Terrorists on US Election: “Who Cares?”

Perhaps the most significant unexamined charge in the campaign is the question of who “the enemy” — whether it be Kim Jong Il or Osama bin Laden, Iraqi militias or Iranian mullahs — wants to win the election. President Bush and vice president Cheney suggest that a Kerry administration would be a boon to terrorists and dictators the world over. John Kerry and John Edwards say, though not so bluntly, that four more years of Bush-Cheney would do more damage to America’s security. The press — usually — just says what the candidates say, usually without regard to its veracity (or absurdity).

But what does “the enemy” say?

Thanks to the Foreign Broadcast Information Service, a wing of the CIA that monitors the foreign press — and makes limited reports available to the public, for a price — Campaign Desk was able to survey more than a dozen news outlets in the “Axis of Evil.” (Question: Does Iraq count any more now that America runs it?) And overall, editors and commentators in those places seem to have a Naderesque critique of the elections. That is, it makes little difference whether Bush or Kerry wins, because their policies don’t greatly differ. At least not on the issues that matter to those facing the business end of an Abrams tank.

Al Qaeda

Al Qaeda, shadowy and diffuse as it is, has been reluctant to issue an official response to the various allegations that it prefers one candidate over another. So until the next bin Laden tape airs on Arabic television, we’ve got to make do with second-hand assessments from al Qaeda’s associates.

One place to find such informed hearsay is in the Saudi government’s London organ, Al Sharq Al Awsat. The paper published a report on Monday with this clunky but informative title: “The Fundamentalists Disagree Over the First Debate in US Presidential Elections Campaign and Some of Them Hope Bush Will Win Because He Opened a New Front for ‘Al Qaeda’ in Iraq.” (Hey, we never said the Saudis don’t need to work on their headlines.) And that about sums it up. The piece quotes Dr. Hani Al Sibai, a London-based expert on radical Islamic groups, speculating that “Kerry might withdraw the US forces … and this will mean a big loss for the jihadists.” That prediction, of course, somewhat overstates Kerry’s position; his four-year withdrawal plan depends on getting United Nation troops on Iraqi soil and having credible Iraqi elections next year. Thankfully, the paper doesn’t give Sibai the final word.

Muntasir Al Zayyatt, a lawyer for the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, told Al Sharq Al Awsat that “The media and political message of both candidates on what they call the ‘terror issue’ are identical. The stand on the Palestinian issue is also identical.” Americans may know this — especially after the Edwards highlighted his support for Israel in the veep debates — and the US press, as always, loses interest when it sees no friction. (There is a Pat Buchanan-like thread to all Arab commentary: the assumption that both Bush and Kerry — could you find two WASPier guys ? — are tools of Israel. But we digress.)

Zayyat went on: “The jihadists are not largely concerned with who will win the US presidential race because they hold principled stands against the US administration and the policies followed by any administration that occupies the White House. This might explain why bin Laden and Al Zawahiri [head of Islamic Jihad] had addressed several messages to the American people warning them of their administration’s corruption and telling them that they — that is those in al Qaeda — are not against the American people but against their government’s policies.” (Tell that to the widows and widowers of 9/11, buster.)

“In any case,” the laywer continued, “it can be said that the Islamists do not support Kerry but are insisting on bringing Bush down.”

Granted, it’s not straight from the horse’s mouth, and the logic doesn’t track. But Zayyat’s explanation of strikes us as at least as clear as either candidate’s elaborated position on the Iraq war, and certainly as worthy of space in the news hole as anonymous quotes from party operatives.

Iraq

On to the hot war. There are no less than 20 distinct resistance groups in Iraq, according to an inventory by the Baghdad weekly Al Zawra. And there are at least ten media outlets for every one of them, by Al Jazeera’s count.

Al Zawra, owned by a group called the Iraqi Journalists Association, printed a commentary on Monday by one Salam Al Sudani that urged friendly relations with Iran. The Iraqi writer seems to lean Kerry — but apparently thinks a US invasion of Iran will happen no matter who wins the election. “Those who watched the debate between President Bush and his rival Kerry understand beyond any shred of doubt that the next victim will be Iran.” A few days earlier, on October 1, Al Jazeera interviewed a spokesman for the “Martyr Al Sadr Office” in Baghdad, decrying recent bombings that killed Iraqi civilians, and imagining the real motives for the war that both candidates have promised to pursue. The spokesman said: “In a televised debate with John Kerry, Bush steressed the need to fight the Islamists. This shows that this is a Crusader war against Islam. The aim is not to achieve freedom and democracy.”

On September 4, Al Mashriq, an “independent” and anti-occupation daily, ran a front-page editorial that, said, according to the FBIS summary, “The Iraqis do not care whether President Bush or Kerry is elected in the upcoming US elections, because their only concern is to make their country a safe place and provide jobs for the army of unemployed people.”

Turning to radio — always a favored medium in places where it’s tough to distribute newspapers — we find more debate coverage. A report by the Voice of the Mujahideen deserves special attention. Apparently, even holy warriors can’t resist reporting the horse race:

[The first debate] tackled substantive issues and was permeated by sharp and quick verbal duels [we’re not sure what debate these insurgents were watching, but we didn’t see it], during which Bush tried to use the weapon of mockery against Kerry, whose answers were distinguished by accuracy, fluency, and discipline compared to a faltering beginning by the current president who seemed hesitant, as though he was searching with difficulty for the right words and expressions.

Dear listeners, Iraq has become a hot issue in the US presidential campaign. The debate between the two men, George Bush and John Kerry, dealt with Iraq without touching on any other important issues in the world and the Middle East, such as the Palestinian issue, which has been in abeyance for decades. This is because the US Administration has been plunged deep in the Iraq quagmire and it has to answer questions by the US and international public opinions on Iraq’s future and the seething conditions in Iraq.

Our proud people are perfectly aware that the US occupation does not care about the country and its sons because our people have seen the many erroneous policies and behaviors over more than a year of occupation … The two US candidates, who are in agreement on the supreme policies of the United States, want to attract voters even though at the expense of Iraq and the Iraqis and the peoples of the region.

Finally, while it’s far from an Iraqi paper, the official Chinese news service did something that any American outlet could find space for: interview Iraqis.

Baghdad, Sept. 7 (Xinhua) — The Iraqis are mostly not interested in the announcements made by US presidential candidates George W. Bush and John Kerry on Iraq, saying their words are just for election purposes. … Faisal Hussein, a physician, thought that no matter who wins the election, the United States will try to reduce the involvement of US forces in Iraq either by seeking the help of NATO or Arab and Islamic forces, or by hiding behind the new Iraqi army, but it is certain US forces will not leave Iraq hastily.

Iran

A September 22 report by the Iranian Students’ News Agency, which is not controlled by the government, begins by noting that half of Americans do not vote in presidential elections.

Dr. Mohammad Tabatabai, an “American affairs expert,” is quoted explaining that the Republicans and Democrats are ideologically similar. “As far as Iran is concerned, both candidates … have views which are rather close to each other. Both of them are hostile to us … [Both] consider Iran and its revolution to be opposed to the principles of world order.” And both, the professor continues, cater to “the Jews and the Israeli lobby.”

You read a lot about farfetched Zionist schemes in the Middle Eastern press, and the implicit racism makes it tough — especially during a campaign — for reporters to parse what really is a constant sticking point in foreign policy: US financial and military support for the Israeli government. That said, American reporters ought to be capable of broaching the subject fairly — and what better time than during the debates?

Tabatabai also remarked, “One has to bear in mind that the United States news media do not have a conscience.” (Hey, Tabatabai — we may have some openings at Campaign Desk soon. Send resumé.)

North Korea

President Bush is everywhere in the North Korean news, as imperialist, aggressor, and potential invader. One headline from the official — actually, they are all official — news agency read: “Bush’s True Colors as Robber Disclosed.”

John Kerry’s name, on the other hand, is absent. But there is not much love for Kerry’s home, the United States Senate. An October 4 report slams the Senate’s passage of the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004, which is “full of anti-DPRK poisonous clauses” (that’s Democratic People’s Republic of Korea), that seek to “bring down the system in the DPRK.” The bill passed the House and — after a brief delay on the Democrats’ side — the Senate as well, with unanimous consent.

What about the back-and-forth charges from the first Presidential debate? Kerry wants one-on-one talks with the DPRK, whereas Bush prefers to continue with the current six-party scheme, saying Kerry’s plan is just what Kim Jong Il wants. Well, the North Koreans are famous for conducting diplomacy by bulletin, and we can learn something by examining their angry, bizarrely-translated broadcasts.

On September 27, the state news agency charged the Bush administration with falsely blaming North Korea for the failure of six-party talks. And, “as for the wild rumor that [the DPRK government] links the nuclear issue to the US presidential election, the DPRK does not care who becomes president in the US.”

Nice sound bite, but we beg to differ. Strewn throughout the North’s public statements, there are indications that the DPRK would rather deal with a Kerry administration. Higher up in the same report, we read: “As already known well, the groundwork of the talks collapsed due to the deliberate provocation of the US hard-line conservatives and the double standards applied by them in dealing with the nuclear issue.” The double standard, the report says, is America’s support for the South Korean nuclear program. Beyond that support — and the old gripes about capitalist imperialism — the Bush doctrine of preemption seems to be what irks the North Koreans most.

Take-home lesson: The next time the candidates accuse each other of playing into the hands of one bogeyman or another, editors and producers might consider asking the bogeymen. What a thought — go to the source.

Corey Pein

Corey Pein was an assistant editor at CJR.