The Magazine

John F. Burns, the New Republic, and more.

Dec 19, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 14 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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Crime and Punishment, Iraqi-style

Never let it be said that The Scrapbook has no kind words for the New York Times. Even before the United States invaded Iraq, the paper's veteran foreign correspondent John F. Burns was on the ground in Baghdad, filing articles that dripped with telling details, sharp insight, and--most important--moral sanity.

Burns is still there, and his reporting is still leagues above the competition. Just consider his December 8 dispatch on Saddam Hussein's half brother and codefendant, Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti. Like Saddam, al-Tikriti has done his best to disrupt the courtroom. Last week, Burns reports, "in a 10-minute lecture from the dock," al-Tikriti

equated the defendants' privations in an American military detention center near Baghdad with the violence and hardships inflicted on victims of Mr. Hussein's repression in the former government's interrogation centers and prisons, as they have been described by witnesses at the trial. These have included, in one instance, seeing a grinding machine that had been used to crush a prisoner's head and, in another, the execution of a 14-year-old boy.

That's nothing, though, said al-Tikriti, compared with what he's been going through:

Among the "incredible punishments" cited by Mr. Ibrahim--who was chief of the Mukhabarat intelligence agency in the early 1980s, at the time of the killings, torture, and deportations that the prosecution alleges--was being restricted to six of "the worst cigarettes in the world" per day.

Mr. Ibrahim, 54, listed other privations including, in the first months after he was arrested in April 2003, being forced by American troops to take his daily exercise outside in the 130-degree noontime heat of the Baghdad summer and 4 a.m. in the cold of the desert winter. On top of this, he said, American soldiers guarding the former Iraqi leaders served them "food that should not be given to beggars."

Burns, it should be noted, has won two Pulitzer prizes, one for his coverage of the Balkan wars, the other for his coverage of the Taliban. He's past due for a third.

Not Fit to Print?

One of the best New Republic articles in recent years didn't appear in the New Republic. It was by Harvard law professor William J. Stuntz and was called "Noble Cause: Brief Wars Rarely Produce Lasting Results. Long Wars Often Do." It appeared last week, not in the magazine's print edition, which apparently had no room for it, but only on the TNR website. Here are a few highlights from Stuntz's very interesting argument (you can read the whole thing at www.tnr.com):

"Brief wars rarely produce permanent results, but long wars often do. Had McClellan's army taken Richmond and ended the war early in 1862, slavery and secessionism would have survived, and 'the South shall rise again' would have been a prediction rather than a slogan. . . .

"What would have happened had the second Iraq war turned out like the first, as the White House apparently expected? Saddam would have been toppled, the Iraqi people would have celebrated, order would have been restored quickly, followed by a speedy exit for British and American troops. Then what? Maybe the rule of Iran-style Shia mullahs, perhaps another brutal Sunni autocrat to take the place of the last one, possibly an endless civil war between the two. Today, there is a real chance of a vastly better result--precisely because the insurgency survived, because it wasn't quickly defeated. Sunni intransigence needed to be crushed slowly; a quick in-and-out war was not enough to kill the dream of forever tyrannizing Iraqi Kurds and Shia. More important, thousands of senseless murders over the past 32 months have taught Iraqis--Sunni, Shia, and Kurd alike--just how vicious Zarqawi and his allies are. That lesson will have very useful consequences for the long-term health of the region. . . .

"Thankfully, Lincoln saw to it that the war's purpose changed. George W. Bush has changed the purpose of his war too, though the change seems more the product of our enemies' choices than of Bush's design. By prolonging the war, Zarqawi and his Baathist allies have drawn thousands of terrorist wannabes into the fight--against both our soldiers and Muslim civilians.

"When terrorists fight American civilians, as on September 11, they can leverage their own deaths to kill a great many of us. But when terrorists fight American soldiers, the odds tilt towards our side. Equally important, by bringing the fight to a Muslim land, by making that land the central front of the war on Islamic terrorism, the United States has effectively forced Muslim terrorists to kill Muslim civilians. That is why the so-called Arab street is rising--not against us but against the terrorists, as we saw in Jordan after Zarqawi's disastrous hotel bombing. The population of the Islamic world is choosing sides not between jihadists and Westerners, but between jihadists and people just like themselves. We are, slowly but surely, converting bin Laden's war into a civil war--and that is a war bin Laden and his followers cannot hope to win."

But How Do You Really Feel?

Baited by a fellow lefty for the thought crime of association with neocons at the group blog PajamasMedia.com, Marc Cooper, a contributing editor to the Nation, offered the sort of pungent assessment of his colleagues that sometimes turns contributing editors into former contributing editors:

Perhaps you would like me to catalogue the . . . wingnuttiness that I bump into day-to-day at my more respectable job with The Nation: writers who believe that there's a burgeoning national Russ Feingold for President movement; that Castro's Cuba is really more democratic than Schwarzenegger's California; that it's a pity the Soviet Union collapsed; that a new book critical of Mao must be written by the CIA; that it's just fine and dandy to have an anti-war movement managed by acolytes of Kim-Il Sung; that we must provide material support to the armed resistance in Iraq, [and] so on and so on ad infinitum.

Arian Nation

In courtroom news, The Scrapbook admits to surprise last week when Tampa Bay jurors declined to convict former University of South Florida computer science professor and Palestinian Islamic Jihad leader Sami Al-Arian--or his three codefendants--on any of the 53 counts of conspiracy, membership in a terrorist cell, andrelated crimes that the federal government had charged them with in February 2003. Jurors acquitted Al-Arian of conspiracy to murder people overseas, but deadlocked on three other charges. Justice Department lawyers must now decide whether to push for a retrial of the deadlocked charges, or just deport Al-Arian and try to forget the whole thing ever happened.

We weren't the only ones surprised at this outcome. Writes New York Times Justice Department correspondent Eric Lichtblau: "Federal officials in Washington expressed surprise at the verdict in a case they had pursued for years." Maybe the feds should have tried reading blogger Debbie Schlussel, who predicted on October 28 that Al-Arian would walk.

"Yesterday, Al-Arian's defense lawyer rested without presenting a case in the ongoing trial against him," Schlussel wrote on her eponymous site, www.debbieschlussel.com. "Speculation is that he didn't have to." The problem was, she went on, "after months and months of testimony, media reports say jurors' eyes are glazing over daily. Clearly, prosecutors bored them. . . . It will be a travesty of justice if Al-Arian walks," Schlussel concluded. But "it will be no surprise." She turned out to be right on the money. What a shame.