Posted by: sean | April 3, 2007

McCain’s peaceful stroll in Baghdad

Lately, I have had two pet peeves. The first is the group of so-called experts on certain regions of the world (these days, it’s usually the Middle East) who have never been to that region nor even have a basic grasp of the language(s) spoken there. The airwaves and blogosphere are full of so-called experts on Islam and Arab society, many of whom couldn’t order a coffee in Cairo or say a prayer in a mosque in Detroit. We would laugh if an “expert” on American affairs who’d never been to the states (or maybe had spent 3 days in New York) and didn’t speak any English were being broadcast by Al Jazeera. Why do we accept the same from armchair Islamic “experts” on our own airwaves?

The second is people who make a show of going somewhere, but have no intention of actually letting the trip or the people they’ve met on that trip influence their opinion on the place. More succinctly, I hate people who travel for rhetorical flair instead of actual experience. Most American congressmen are such people. And John McCain has become one of the most egregious offenders. He took a trip to a Baghdadi souk three minutes outside of the green zone while he was covered by snipers and “100 American soldiers, with three Blackhawk helicopters, and two Apache gunships overhead.” All this so that he could wax optimistic on the new safety plan, with Mike Pence (R-IL), who likened the market to a “a normal outdoor market in Indiana in the summertime”:

“They asked about our conditions, and we told them the situation was bad,” said Aboud Sharif Kadhoury, 63, who peddles prayer rugs at a sidewalk stand. He said he sold a small prayer rug worth less than $1 to a member of the Congressional delegation. (The official paid $20 and told Mr. Kadhoury to keep the change, the vendor said.)

Mr. Kadhoury said he lost more than $2,000 worth of merchandise in the triple bombing in February. “I was hit in the head and back with shrapnel,” he recalled.

Ali Youssef, 39, who sells glassware from a sidewalk stand down the block from Mr. Kadhoury, recalled: “Everybody complained to them. We told them we were harmed.”

He and other merchants used to keep their shops open until dusk, but with the dropoff in customers as a result of the attacks, and a nightly curfew, most shop owners close their businesses in the early afternoon.

“This area here is very dangerous,” continued Mr. Youssef, who lost his shop in the February attack. “They cannot secure it.”

But those conversations were not reflected in the congressmen’s comments at the news conference on Sunday.

Instead, the politicians spoke of strolling through the marketplace, haggling with merchants and drinking tea. “The most deeply moving thing for me was to mix and mingle unfettered,” Mr. Pence said.

Mr. McCain was asked about a comment he made on a radio program in which he said that he could walk freely through certain areas of Baghdad.

“I just came from one,” he replied sharply. “Things are better and there are encouraging signs.”

He added, “Never have I been able to go out into the city as I was today.”

Told about Mr. McCain’s assessment of the market, Abu Samer, a kitchenware and clothing wholesaler, scoffed: “He is just using this visit for publicity. He is just using it for himself. They’ll just take a photo of him at our market and they will just show it in the United States. He will win in America and we will have nothing.”

So let’s get this straight: the market is essentially “paralyzed” so a group of American lawmakers can come in, pay twenty times the actual price of a prayer mat, get photographed “on the ground,” not listen to the problems that actual Iraqis have, and then send back a rose-tinted view of a Baghdad where Americans and Iraqis can haggle over the price of merchandise, while peacefully sipping tea together. This really turns my stomach.

But in case you’re not willing to take the Iraqis’ word on the bad situation there, please feel free to ask the corpses of workers from that same market:

The latest massacre of Iraqi children came as 21 Shia market workers were ambushed, bound and shot dead north of the capital.

The victims came from the Baghdad market visited the previous day by John McCain, the US presidential candidate, who said that an American security plan in the capital was starting to show signs of progress.

Like an Indiana market in summertime indeed.

But it’s not just Pence and MacCain. Apparently two-thirds of House Republicans have indulged in at least one political junket to Iraq:

According to the Pentagon, as of mid-March, 365 members of Congress had visited the country since May 2003, when Mr. Bush declared the end of major combat operations. But it is unclear just how illuminating the trips have been.

The duration and scope of Congressional visits are tightly controlled. Lawmakers from opposing parties often travel together, but draw opposite conclusions from the same trip on the war’s progress. And while lawmakers say they are deeply moved by their experiences, they almost always return with their previous convictions firmly reinforced.

…Members rarely spend more than a night in Iraq, often flying back to Kuwait or Jordan at the end of the day. The trips are heavy on meetings with American military and embassy officials, with almost no opportunities for unscripted encounters with regular Iraqis.

Of course those currently expounding how safe Iraq is wouldn’t actually want to test their theory by sleeping there — not even in the Green Zone.

This sort of behavior annoys me even more than those who lecture us on the cultures of a country without ever having been there. They go to a place in bad faith, pretending to listen to the concerns of the “natives,” while in reality they’re only reinforcing their preconceived notions. I used to wonder why such people even bothered to travel in the first place, but I’ve come to realize that I was being naïve, because such a trip is obviously for rhetorical flair, not for actually informing one’s opinion.

So McCain tries to score some political points for the surge, and 21 Iraqi Shia get killed. Maybe the timing of their murder was a coincidence, not aimed at following up the American visit to the souk. Probably not. But in either case, their deaths show just how hollow McCain’s and Pence’s rhetoric in Iraq rings.

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