History and Geography

excerpted from the book

Bad News

The Decline of Reporting, the Business of News, and the Danger to All of Us

by Tom Fenton

ReganBooks, 2005, hardcover


How many Americans know where Djibouti is, and why it occupies a strategic spot geographically? Why is Chechnya so important to the Russians and why, historically, do Chechens hate the Russians? Why did Greece and Russia help Serbia during the Bosnian/Balkan wars in the 1990s? When it comes to world history, politics, and even geography, our educational system is so abysmal that Americans know little if anything about them by the time they start reading the news as adults. And, in general, especially on television, the news does virtually nothing to improve matters. American newscasters will simply tell you, "we don't do history." News spots last no longer than a minute or two; there isn't enough time before the commercials. Result: we have no idea why the events in Bosnia, Rwanda, Chechnya ever happened-and how we might have prevented them, had we known of their history.

For that matter, what do we even know about America's interests abroad? Do we understand why, in the post-Soviet universe, the United States has opened new bases in far-flung countries from Kirghizstan to Georgia, other than the vague sense that our government is fighting terror? Leave aside, for a moment, that such bases cost you, the taxpayer, dearly and you should know why your money is being spent in such places. The Pentagon currently owns or rents 702 bases in 130 countries around the world, plus a number of other bases that are part of NATO or other multilateral commitments. Consider: Do you know whether the United States is welcome in each country? Whether we are backing the right regimes? Whether we know what we are getting into?

In fact, we know very little of what Washington is doing around the world in our name-and we're certainly not going learn much about it on the nightly news.

In the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict of the early 1990s, Russians manned parts of the front line on both sides; they supplied both sides with arms; they ran the intelligence and communications on both sides; and they helped Armenia win the civil war. To most Americans, it seemed like an obscure and irrelevant conflict with the daunting name of Nagorno-Karabagh. Yet Azerbaijan holds rights to massive amounts of oil in the Caspian Sea. A powerful and rich independent Azerbaijan supplying the West with oil could offset the oil leverage of Russia and the Middle Eastern countries. The Israelis understood that so well that they opened a military office in the capital Baku, to try to help the Azerbaijanis. But too many other interests were eager to cripple Azerbaijan from the start-Iran just below, Russia above-and so they both helped the Armenians in the war. Russia and Iran became so friendly over the matter that it soon spilled over into nuclear co-operation. The result? The impending Iranian nuclear threat that dominates headlines today. This kind of media blackout can have consequences beyond just an uninformed public: Congress itself was so deluded as to these events-and the real interests of the United States-that it succumbed to pressure from the Armenian-American lobby and slapped an embargo on Azerbaijan during the 1990s. In the meantime, journalists expert in the region's affairs-such as the Montana native Thomas Goltz, who reported for American newspapers on the massacres of women and children by Armenian guerrillas, faced accusations of propagandizing for oil interests and other smear tactics by the American-Armenian lobby. (Goltz wrote the highly readable and authoritative book Azerbaijan Diary about his experiences reporting that conflict.)

As usual, Americans had no idea of the stakes and American interests in the matter, nor of who was manipulating them in what direction. It would be a sorry enough saga if it ended there, but the repercussions affect crucial U.S. strategic interests to this day. At this writing, oil prices have risen to near record heights, and in the long term will only go higher with rising demand from China and India. Most of the countries with large strategic reserves of oil-from Venezuela to the Middle East-tend to be either unstable or intermittently antiAmerican. Many people beyond America's borders still think of the Iraq war as a grab for long-term oil security. The White House denies it, of course, but frankly there's nothing wrong with the Iraq war being, at least in part, over oil. Where else will the United States get easy unconditional access to oil in the years to come? Russia has a kind of veto over all the oil reserves in its former republics, and has successfully fought to keep it that way. Azerbaijan was the only holdout. It wanted to build a pipeline via Georgia to Turkey, giving Azeri oil direct access to western markets while avoiding the veto of both Russia and Iran. Some oil experts will tell you that if Azerbaijan had come on line earlier, Iraq might not have happened.

Instead, Azerbaijan began to fall apart in the 1990s under a U.S. embargo, isolated by the Russia/Iran axis, and losing the war with Armenia. It was held together by the last-minute intervention of a former Soviet Politburo member named Akbar Aliev, who took over as an "invited" leader at first and succeeded in staving off the Russo-Armenian onslaught. In 1998 he won a quasi-democratic election. He held the country together, promised all things to all parties, and stabilized the internal situation forcibly by eradicating dissent. After a decade in power, he died in 2004, to be replaced by his son, with U.S. backing-in what most observers regarded as a rigged national election in Azerbaijan. Finally, the so-called Baku-Ceyhan pipeline from Azerbaijan to Turkey began to take shape on the ground. The United States had woken up to the importance of saving Azerbaijan, but had to do so by compromising on democracy. Imagine the propaganda weapon this furnished the hardliners in nearby Iran. "What? The U.S. wants to spread democracy by invading Iraq?" they say. "Sure, look at the democracy they imposed on Azerbaijan. Next it'll be Iraq, then Iran."

This is the kind of history Americans never get on their news. In some parts of the world, history plus geography equals destiny. Traditionally, America has offered the reverse ethos an escape from the inherited negatives of longstanding tribal enmities. The American public in the New World doesn't like to think too much about such places and predicaments. But all too often they are strategic zones that matter to us nationally, and some of our American minorities have tribal stakes in the very places they have fled. They take sides, and their voices influence other Americans. Irish Americans on Northern Ireland, Miami Cubans on Cuba, Californian Armenians on Armenia, Jews on Israel-all have their agendas. Some such groups have long hidden alliances with proxy groups. Israelis, for example, currently favor the Kurdish cause in northern Iraq, as veteran investigative reporter Seymour Hersh revealed in a June 28, 2004, New Yorker article. For a while Israelis supported the Chechens, because Russia supported Saddam and Syria and Iran. Now, and ever since the Chechens began accepting help from al Qaeda, no one is taking the Chechen side-not even fellow Muslims. The Arabic press has nothing positive to say about the Chechens, and Arabs declare this explicitly, because Russia supports the Palestinian cause. If Russia supports the Palestinian cause, Russia can kill as many Muslim Chechens as it wants.

Which is a great pity, because of all the suffering Muslim communities in the world-indeed among any communities, Muslim or otherwise-the Chechens have suffered the worst. Indeed, they have survived several attempts at genocide. The first came in the 1860s, when Russia began to subdue the mountainous area and purged perhaps half a million Caucasian Muslims. An estimated half of those died. These days, again, the Chechens are undergoing a full-scale genocide at Russian hands. We don't get any of the news or images of their suffering, but they do exist. Children burned in buses. Men fixed in poured concrete and left to starve to death. Women killed with sharp stakes driven into their vaginas. The scale and sheer depravity of Russian conduct in Chechnya is hard to imagine.

Indeed it exceeds what was done to them during World War II when Stalin forcibly stuffed half the Chechen population into cattle trucks and sent them into the frozen wastes of Central Asia, where they died in hundreds of thousands. Russia is at it again, and as usual getting away with murder-this time because of our shared war on terror. What Americans don't know, of course, is that Russia stoked the jihadist elements there, as it did in its other former Muslim republics, in order to create an excuse for intervention. The Chechens won their first war of independence in the Yeltsin era without any help from fundamentalists. It was a nationalist war pure and simple. But Russian authorities couldn't live with Chechen independence-it blocked Russia's control over Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. Ultimately, it blocked their veto over oil supplies in the Caucasus and the Caspian Sea. So they restarted the war.

Many people, indeed most Russians, believe that their own government engineered the immediate casus belli, a series of explosions in Moscow apartment buildings. A good deal of evidence exists showing that the KGB planned and executed the apparent terrorist bombings of obscure Moscow residential blocks, which they then blamed on Chechen terrorists. The Kremlin was bent on retaking the runaway republic, and they set about creating the necessary national mood. Russian officers even secretly sold their own soldiers to Chechen kidnappers in order to heighten tensions. Russian officials wanted to cause chaos and division in Chechnya, and it appears they succeeded. The late Paul Klebnikov of Forbes magazine, who was assassinated in 2004 outside his Moscow office by unknown assailants, outlined all these sinister shenanigans in great detail in his book Godfather of the Kremlin: Boris Berezovsky and the Looting of Russia.' Klebnikov quotes Russia's former Security Council chief, General Alexander Lebed, on whether the Russian government had organized the residential terrorist attacks against its own citizens. "I'm convinced of it," says Lebed. (Lebed later died in a mysterious airplane accident.)

As Klebnikov writes, "in Chechnya, the Kremlin had been undermining moderates, supporting the extremists financially and politically, and consequently sowing the seeds of conflict." He adds, "the worst case scenario is that the Berezovsky strategy with the Chechen warlords was a deliberate attempt to fan the flames of war. Why would the Kremlin (acting through Berezovsky) want to support the Islamic fanatics that later ended up shedding so much Russian blood?" Klebinov believes it was an attempt by Yeltsin's Kremlin circle-which included Vladimir Putin-to keep power by stoking a patriotic war. (Putin ultimately forced Berezovsky into exile as part of his drive to concentrate power into presidential hands.) One item of evidence, cited by Klebnikov to illustrate Russian complicity in Chechen terror, is a report in the French newspaper Le Monde of "the Russian arms-exporting monopoly providing Shamil Basayev's men with weapons."' Shamil Basayev later organized the raid on the Nord Ost theater in Moscow that left 130 hostages dead, and the Beslan school atrocity that killed so many children. Basayev is now the leading Islamic terrorist in Chechnya. It's not surprising that, because we work in tandem with Russia on terrorism, so many in the Muslim world believe that the U.S. government too was complicit in the 9/11 attacks. The American public, naturally, has no awareness of such background history.

We can dismiss outlandish conspiracy theories about America that are harbored by paranoid people abroad-after all, the United States is not Russia-but it would be foolish to dismiss their reasons for harboring them, considering the nations we embrace as allies. But the relevance of Chechnya goes beyond our unpopularity among Muslims, and beyond a potential Chechen terrorist attack on the United States directly. (On October 13, 2004, the Washington Times cited intelligence reports that a group of Chechens had secretly entered the United States via Mexico in August.) The events of Chechnya may become a matter of life and death for the United States, worse even than the al Qaeda threat. Let me repeat that: Worse than the a! Qaeda threat. How is it possible? Consider that after the Beslan school massacre in Russia's North Ossetia province, President Putin declared that he too had the right, around the world, to preempt terror against Russia. Taking a page from the Bush doctrine, he declared publicly that he would intervene in any country he deemed necessary. The statement was reported widely on American news outlets. What your news experts didn't do is ask the simple question: Where could he mean? In almost every applicable country, the United States already has either troops or a deal with the local government.

The most immediate possibilities would be Georgia and Azerbaijan. The largest communities of recently exiled Chechens, often accused of aiding and abetting terror, live in those nearby countries. Russia keeps a base in Georgia by main force, despite Georgian protests. And it maintains a threat over Azerbaijan via the Armenians. But the United States also has a base in Georgia and massive pipeline investments from top American oil companies in Azerbaijan. If Russia launched raids into either country, it would soon conflict with American interests-and Russia still deploys a formidable arsenal of nuclear weapons pointed at American shores. It may seem unlikely, but by this logic Putin could trigger hostilities with the United States.

Let's assume that the Russians would avoid that confrontation, although they acutely resent American encroachment on their sphere of influence. What other options are there for Russian intervention? They could try Afghanistan or Pakistan, where some Chechens and al Qaeda elements are holed up, or they could try Turkey. The United States is deeply involved in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. Turkey has a large Caucasian Muslim community-some say 10 percent of the total population-that dates from the nineteenth-century ethnic cleansing by Russia. Many still remain loyal to Chechnya. But Turkey is a member of NATO, and a Russian attack would trigger, yes, a run-in with the United States. Where else could Russia turn? Saudi Arabia? Yemen? The united States is fully engaged in both countries. What we are looking at is a possible conflict between Russia and the United States, as in the old Cold War days. Naturally, nobody in the news media has alerted Americans to the unfolding threat.

If the public knew more about the history and geography of troubled conflict zones like the Caucasus, perhaps it would take a stand in how America acts toward them, and how quickly our government moves to support our interests. The public might even take an interest in full-blown foreign wars such as Iraq before they happen, not necessarily to avoid them but at least to prosecute them intelligently-with the requisite geo-historical wisdom.

Up until the 1920s, the area now known as Iraq was ruled by the Ottoman Empire as a multi-ethnic, multi-faith patchwork of districts that also included the Gulf States such as Kuwait and Bahrain. It was never a whole or an entity, certainly not a country.

... In the 1920s, the British imposed a king on Iraq from the Hashemite tribe that had previously ruled the Hijaz, now part of Saudi Arabia. The Brits had replaced the Hashemite dynasty with the Ibn Saud dynasty, thus creating Saudi Arabia. In compensation, the British gave Jordan to one Hashemite brother and Iraq to the other, both as custodians of British power. King Hussein of Jordan was a Hashemite, as is his son. Since the Brits had also unwisely championed the last (failed) Ottoman sultan against the nationalist regime of Attaturk in Turkey, former Ottoman court officials exiled from Turkey joined the British-Hashemjtes in Iraq. That Iraq lasted from the 1920s to the 1950s. When Iraq then had its own nationalist uprisings in the 1950s, the hastily composed polyglot royalist ruling class were all put to the sword or expelled. Nationalist, or Baathist, fever swept the larger Arab countries well into the mid-1960s---a wave of uprisings by young military officers from Egypt to Syria to Iraq, where Saddam Hussein ultimately won out. Saddam then proceeded to hold the country together through Stalinist tactics internally and by picking fights with neighboring countries.

All of which is to say that Iraq never was, and indeed never was intended to be, a real country that could hold together without force. In that respect Iraq is more like Yugoslavia than Afghanistan. Indeed, many Arabs assume that the United States intends to see Iraq break up in the long term, they see America's inordinate incompetence in stabilizing the country, the limited troop deployment, the unguarded borders, as part of an American strategy to let the country split apart deliberately while offering the merest pretense at trying to hold it together. Why would the United States do such a thing? Because three smaller oil-producing zones would be easier to control than an entire country the size of present-day Iraq.

In Iraq, the United States has tried to use the Kurds as an equivalent to the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan-that is, as an ally that will help them forcibly subdue unrest and marginalize troublemakers while protecting the central government from being overthrown. The trouble is that what the Kurds really want is to secede from Iraq altogether, taking the oil-rich town of Kirkuk with them. They have no emotional loyalty to the concept of the Iraqi nation. From the early British years onward, they were corralled into the country forcibly and kept in it through violent suppression. Their leaders keep talking about Kirkuk being "the beating heart of Kurdistan." Even if the Kurds stay within a vaguely unified Iraq, unlike Afghanistan a decentralized or loosely federated Iraq may not remain stable for long. Its neighbors are simply not likely to permit it. The surrounding Sunni countries will want the Sunnis to have more power; the Iranians will try to influence the Shi'ites, while the Iraqi Shi'ites already want to dominate the entire country with their majority population numbers; and nobody wants the Kurds to have an oil-rich enclave that could be used to stir up trouble in Kurdish areas of Iran, Turkey, or Syria. Those countries want to nip Kurdish power in the bud by locking it down under a strong central Iraqi government. For all those reasons, too, a complete split into three parts wouldn't be likely to succeed: All the surrounding countries could be counted on to meddle in each component part indefinitely.

Most halfway informed Americans now know, to some degree, who the Kurds are and what they've suffered. The Kurds are the good guys, the all-round perfect embodiment of victimhood and Saddam's cruelty. Their public image, thanks to our media, is that of a people full of admiration for America and yearning to be free. And, since they're now operating as our main local allies in Iraq, there's very little inclination to spotlight whatever negatives the Kurds might have-which, alas, are considerable.

Most Americans don't know, for example, that it was mainly the Kurds who looted much of the northern pipeline equipment in the early postwar period. 6 Their activities cost the United States dearly in dollars and time, critical time, before the pipelines could be restored. The Kurds looted much else besides, causing extensive damage in their early raids into the south during and after "Shock and Awe," but most of their bad deeds went unreported. Wall Street journal correspondent Farnaz Fassihi recorded early reports of the Kurds' pillaging and violent attacks on civilians in the Sunni areas; the group played no small part in the spread of chaos and lawlessness during that critical period, for which the United States was widely blamed around the world; Kurdish borders with other countries became the main transit points for looted material out of Iraq. But the American press, indeed the western press as a whole, simply ignored that problem, and many others.

Why? Why miss such an important story? Several reasons, but they all boil down to a sorry excuse: the long-entrenched laziness of the media. The "enlightened" liberal world of the' press regarded the Kurds for years as a textbook example of the oppressed third-world minority, especially as the Soviet Union championed their propaganda for years much as it did with the PLO and with Nelson Mandela's ANC. (The Kurds got no slack, of course, in idyllic socialist societies like Syria.) The Soviets turned a fractured tribal phenomenon into a liberation struggle for nationhood-again, much as they did with the PLO, the ANC, and many anti-imperialist movements in Africa. The fact that many of those movements reverted to their tribal components upon gaining power didn't dampen the enthusiasm of pro-Kurd national liberationists among European intellectuals, especially in France. Yet there were also plenty of liberal pro-Kurdish advocates at that time in the United States, Christopher Hitchens being one prominent example. On the right, the Kurds came into their own as the ideal anti-Saddam exhibit; for the Israelis, they offered a counterweight to the Arab bloc in the Middle East. The resulting flood of positive PR for the Kurds has poured unfiltered into the western press for years, from all quarters. At one point, a widespread news item even reported that the Kurds themselves had played a crucial role in the capture of Saddam. American authorities denied the report firmly, yet Christopher Hitchens recorded it as a fact in his column for the online journal Slate. That same day, the BBC revealed that one of Saddam's bodyguards had given him up in order to claim the reward for his capture.

All these Kurd-friendly influences came together in the weeks leading up to the Iraq invasion, when the northern Kurdish zone was teeming with western journalists. Unfortunately, virtually none of them spoke local languages. All outside journalists had to be officially accredited to stay in the region-and once accredited they were obliged to work with appointed Kurdish interpreters or guides, a provision explained by Kurdish authorities as necessary for journalists' security. Where have we heard that before? In virtually every police state, for starters. Astonishingly, no journalists questioned the arrangement. As a result, the world heard nothing of the tribulations and suffering of minorities like the Turcomans and the Assyrian Christians, who had to live under the strong arm of Kurdish rule after suffering acutely for years under Saddam. Nor did we learn much about the extreme and longstanding animosity between the two Kurdish factions, the PUK under Jalal Talebani and the KDP under Massoud Barzani. During the Iran-Iraq war, Talebani had collaborated with the Iranians-the real reason that his side of Kurdistan was gassed by Saddam at a time when it was virtually Iranian territory. Still, the Iranian side almost won; Barzani was losing the civil war until he joined forces with Saddam and reinvaded his region in 1996 with the Iraqi 10th Army, recapturing his capital of Erbil from the opposing Kurdish-Iranian faction. Then he handed over to Saddam's torturers leaders of the Assyrian and Turcoman communities. None returned alive.

In the wake of the invasion, the United States allowed the Kurds to take over the strategic oil towns of Kirkuk and Mosul, against all previous assurances. The Kurds were promptly thrown out of Mosul by fierce armed resistance, but continued to occupy Kirkuk and slowly annex it with a heavy population influx from Kurdistan. They argue, in part correctly, that they were merely returning to homes from which Saddam had purged the years before. But now, having forcibly seized civic control of the Kirkuk area-including its land deeds office, where they burned many documents to hide original land ownership records-the Kurds are busily creating "facts on the ground" in the time-honored Israeli fashion. Every day, while controlling who else comes in, they return to Kirkuk in such large numbers that they will soon change the population balance. In the meantime, the United States postpones the population census of Iraq. The other minorities believe that by the time the census happens, the change in population balance will justify Kirkuk's absorption into the Kurdish zone. They also believe that the process is a precursor for allowing the division of Iraq into three separate zones of Shi'ites, Sunnis, and Kurds, with the Kurds getting oil-rich Kirkuk to make them financially viable. If it survives, an independent Kurdistan with oil from Kirkuk could resemble a Gulf State such as Kuwait or Oman-with the added attribute of being non-Arab. It would start out life as a kind of protectorate or western client state, as indeed did the Gulf States, but it would also be most useful as a kind strategic irritant to nearby Syria and Iran. One can see the attraction of that outcome for the United States.

But it won't be easy to pull off such a feat-because of the outside hostility I've noted, and because the internal enmities in the area already point to civil strife. Kirkuk's other resident ethnic groups, the Turcomans and Assyrians and Arabs, have already suffered Kurdish massacres of civilians and have armed themselves in response. The city faces the kind of internecine tensions that might yet engulf all of Iraq. So the Kurds may not, after all, be the ideal trouble-free allies for America to embrace publicly, or for the world to continue to champion as perennial victims. All of this matters because it makes the job of pacifying Iraq that much harder. And, finally, it matters because the Kurds will be the ones to suffer if the allies blink or lose interest again, as they did after the Gulf War, when the United States withdrew and left the Kurds to suffer Saddam's ire for more than a decade. This time, everyone will jump on the Kurds-for allying with Israel, for attacking other Iraqis, for depending exclusively on American backing while alienating all their neighbors. And, as usual, Americans back home will wonder why it all happened.

Yet, nobody in the American news media wants to burden us with such complex and challenging details. You never know what might happen-viewers might switch to another channel.

The Chechens, for example, have utterly failed to convey their suffering to the world. To the world, the outrages they commit appear to be just that-mere barbaric behavior. Indeed, the Russians have successfully portrayed themselves as the victims in their genocidal wars against the Chechens. The Serbs, too, lost the propaganda war in the end, though they succeeded long enough to grab and keep much of the land they wanted (excluding Kosovo). The Serbs believed that in attacking Bosnian Muslims they were redressing historical grievances going back half a millennium. In attacking the Croats, they were redressing more recent wrongs dating back to World War II, when the Croats had worked with the Nazis to dominate the Serbs. The same victim-turned-oppressor dynamic applied in Rwanda, where the Hutus slaughtered the Tutsis because the Tutsis had repressed them for a century or more with western help. The Hutus never tried to show the world their suffering in order to explain their grievances against Tutsis. Despite having endured massacres and domination for a century, they turned on their former masters in full view of world cameras; as a result they are now identified, for all time, as genocidal maniacs. Once publicly established, victimhood can furnish a shield against criticism. But without that vaccination, the victors in any civil war can look like unprovoked barbarians. As usual, American mass news media, especially television news, offers very little depth or impartiality in covering such events.

One reason for this is the visceral power of television as a visual medium. When TV cameras show human rights outrages, the visual effect simply blows away all political debate. Thus the Russians have effectively precluded all western TV coverage of Chechnya by simply allowing journalists to be killed or kidnapped in the war zone, while blaming everything on Chechen bandits. In Iraq, it's not clear who currently benefits from the increased absence of western cameras. Abu Ghraib aside, Americans have seen little footage of local victims of U.S. operations-a constant complaint by Arab media commentators. But one can certainly say the Kurds have clearly benefited from the aggregate imbalance of coverage, since we see little evidence of their operations either. In a country seething with group grievances, the Kurds remain the designated victims while everyone else nurses the wounds of their victimhood... while waiting, no doubt, for a future opportunity to hit back.

All of which may sound far too elaborate for average Americans to absorb. But merely to accept that kind of ignorance as a fact of life means accepting a creeping end to informed democracy in our country. It means letting the government operate beyond our shores without our full knowledge, and facing a world that increasingly hates us, both for what is done abroad in our name and for our complacent insularity. It means effectively allowing interested lobbies to run areas of foreign policy without our consent. It ultimately means more 9/11 disasters without warning. After all, would any of this really seem to complicated if one really believed that one's survival depended on it.

Bad News

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