Monday, August 28, 2006

You Won't Get your Answers, Wolf

It was journalism at its poignantly most painful last night on CNN's Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer. Now, despite the fact that the channel is available here in Taiwan, I haven't watched the news network for months. In fact, I prefer al-Jazeera nowadays, whose headquarters in Qatar are rumored to once have been on the list of U.S. targets during the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Unable to find sleep last night, and after channel surfing from one old Hong Kong movie to another, I landed on CNN, where the white-bearded anchor, who doesn't appear to have aged one minute in the past fifteen years, was interviewing Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. I only caught the end of the interview, but to me those last five minutes were extremely revealing.

In those five minutes, Blitzer fired three strikingly unpolished questions at al-Maliki that perfectly highlighted how the American government and the fledging one that has emerged in Iraq are so far apart in their views and how, in the end, this outcome may bring great displeasure to the White House and the American public. The first question concerned al-Maliki's alleged support for Hezbollah during the Israeli war against Lebanon in July. On two occasions, Blitzer did his utmost to corner the Prime Minister by asking him if he sided with the militia or Israel, adding that the U.S. government had been fully behind Jerusalem during the 34-day war. Twice, an uncomfortable-looking al-Maliki launched into a painful exercise in oblique statements and references to the people; no binary answer was to be given.

Seeing he was going nowhere, Blitzer switched gears and asked about Iraqi democracy and where al-Maliki saw Iraq five, ten years from now—a democracy (American-style, presumably) or an Islamic state with sharia law (the system of laws inspired by the Koran). In the interviewer's head, it seems that there are only two possible systems in Iraq: democracy, or Islamism. Cornered once more, al-Maliki once again resorted to convolution and all but answered the question. Not only was he being asked to predict the future in a country where, given the state it currently is in, such predictions are more impossible to make than elsewhere, but the two choices were so antipodal as to be irrelevant. Strike two for Blitzer, whose face started showing signs of controlled anger.

The third—and last—question was about the state of Israel. Here, Blitzer went beyond mere support for Hezbollah and asked the Iraqi Prime Minister if he believed the Jewish state had a right to exist. Al-Maliki's first response was a complex set of references to international law and the Security Council and the people. Blitzer, seeking the yes or no answer, rephrased his question, again to no avail. The reply clearly did not match the question. To Blitzer's discontent, al-Maliki added that diplomatic relations between Iraq and Israel were not even on the table. It was also obvious that al-Maliki was ill at ease, which became even more apparent when a relentless Blitzer asked one last time, pointing out that his interviewee hadn't answered his question, if he believed in a two-state solution (i.e. an Israeli state next to a Palestinian one) or a one-state solution (i.e. no Israel and only a Palestinian state). As expected, the third attempt led nowhere, and Blitzer decided, thankfully, that he had run out of time.

Whether the anchor and his staff were aware of this or not, it was clear that binary questions about situations of such complexity as the Middle East cannot be answered on the same term—perhaps even more so when the person being interviewed heads a fractious, multi-denominational state under military occupation and on the brink of civil war. What made the whole exercise almost painful to watch was not only the Iraqi Prime Minister's obvious discomfort but also Blitzer's relentlessness, which left the viewer with the impression that if he asked often enough he might be able to obtain an answer which would satisfy the American people. One could very well imagine poor Blitzer on the edge of a cliff, hanging by a finger, struggling to keep hope alive. In the background, we could almost hear voices shouting "we helped put you there, al-Maliki; we liberated your country. Why can't you give us one answer that our people will like?"

Democracy, however weak and imperfect, has indeed budded in Iraq. It is far from certain that it will spread within the embattled country, let alone in the region. Every day, it is under threat, from within and from without. Its current form isn't even representative of the entire Iraq. But it is a beginning, and al-Maliki is the outcome. The beauty of it is that its voice is already its own and will not yield to the pressures emanating from Washington or some news organization in Atlanta.

Sorry Wolf, but Iraq is not your creation. Ask as often as you want, you might never get the answers you seek.

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