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Last updated on March 6th, 2018 at 12:31 am
GEORGE NEGUS: So it’s fair to say that having an election doesn’t necessarily bring you democracy and freedom?
PAUL McGEOUGH: No, elections are very important as a measure of the thirst, of the hunger of the people, for something, but whether the community around them and whether their community leaders or those such as the Americans who are trying to drive their community leaders can make them deliver is another thing. I mean, it’s striking that the election was on January 30 and we saw such a huge and courageous turnout by the Iraqi people, but look at the performance of their leader since then.
GEORGE NEGUS: And no government.
PAUL McGEOUGH: We still don’t have a government.
GEORGE NEGUS: No government. So-called democracy, I guess you could call it.
Paul and George can’t imagine anything worse than “no government”. There must be government, immediately and perpetually, or we may as well all kill ourselves. Who will organise a system of arts grants? Where is funding for Iraqi jugglers?
GEORGE NEGUS: All the talk at the moment is about this thing called – it’s a term that you’ve used – the Arab spring. Do you think there is an Arab spring or is it possibly even a false dawn?
PAUL McGEOUGH: Well, one of the big problems that I have with affairs as they’re covered these days is that everything has to be given a label – the Rose Revolution, the Purple Revolution, the Cedar Revolution, the Arab spring and the false dawn. It’s too early to be using any of these terms.
Says the man who predicted civil war more than two years ago.
PAUL McGEOUGH: We’re dealing with people’s lives, we’re dealing with the circumstances in which they live and the reality in the Middle East and in Iraq in particular, is that there still hasn’t been enough of an advance to say that life is better. I mean Westerners are shocked when Iraqis, ordinary Iraqis will say to you, “God, I wish we had Saddam back.”
GEORGE NEGUS: Really? How often do you hear that?
PAUL McGEOUGH: You can hear it several times a week.
During story conferences at the Sydney Morning Herald.
GEORGE NEGUS: What do they mean when they say it?
PAUL McGEOUGH: They mean that, for all his faults, there was law and order, there was security.
GEORGE NEGUS: There was some form of normal life.
PAUL McGEOUGH: Their lives … People live in very small circles. We do it ourselves here. We live in a space that we carve out for ourselves. If you can’t get electricity at the rate you used to get, if you can’t get petrol at the price you used to get it, if you can’t walk down the street with a sense of safety and confidence that you used to do it, you get worried, you get anxious.
There was no worry or anxiety under Saddam. Abu Ghraib was a petting zoo; Uday and Qusay hosted If You Say So, a four-hour reality program celebrating the Hussein brothers’ acts of kindness (“What’s that, young lady? You want to be raped and killed? Well, if you say so!”); and Kurds laughed and frolicked in the afterlife.
GEORGE NEGUS: Picking up that point most people are saying now to the anti-war sceptics that you’ve got to give credit where credit’s due. That you say it was a fluke of timing that things are happening the way they are in the Middle East at the moment but all the pro-Bush people are saying let’s be real about this, back off, the sceptics, let’s give credit where credit’s due. Maybe George Bush was right by invading Iraq.
PAUL McGEOUGH: For which reasons? The reasons he gave at the time he did it or the reasons he’s giving now?
GEORGE NEGUS: It depends what day of the week you ask, that’s for sure. But is it the case that the fact that the election occurred in Iraq and the fact that these other things have been occurring in other parts of the Middle East, how much do you attribute that – as other people do – to the fact that Bush may have been right in the first place by invading?
PAUL McGEOUGH: There’s two ways to look at it, one is if you look at it as the package of events that have happened in the last few weeks, and say this coincides with Bush’s rhetoric, therefore Bush was right, you could get away with that argument if you want to. But if you take the package of events as they’ve unfolded – in Lebanon the unrest started and the street demonstrations started because of a murder. Bush didn’t commit the murder, nobody’s suggesting that.
Maybe Iyad Allawi did it. Speaking of Allawi, will George mention McGeough’s famous scoop?
GEORGE NEGUS: So you don’t buy the line that this is all the end result of the invasion?
PAUL McGEOUGH: No, I think it’s far too early to say that.
But it’s evidently not too early to give Al-Jazzera credit.
GEORGE NEGUS: Let me put a few things to you. I just did a bit of a search myself before we came in. “Three cheers for the Bush doctrine.” Bush himself, “The thaw has begun.” “Give credit where credit is due.” And this one, this very, very delicious one, I think, from an American journalist, “The most difficult sentence in the English language to utter right now is that George Bush was right.” But this is the one that intrigued me and, because you’ve worked there so long, I thought you might want to respond to this. Walid Jumblatt, the Druze leader in Lebanon, right? “It is strange for me to say it but this process of change has started because of the American invasion of Iraq.” Now, this is coming from a local.
PAUL McGEOUGH: Sure. A Lebanese local, as opposed to an Iraqi local.
GEORGE NEGUS: True.
PAUL McGEOUGH: Yes, some people will say things like that but it’s – you know, you need what I’ve described as the 10-year test. Others have talked about the 10-year test too in terms of whether democracy will be delivered. So it’s about the ability of the process that some people believe is already in play to deliver a democracy.
“It’s about the ability of the process that some people believe is already in play to deliver a democracy.” Don’t you hate it when journalists speak like politicians? And for the same weaselly reasons?
GEORGE NEGUS: But it’s astounding that a guy like Jumblatt, who was very, very sceptical about the whole idea of the invasion of Iraq by the Americans, is now saying this thing is flowing on from that. Everything that’s going on is flowing on from that. So there are people on the ground saying maybe it was. They have to swallow their pride and say maybe Bush was right.
PAUL McGEOUGH: Sure, and it will be debated for a long time. It will be debated forever because we won’t know the answer.
Jumblatt seems to know.
GEORGE NEGUS: Is it time, though, to sort of give credit where credit’s due? Maybe at the very least the sceptics could be saying maybe the acceleration process is there. Maybe this thing will start to occur a lot quicker than we thought.
PAUL McGEOUGH: Yes, definitely something is happening in terms of how people perceive their rights and, in a sense this is the biggest difficulty for me as I watch events unfold.
I bet it is.
PAUL McGEOUGH: People are being told that they have rights and are responding accordingly, but the point of anxiety for me is you still don’t have any proof that their leaders – this is the monarchies, the autocrats, the dictators and the systems that they’ve put in place – will allow them to realise those rights and to live by them and to act according to them.
GEORGE NEGUS: So much so that you’ve even suggested recently in one of your pieces that you think there’s still a real possibility of civil war in Iraq.
PAUL McGEOUGH: Yes, my inclination on Iraq at this stage still is a gut feel that things will get better in Iraq but they may not get better this side of a civil war.
“Gut feel” is the standard of proof for something to run in the SMH, over and over and over again.
GEORGE NEGUS: And if the Americans were to pull out?
PAUL McGEOUGH: The biggest problem in Iraq is Iraq has become two debates. I’ve almost lost interest now in debating whether or not the Americans should have invaded. That messes up trying to get to the answers of what to do about Iraq. Now, you can’t… When you look at Iraq now and say what shall we do about Iraq now, you can’t start with oh, well, the Americans shouldn’t have invaded. They did. Facts on the ground are facts on the ground, you’ve got to deal with them. But trying to find a way through that maze at the moment is still a nightmare. And you know who it’s a nightmare for most? The Iraqi people.
Keep talking things down, Paul. Austin Bay has a few thoughts on this.
GEORGE NEGUS: Point taken. Paul, good to talk to you. You’re probably mad enough to go back there, so all the best when you do.
PAUL McGEOUGH: Thank you. Thank you, George.
Thank you, Bastards Inc.