America's Missed Photo Opportunity
Surprise Transfer of Sovereignty Lacks Memorable Positive Picture
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 29, 2004; Page C01
DUBAI, June 28 -- On Sunday, three days before the officially scheduled transfer of sovereignty in Iraq, Salah Nagm, the head of news at the Middle East Broadcasting Centre that runs the Arabic satellite channel al-Arabiya, said it was possible that the ceremony would join other historic images -- momentous handshakes on the South Lawn of the White House or Anwar Sadat's visit to Israel -- that are graven on the memory of this region. He couldn't know, of course, what the event would look like. But as a man who deals in images, he knew it might have enormous impact.
"The ceremony, if there is a ceremony, should be designed very carefully," said Nagm, in his fourth-floor newsroom office in Dubai's gleaming Media City. "Anything that goes into it will affect the view of it. It is a picture that will remain in history, and it needs to be seen by Iraqis."
Nagm is a cautious man, and his "if there is a ceremony" spoke volumes. By Sunday, the escalation of violence and the persistence of rumors that the handover might be moved up had journalists here and in Baghdad ready for fast-breaking news. But the timing of the handover -- which took place Monday, two days ahead of schedule and without warning or advance notice -- not only took al-Arabiya by surprise, it left the network scrambling for "visuals." No one, it seems, had bothered to call the Arabic-language channel that says it has the largest viewership in Iraq. Their cameras were not even in the room when Iraq was reborn as a sovereign nation (or "so-called sovereign" in the local parlance).
"I don't know what they were thinking -- they didn't tell anybody," said Abdul Kader Kharobi, an assignment editor at al-Arabiya, a few hours after the transfer at 10:26 a.m. local time. There was no frustration in his voice, just disgust and a lot of weary irony. The Americans have been all but incompetent in manufacturing images, he said, and yet what does it matter? After Abu Ghraib, and after what he believes was a sham investigation into the March 18 killing of two al-Arabiya journalists in Baghdad by U.S. soldiers, who believes the Americans anyway?
Kharobi first learned that the transfer might happen early from statements by the Iraqi interior minister, who was in Turkey for the NATO summit. But, he said, despite the best efforts of one of his reporters to get more information out of members of the Iraqi delegation, no one offered anything specific. It seemed like a rumor, or confusion.
Ten minutes later, he learned that the transfer was already a done deal. And so the event that might have produced the most public, ceremonial moment in the birth of a new country was a private, invitation-only event. A war of images, of toppled statues and looted museums, of captured Americans and mangled children, a war whose ending was marked with a premature victory celebration on an aircraft carrier more than a year ago, was given another ambiguous marker. Iraqis were once again nominally in charge of their country, but al-Arabiya, for the moment, had no way of proving it to its viewers.
The day continued like that. There had, in fact, been a camera in the room in Baghdad, and the video that emerged showed a weary-looking L. Paul Bremer on a yellow sofa. The actual transfer of power came with the exchange of a large blue portfolio, but who was running the camera at this critical moment? And why was someone standing in the way?
"The camera was positioned very badly," said Kharobi, who, despite deep skepticism of American intentions, is hopeful that peace, at least, will follow soon. But his optimism, and most of the optimism one heard here Monday, came with an "Inshallah" ("God willing").
"It doesn't look promising," he said. "Like some people in a bunker doing something illegal."
Later, it was announced that Bremer had left, but it took time to get images of the man (whose "reign" was widely criticized by Arab media as a failure) touching terra firma in Iraq for the last time in his trademark boots and suit. Richard Nixon, skulking out of Washington after his resignation, looked more exultant.
The paucity of images on Arab television, and lag time during the first hours after the handover, contributed to a sense that the American part of this moment was a bit furtive and sad. Al-Arabiya, which spent the day interviewing notable political and cultural leaders, often split its screen, returning again and again to a tape loop of Bremer, at the handover, looking exhausted and almost dazed. For much of the afternoon, Arab leaders talked over him, plunging into all the problems the new nation faces, the violence, the debts inherited by the new government, the question of the interim government's legitimacy. They talked, and Bremer listened, or so the juxtaposition of images seemed to say. A neat reversal of who dictates to whom, and perhaps a last dig at a man sometimes referred to on Arab television as a "dictator."
It's hard to put one's finger on the right word when it comes to little things like this. It's too serious to be humor, and the word "sly" suggests deceit. But there is disconcerting imagery in the Middle East, especially when the subject is so profound.
On Saturday, an edition of the Daily Star, a respected Lebanese newspaper that comes to Dubai sandwiched in the International Herald Tribune, ran a headline "US launches air strike on Fallujah." Although it appeared right above an article that referred to the U.S. "so-called 'war on terror,' " there was nothing in this particular story that couldn't have been part of any mainstream U.S. newspaper.
Except for the picture that illustrated it. Photographed from above, it showed young Iraqi boys sitting in a perfect circle, in Fallujah, "being taught the Koran by a sheik." The white-robed sheik sat in the center of the circle, as if he were the bull's-eye of a target. Americans strike Fallujah. Religion is the target. Children are the collateral damage.
Television is necessarily more blunt than that. The most striking aspect of Monday's coverage -- besides the fact that channels al-Arabiya and al-Jazeera were left on the outside of an event that one might have expected the Americans to spoon-feed them -- is how quickly everyone moved on. Although an al-Arabiya journalist, doing man-in-the-street questions, asked a group of Iraqis, "Is this a government of stooges to the United States?" there wasn't a lot of obsessing about the meaning of the actual transfer. Rather, the handover itself was nudged to the side, and the conversation turned to the future: money, police, safety, foreign affairs, the future of Saddam Hussein (taking possession of, and prosecuting him, may be the first items of business attempted by the new government).
In any "handover" there must be a giving and a taking. The giving was the American part of the story, and the Americans gave with such absence of fanfare that it was easy to brush the giving aside and focus on the taking. So the Arab media shifted the view, focusing on the active assumption of Arab control over the conversation that will determine Iraq's future. Americans, weary of war, and the Bush administration, hopeful for a newly stable Iraq, will be happy to "leave" the responsibility and risk to the Iraqis. But they may not notice how deftly the moment that might have been constructed to prove American good intentions has been airbrushed out of the picture. Or, as a Saudi commentator interviewed on al-Arabiya put it, how much this story is not "about American generosity."
Sovereignty has always been a brand of fiction. There are no keys to a country, only power and, if the country is governed by consent, agreements on how to share it, wield it and pass it on. The old formula for royal succession -- the king is dead, long live the king -- was a paradox that (if people believed in it) solved the problem of death and continuity. There was something paradoxical, but perhaps wise as well, about how the Arab media presented this perhaps historic transfer of power. Mistrust and optimism were commingled. They seemed to be saying, of course, the whole thing is fraud; now get out of the way.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Journalists at an Iranian news agency take notes as administrator Paul Bremer talks about the handover.
(Morteza Nikoubazl -- Reuters)
Transcript: The Post's Scott Wilson in Baghdad.
Transcript: The Post's Robert G. Kaiser discusses the handover of political authority in Iraq.
MSNBC Video: U.S. administrator Paul Bremer formally transfers political authority to Iraq's interim government.
MSNBC Video: The Post's Rajiv Chandreskaran describes the mood in Baghdad following the handover.
Transcript: Iraqi President, Prime Minister
Video: President Bush in Istanbul
Transcript: Bush, British Prime Minister Blair