News Item Archive - 2002

Fame’s Price Isn’t Loss of Right to Voice Dissent

SAN FRANCISCO — The recent visit to Baghdad by actor and director Sean Penn has added fuel to a public debate about whether celebrities should venture from the art of make-believe to the flashpoint realities of politics.

But when the stakes are large in the real world, there’s no value in trying to maintain the illusion that celebrities inhabit a different world than the rest of us.

Often overlooked is the simple and illuminating fact that celebrities rarely get into public relations trouble for aligning themselves with popular views. Surface arguments about proper celebrity behavior are usually markers for sharp underlying disagreements about the views expressed.

During the late 1960s, with the establishment still solidly lined up behind the Vietnam War, actor John Wayne rarely faced charges of overstepping when he voiced enthusiasm for the war. But when singer Eartha Kitt, attending a 1968 White House luncheon with first lady Lady Bird Johnson about troubles faced by young people, said that the war was wrong, the resulting furor was so intense that it hurt her career.

If Mr. Penn had gone to a U.S. military base in the Persian Gulf region to support the anticipated war against Iraq, it’s hard to imagine that America’s cable news channels would be filled with the kind of fierce arguments that have raged about his peace-oriented trip to Baghdad. These days, there is far more than a whiff of pro-war correctness in the media air.

A big problem with wanting celebrities to stay in line is that it’s usually part of a larger pattern – the assumption that going along with war preparations is a sign of patriotism and civic virtue. It’s not difficult to find rationales for writing off just about any opponents of current war plans. As the author of Soul of a Citizen, Paul Rogat Loeb, has pointed out, the predictable result is an insidious cynicism that short circuits genuine debate:

“Ordinary citizens can’t speak up because they don’t know enough; young people are dismissed as naive; older people we’re told are trying to re-live the ’60s; academics are just eggheads; religious people are unrealistic; immigrants are suspects; celebrities are airheads and so on.”

Mr. Penn has emphasized that matters of war and peace are much too important to be left to the authorities to manage and that all of us should seek out a wide array of facts and perspectives.

“I would hope that all Americans will embrace information available to them outside conventional channels,” he said. And he spoke of his own desire – “both as an American and as a human being” – to fulfill “the obligation to accept some level of personal accountability for the policies of my government, both those I support and any that I may not.”

Such responsibilities can be seen as potentially resting on the shoulders of every U.S. citizen, whether famous or obscure.

On the record as publicly and categorically condemning the tyranny of Saddam Hussein’s regime, Mr. Penn avoided the kind of behavior that Jane Fonda engaged in 30 years ago when she traveled to North Vietnam. He went to Iraq not to posture or to serve any propaganda interests but “to find my own voice on matters of conscience.”

For people in all walks of life, any such authentic search must withstand the pressures for conformity and popularity. As Miss Kitt commented long after speaking her mind about the Vietnam War: “If you walk through life needing everybody to love you, you will never do anything.”

That goes for all of us – including celebrities.


Norman Solomon is executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy, which organized Sean Penn’s recent visit to Baghdad. He is co-author of Target Iraq: What the News Media Didn’t Tell You, to be published next month by Context Books.

Drown Out Drums of War with the Sound of Dialogue

SAN FRANCISCO — The conventional wisdom in Washington is that it’s pointless or reckless for Americans to speak with Iraqi officials. But some on Capitol Hill are beginning to think otherwise.

Last month, for the first time since George W. Bush became president, members of Congress — four Democrats — visited Baghdad. Hopefully, more will be making the journey later this fall.

Rep. Nick Rahall, a 13-term congressman from West Virginia, started the trend in mid-September when he joined former Sen. James Abourezk of South Dakota to lead a small delegation of Americans to Baghdad. As a member of that group, I was impressed with the candor of the discussions during several hours of meetings with high-level Iraqi government ministers.

The White House was initially low-key about our trip. But when three more congressmen announced they were heading off to visit Iraq last week, the White House press secretary swung into action. Eager to throw cold water, Ari Fleischer claimed that Mr. Rahall’s visit “did not turn out to be as he hoped it would because of the rough treatment he got from the Iraqis, their refusal to listen to him, to meet with him, to talk with him.”

Actually, during face-to-face discussions with “the Iraqis” in Baghdad, there was plenty of listening, meeting and talking. As Mr. Rahall noted in an interview in The Hill Sept. 25, he repeatedly urged Iraqi officials “to accept unconditional and unfettered access to U.N. weapons inspectors.”

And, what’s more, Mr. Rahall said, “they did not reject my suggestions. Tariq Aziz, the deputy prime minister with whom I met for over two hours, said, ‘We will give it careful consideration, we will consult with our friends and allies, and I will consult with our leadership.'”

Some prominent Republicans are now anxious to dampen prospects for future U.S.-Iraq dialogues involving members of Congress. On Sunday, when Democratic delegation members Rep. Jim McDermott of Washington and Rep. David Bonior of Michigan appeared on ABC’s This Week from Baghdad, a senator on the program went after Mr. McDermott with rhetorical guns blazing.

“Basically, he’s taking Saddam Hussein’s line,” said Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma, the GOP’s assistant leader in the Senate. Mr. Nickles added that Mr. McDermott and Mr. Bonior “sound somewhat like spokespersons for the Iraqi government.”

Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi called Mr. McDermott “irresponsible” and proclaimed: “He needs to come home and keep his mouth shut.”

But Mr. McDermott’s retort was on target Monday during a CNN interview from Baghdad: “What I would suggest [Mr. Lott] do is get on a Royal Jordanian airplane and fly over here and take a look. He is talking from absolute ignorance of what’s going on, on the ground. And I think he ought to be a little more careful about what he says in a country where we value free speech.”

The current smears and denunciations from Republican leaders indicate how threatening it can be when members of Congress won’t defer to the White House on matters of international discourse.

Generally, lawmakers excel at functioning as rubber stamps or feeble dissenters when a president puts war at the top of the national agenda. But senators and representatives should move beyond their customary roles in order to breathe life into democratic processes and hold open the possibility of peace.

While President Bush continues to insist that his administration has nothing to discuss with the Iraqi regime, dialogue could prove to be crucial.

Edward L. Peck, a former U.S. chief of mission to Iraq, recently pointed out: “Our government is constantly saying that there must be discussions between parties in disagreement, to avoid or at least reduce the risk of war: India and Pakistan, North and South Korea, the Israelis and the Palestinians, the Protestants and the Catholics in Northern Ireland. So why don’t we talk to Iraq?”

As it happened, two days after our delegation met with Mr. Aziz and Iraqi National Assembly Speaker Sadoun Hammadi on Sept. 14, the United Nations announced that Iraq had agreed to allow unrestricted access for U.N. weapons inspectors. That was a highly positive step that could lead to full inspections and effective disarmament in Iraq.

“It seems to me that if we are going to deal with this in a real and honest way, we have got to create dialogue,” Mr. Bonior said during his visit to Baghdad. Unless war is their goal, elected officials in Washington should find ways to conduct more dialogue with Iraq in the very near future.


Norman Solomon is executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy, which sponsored the U.S. delegation visit to Baghdad in mid-September.

Baghdad, Autumn 2002: City of Doom

BAGHDAD — When Iraqi deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz described the box that Washington has meticulously constructed for Iraq, he put it this way: “Doomed if you do, doomed if you don’t.”

It would be difficult to argue the point with Aziz, and I didn’t try. Instead, during a Sept. 14 meeting here in Baghdad, I joined with others in a small American delegation who argued that the ominous dynamics of recent weeks might be reversable if — as a first step — Iraq agreed to allow unrestricted inspections.

Despite Iraq’s breakthrough decision that came two days later to do just that, I’ll be leaving Baghdad tonight with a scarcely mitigated sense of gloom. While the news from the Iraqi capital has been positive in recent days, the profuse signs of renewed acquiescence to war among top Democrats on Capitol Hill are all the more repulsive.

Boxed in, the Iraqi government opted to accept arms inspectors as its least bad choice. Gauging the odds of averting war, Iraq chose a long shot — appreciably better than no chance at all, but bringing its own risks. Several years ago, Washington used UNSCOM inspectors for espionage totally unrelated to the U.N. team’s authorized mission. This fall, new squads of inspectors poking around the country could furnish valuable data to the United States, heightening the effectiveness of a subsequent military attack.

Aziz, a very analytical man, hardly seemed eager to grasp at weapons inspections as a way to stave off attack. Instead, he told our delegation — which included Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) and former Sen. James Abourezk — that a comprehensive “formula” would be needed for a long-term solution.

Presumably the formula would include a U.S. pledge of non-aggression and a lifting of sanctions. No such formula is in sight. Instead, the White House remains determined to inflict a horrendous war. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party’s “leadership” in the Senate, pursuing some sort of craven political calculus, is lining up to put vast quantities of blood on its hands.

I would like to take Tom Daschle to visit a 7-year-old girl, suffering from leukemia, who I saw in a Baghdad hospital a few days ago. He might spare a few senatorial moments to look at the I.V. connected to her wrist, the uncontrolled bleeding from her lips, the anguish in the dark eyes of her mother, seated on a bare mattress. Years of sanctions, championed by moralizers in Washington, have left Iraq without adequate chemotherapy drugs.

Now we’re hearing about a resolution that — unless people across the United States mobilize in opposition — will sail through the House and Senate to authorize a massive U.S. military attack on Iraq.

I can hear the raspy and prophetic voice of Sen. Wayne Morse, who voted against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, roaring 38 years ago: “I don’t know why we think, just because we’re mighty, that we have the right to try to substitute might for right.”

After leaving Tariq Aziz’s office, our delegation met with Sa’doun Hammadi, speaker of Iraq’s National Assembly. “We are now a country facing the threat of war,” he said. “We have to prepare for that.”

Hammadi is an elderly man. While he’s now in frail physical health, his mind and articulation remain acute. If the U.S. invaders come, Hammadi said, “the Iraqi people will fight.” As those words settled in the air, the gaunt old man paused and then added: “I will fight.” And for a moment I thought that I could see the dimming of light in his eyes, like embers in a dying fire.

During the current heavy dance of death, the U.S. government leads with every major step. And the sky over Baghdad seems to foreshadow new horrors; unfathomable and avoidable.

With an all-out war on Iraq shadowing the near horizon, what are Americans to do if they want to prevent such carnage from happening in their names with their tax dollars? For one thing, they — we — can speak up. Now. The fact that the odds are dire should spur us into creative action, not anesthetize us into further passivity. “And henceforth,” Albert Camus wrote, “the only honorable course will be to stake everything on a formidable gamble: that words are more powerful than munitions.”

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Norman Solomon is executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy (www.accuracy.org), which sponsored the U.S. delegation to Baghdad in mid-September.

Where Is the Voice of Dissent?

As we weigh an attack on Iraq, we need someone like the Vietnam era’s Wayne Morse.

As prominent senators consider the wisdom of making war on Iraq, truly independent thinking seems to stop at the water’s edge. But I keep recalling a very different scene: On Feb. 27, 1968, I sat in a small room on Capitol Hill. Around a long table, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was in session, taking testimony from an administration official. I remember a man with a push-broom mustache and a voice like sandpaper, raspy and urgent.

Wayne Morse, the senior senator from Oregon, did not resort to euphemism. He spoke of the “tyranny that American boys are being killed in South Vietnam to maintain in power.” Moments before the hearing adjourned, Morse said he did not “intend to put the blood of this war on my hands.”

It’s hard to imagine the late senator going along with claims today that the U.S. government has a right to attack Iraq because of the doctrine of “anticipatory self-defense.”

A fierce advocate of international law, Morse had no patience for double standards. In 1964 he told a national TV audience: “I don’t know why we think, just because we’re mighty, that we have the right to try to substitute might for right. And that’s the American policy in Southeast Asia–just as unsound when we do it as when Russia does it.”

Nor was Morse at all tolerant of pronouncements about the necessity of saving face. He bristled at the kind of logic advanced the other day by a top Pentagon advisor, James R. Schlesinger, who asserted that “given all we have said as a leading world power about the necessity of regime change in Iraq … our credibility would be badly damaged if that regime change did not take place.”

Members of Congress are apt to focus on the efficacy of taking military action, the hazards of getting bogged down, the need for a clear exit strategy. But such discussions did not preoccupy Morse. He directly challenged the morality–not just the “winnability”–of the war in Vietnam. And from the outset he insisted that democracy requires substantial public knowledge and real congressional oversight rather than acquiescence to presidential manipulation.

Appearing on the CBS program “Face the Nation,” Morse objected when journalist Peter Lisagor said, “Senator, the Constitution gives to the president of the United States the sole responsibility for the conduct of foreign policy.” The senator responded sharply: “Couldn’t be more wrong. You couldn’t make a more unsound legal statement than the one you have just made. This is the promulgation of an old fallacy that foreign policy belongs to the president of the United States. That’s nonsense.”

When Lisagor prodded him (“To whom does it belong then, senator?”), Morse did not miss a beat: “It belongs to the American people…. And I am pleading that the American people be given the facts about foreign policy.”

When his questioner persisted–“You know, senator, that the American people cannot formulate and execute foreign policy”–Morse became indignant. “Why do you say that?” he demanded. “I have complete faith in the ability of the American people to follow the facts if you’ll give them. And my charge against my government is, we’re not giving the American people the facts.”

Today there are ample reasons for similar concerns.

During the early years of the Vietnam War, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee functioned as a crucial venue for dissenting perspectives, but in its current incarnation the panel is notably less independent. The witness list for this week’s hearings about Iraq prompted Scott Ritter, an ex-Marine and former U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq, to charge that Chairman Joseph Biden (D-Del.) and most of the congressional leadership “have preordained a conclusion that seeks to remove Saddam Hussein from power regardless of the facts and are using these hearings to provide political cover for a massive military attack on Iraq.”

Transfixed with tactical issues, none of the senators on television in recent days would dream of acknowledging the current relevance of a statement made by Morse a third of a century ago: “We’re going to become guilty, in my judgment, of being the greatest threat to the peace of the world. It’s an ugly reality, and we Americans don’t like to face up to it.”

With war and peace hanging in the balance, I miss Wayne Morse. He insisted on asking tough questions. He fully utilized a keen intellect. And he spoke fearlessly from the heart without worrying about the political consequences.