When I heard that the New York Times correspondent Judith Miller was going to be speaking at a local campus last week, I was eager to check her out. Ever since I read Pulitzer Prize winner Samantha Power’s atrocious review of Noam Chomksy’s “Hegemony or Survival” in the Times book review last month, I’ve been increasingly on the lookout for these intellectual-defenders of an “enlightened” imperialism . Moreover, seeing Judith Miller (also a Pulitzer winner) was especially enticing, as she has been embroiled in controversy for her role in the Iraq war.
Supposedly Miller, an expert on national security issues who has a hearty relationship with Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmed Chalabi, was allowed to accompany an Army unit searching for Iraqi weapons. In fact, she acted as a middleman between the unit and Chalabi, sitting in on an interrogation of Iraqi prisoners at Chalabi’s headquarters which the unit was not assigned to do and which caused some to label it the “Judith Miller Unit”. Further, when the Army commander threatened to withdraw the unit, Miller told him not to, suggesting that she’d write about it unflatteringly in the New York Times. The order to withdraw was dropped. All this led one officer to call the unit that Miller was embedded with a “rogue operation”. Another officer commented: “this woman came in with a plan. She was leading them. . . . She ended up almost hijacking the mission.” Another senior officer added: “It’s impossible to exaggerate the impact she had on the mission of this unit, and not for the better.”
As several hundred people piled into the campus auditorium, I was hoping some in the audience would have a chance to confront Miller about her defense of US Empire and her involvement in the Iraq war. Luckily, I wouldn’t be disappointed.
Miller began her talk by describing the political situation in which we in the US today find ourselves, with the country the most polarized since, she said, the days of Vietnam. Sounding implicitly liberal enough with some sarcastic criticism of the Bush administration, she ended her opening remarks with a surprisingly (or not) glorifying description of president Bush and a surprising ultimatum for the audience. In short, she declared that we must take Bush very seriously as a man determined to wage a war against terrorism, and further, that we need to decide whether we are with him or not.
After issuing a necessary disclaimer about her “love” for the “Arab people, Miller proceeded to address the advertised subject of her talk: the threat of biological warfare. Whereas 9/11 is the day that most of us associate with domestic catastrophe and potential dangers, people in the biological weapons know-how are perhaps more irked by the ominous “5/11”. According to Miller, this refers to the anthrax scare shortly after 9/11, where 5 out 11 people who were afflicted with the chemical died- and that was lucky. For Miller, this preview of biological warfare was perhaps the most harrowing thing of all, with its disastrous implications if extended or used in acts of terror.
“There are three factors that make biological weapons an increasing threat”, she told us. The first is globalization. Miller gave a very cheery picture of globalization (“we can travel almost anywhere in the world in a few hours”), without any criticism of its ominous aspects. But, she said, this freer flow of people and things means greater potential for the movement of biological weaponry.
Her second factor was the most loaded of the three: Islamic fundamentalism, whose rise means that biological warfare has become a palpable threat. That much is not too controversial, though Miller mysteriously leaves out past and present US complicity in supplying biological and/or chemical weapons to brutal regimes. What really got my teeth grinding was her historical explanation for the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. In short: the nationalist revolutions and regimes of the post-WWII era were essentially self-serving, repressive, and stagnant. They sought only to keep a narrow clique in power, and abused the inherent wealth of the region. (Miller even had the date when the Middle East started to go in the wrong direction-the date Nasser came to power in Egypt). These corrupt leaders “have all the oil, but haven’t done anything for the people.” With the post-colonial hopes of the people squashed, they were naturally frustrated and angry. But they couldn’t fight back against their leaders for fear of repression against them and their families. Thus-and this is the killer- the United States became the target of the “deflected anger” of the Arab people. No mention from this distinguished thinker of why the US might be the target of such anger. None. All we are left with is the specter of “400 million Arabs by 2020 with no future due to their failed states.”
To the uninformed observer, Miller’s thesis might seem odd: why would the Arab people “deflect” their anger onto the US? Why not somewhere closer-maybe Iceland, or perhaps Bulgaria? In fact, Miller outright denied that colonialism, US foreign policy, and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict had anything to do with Arab anger at the US.
I doubt Noam Chomsky had Judith Miller in mind when he wrote these words, but he might as well have: “Rogue states that are internally free-and the United States is at the outer limits in this respect-must rely on the willingness of the educated classes to produce accolades and to tolerate or deny crimes.” I had heard about these types of intellectuals, the “New Mandarins” that Chomsky so derided, but I had never seen one with so much influence up close. This woman knew damn well the history of US involvement in the region, and the devastation and anger this had caused. She was just lying. Once the question and answer session came along, she would regret this.
After telling us the third factor that makes biological weapons an increasing threat (via their growth in technology industries, medicine, etc.), she wrapped up her talk. “I have many disagreements with Reagan, but one thing I agree passionately with him about is that the Soviet Union was the evil empire and I am so grateful that it is gone forever.” Further (and discreetly carrying over the “evil empire” notion), the main fight right now is to stop Islamic fundamentalism. The way to do that is to persuade governments to crack down on Islamic fundamentalists in their countries by destroying their camps, training grounds, schools, etc. In the meantime, what can we do about biological weapons? Miller has the answer: give more credit and respect to all our brave doctors, nurses, and researchers, the would-be defenders against the bad chemicals that may reach our bodies.
Obviously this feel-good pap left much to be desired. Now that Judith Miller was done spelling out simple ideas to the stupid liberal masses, the question and answer session could begin.
The first speaker from the audience was a polite, radical professor at the campus where the event took place. His comments fell into two questions: (1) What about the United States’ complicity with some of the “evil” regimes mentioned by Miller, and (2) what about her own complicity in the Iraq war and occupation (described above)?
Miller took the question kindly, probably hoping that it would be the only one of its kind. It’s true, she admitted, that the United States has had a “quiet indifference” to repressive regimes in the past, but that has nothing to do with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. In fact, she saw nothing much wrong with past US foreign conduct; the tide has only turned recently with the new doctrine of preemptive war.
From no mention of US complicity in fueling the discontent in the Middle East, to “quiet indifference”. It was a start.
As for her own involvement in the war, she gave a response that was laughable at best: she just reports what she’s told, so don’t blame her or the press for things happening you don’t like. The media is neutral-they simply report, and it is up to you to make decisions based on that reporting. If what the press is told happens to be wrong, it is not their fault. With words like these, it was surely a “neutral” coincidence that almost everything Miller said about the Middle East and US involvement in her talk was either a complete fabrication or excluded essential facts. This “neutrality” was the same kind she applied with heavy-handedness while embedded with the “Judith Miller Unit”, not only involving the unit with Ahmed Chalabi, but using her journalistic clout to reverse army operations.
With the next speaker from the audience, our distinguished guest could not be so peachy-keen. Miller had denounced the regimes of Saudi Arabia and Egypt in her presentation, said the young audience member, but she had failed to mention that they are client regimes for the United States (of course, a “neutral” omission). Further, he said, we supported some of the very people who would become the Taliban.
Miller, now noticeably irritated and on the defensive, interrupted to declare that “we have never supported the Taliban-that is just not true”. With such prestige and deference to her name, Miller must have not thought it presumptuous to interrupt the audience member, distort his argument, and proceed dismissively. Fortunately, he wasn’t so awed by her presence.
“I didn’t say we supported the Taliban”, he retorted, interrupting her this time. “I said we supported some of the people who became the Taliban, the Muhajadeen.”
Miller attempted to rebound, and with flustering words reiterated her previous mantra that the US had never had any involvement with the Taliban.
Once again our heroic college student intervened: “Excuse me excuse me. I need to interrupt you. Because YOU’RE LYING.”
Judith Miller, offended that such a rabble-rouser could so publicly assault her stature, assured everyone that she wasn’t lying. Upon hearing this, the young speaker stolidly asked: “What about the $43 million dollars given to the Taliban in 1994?”
A moment of silence. The young man was pulled away by the moderator, and Miller stumbled along. “We did the right thing in Afghanistan”, she said, referring to US support for the Mujahadeen. The USSR was the greatest evil, and by supporting the Islamicists we helped in the fall of the Soviets. It was justified. Again she referred to “our “quiet indifference” at times”, but held that US foreign policy has all together been noble and correct.
Miller’s demeanor was now notably prickly, but her cover-ups and concessionary euphemisms had opened up a can of worms. She was prodded further by the next speaker from the audience: “How can you say”, paraphrasing his words, “that the US hasn’t been a major cause for the anger and resentment in the Middle East? While it’s true many leaders have been repressive and self-serving, we’ve intervened there continuously for economic and political reasons-we’ve overthrown governments for Christ’s sake! After world war two many of these countries we’re trying to break from their history of colonialism, and we really thwarted that effort. If it’s just “deflected anger” that’s coming at us, why isn’t being “deflected” to New Zealand? How can you say the history of US intervention in the Middle East doesn’t factor into things?”
Miller, no longer feigning to sound so innocent, blurted out that colonialism has absolutely nothing to do with the problems we face today in the Middle East. She even went so far as to aver that colonialism can be a good thing, pointing to the example of British imperialism in India. (Touting the virtues of classical British imperialism has become somewhat of a fad these days in elite academic circles. Perhaps it is only coincidental that this trend is occurring amidst a heightened surge of US-British imperialism). Besides, look at all the good that we do, all the aid we give, for instance, to Egypt for signing a peace treaty with Israel (something, she assured us, Iran will never do).
Miller gained a brief respite when the next two audience members lobbed softballs at her, asking what it was like to be an embedded reporter and what she thought about Scott Ritter. The answer to the first question was that it was an amazing experience being an embedded reporter, even if the government tells you what you can and can’t report back-after all, reporters need to take what they can get, and we can be thankful that they let us do this much (whether Miller actually realizes that “embedding” reporters was a maneuver by the government to create a sanitized, acceptable version of Operation Iraqi Freedom is uncertain, but hardly doubtful).
The answer to the Scott Ritter question revealed more about Miller’s desperation at that point in the night. After telling us how much of a nice guy “Scott” was, she proceeded to repeat the vicious slander that the recent documentary he’d made on Iraq-exposing some US lies in regards to Iraq-was somehow funded by Saddam Hussein. She said this with such smugness and well-I-don’t-know-if-it’s-really-true innocence that it made my blood boil. Luckily, I was next in line to speak. Before I made my comments, the moderator announced, with Miller’s agreement, that there would be three more questions, whereupon we’d end the event and talk informally.
Approaching the microphone, I told Ms. Miller, that, like herself, I was from New York City, and that I share with her an interest in preventing more terrorist attacks from occurring. With this goal in mind, I let her know that I found it very misleading and dangerous that she refers to US support for repressive regimes in the Middle East as “quiet indifference”, as if we just silently tolerated them. I cited a January 20th article in Reuters entitled “Iraqis want Saddam’s American Allies put on Trial”, pointing out that this reveals much more than she is willing to admit about the real reasons for Arab anger towards the United States. Further, it isn’t “quiet indifference” when Egypt is a leading recipient of US military aid, right behind other beacons of human rights such as Turkey, Colombia, and Israel. Refusing her interruption, I also pointed out that our support of the Saudi regime, of the Mujahadeen, of Pakistan’s repressive rule, of both Saddam’s Iraq and the Ayatollah’s Iran in the 1980s (the list goes on), was hardly “quiet indifference”, but rather systematic and aggressive involvement. To think the way she does is to lead oneself into a blind alley when trying to figure out how to prevent terrorism. If we wish to eliminate Arab resentment towards us, we need to stop causing it.
So far we had nudged Judith Miller ever so slowly out of her comfortable the-USA-can-do-no-wrong shell. At first she maintained that US foreign policy has been all together correct, only to concede, in the face of obvious evidence brought to the audience’s attention, that there has-perhaps-been a quiet indifference to repressive regimes. Now, seeing that we were not going to let her off easy on this one, she stopped posturing.
Yes, she at last admitted, the US has supported repressive regimes, and we did so in the context of a Cold War we had to win. Foreign policy is not fun, she angrily informed us, and sometimes one needs to choose between two evils. If we didn’t do what we had done in the Middle East, it could now be “a whole region of Irans”, and how would we like that? Our support for the Shah was a good thing; he was far less worse than Khomeni. Of course, “most Iranians love the US”, and it’s just their leaders who are preventing our friendship. Besides, changes in our foreign policy would be meaningless with regards to terrorism, because “they hate us. They hate our existence, our way of life, our free press, our MTV.”
Miller began her talk sounding like an enlightened liberal and ended it sounding like a desperate fanatic clinging for anything to justify the actions of United States. She claims Arab anger at the US is simply deflected from the anger at their own leaders, yet she grudgingly admits that we have supported these very regimes-and defends doing so. These regimes could hardly exist without our support, and several have come into existence on our initiative. Surely the Arab people are not aloof to this history. Further, she tells us of the virtues of the Shah as opposed to the Ayatollah. Whatever truth there may or may not be to this, the US was supporting the Shah for decades before the threat of Islamic fundamentalism was even a possibility, let alone embodied in Iran’s theocracy.
According to Miller’s Cold War justification, one would think that our need to support repressive regimes just happened to fall upon us. The reality is that we aggressively pursued this policy, and not just in the Middle East. The idea that the region was going to become communist, and that we were compelled to save it from the Soviets, is highly doubtful. More clear and present reasons for our support for repressive regimes could be found, among numerous documents like it, in a state department analysis of Saudi Arabia written in 1945: “a stupendous source of strategic power, and one of the greatest material prizes in the world”, obviously referring to its oil resources .
With all this, Miller’s proposed method to stop terrorism (to persuade repressive regimes, many whom we support, to crack down on terrorist camps) is absurd. First, some of these regimes (e.g. Pakistan) risk a civil war if they seriously attempt to crack down. Second, getting rid of terrorist schools or camps does nothing to stop terrorism, and more importantly, does nothing to lessen the huge reservoir of resentment from which Islamic fundamentalism grows. Because of her blind attachment to the humanist narrative of US foreign policy, Miller can’t begin to comprehend a way out of the problem of terrorism. She can only resort to the “deflecting” of blame which she accuses the Arab people of: deflecting it onto the USSR, repressive Arab regimes, whatever- anything and anyone except the US. In the process of doing so, she goes out of her way to justify and rationalize all the deplorable actions of the United States, only to make quiet concessions when repeatedly assaulted with the facts.
After reaching the heights of hysteria in her response to me, Judith Miller ended the question and answer session prematurely and walked briskly off the stage. Afterwards, I talked to some of the other audience members who spoke up, and we naturally took some pride in chasing Miller off the stage. If there’s one lesson I wish to get across in this article, it is this: we can’t be intimidated by these high profile, glamour and glitz intellectual-lackeys. Our arguments are stronger than theirs, and if we stand up to them with confidence and tenacity, their posturing will be exposed. They might run away, like Judith Miller did, or they might stay for the fight, but either way people will begin to see what they really are: liars. The moral victories we gain from these public clashes provide important force and impetus for our movement.