the Apocalypse

The greatest danger is a disastrous miscalculation; the greatest irony is that the president’s trying to start an arms race his government cannot afford.


Why Freelance Reporters Risk Their Lives on the Front Line

Journalists are not enemies of the people. They are the voice of humanity. And independent journalists on the front lines risk everything to tell the story.

Monday, June 25, 2018

A #murderino meditation about the bag of bones I found when I was 12

In a sleepless pre-dawn diversion, tired of watching the end of the West in the echo chamber of outrage at Trump and his cronies, I asked Twitter friend why she called herself a . That started me down memory lane, as it were, to a bag of human-size bones I discovered when I was 12 in Milwaukie Oregon. Following is the text from that thread:

If you ever saw the film “Stand By Me, “ that was very similar to my junior high days. Sometimes I even took a shortcut home from school on a train trestle. My parents had managed to rent a huge house overlooking the Willamette, next to a country club...

My father was a poet and professor at Reed College. We didn’t belong to the club. But of course a buddy and I would go exploring. And one day on a dirt service road at the back of the club not far from the low bluff over the river, we smelled something awful. ...

In the bushes was a big cloth sack, like a grain bag, covered with the dust from the road and the brown stains of dried blood that had seeped out. The smell caught in my throat. The bag was not tied shut. ... Is a memory like this worthy of a ? ... Anyway ...

My buddy, Marc, took a stick and poked the bag, then lifted a corner so we could see inside. ... Bones. Big bones. Big enough to belong to a man or woman. But, despite the smell, I don’t remember seeing any flesh. Maybe too scared to look....

We ran back to the big house by the river, which was only a couple of hundred yards away. Which was also a scary thought - that someone or something that big was rotting in a bag so close to home. I get a chill remembering. My mother called the police....

I told the police where to look, and said I would show them, but they said not to come. Eventually an officer came back and said the bones were from a deer. And my parents were really relieved. And so was I. Story over. But as I tell you this now, more than 50 yrs later ...

I remember a shadow of doubt about the story the police told. When Marc and I looked in the bag we did not glimpse any meat or hoofs or hide. Just the bones. And even as a 12 year old I thought there might be something the cops didn’t tell us or want us to know. ...

That was in the spring or summer of 1964. We moved to LA not long after, and I have not been back to Milwaukie since. On Google maps satellite view I see in these silent early morning hours that the remnants of the trestle across Johnson Creek may still be there. ...

From above I see our big old house is gone, replaced by something even bigger overlooking the river. But the Waverly Country Club is still there, and the service road. I try to enter with Google "street view" but the gate is closed. And the mystery as well.

Friday, June 22, 2018

The Bottom Line in Afghanistan: From Bad to Worse

May 1, 2018 Press Release from the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction

Today, SIGAR released its thirty-ninth Quarterly Report to Congress.

Key points:

-- USFOR-A reported that the actual assigned strength of the ANDSF as of January 2018 was 296,409, which includes 165,622 ANA and 130,787 ANP personnel. These figures represent a sharp decline in strength from the same period last year: the ANA saw a 4,818-person decrease, and the ANP a 23,210-per¬son decrease, for a total of 35,999 fewer personnel in January 2018 compared to January 2017.

-- As of January 31, 2018, 14.5% of the country’s total districts were under insurgent control or influence—the highest level recorded since SIGAR began receiving district control data—and 56.3% of districts were under Afghan government control or influence.

-- Since SIGAR began receiving population-control data in August 2016, Afghan government control has decreased by roughly four percentage points, and the overall trend for the insurgency is rising control over the population (from 9% in August 2016 to 12% in January 2018).

-- Despite a 63% increase in Afghan land under opium-poppy cultivation and an 88% increase in raw opium production in 2017, USAID informed SIGAR this quarter that it will not plan, design, or implement any new programs to address opium-poppy cultivation.

-- From December 15, 2017, to February 15, 2018, the UN recorded an average of 55.9 security incidents per day—nearly four incidents per day higher than the same period two years ago.

-- The total of 1,186 munitions dropped in the first quarter of 2018 is the highest number recorded for this period since reporting began in 2013, and is over two and a half times the amount dropped in the first quarter of 2017.

-- UNAMA’s records indicate that air operations in 2017 caused 631 civilian casualties including 295 deaths—the highest number of civilian casualties from air strikes recorded in a single year. In contrast, RS provided a much lower figure for civilian casualties caused by Coalition air strikes, only 51 such casualties in 2017 and 11 between January 1 and March 2, 2018.

-- The UN stated that up to 90% of drug production currently falls within Taliban-controlled areas, however, SIGAR analysis found that strictly in terms of poppy cultivation, there are districts under Afghan government control or influence with significant levels of cultivation. In certain provinces, the districts with the largest area of opium-poppy cultivation for 2017 are under government influence or control.

-- With one of the highest population growth rates in the world and nearly half of its people under 15 years old, Afghanistan will need to add 400,000 jobs annually just to keep pace with new entrants to its labor market—a situation described by an International Labor Office consultant report as a “socio-economic time bomb.”

-- USFOR-A provided only cursory ANDSF performance assessments in an unclassified format this quarter. SIGAR is unable to determine the basis for these unclassified assessments with the data provided.

-- In its most recent Corruption Perceptions Index, Transparency International gave Afghanistan a score of 15 on a 0-100 scale (0 being “highly corrupt” and 100 being “very clean”).

-- From 2008 through March 20, 2018, over 3,520 interdiction operations resulted in the seizure of 463,342 kg of opium. But the sum of these seizures over nearly a decade would account for less than 0.05% of the opium produced in Afghanistan in 2017 alone.

-- USAID’s Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) reported Afghanistan was experiencing substantial rainfall deficits likely to have adverse effects on crops, particularly wheat. USAID added that “dire consequences” were likely for other crops.

-- DOJ reported a “growing risk that the debts (from Kabul Bank theft) will not be repaid.” DOJ added that the Afghan Attorney General told US Embassy officials he did not intend to pursue further charges – a direct contradiction of Kabul Compact Benchmarks.

-- As of March 31, seven new polio cases were reported in Afghanistan in 2018; half as many as reported in Afghanistan in all of 2017 (14), according to UNAMA.

-- Progress toward increasing equitable access to education, particularly for girls, only “moderately satisfactory,” according to the World Bank-administered EQUIP II.

Full Quarterly Report:

Quarterly Report by Section:

Report Photos: