POTUS and the Other

by Joshua H. Liberatore

First, a disclaimer: a mood of ironic gloom has shrouded our editorial duties this week. POTUS made his surprise visit to the principal theaters of the “war on terror” and encountered a few surprises of his own, some shouted, some whispered. Presiding over all this, even in our humble, monkish fashion, pushed even the most detached and sober among us through a full range of sentiments, none without the symbolism of what thoughtful Americans must be feeling all over Freedom’s Land. In its 30-second, instantly-circulatable, YouTube manifestation, of course, the image of POTUS ducking that well-pitched first shoe with the speed and agility of the best Texas Ranger, one laughed and perhaps felt a shred of patriotic pride at the sheer deftness of POTUS’s evasive action. I myself chuckled, and joked with my colleagues about the wording of the box note we would have to add to our annotated text.

By Monday afternoon, however, after poring over the full 28-minute transcript of the remarks and Q & A, studying the C-SPAN video at various speeds three times, making extensive tape corrections to the stenographer’s text, and researching the story and background of the offending Iraqi journalist, who can be heard screaming several minutes after being dragged away by security personnel and apparently beaten in the adjacent hallways, while POTUS feigned cool and brushed off the incident as an example of “what happens in free societies,” I felt like weeping. For the sake of my country, I hope I am not alone in this feeling.

First of all, we’re here at the request of the Iraqi government.

Though we’d all like to forget it, and perhaps naively wish that POTUS-elect will make it all go away, the U.S. invaded and occupied a sovereign Iraq, installed a provisional government, and then applauded the advent of the functional constitution and authentic elections that gave rise to the current leadership. Now, I didn’t study history at Yale like POTUS did, but something in his rearview interpretation of events went over my head. Could that basic deception possibly be the source of some local anger in Iraq?

How do you know? I mean, how do we know what he’s expressing?

With all due respect to the opportunities for humor and merrymaking comedians and talk-show hosts the world over will have enjoyed and exploited by the week’s end and beyond, let us pause from our chortling to examine some of the more serious implications of this occasion. The man at the center of it, Iraqi journalist Muntadar al-Zaidi, who covered the U.S. bombing of Sadr City and witnessed firsthand the collateral damage of that and other campaigns, was not being cute or speaking from his armchair when he yelled in Arabic “killer of Iraqis, killer of children,” as fellow journalists and security staff piled on him in the brief mayhem following his act of “protest.”

Reporter: We had a translator who said he shouted about the widows and orphans.

THE PRESIDENT: I don’t know. I’ve heard all kinds of stories. I heard he was representing a Baathist TV station. I don’t know the facts, but let’s find out the facts. All I’m telling you, it was a bizarre moment.

Reporter: I wanted to ask something broader.

THE PRESIDENT: I don’t think you can take one guy throwing shoes and say this represents a broad movement in Iraq. You can try to do that if you want to. I don’t think it would be accurate.

It’s worth considering POTUS’s motivations for making the surprise visit in the first place. Ostensibly, he went to formalize the two security agreements with the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nuri al-Maliki, and touch base with President Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan on the back end. In the brazen vocabulary of public relations, certainly he also went to extrude a little deference and gratitude – however strained – from the two governments which Americans are devoting such sacrifice and treasure to prop up at all costs. Itemizing these sacrifices and American generosity formed the cornerstone of a lot of what POTUS had to say throughout the trip. Apparently, POTUS’s words had merely failed to persuade al-Zaidi of America’s righteousness:

The American people have sacrificed a great deal to reach this moment. The battle in Iraq has required a great amount of time and resources. Thousands of our finest citizens have given their lives to make our country safer and to bring us to this new day. We also praise the thousands of the coalition forces that came, and the sacrifices that those countries have made. And the Iraqi people have sacrificed a lot. They’ve suffered car bombings and suicide attacks and IEDs, and desperate efforts by terrorists to destroy a young democracy. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have stepped forward to defend this democracy, and many have paid a dear price.

A dear price indeed. Notice the tertiary position of Iraq’s collective sacrifices in this calibrated litany, as well as its deliberate rhetorical packaging. When Jennifer Loven of the Associate Press tried to draw POTUS out on the awkward ironies of the visit – occasioned as it was by news of fresh roadside bombings in Baghdad and shootings in Mosul in the midst of the newly minted security agreements and renewed self-praise for the surge’s triumph – he feigned indifference.

So what if a guy threw a shoe at me?

POTUS was the paragon of American stoicism and good sportsmanship under pressure, and he seemed pretty proud of it, joking later with journalists aboard Air Force One: “I didn’t know what the guy said, but I saw his sole” and “I’m pretty good at ducking, as most of you will know . . . I’m talking about ducking your questions.” Bright shame did, however, register palpably in the faces of Prime Minister Maliki and the tardy Secret Service agents who rushed from backstage after audience members had already subdued al-Zaidi in the super-secure, sanitized press room. POTUS-elect might care to take note of these subtleties.

But let me talk about the guy throwing the shoe. It is one way to gain attention. It’s like going to a political rally and having people yell at you. It’s like driving down the street and have people not gesturing with all five fingers. It’s a way for people to, you know, draw – I don’t know what the guy’s cause is. But one thing is for certain: He caused you to ask me a question about it. I didn’t feel the least bit threatened by it. These journalists here were very apologetic, they were – said, this doesn’t represent the Iraqi people. But that’s what happens in free societies, where people try to draw attention to themselves.

POTUS is partly right here. An Iraqi association of journalists has formally condemned al-Zaidi’s actions, but they have also lobbied for his release and fair treatment, much in the spirit of POTUS’s lip service to American norms of free assembly, speech, and protest. Out on the streets of Baghdad, however, the reaction has been less cautious. Reports of student demonstrations and strident popular gatherings in support of al-Zaidi show that not all Iraqis are so keen to apologize. And drawing attention to oneself is not the only outcome, of course. According to al-Zaidi’s brother, the shoe-thrower Muntadar “suffered a broken hand, broken ribs and internal bleeding, as well as an eye injury” and required hospitalization as a result of his handling and detainment. He may face up to seven years – ironically, under a Baathist-era law – in prison for the stunt.

I doubt in his worst nightmares [Saddam] ever would have dreamt that we’d be standing in one of his palaces.

POTUS also made the last-minute trip to spend some time with American troops and show his support for those “who wear the uniform” during another cycle of holidays spent far away from the comforts of home. Later at Camp Victory – that’s its official name – POTUS congratulated the troops, and per forma, himself:

Thanks to you, Iraq is no longer sponsoring terror – it is fighting terror. It’s making American people safer as a result. . . . But thanks to you, the Iraq we stand in tonight is dramatically freer, dramatically safer, and dramatically better than the Iraq we found eight years ago.

Eight years ago, by my calendar (standard Gregorian, government-issue), lands us in mid-December 2000, about a month after POTUS lost the popular vote and scarcely 37 days before he was sworn in, a full 28 months before the Iraq invasion. His barracks cheerleaders evidently did not resent this slip in historical contiguity, but we can understand how average Iraqis might.

Many said the mission was hopeless; many called for retreat. Retreat would have meant failure – and failure is never an option. . . . You have shown that when America is tested, we rise to meet the test. You have shown that the desire for freedom is more powerful than the intimidation of terrorists. You have shown that there is no task too difficult for the United States military.

Not to nitpick, but history has shown that failure is an option, even for the United States military. And however much this recognition hurts our pride, or sense of entitlement, or pretensions to exceptionalism, or whatever it is that has brought us to this precipice, failure is sometimes the best option. We’ve heard the rhetoric before, however. Remember Nixon’s “peace with honor”? The necessary humiliation of the U.S. retreat from Vietnam in 1975 and the psychology of wounded arrogance that it fostered in enterprising politicians, unfortunately, only led to the bizarre – to use POTUS’s own word – invasions of Grenada and Panama in the 1980s. Others have no doubt studied this curious pattern in our recent history. Perhaps we should too.

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