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The arming of Saddam Hussein

Fighting the right war

Living on dirt

News shows

How to Ambush the Speaker

Date: 6/24/03
Show: Morning Edition (NPR)

I couldn't believe my ears, but here he was: Newt Gingrich with Bob Edwards on Morning Edition, chatting about an article that the former Speaker wrote for the Foreign Policy magazine. Gingrich, reviled by progressives as the beelzebub re-incarnate, criticizing State, the one Department of the Bush administration that liberals can empathize with?

Was I wrong saying that "conservatives on NPR are as rare as a snow flake in the midst of summer?" Could this be the beginning of a paradigm shift?

Speaker Gingrich   Newt Gingrich [unattributed]

Of course, there was also the possibility that Edwards wanted to stir up the long-simmering dispute among Republicans about the effectiveness of Colin Powell as Secretary of State. In fact, one of his questions seemed to be aimed this way, but Gingrich didn't take the bait:

In a recent speech to the American Enterprise Institute, you cited a pattern of diplomatic failure in Iraq. Do you blame Secretary of State Powell for that?

Well, I think, certainly as Secretary of State he has some responsibility for it, but I think there is a deeper pattern that was there in the Clinton administration, that was there in the previous Bush administration, that was there in the Reagan administration. This is a long pattern of the culture of the foreign service and the structure of the State Department. […]

Should Powell resign or be removed from office?

No, no.

It didn't take long before it became clear that the Speaker had been set up for an ambush.

On Morning Edition, three days later, retired Ambassador Thomas Boyatt, President of Foreign Affairs Council, took aim at Gingrich:

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich does not seem to understand the foreign-policy making process. […]

Unfortunately, Mr. Gingrich appears to view foreign policy assessment by U.S. diplomats as disloyalty to the President when those assessments differ from Mr. Gingrich's own views. He has cited as an example a State Department Bureau of Intelligence report stating that "liberal democracy would be difficult to achieve in Iraq" and that "electoral democracy could well be subject to exploitation by anti-American elements." Who, besides Mr. Gingrich, would question the honesty and objectivity of those warnings?

In calling for "complete reform" at the State Department, Mr. Gingrich ignores the substantial, even historic, progress made on revitalizing the department by Secretary of State Colin Powell. […]

Much, of course, remains to be done. […] What is not acceptable, however, is the wholesale destruction that Mr. Gingrich appears to have in mind.

Though Boyatt's commentary was billed as reply to Edwards' interview with Gingrich, large parts of it had nothing to with it. Thus, you won't find any reference in the interview to State's intelligence report, nor will you hear Gingrich call for anything like the "wholesale destruction" of the department. Writing for the Foreign Policy magazine, Gingrich argued for a "top-to-bottom transformation" of the Foreign Service, a far cry from calling for its destruction.

Boyatt's remarks may have been written well before the interview with the Speaker. A draft version can be found on the web site of the American Foreign Service Association, of which the Ambassador is a former President. Interestingly, the draft reveals a close collaboration between Boyatt and NPR. The sentence about questioning the honesty of the State's intelligence report reads in the draft version:

Who, besides Mr. Gingrich, would question the honesty and (reasonableness) [producer suggests "candor" or "objectivity" instead of "reasonableness"] of those warnings?

By now, we know that the producer got his wish: "objectivity" it was!

  • audio file Newt Gingrich on the State Department [Morning Edition, 6/24/03]
  • audio file Gingrich criticizes State Department's Role [Morning Edition, 6/27/03]
  • Reply to Newt Gingrich on NPR by Thomas Boyatt [AFSA]
  • Newt Gingrich's article "Rogue State Department" is no longer available on the web, though a few excerpts together with rebuttals can be downloaded from the American Foreign Service Association Bulletin [download PDF file]
  • Ambassador Thomas D. Boyatt [Biographical sketch, Albion college]


Fighting the right war

The Arming of Saddam Hussein

Date: 7/29/03
Show: Morning Edition (NPR)

In an interview with host Bob Edwards, Joe Cirincione from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace argued that the Bush administration moved away from relying on an apparatus of international treaties to eliminate weapons of mass destruction to a policy of eliminating the regimes who have those weapons. Edwards, as always, knows what to ask next:

Is that a good move, you think?

I don't think it works.

The problem is that in trying to identify a set of bad guys and go after them we forget that the good guys and bad guys keep changing. Iraq used to be a good guy. We armed Saddam.

We armed Saddam?

The claim, wildly popular among conspiracy theorists, is nothing new. It goes back to Alan Friedman's 1993 book "The Spider's Web: The Secret History of how the White House Illegally Armed Iraq." The only thing new here is that a respected institution such as the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace — and, by extension, NPR — lends credibility to this canard.

Joe Cirincione

Joe Cirincione introducing Senator Biden [©2001 CEIP]

Friedman's tale, often cited in the liberal media, is that Saddam's weapons of mass destruction were handed to him by the Reagan and Bush administrations. For the Left, the beauty of the story is that it not only blames America for her own predicament, but that it slanders the reputation of two Republican administrations. The trouble with the book is that it is long on speculation, but short on facts — and most of them fail to check out.

A look at Iraq's weapons arsenal at the time of the first Gulf War shows that it was almost exclusively coming from the Soviet Union and her client states, plus a few weapons from North Korea, China, and France. It is true that Saddam purchased civilian helicopters from us which he may have converted for military use. And, with perfect hindsight, it was a grave mistake for the first Bush administration to approve loans for agricultural exports which may have allowed the regime to spend money for far more nefarious things.

Friedman insinuates that the U.S. helped Saddam to acquire anthrax, bubonic plague, and botulinum toxin, the very biological agents that we are afraid of that they might end up in the hands of terrorists. Undoubtedly, lax export controls might have facilitated the purchase of these items by Iraqi agents posturing as medical researchers. But there is not a shred of evidence that the Reagan administration knowingly helped Iraq to acquire biological weapons. We don't even know whether the strains of bacteria that Iraq has (or no longer has) are from Western sources; the former Soviet Union as trusted friend and ally of the regime is at least as likely the source as we are.

Elsewhere in the interview, Cirincione declares that the world today is a safer place since there are fewer nuclear weapons than 15 years ago. He fails to mention, however, that this is primarily due to the end of the cold war and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The number of countries possessing or trying to possess nuclear weapons continues to increase, which does not bode well for attempts of trying to stop the proliferation by international treaties alone.

  • audio file Weapons of Mass Destruction [Morning Edition, 7/29/03]
  • The Spiders Web
    Friedman's book is currently out of print, but you may be able to buy it here used
  • Democracy Now!
    In this recent interview with Pacifica Radio, Friedman repeats many of the claims in his book. Note how he constantly refers to transactions being three or four levels removed to provide the CIA with perfect deniability. One claim is that we provided Iraq with the latest missile guidance technology. Considering how many Scuds were missing their targets in the first Gulf War, I believe that Saddam is entitled to a refund.


Living on dirt

Fighting the Right War

Date: 7/30/03
Show: Morning Edition (NPR)

Governor Dean   Howard Dean [©State of Vermont]

As if the maestro had lifted his magic baton and summoned the attention of the orchestra, NPR was ready when Howard Dean, former governor of Vermont and front-runner among the declared Democratic presidential candidates, explained the difference between the wrong and the right war:

I opposed the war in Iraq because it was the wrong war at the wrong time, not because I believe American force should never be used. […] Military intervention in Liberia represents an appropriate use of American power.
[Howard Dean's Press Office, 7/2/03]

On show after show, NPR started making the case for going to war in Liberia, uh, liberating Liberia. Strangely, the same crowd that was bitterly opposed to the liberation of Iraq because it was "all about oil," not about our national security interests, was itching to send troops to a part of the world where no American interests whatsoever were at stake.

"Because it's the right thing to do," progressives cheered, though — judging by the fact that none of them lined up at Marines recruitment offices — their enthusiasm didn't seem to run deep.

Of course, it would be wrong to blame the flurry of NPR reporting (nineteen segments in just the first seven days of August) on Dean alone. The Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, was urging the Bush administration to intervene. The congressional Black Caucus and prominent African-American politicians, among them the Reverend Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, had been voicing their support for sending in the troops, though their support started flagging a bit after a survey by the NY Times indicated that Blacks — even more so than Whites — were solidly against us barging in.

Salih Booker   Salih Booker []

The issue here is not the sheer volume of reporting, but the one-sidedness of it. Yes, there were a few exceptions: a Morning Edition commentary by Peter Charles, a former Liberian aid worker, who warned that sending in U.S. troops could have dangerous consequences. Ostensibly, his opinion was designed to balance an earlier vicious attack by Africa Action activist Salih Booker on everything American, beginning with the founders:

Liberia was created in 1822 by the American Colonization Society. Representatives of America's ruling elites, such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, promoted black emigration to rid the U.S. of Africans freed from slavery. […] Since then, the United States has consistently refused to accept its responsibilities as Liberia's patron. Instead, it has mercilessly exploited Liberia and its people to satisfy America's global interests.

Another example is the Tavis Smiley show which featured the conflict in six of its most recent editions. Only two of the 13 guests invited on the show were against sending American troops to Liberia. All others were in varying degrees for it, often buttressing their arguments with rather dubious claims of American historical responsibility.


About books and bear bags

Living on Dirt

Date: 8/15/03
Show: Living on Earth (NPR)

dirt eater   Scene from Geophagia

While hitch-hiking through the United States in the Seventies, Jacob Holdt, a young hippie and Marxist from Denmark, wrote letters home with stories that were so incredible that his parents sent him a camera to take pictures with. A collection of the photos was later published in the book "American pictures: A personal journey through the American underclass."

One of the unbelievable things that Holdt was writing about were Blacks living along the Mississippi river that were so poor that they were forced to eat dirt. How can the richest country in the world allow its poorest citizens to live this way?

What Holdt didn't know is that the eating of dirt, also known as pica or geophagia, is an old Southern tradition. The custom probably originated from Africa where it is still practiced today. In "black belt" counties of Alabama and Mississippi, grocery stores offer a selection of clays and soils for the convenience of their dirt-eating customers.

As incredible as it may seem, but a large number of Southern Blacks believe that eating dirt is good for them; after all, doesn't dirt contain lots of iron and other important minerals?

When Living on Earth invited Rebecca McClanahan for a reading of her poem "Something Calling My Name," NPR touted her work as an "Ode to dirt — to some, dirt is food for the soul." The poem tells the story of an Alabama woman who is struggling to give up her clay-eating habit to please her husband:

I tried to tell him. But he won't hear.
Earl, I say, it's safe. It's clean
if you dig below where man has been,
deep to the first blackness.
I tell him. But he won't hear.
Says my mouth used to taste like mud,
made him want to spit.

I tried to tell him how fine it was.
When I was big, with Earl Junior and Shad,
I laid on my back, my belly all swelled
like the high dirt hills
sloping down to the bank
above the gravel road by Mama's.
And I'd dream it. Rich and black after rain.
Like something calling my name.

Unfortunately, what Living on Earth approvingly calls "food for the soul" is cause for a high rate of worm infestations in Southern Blacks, especially among pregnant women. Moreover, while it is true that clay contains minerals, they are in a form which is unavailable for intestinal absorption. Clay acts as ion exchanger which saps minerals from the body, making its consumption one of the prime reasons for mineral deficiencies in black women, including anemia caused by the lack of iron.

While I share the love for the Earth that the producers of Living on Earth seem to express here, they are going too far when they put the health of NPR listeners at risk.

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Revised 9/4/03