Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Ahmadinejad at Columbia

Like him or hate him, there is no denying the fact that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a master at making people uncomfortable. His presence in New York these days, where he is set to address the UN General Assembly, was accompanied by an invitation by Columbia University for him to deliver a speech, which he did last night amid high security and thousands of rowdy protesters. The invitation for the head of a so-called “state sponsor of terrorism” to visit a bastion of the country’s higher-learning institutions was not without controversy, and Columbia’s president received a fair amount of heat from US representatives and citizens for opening the university doors to a man who has been dubbed anything from a “tyrant” to “cruel dictator” to “super-terrorist.”

But the fact of the matter is, despicable or not, honest in his skepticism of the extent of the Holocaust and his messianic calls for the “destruction of Israel” or a mere political opportunist, Ahmadinejad’s speech at Columbia was necessary, as it came at a time of great tension between Iran and the US and within the region as a whole. Aside from the longstanding accusations by Washington and its allies that Tehran is attempting to acquire and develop nuclear weapons, in recent weeks the US has accentuated its accusations that Iran is meddling in the affairs of, and arming militants in, Iraq and Afghanistan. A great part of the saber rattling on those issues is the result of miscommunication — or worse, the absence of any communication — between the two states, something that has long characterized US-Iranian relations.

So here was the occasion, in an institution of learning, for people to hear first-hand, without media distortion, what Ahmadinejad had to say about the US, Iraq, Palestinians, the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and other topics. There was ample material in his speech to disagree with (including his farcical assertion that there are no homosexuals in Iran), and to be honest the former engineer lacks the charisma and moral suaveness of his predecessor, Mohammed Khatami, whose own presence in the US years ago, when he called for “dialogue between civilizations,” also sparked controversy. But all that notwithstanding, only when leaders can express their opinions without the countless filtering layers of diplomacy and biased media and exchange those ideas with students and professors, in collegial fashion, will nations that make it a tradition to talk past each other manage to see eye-to-eye. For all in attendance yesterday saw a man, faults and all, before them — not the devil some media have portrayed him as incarnating, not a nuclear-weapons wielding, religiously deranged mullah posting checks left and right to Hezbollah and the Taliban and Iraqi Shiite rebels — a man, who even smiled as his host welcomed him with a barrage of accusations.

Irrespective of whether one agrees with the content of Ahmadinejad’s speech yesterday, at the end of the day his presence at Columbia University will probably have accomplished more for Iranians and Americans than his address before the General Assembly, which like that of other leaders there, will be wordy but ultimately less than pithy.

(An aside: For reasons that are all too obvious, Ahmadinejad was prevented from visiting the World Trace Center site to pay his respects to the victims of 9/11 — this despite the fact that Iran had absolutely nothing to do with those attacks. And to those US politicians who shook with indignation at the thought that the Iranian leader could be allowed to step on US soil, well, what can one say but to point out that, after all, he is responsible for far less deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan than his US counterpart.)

So kudos to Columbia University, which took a not inconsiderable risk inviting the Iranian leader. And congratulations to those who attended — from the angry crowds to the academics — for, unlike the occasion in 2002 when former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Concordia University in Montreal, sparking such unruliness and violence by protesters that his speech had to be canceled, they greeted the controversial leader with commendable maturity.

One would hope that universities the world over would do this more often.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Slanted Time reporting on Taiwan's UN bid

Kathleen Kingsbury’s piece “Taiwan’s War of Words with the U.S.” published in the Sept. 17 issue of Time magazine was replete with the one-sidedness and bias of the kind that Robert Fisk (Pity the Nation, The Great War for Civilization), Edward Said (Covering Islam), Richard Falk and Howard Friel (Israel-Palestine on the Record) have deplored in reporting on the Middle East. Not only does it completely fail to provide counterarguments to the overtly pro-Beijing position, but its portrayal is entirely predicated on the views of an old Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) hand past his prime as well as on recent comments by a handful of US administration officials who, despite their rhetoric, can hardly be said to be democracy’s best.

The allusion of Taiwan as a child used in the article plays right into Beijing’s hands, which has always portrayed Taiwan as a youngling that needs to be smacked (as are the Palestinians in the equally biased reporting on their struggle). It is disheartening to see that an otherwise reputable magazine like Time would choose to treat a democracy as an unreasonable child while painting a repressive authoritarian regime as a responsible father figure.

The voices of millions of Taiwanese and their supporters all over the world were completely silenced by the report, an omission — intended or otherwise — that can only but harm a worthy and by no means lost cause.

The article also contains a few inconsistencies regarding Taiwan and the UN. First, while a vote did take place at the UN to give the People’s Republic of China (PRC) a seat in 1971, the Republic of China (ROC) was not expelled; Chiang Kai-shek pulled the ROC out of the UN because he could not stand dual PRC-ROC representation in the world body.

Secondly, Kingsbury writes that “Taiwan has tried — and failed — to regain membership,” (my italics) in the UN, which would mean that (a) at one point in the past Taiwan (not the ROC) was a member of the UN; and (b) that given (a), Taiwan must be a country, as membership (which it is trying to regain) is contingent on that precondition being met.

Time would do itself and its readers a great service by publishing a corrective on the matter, one that tells the other side of the story.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Letter to the Permanent Mission of Canada to the United Nations

Readers who agree with the contents of the following letter, sent today to the Permanent Mission of Canada to the United Nations, are encouraged to copy and paste, sign and send it to the address below, or alter it so that it will reflect whichever mission they would like to send it to. If a response is received from the Permanent Mission, I will post it here.

Permanent Mission of Canada to the United Nations
One Dag Hammarskjold Plaza
885 Second Avenue, 14th Floor
New York, NY 10017

Monday, September 17, 2007

Ever since the creation of the United Nations in 1945, Canada has prided itself in — justly so — being an active participant at, and promoter of, this most indispensable of international institutions.

Through its unflinching dedication to multilateralism as a means to tap into the greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts ingenuity of civilization and its having taken a leading role in UN endeavors ranging from peacekeeping to environmental protection to human rights, Canada has demonstrated, beyond any doubt, its commitment to inclusiveness and universality, two principles that constitute the very foundations of the international body. Canada’s favorable image abroad, which opens doors to its citizens wherever they go, is in part the result of its longstanding commitment to the UN.

And yet, when it comes to the ongoing repression of the 23 million people of Taiwan, which against all odds turned into a vibrant democracy in the1990s, Canada, like other UN members, has been conspicuously silent — a situation that, sadly, has only deteriorated since Ban Ki-moon assumed his position as UN Secretary-General last year.

Despite what it claims, Beijing does not represent the interests of Taiwanese. Rather, for years it has threatened to use force against Taiwan (the “Anti Secession” law, passed in 2005, along with the odd 1,000 missiles bristling Taiwan-wards, attest to this). Unable to be a responsible stakeholder when it comes to the health of its own population, as it clearly demonstrated, among other instances, by hiding the severity of its SARS outbreak in 2003 and arresting those who tried to make the threat public, China certainly cannot be expected to represent — though it says it does — the 23 million people of Taiwan at international institutions. As for human rights, the daily news speak for themselves, with activists thrown into jail by the thousands and far more expelled from their homes as China builds its economy.

Beijing continues to pressure, blackmail and threaten UN member states into ignoring the rights of Taiwanese, and has been so successful doing this that on numerous occasions Taiwanese representatives have been discriminated against and humiliated whenever they sought to represent Taiwanese at such bodies as the World Health Organization, the World Health Assembly and, just recently, the Basel Convention on Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal.

Every UN member state that, at modicum, fails to raise the issue — on moral grounds or for the sake of international cooperation of the kind that is so needed to address the plentiful challenges facing humankind in the 21st century — can but be accused of being complicit in Beijing’s repression of Taiwanese and of choosing to ignore a continued aggression that is diametrically opposed to everything the UN stands for.

True, the UN and the international community face more immediate and serious problems, such as continuing genocide in Darfur, security challenges in Iraq and Afghanistan, the AIDS epidemic, global warming, poverty and so on. But the presence of these challenges should not by any means obviate the need to fight for justice whenever a situation arises that calls for intervention, as in Taiwan’s case. Failure to do so would be tantamount to buying the argument, voiced by some, that world powers should not have intervened to stop ethnic cleansing and mass murder in Bosnia/Croatia because simultaneously a genocide was going on in Rwanda. Greater emergencies do not necessarily mean that we must abandon other worthy causes.

As such, we, citizens of Taiwan and expatriates who have come to love this nation, call upon the Permanent Mission of Canada to the United Nations to reflect the spirit of the UN, of Canada and of humanity by raising a voice of opposition to Beijing’s unforgivable isolation of Taiwan at the UN and its affiliated institutions. Just as it has done in the past, Canada should take the lead and defend the values of humanity it, and the UN, supposedly stand for.

Respectfully yours,


Thursday, September 13, 2007

For once, Tehran's response to the US may be right

In an article published today in the Taipei Times, I turn to a US court decision last week to allow the families of the 241 US marines killed by the Lebanese Hezbollah organization in the 1983 bombing of the marines barracks in Beirut.

By arguing that families of soldier victims can sue individuals, groups or governments responsible for killing soldiers while the latter are in the line of duty, District Judge Royce Lamberth is not only turning military duty into a fantasy — where, against logic, killing a soldier who is occupying your country means breaking the law — but he is also opening a can of worms Washington had fain make sure remained closed. For if, as in the case at hand, a government (Iran) that is suspected of sponsoring an otherwise independent organization (Hezbollah) can be sued by a third party (the US), then it would follow that the families of, say, an Iraqi man killed by the US-trained Iraqi military could seek reparations from the US — or, for that matter, the families of slain Palestinians could sue the US government for its support and arming of the Israeli Defense Force, and so on, ad absurdum, from Colombia to Indonesia to wherever else the US is propping up security forces in the name of security, an endeavor that, sadly, is only intensifying (for more on this, see, among others, Robert Kaplan's Imperial Grunts and Dana Priest's The Mission).

Sad as it is for soldiers meaning good to be killed in the line of duty, and howsoever their mission is regarded back home, using terms such as peacekeeping or liberation or stabilization, the truth of the matter is, being a soldier in a foreign land entails a series of risks — deadly risks — that cannot, ex post facto, be questioned in the court of law. Unless, that is, the families of the victims are (a) suing their own government for sending soldiers into a situation that was illegal in the first place; (b) the means utilized to kill said soldiers were deemed illegal by the Geneva Convention — e.g. chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear; or (c) the victims were not military but rather civilians, in which case said attack would indeed constitute terrorism and justify prosecution in court.

Readers can access the full article, titled “For once, Tehran’s response to the US may be right,” by clicking here.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Bias and mythmaking in the news

Though accusations of bias in the news, or of government censorship, since Washington launched its campaign against terrorism in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks have reached a strident level, those phenomena — antipodes locked in a perpetual dance, if you will — are anything but new. In fact, they have haunted the business of reporting since its inception.

Anthony DePalma’s The Man Who Invented Fidel: Castro, Cuba, and Herbert L. Matthews of the New York Times takes a shot at untying that Gordian knot by following the controversial travails of the famous, or, to some, infamous, reporter who in 1957 went to Cuba and interviewed a young rebel named Fidel Castro, who until then had been believed killed, in the Sierra Mastra. The series of three articles that emerged from that fateful meeting, all published in the New York Times, became part of the myth that enshrouded Castro — and, as the leader’s image of a principled savior of Cuba soured with time, Matthews’ undoing.

Part history, part biography and part essay on history and revisionism, DePalma’s relentlessly captivating narrative describes not only the complex lifelong relationship that developed between Castro and Matthews, but also those that sprung between the US State Department, US ambassadors to Cuba, the CIA, the FBI (which put Matthews on its index over J. Edgar Hoover’s suspicion that he was a closet communist), the editorial staff at the Times, which as public and political pressure mounted failed to stand by its seasoned reporter, other journalists, and Cuban expatriates who at times hailed him as a hero while others (pro-Bastista or anti-communists) sent him hate mail and even death threats.

Throughout all this, the increasingly isolated Matthews never yielded to the growing criticism that his romantic coverage of the Cuban Revolution, and of Castro, had allowed a monster to emerge, contending throughout his life that he had always been right and that Castro, rather than having been a communist all along, only to deceive the world, had instead used the Soviet Union to maintain his hold on power. Later in life, in books and articles revisiting the revolution, Matthews did criticize Castro, especially over his dangerous gamble during the Cuban Missile Crisis. But enamored as he was of powerful figures, he never failed to balance his criticism with admiration for Fidel’s qualities. Accused of disrupting the truth, Matthews defended himself with the claim that he had never reported anything he did not believe was true.

But regardless of what he wrote later on, the damage had been done, and the public never abandoned the view that Matthews, if perhaps unintentionally, had been complicit in a political heist of global strategic proportions. Just as the Castro myth had been born in 1957, so was Matthews’, and to this day those illusions would be extremely hard to dispel.

Aside from shedding important light on this moment in Cold War history, DePalma’s book also asks important questions about the responsibilities of newsmakers and editorialists. Here again, the author uses Matthews — who through a special arrangement did both at the Times — to guide the reader. Under ideal conditions, reporters are supposed to be neutral in their coverage of events, while by virtue editorialists are expected to be opinionated, to “disturb the peace [...] to challenge accepted ideas and principles if they seem outworn or unsuited,” as Matthews himself once put it. What happens, then, when an individual is asked to wear both hats? Can he or she reasonably be expected to keep the two separate at all time, or is there not a risk that the lines will eventually blur until newsmaking becomes editorialized, with the author’s biases “polluting” the news item? Or is pure, unbiased news itself, as Martha Gellhorn, the future wife of Ernest Hemingway, who during the Spanish Civil War befriended Matthews, once famously put it, nothing but “objectivity shit,” something altogether impossible to achieve, given human nature?

Being an editorialist myself for a leading English-language newspaper in Taiwan, those questions were of special interest, especially as newspaper editorials are in fact not the author’s opinion but rather reflect an institutional position, that of the paper. The conflicts that arise — and there are many — stem from the eternal tug-of-war between the individual’s biases and those of the publisher, which do not necessarily always dovetail. In Matthews’ case, these differences led to a conflicted relationship with the editorial board, which toward the end of his career virtually shut him out (the news department had done this much earlier, on one occasion even barring him from visiting Cuba at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis).

Political editorials are especially troublesome and Matthews, writing about Cuba and Latin America, experienced more than his share of angst writing them for the Times. Aside from the views of the newspaper itself, the context of the Cold War (much like today) and the ongoing witch hunt for supposed communists led to tremendous pressure from the White House on the media to toe the line, and the Times was not impervious to this. (Taiwan, being no less political than Cuba and the US were at the time, presents a daunting challenge to editorialists, as every word is weighed, with the assurance that whatever one writes will create anger in the opposite camp, such as exists in Taiwan’s overly polarized politics.)

In all, The Man Who Invented Fidel is a superb piece of reporting on an issue that remains much alive today. Without falling into an apology for Matthews, it nevertheless manages to portray him as a complex individual — much like el Jefe Maximo — in a way that defies the Manichean inflexibility of the imagination that sadly characterizes much of the reporting we encounter in the news, back then and in contemporary times.

With the benefit of hindsight and knowing what we know about Castro today, there is no question that with our without Matthews’ reporting, Castro would have found his way to power, and DePalma’s essential book does us all a tremendous service by dispelling the belief that Matthews is to blame for all the ills that befell US-Cuban relations. Matthews may have played an early role in helping create the image in the US — and to a similar extent in Cuba, despite the heavy censorship that prevailed there at the time — but in the end, Fidel did not need Matthews to achieve his objectives as much as Matthews needed Fidel to attain his as a reporter.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

It won’t be spooks, but it’s coming

As the presidential election in Taiwan approaches, the US will likely increase pressure on the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government in a manner that is tantamount to a coup d’etat. The reason is that as it has tried to make Taiwan’s presence on the international scene more felt — through such means as writing a new constitution and applying for UN membership under the name “Taiwan” — the Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) administration has created a set of problems for Washington at a time when it would fain concentrate its resources elsewhere (hint: where oil resources are more bountiful).

Going back into history, starting with the overt, CIA-led coups against Iran in 1953 and Guatemala in 1954 through the less-obvious but equally successful interference in the domestic politics of Canada in 1963, one can trace a long, if oftentimes misguided, tradition in Washington of pressuring governments — foes and enemies alike — in order to achieve what it believes is in its interest.

Troublesome Taiwan, which continues to fight for its rights as a democracy, is now causing Washington enough of a headache, especially as the latter cozies up to Beijing, to warrant some form of intervention, which I argue will not come in the form of a CIA covert operation, but rather as a barrage of criticism and misinformation through communiqués and the US media. For too long, Chen and the DPP have, through their actions, exposed the lie that underpins the US’ alleged support for democracy, and this is making Washington increasingly uncomfortable.

The end goal, therefore, is to bring back the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) to power, a party that is less likely to rattle the Taiwan Strait cage and force the US to act on its avowed values if and when push comes to shove.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Authoritarianism with a friendly face

Usually reviled for the harsh and overt manner in which it represses dissidents at home, the Chinese government this week turned to an unusual tactic to ensure it maintains its grip on power: cuteness. Starting on Saturday, Web sites registered with portals in Beijing will begin featuring animated cartoon police officers — in all fairness male and female — that every half hour will pop up on screen and remind users, in an ostensibly friendly manner, smiles and all, of the limits to their freedom.

Though news of the ploy has circulated round the world and been treated with mild amusement (the officers are indeed appealing, in a Manga sort of way), the truth of the matter is that there is nothing mild, or cute, about the new device, as it masks a relentless control of access to information and cynically disguises repression as an object of admiration.

In an article published today in the Taipei Times, I argue that Beijing's reliance on cute cartoons is anything but innocuous and poses a renewed danger to Chinese — especially children, whom the new tactic seems to be targeting — as it renders the repressive banal and portrays something fundamentally evil as an object of seeming harmless beauty.

Readers can access my article, titled “Authoritarianism wears a new face,” by clicking here.