Al-Jazeera analysis of Biden severely flawed

By Dave Kopel

Rocky Mountain News. August 25, 2008

The first time that many Arabs heard of Joe Biden was from Al-Jazeera television on Saturday. Too bad. On the Al-Jazeera English Web site, the analysis of Biden presented by Marwan Bishara, "Al-Jazeera's senior political analyst," was seriously flawed factually and poorly researched.

Along with Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), Sen. Biden has been the leading proponent of federalism for Iraq, devolving much of the central government's power to local regional governments. Last fall, the U.S. Senate voted 75-23 for the Biden-Brownback amendment to the Defense Authorization bill. In an Oct. 2, 2007, article for The Huffington Post, Biden explained:

"First, the Biden-Brownback amendment does not call for the partition of Iraq. To the contrary, it calls for keeping Iraq together by bringing to life the federal system enshrined in its Constitution. Partition, or the complete break-up of Iraq, is something wholly different than federalism. A federal Iraq is a united Iraq, but one in which power is devolved to regional governments with a limited central government responsible for protecting Iraq's borders and oil distribution. It leaves the door open for stronger unity if and when passions cool, as we're seeing in the Balkans. Nor does the amendment call for dividing Iraq along sectarian lines. Rather, it calls for helping Iraqis implement their own Constitution, which provides for any of Iraq's 18 provinces to form regions and sets out the extensive powers of those regions and the limited powers of the central government. The result could be three regions, or four or five or more. It will be up to the Iraqi people."

Bishara presents an earlier iteration of Biden's idea: "In a controversial article he co-authored with Lesley Gelb of the Council on Foreign Relations, he supported the idea of dividing Iraq into three autonomous areas." (The Biden-Gelb proposal was presented in an op-ed in the May 1, 2006, New York Times.)

Then Bishara claims that the Iraqi people are almost unanimously opposed to Biden's plan: "Alas, 98 percent of Iraqis reckon dividing their country along sectarian lines would be bad for Iraq, according to a recent poll."

Bishara did not cite any source for the poll, but I found it on-line. It turns out that Bishara's 98 percent figure comes from the answer to an entirely different question, not a question about the Biden plan.

The poll of Iraqis, conducted on behalf of ABC News, the BBC, and NHK (Japan), was released on Sept. 10, 2007. One question in the poll asked about the problem of religiously integrated neighborhoods becoming segregated:

"There are areas of Iraq where in the past Sunnis and Shiites lived together in the same mahallah [hamlet]. In some of these areas people are now separating -- Sunnis moving to live among Sunnis only, Shiites moving to live among Shiites only. Has this separating of people been happening in this mahallah, or not?"

Then the pollster asked, "Do you think the separation of people on sectarian lines is a good thing or a bad thing for Iraq?" That was the question to which 98 percent of Iraqis answered "no." They weren't being asked about federalism and regional self-governance; they were being asked about the elimination of religious diversity in villages and neighborhoods.

So Bishara's claim that 98 percent of Iraqis oppose the Biden plan is plainly false. The 98 percent figure comes from a poll which never even asked about the Biden plan.

The Iraqi people were asked about the Biden plan in a poll conducted in February/March 2007, on behalf of the BBC, ABC News, ARD German TV and USA Today. One question in the poll asked, "Which of the following structures do you believe Iraq should have in the future?"

Support for the Bush administration plan, "One unified Iraq with a central government in Baghdad," was 58 percent.

Support for the Biden plan, "A group of regional states with their own regional governments and a federal government in Baghdad," was 28 percent.

Support for "A country divided into separate independent states" was 14 percent.

So while the readers of Bishara's column would think that hardly anyone in Iraq supports the Biden plan, the Biden plan (or something close to it) actually has the support of about one in four people.

Al-Jazeera's "senior political analyst" also tries to explain the influence of vice presidents. He makes the reasonable observation that Biden would probably influence Obama's foreign policy. Fair enough, but Bishara supports the point with historical examples:

"Experienced vice-presidents like Richard Nixon, Bush Senior and Dick Cheney have had great (at times, horrific!) influence on inexperienced presidents when it comes to world affairs."

The point about Vice President Dick Cheney having great influence is reasonable, the point about Vice President George W. Bush has a grain of truth, and the point about Vice President Richard Nixon is preposterous.

When Richard Nixon was nominated as the Republican candidate for Vice President in 1952, he was very far from "experienced." Nixon had served only four years in the U.S. House, and two years in the U.S. Senate; he was so inexperienced that he had only two more years in Congress than does Barack Obama.

And who picked Nixon? Just the opposite of an "inexperienced" president. During World War II, Dwight David Eisenhower served as supreme allied commander in Europe. After the war, he served as chief of staff of the U.S. Army, and then as supreme commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

President Eisenhower certainly did not need to take foreign policy advice from Nixon. Nor did he. Eisenhower raised Nixon's profile by sending him on a variety of important foreign trips. But Nixon was ever the subordinate, and the notion that Nixon had "great" influence (or any significant influence) in shaping Eisenhower's foreign policy is absurd.

Bishara distinguishes Biden from neoconservatives:

"A 'realist,' Biden reckons a war against Iran would be a disaster and doesn't believe in promoting democracy in the world when it conflicts with US national interests.

This sets him apart from the neocons in Washington who are hostile to his ideas."

Bishara is right on the broader point--that Biden isn't a neocon. But he greatly mischaracterizes the neocon position. The theory of neoconservatives is that promoting democracy will help U.S. interests; they believe that a more democratic world will be a more pro-U.S. world, in the long run. You may agree or disagree with their factual assessment, but it is quite inaccurate to claim that the neocons favor global democracy even when, in their view, democracy "conflicts with US national interests."

Then we get to Israel. Bishara writes that Biden is "reported to be a self-proclaimed Zionist who advocates strong relations with Israel as the cornerstone of US policy in the region. In other words, expect more of the same imbalanced Washington policies towards the so-called Middle East ‘peace process.'"

The passive voice is odd. Who "reported" that Biden is "a self-proclaimed Zionist"? Why not cite the reporting source?

The source, which I found in less than a minute of Internet searching, is Shalom TV, an American cable TV station. In a March 2007 interview on Shalom TV, Biden stated, "I am a Zionist."

Whatever you think about Biden and Zionism, it would be better for the article to quote Biden directly, and cite the source of the quote, rather than using a vague passive voice formulation.

Bishara's columns about the United States run under the heading "Focus Imperium" (Focus on the Empire). He appears to be quite popular with Al-Jazeera English readers. According to the station's Web site, the most e-mailed article from the website is Bishara's penultimate article, "Evil in U.S elections," which covered the recent McCain and Obama interviews with Rick Warren. Bishara referred to "so-called democracies" and complained that "Obama and McCain could see evil in Darfur but would not admit that the invasion and occupation of Iraq on false premises or for oil is no less an evil act."

Bishara's columns come with the disclaimer, "The views expressed by the author are not necessarily those of Al-Jazeera." When I watched Al-Jazeera English live (via the Web) on Saturday night, the station's short news segments pieces on Joe Biden were straightforward, fair, and accurate. (Bishara did not appear therein.) The short segments on Biden were indistinguishable from most American newcasts, except for the slight British accent of the presenters.

In Saturday's special Convention section of the News, Tina Griego did a good job of examining the Democratic party's historical roots in Denver. But the article had some important historical errors.

Griego wrote: "It's a mess, the late 19th century political scene in Denver…You've got…the rise of the Populist Party….Nationally, Republicans are blasting Democrats as ‘the party of rum, Romanism and rebellion."

Not exactly.

The Populist Party was formed in 1889. Populist Party presidential candidate James B. Weaver carried Colorado in 1892 (along with three other states).

The Populist Party's rise did not take place at the time when "Nationally, Republicans [were] blasting Democrats as ‘the party of rum, Romanism and rebellion.'" In fact, the Republicans never ever used "rum, Romanism, and rebellion" line against Democrats "nationally."

The line came from the 1884 election (five years before the Populist Party was created). Republican party nominee James G. Blaine was attending a meeting in which some New York preachers were criticizing weak Republicans who were supporting the Democratic nominee, Grover Cleveland. (The pro-Cleveland Republicans were called "Mugwumps", because they had their mug on one side of a fence, and their wump on the other side.) Rev. Dr. Samuel Burchard denounced the Mugwumps: "We are Republicans, and don't propose to leave our party and identify ourselves with the party whose antecedents have been rum, Romanism, and rebellion."

Republican presidential nominee Blaine never endorsed Burchard's bigoted words. But he was sharing a platform with Burchard, and he did not denounce Burchard's "rum, Romanism, and rebellion" line.

That was enough for the Democrats. They found out about the meeting, and it was the Democrats (not the Republicans) who worked relentlessly to make sure that as many national voters as possible heard the slur "rum, Romanism, and rebellion."

The backlash against Burchard's intolerant words (and Blaine's failure to immediately repudiate those words) cost the Republicans the 1884 Presidential election. Burchard's language alienated Catholics ("Romanism"), people who liked to drink alcohol ("rum"), and people who thought that, two decades after the Civil War, American Southerners ("rebellion") should no longer be treated like pariahs. Blaine lost New York State by a mere 1,149 notes; because Blaine lost New York, he lost the election.

In short, "rum, Romanism, and rebellion" was the most disastrous Republican gaffe in the history of American politics; it was uttered by a man who was not even an elected or appointed political official. National Republicans definitely did not use the line as an attack theme against Democrats.

Griego also wrote that in the late 19th century, the Democratic party "was influenced by Southern whites, Dixiecrats. It was the Democrats who clamored loudest for an end to Chinese immigration in the 1880s. It was Democrats who were blamed for a fiery rampage through Denver's small Chinese neighborhood and the lynching of a Chinese man."

First of all, "Dixiecrats" were not Democrats, and did not exist in the 19th century. The "Dixiecrats" were the informal name of southern racist ex-Democrats (led by South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond) who walked out of the 1948 national Democratic Convention, and created a pro-segregation third party.

Griego is right that regular Democrats were the leaders in restricting Chinese immigration, as in their support of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. But Chinese exclusion was not a passionate cause for most southern whites. The prime support for Chinese exclusion came from organized labor, including the nation's leading union, the Knights of Labor. Most labor organizations favored restrictions on Chinese immigration because they recognized, accurately, that imported Chinese labor was being used to undercut the wages of white working men. The issue was particularly important in California, where the greatest number of Chinese workers lived.

The Republicans, as the party of big business, tended to like the idea of imported foreign workers being used to drive down wages for American workers.

The Democrats supported Chinese exclusion because they were a pro-labor party, not because they were a pro-Southern party; Chinese immigration into the South was close to nil, and organized labor was very weak in the South.

Does the history have any relevance today? Today, as in the 1880s, it's important to recognize that some opponents of high levels of immigration may be motivated more by protecting wages than by racism--although both Senator Obama nor Senator McCain often seem unwilling to acknowledge the good faith of opponents of their immigration policies.

Likewise, the "rum, Romanism, and rebellion" brouhaha reminds us that 2008 is not the first year that a presidential candidate has caused himself trouble by remaining silent while he listens to the rantings of a bigot.


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