Journalism that would dare question either American President George W. Bush or British Prime Minister Tony Blair became unpatriotic immediately after 9/11. Cable television joined The Wall Street Journal in defining dissent as disloyalty and became cheerleaders for the proconsuls of the Coalition of the Willing. Increasingly room for debate on Middle Eastern policy has narrowed.
The Director General of the BBC, Greg Dyke, learned this truth last week, resigning over the fallout from the David Kelly affair, as did Andrew Gilligan, the author of the story that British intelligence had “sexed up” their report to show how much awful weaponry Hussein had up his sleeves. Meanwhile, RCMP operatives ransacked the home of Ottawa Citizen scribe Juliet O’Neill, seeking documents, no doubt, that finally would implicate the most famous Syrian-born Canadian ever, Maher Arar, in terrorist activities. Apparently, to judge by the Hutton Inquiry, which exonerated Blair, and the RCMP invasion of Ms. O’Neill’s castle, addressing truth to power—long the mandate of the Fifth Estate in democratic societies—is now proscribed. Put another way, if journalism is to play a constructive role in questioning lamentable abuses of power, it had better have the dots and crosses in all the right places.
The narrowing of civil liberties in the aftermath of 9/11 was predictable. What ultimately became a dual declaration of war against terrorism and Iraq—with the Bush administration linking the two enemies—was also unsurprising. Even had no evidence linked Osama bin Laden, the architect of terror, and Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s Hitler, the president assured Americans and the world not only of their commonality but of the existence in Iraq of horrendous weapons of mass destruction. This arsenal, the proconsuls of the Coalition of the Willing reiterated, ad nauseam, included biological and chemical weapons and possible “dirty” nuclear weapons. The only way to preserve international (read “American”) safety would be to engage in preventive warfare, to take out Hussein before Hussein could launch his arsenal.
Bush’s unproved assertion, supported to the hilt by British PM Blair, may or may not yet prove correct. At the outset of the Iraq war the administration behaved as though no distance at all separated al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. Opinion polls indicated that despite no evidence to prove this conspiracy, most Americans embraced the idea, even crediting Hussein with some part in the 9/11 attacks.
Despite oblique criticism of this thesis, since the Iraq war ended and Washington claimed victory, doubts have grown rapidly about the Bush/Blair case on both WMD and the Hussein-bin Laden nexus. At the same time Iraq has proved less than hospitable to the Western liberators. Day by day, suicide bombers and remote explosions kill American military personnel. Day by day, at Washington’s bequest, Canadian military personnel also place themselves in harm’s way, especially in Afghanistan, where growing resistance suggests that the Taliban is not only alive and well, but also much stronger by dint of the very wars the United States brought to the area. Radical Islamic militants, especially the Shiites who stand to gain by Hussein’s demise, do not find much to cheer in the military occupation by a power that touts MacDonald’s, Coca-Cola, and Victoria’s Secret as exemplary of free-market, secular values.
In any event, American unilateralism in the region proved a banal, unconstructive, and perilous way to deal with questions of international criminality. In declaring war twice, Washington sidestepped the United Nations on several important questions; ignored international tribunals that exist to deal with these problems; and—as we now know—placed their faith in dubious and inconclusive intelligence reports.
So we find it disagreeable to fly the unfriendly skies that these days, especially through the United States and Britain. And we find it increasingly difficult to stick up for Canadians like Maher Arar, accused of terrorism yet denied due process guaranteed by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Indeed, without the untiring work of his wife, the real hero here, Arar would probably still be in prison in Syria. And, yes, we find it distressing to awake, daily, to CBC radio reports of explosions and death—here, there, everywhere.
There is worse. Having sown the wind of arrogance, the U.S. and Britain now reap the whirlwind of ethnic, cultural and regional resentment. Hussein was undeniably a bad guy, as is/was bin Laden. But for a long while, both were American good guys. The United States underwrote bin Laden in his conflict against the Soviets in the Afghanistan war in the early 1980s. Washington sent millions of dollars and many weapons of mass destruction to Hussein in the same period, as a makeweight against—radical Iranian fundamentalism.
Like the boy who cried wolf (with no wolf in sight), and the emperor who told everyone that he was wearing elegant new clothes (even though he was naked), President Bush faces a difficult future. On one level, he cannot escape the war he declared. The conflict is not over, despite declared victory in Iraq. On a related level, accentuated by the warnings of alarmist Attorney-General John Ashcroft, Homeland Security boss Tom Ridge, and the colour-coded terror categories, the president invites the kind of catastrophic event that might really terrify Americans. Then it would be clear that someone really did have weapons of mass destruction.
The body bags are now coming home. It’s an election year. For good reason the president is vulnerable. Let’s see if his loyal opposition is smart enough—and sufficiently convincing—to make the point that war is not the answer to the current predicament.