Interview: How to get the story right, the White Man's Burden, and dining with Ahmed Chalabi

Photograph of Kipling from "Current Histo...

Rudyard Kipling

I had the pleasure and privilege of first meeting Christopher Dickey, Newsweek’s Middle East Bureau Chief, when I was an intern at the magazine oh so many years ago. During my time there, I was continually in awe of his skills both as a reporter and writer, the courage and confidence of his observations. He’s also the author of six books, including a classic of war reporting, two page turning novels, and a powerful memoir. His latest, Securing the City: Inside America’s Best Counterterror Force–the NYPD, was called “revealing and nerve rattling” by the New York Times.

Chris graciously agreed to speak to The Hastings Report for the inaugural edition of what will be a series of interviews with distinguished journalist and authors.

On a personal level, however, I wanted to talk to Chris because of a memory I have of him from an editorial meeting in the spring of 2003. War fever was at its height before the invasion of Iraq. Newsroom group think reigned. Pressure to blindly support the adventure was huge. But his reporting on Iraq had revealed a different narrative, and in a packed conference room, Chris stood up and said, ‘This is going to be a disaster.’

To find out how he got the biggest story of the last thirty years right–as well as why you should read Kipling’s White Man’s Burden, what to do when Ahmed Chalabi says he’s going to lie, and the dangers of war junkies–read the interview below.

Before the invasion of Iraq, your reporting cast great skepticism on the idea of the war. Some of your stories predicted almost exactly what would go wrong. So how did you get Iraq right?

It all depends on what getting it right means. And I hate to set you up like Bill Clinton or somebody. Really what I got right was that occupation was a bad idea. The idea that we didn’t know what we were getting into, and that the U.S. government, the Bush administration, was consciously avoiding addressing the problem of what we were getting into with the occupation of an Arab country. The occupation of any country, especially the occupation of country with a colonial history is a tough proposition. But the occupation of an Arab country for a force of Americans is just hugely problematic. That was really what I was right.

You have to keep in mind that I’d been writing about Iraq since 1985. I’d been going there, covering Saddam and his atrocities. Certainly by the late ‘90s and the 2001–before 9-11–I think you could count me among his most severe critics in the international press. I remember when Milosevic was picked up to be put on trial for war crimes and against humanity in the summer of 2001, I wrote a whole story that said Milosevic is bad, but he’s nothing compared to Saddam Hussein. When are we going to do something about Saddam Hussein? And in late 2001 after 9-11, after Afghanistan, I did a story with John Barry that was driven mainly by my reporting in the field that talked to various Arabists in American government who were still out in the field saying there was really no question anymore that the Bush Administration would go to war with Iraq. It was a question of when, not if.

We did a big story in Dec. 2001, Next Stop Saddam. A month later I interviewed Ahmed Chalabi who I had known for 15 years. I said ‘Ahmed it’s not if but when’ but a lot of people still don’t like you. A lot of people think you would do anything– the CIA, the State Department—they’d think you do anything to drag America into war with Saddam. And he looked at me, on the record, and said, ‘Yeah, yeah I would.’

Newsweek was actually leading the reporting charge about the Administrations intentions. I then talked to Bob Baer. He was here in Paris and I remember having a drink at the hotel Rafael. I wanted to go over the history of the failed attempts to overthrow Saddam a lot of which directly concerned him. And we did, and I asked him, so why did Tony Lake pull the plug on the effort to overthrow Saddam in 95 or 96. He said, well, the question was ‘And then? What comes next?’ At that point I argued anything would be better than Saddam, but the more I thought about it, the more I wondered if that was true. By early 2002, I was mapping out memos to NY and DC asking about the O Word, Occupation. What are we going to do about occupation? How is this going to look? Are we ready for this? What kind of commitment was going to be made? The answer coming back from the administration were not answers at all. Oh there’s not going to be an occupation. Everything will be fine. It’s going to be a liberation. The Iraqi people will rise up to support us they’re going to be so happy to get rid of Saddam. None so blind as those who will not see, and we are going into this blind. At that point I started writing about the blindness. One story I wrote, I wrote Iraq was going to be like a roach motel, you can get in but you can’t get out. I was not opposed to getting rid of Saddam, I was absolutely opposed to the idea that we could successfully occupy Iraq. And I think I was proven correct.

There was a moment I remember, at a Newsweek International story meeting in the spring of 2003, right before the invasion. Everyone else in the room either now supported the invasion or weren’t saying much about it, but you stood up and said, ‘This is going to be disaster.’

Look, on general principles people hate occupiers. It doesn’t matter the motives. Occupiers are not judged by motivations or intentions, they are just judged by their presence. That’s something I’ve seen 20-25 years of foreign correspondent. It’s summed up by Kipling, in his poem The White Man’s Burden. Which nobody ever reads, everybody refers to the horrible title and that tone. But what the message of the poem is–and it was dedicated to United States of America in 1899 after the Spanish American War—is you Americans think you’re going to go in all these countries you just acquired, and make everything work better, build roads and ports, and develop them, and bring education and everybody’s going to love you. But in fact they’re all going to wake up someday and say, ‘What the hell are you doing here?’ And they are going to want you to leave. And that’s the real test of colonialism, not just in Kipling’s time, but of occupation more broadly construed. I knew America was not ready for that.

Jacob Weisberg, editor of Slate, said last year that he succumbed to ‘group think’ when he decided to support the war in Iraq. There’s an entire generation of pundits and journalists who fit into that category, writers who got the war spectacularly wrong. How did you resist that kind of group think?

I didn’t think there was lot of pressure for group think at the magazine. Newsweek listened to what I had to say. They didn’t adopt it as the editorial line, they certainly let me write it. But I remember quoting an American official in the region that I had known for a long time. He said: ‘I think this feels like August 1914. We are about to embark on adventure the consequences we cannot even begin to imagine.’ If you know people who really know the region, and are general faithful proponents of whatever policy or administration, that gets your attention. I resisted the trend towards group because I had a lot of confidence in my own judgment, at that point almost 20 years, but also in the judgment in the people I knew and trusted who knew what they were talking about. [Newsweek’s] Jeff Bartholet and I used to be colleagues in the Washington Post. Both of us know the Middle East. He was the foreign editor at the time. He was also tremendously supportive. He was not part of group think.

A lot of the folks who supported the war didn’t have your kind of on the ground experience in war zones either. Your great book, With The Contras, is classic of reportage. You’d seen the actual effects of war in Central America. Did your understanding of war and what it does come into play?

Of course it did. My first wars were with the Contras and the death squads, the Guatemalan civil war and they were really ugly brutal little wars. About which there was enormous amount of widely distorting hyperbole in Washington, particularly by the Reagan Administration. I saw how different the situation was on the ground than what it was in Washington. Over the years that was my repeated experience. For awhile, the whole pattern of my reporting on wars was to go to places the U.S. was going launch punitive bombing raids against and watch the bombs fall. So I was in Libya in ’86 when it was bombed. Baghdad in ’93, Belgrade in ’99 and lots that I’ve forgotten about. When you have those experiences, you see the effects, you can also watch and listen to the statements being made in Washington about what’s happening and the effect it’s supposed to have, And you’re like “What are you talking about?” The difference in being on the ground and being inside the beltway is huge. It’s not to prove that Washington is wrong, but when you see glaring discrepancies between Washington’s perception and the realities on the ground it’s time to write about them. It doesn’t need to be taken a liberal stance.

What’s your view on the U.S.’s present course in Afghanistan and Pakistan?

Look, people in Washington giving public orders to Pakistan, that’s not going help. We say we want democracy but really we like Musharraf better than democracy. What Zadari had to wait for was when the public in Pakistan clearly perceived the Taliban in Swat Valley was overreaching. When that happened, then he could move. I can’t tell you how many commentators you see sitting around on TV saying the problem with Pakistanis is not the Indians, the problem is the Taliban. Really it’s both in their mind.

There’s a line coming from Washington that says, ‘Pakistan, you must transform the culture of the Pakistani military and intelligence services to our liking.’ I don’t know how successful that’s going to be, as it seems like somewhat of a dubious proposition.

Of course it is. Once you build an empire, you can’t let go, even if it means hanging on to tiny little vestiges of it, like the Falkland Islands, or Maud next to the Comoros in Africa. It’s just the mentality. I would read ‘The White Man’s Burden’ and Orwell’s ‘Shooting of an Elephant.’ Part of the White Man’s Burden goes: ‘Take up the White man’s burden/ The savage wars of peace…And when your goal is nearest/The ends for others sought/Watch sloth and heathen folly/Bring all your hope to naught.’

Does Obama’s plan in Afghanistan give any confidence?

It does. I think it is building on ideas that were developed in the very late stages of the Bush Administration in Iraq. We could have had a deal with the Anbaris in 2003-2004. But we regarded them all as terrorists. We didn’t understand why they resented our presence there. It was just stunning, just fucking stunning, to talk to people about this at the time. And you know in 2003 when the shit started to hit the fan, we panicked and arrested everyone we could think to arrest. How many tens of thousand did we put in jail? We didn’t know what was happening. Under Petraeus and Crocker, they said the only way out is to talk to a lot of people who’ve been killing us. We hadn’t done that before. That rule was thrown out by Petraeus and Crocker and that was absolutely key to finding some way to stabilize the situation. That’s the principle to take to Afghanistan. What did the surge do? It stabilized the capital. The aim is the same. Stop whatever military momentum the bad guys have, the other side have. The [increase in troops] provides political cover to negotiate with the Taliban. If there had been no surge and the Bush administration had said, we’re going to talk to the Anbaris, we’re going to embrace them and put them on the payroll without the surge that would have been difficult. The surge in Afghanistan has a similar function. Problem is Afghanistan is lot more complicated than Iraq. Iraq is essentially a modern society where people yearn to return to modernity. That’s the promise of peace for them. They remember how shitty Saddam was, they can remember when they could walk the street without getting blown up. You don’t have that in Afghanistan. The Taliban have been much smarter in dealing with the local population. The Taliban are the local boys and we’re not. Ultimately you cannot get around that the [local population] says ‘They may be bastards, but they’re our bastards hanging out among our people, and you people, American, French, Brits, you’re not our people. You just aren’t.

Any advice for young journalists who’d might like to emulate a career like yours?

There’s no substitute for being there in these conflict situations. But it’s harder and harder to be there and more and more dangerous to be there. Twenty or twenty five years ago there was certain amount of protection provided by the idea that you worked for a major network or publication for the United States. Really that was the only way any side in the conflict had a way to get their message out. Didn’t necessarily keep you alive, back then a lot of journalist were killed too. But now that isn’t true, there’s no protection anymore. Journalists in the field are much more out there on their own. That pressure is going to be hard, but it’s still worthwhile.

People have to examine their own motivations for going. Why are you there? A lot people are going to fit into three or four categories. People who feel passionately about the issue, and they’re going to come to the story wanting to confirm their passions. The most important thing you can do is to be believable. The other category people who just want the thrill is also not great. Adrenaline junkies, addicted to the risk. Wars are not drag races. It’s not bungee jumping. That is a very, very, dangerous. We have known people who are like that, but I never really trust working with them. The third category basically hate war but are trying to understand the mechanism that make it happen, perpetuate it. You can only do that by being on the ground. Your function is to write the story, but also writing the story is the most therapeutic thing you can do. Because it’s really traumatic being out there.


About michaelhastings

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7 Responses to Interview: How to get the story right, the White Man's Burden, and dining with Ahmed Chalabi

  1. I think it’s an absolutely terrific interview framed by a great introduction, but it bemuses me somewhat to see an American on-the-left, (which I assume you must be), citing the works of Rudyard Kipling. ‘Take up the White Man’s burden- And reap his old reward: The blame of those ye better, The hate of those ye guard’… Interesting to see that what were once seen as deeply unfashionable views are now being reappraised as the facts simply stated well. Kipling’s excellent short story The Man Who Would Be King is equally apt in this context: A warning as it is to all adventurers that think Kafiristan (or anywhere even close to it) will be easy plunder for infidel adventurers.

    • Michael Hastings says:

      Hi Scott, thanks very much for reading. I wouldn’t say I’m on the left, per say, as my goal is to annoy both right and left equally.

      But the relevance of Kipling on both sides of the debate over the past few years is fascinating. Take a guy like Robert Kaplan or Max Boot, on the right, who have enthusiastically embraced Kipling around 2003 or so for what people on the left would consider all the wrong reasons. (Our job to spread civilization, with all the yucky colonial undertones.) At the same time, the left gets caught up in this neocon civilization building,too, but pretend that there’s nothing Kiplingesque about it.

      As you suggest, I think it’s worth reading Kipling to see the nuances beyond how his work has been charicatured. Conrad and Graham Greene (specically The Quiet American)are other literary guys whose work speaks to our time as well, I think.

  2. Vickie Karp says:

    Fantastic perspective, Michael. Really look forward to reading these interviews. And I agree with you and Scott, what the old Colonialist writers had to say — those who were actually on the ground and living what they wrote about — is extaordinary and defies left/right categorization in the telling. E. M. Forster, who was unlike Kipling in his political and social views, also captures the ironies and teacup-sized tragedies that turn huge in Passage to India. Isak Dinesen, who was a baroness and as insulated as either of those two writers, nevertheless captured the social anachronisms and injustices of Kenya and simply overpowered their significance by telling the stories of individuals and daily lives in the midst of chaos. Barbara Kinsolving, who is the daughter of missionaries, similarly evokes the reality of “being there” as outsiders with a cause in the Congo. Astonishing how reporters are now the best story-tellers, and unvarnished reportage is more compelling than fiction.

    • Michael Hastings says:

      Hi Vickie, thanks for the kind words. Agreed. We should make Forester, Dinesen, Kinsolving, Kipling, Conrad, Greene required reading for foreign policy folks!

      I’ve been thinking alot about your last point too–how non-fiction seems to have surpassed fiction in cultural relevance. It seems to me a part of that reason is that while fiction has turned inwards and become pretty self-involved, to a certain degree, non-fiction is forced to keep going outwards, to keep looking for the new, while trying to explain and understand it. (I spent last week at the Norman Mailer’s Writer’s Colony, and I couldn’t help but think that Mailer’s most powerful and lasting work is his non-fiction, his reportage–not his fiction. I feel the same about David Foster Wallace as well. I’m getting way off track here…)

  3. Vickie Karp says:

    Norman Mailer’s writing colony??? What was that like? I love long-form journalism, and in the hands of the really good writers, such as the ones you cite, it’s just unbeatable. But something’s going on right now to make reality more interesting than fiction, and I think you may be right that we’re tired of the inward frescoes of our lives. Sorry, self-helpers, but after a while it’s just dead-ended except in the hands of geniuses. Always ready to read the geniuses. Otherwise, I’ll take reality.

  4. markeichenlaub says:

    Great interview. Christopher is an excellent reporter.

  5. Pingback: Media Channel 2.0 — Blog — Backing the Iraq War was the smart newsroom career move

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