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Wednesday, March 16, 2005

The Madness of Crowds

Best of the Web links to an article by Claudia Rosett in the New York Sun, on the attitudes toward George Bush in Beirut (warning: this link, for some reason, crashed my Netscape several times):

BEIRUT - Flags fluttering, horns honking, and fingers flashing V for victory, Lebanon's opposition converged on downtown Beirut yesterday in the biggest democratic protest in the history of the modern Middle East.


Unlike the Hezbollah demonstrators with their chants of "Death to America," many in the crowd were friendly to Americans. "Thank's Free World," (sic) said one poster, held high by a woman in a bright red jacket, Rawya Okal, who told me: "We thank Mr. Bush for his position." Overhearing this in the throng, a middle-aged man in a green baseball cap, Louis Nahanna, leaned over to say, "We love the American people" - adding, "Please don't let Bush forget us. Your support is very important."

Asking more people what they thought of Americans turned up the same refrain. From a young driver, Fadi Mrad, came the message: "We want to change. We need freedom. Please don't let Bush forget us." From a group of young men came not only the message "Our hope is America," and "We believe in democracy in the Middle East," but also praise for Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. There was also an invitation from one of them, young Edgard Baradhy, for his heroine, Ms. Rice, to come to Beirut "and I am ready to take her for coffee."

At one point, two young men sitting on a sidewalk mistook this reporter for a Frenchwoman, and called out "Vive la France!" The European nation's president, Jacques Chirac, has also come out in support of the democratic movement. When I told them that I was American, they got to their feet and came over to say, "Welcome to Lebanon."

Huh. What a change from a few short years ago, when Elisabetta Burba wrote this for the Wall Street Journal:

BEIRUT--Where were you on Sept. 11, when terrorists changed the world? I was at the National Museum here, enjoying the wonders of the ancient Phoenicians with my husband...Walking downtown, I realized that the offspring of this great civilization were celebrating a terrorist outrage. And I am not talking about destitute people. Those who were cheering belonged to the elite of the Paris of Middle East: professionals wearing double-breasted suits, charming blond ladies, pretty teenagers in tailored jeans.


An hour later, at a little market near the U.S. Embassy, on the outskirts of Beirut, a thrilled shop assistant showed us, using his hands, how the plane had crashed into the twin towers. He, too, was laughing.


Once back at the house where we were staying, we started scanning the international channels. Soon came reports of Palestinians celebrating. The BBC reporter in Jerusalem said it was only a tiny minority. Astonished, we asked some moderate Arabs if that was the case. "Nonsense," said one, speaking for many. "Ninety percent of the Arab world believes that Americans got what they deserved."

The rest of the article is more of the same.

Rather than regard this apparent change of heart with satisfaction, I would caution that it's more likely an example of the fickle nature of politics, especially politics in a region where rhetoric (as well as action) takes forms which are -- to our sensibilities -- overheated, absurd, grotesque. Remember the tales of Kuwaiti babies born in 1991, and proudly given the name of George Bush. Ten or twelve years later, some of their parents regretted their actions, we have been told. Same thing goes with babies named "Saddam".

By the way, speaking of Burba, Reason's Michael Young tried to spread doubt on her story, noting that her evidence is often flimsy: she does not speak Arabic, and relies on those who do to interpret certain events for her. He accuses her of pandering to the WSJ (as a roundabout way of accusing the WSJ of fomenting anti-Arab sentiment).

If you read the two articles, you'll see that Young does have some points. But if we're to take them seriously, we must discount nearly every article on "local opinion" that was ever written by any journalist in a foreign land. Fine by me. Furthermore, Young -- who lives in Lebanon, unlike the visiting Burba -- doesn't counter her observations with any of his own. He only warns against collective responsibility and wrings his hands over Burba's lack of nuance. His assertions are far less well-grounded (in his article, that is) than hers.

Moving along, I also learn from Young that Burba was the journalist who turned over forged documents, regarding attempts by Iraq to buy uranium from Niger, to the US embassy in Rome. If you'll recall, in the 2003 State of the Union address, Bush said that British intelligence had evidence that Iraq tried to buy uranium from Africa. When the story on these forgeries came up, many rushed to identify these as the basis on which Bush made that claim, although that was far from clear.

Young, still smarting over the Beirut article, calls Burba a "bogus reporter". Burba was given the documents by a "usually reliable source" (see here for details). She investigated, and concluded that the documents were faked, but she did turn them over to the US embassy in Rome, on the instructions of her editor. This makes her a "bogus" reporter of "Nixonian deceptiveness", according to Young, who "betrayed her profession". I was unable to google up a halfway reliable source which explained why she turned them over to the US, and whether she explained her misgivings about them when she did so.

I include this information mostly because I found it, and thought it might be relevant to Burba's claims about the reaction of the Lebanese. But also because I think Michael Young makes himself look like an ass, and that was amusing.