The State Department has been using political litmus tests to screen private American citizens before they can be sent overseas to represent the United States, weeding out critics of the Bush administration’s Iraq policy, according to department officials and internal e-mails.
In one recent case, a leading specialist on conflict resolution who’s a former senior State Department adviser was scheduled to participate in a US Embassy-sponsored videoconference in Jerusalem last month, but at the last minute he was told that his participation no longer was required.
State Department officials explained the cancellation as a scheduling matter. But internal department e-mails show that officials in Washington pressed to have other scholars replace the specialist, David L. Phillips, who wrote the book, “Losing Iraq,” which is critical of President Bush’s handling of Iraqi reconstruction.
“I was told by a senior US official that the State Department was conducting a screening process on intellectuals, and those who were against the Bush administration’s Iraq policy were not welcomed to participate in US government-sponsored programs,” Phillips said.
“The ability of the United States to promote democracy effectively abroad is curtailed when we curtail free speech at home, which is essential to a free society,” he said.
In another instance of apparent politicization, a request by the US Embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia, to arrange a visit by Senator Barack Obama, Democrat of Illinois, who lived in Indonesia when he was young, was delayed for seven months.
The visit never occurred.
The practices appear to be the latest examples of the Bush administration’s efforts to tightly control information, maintain “message discipline” and promote news about the United States and its policies.
Bush opponents have been excluded routinely from the president’s domestic events and campaign rallies. This week, Knight Ridder and other news organizations reported that the Pentagon has paid Iraqi journalists and newspapers to publish positive stories about the US reconstruction effort there.
Current and former officials involved with the State Department’s overseas speakers program said potential candidates were vetted for any comments or writings that criticized White House policy.
“There’s definitely a political litmus test. You don’t have to be a Republican, but you better not have said anything against them,” one official said.
It used to be that the only governments that prettied up their news and tailored their messages were the governments you knew were hiding things or just flat out lying about themselves and their country. It used to be that America was not ashamed to let the world see us, warts and all, because it demonstrated what a truly open society was like. We didn’t hide our internal struggles; we let the world see Watts burning, we knew “the whole world was watching” in Chicago in 1968, and we put the president on trial on TV. We weren’t afraid of letting the world see it because we knew that that kind of guileless honesty would show the world that we believed in ourselves and our system. Not anymore, apparently.
If we leave Iraq at its own government’s request, our withdrawal will be neither abandonment nor retreat. Law-abiding Iraqis may face more clan violence, Balkanization and foreign incursions if we leave; but they may face more clan violence, Balkanization and foreign incursions if we stay. The president has said we will not leave Iraq to the terrorists. Let us leave Iraq to the Iraqis, who have survived centuries of civil war, tyranny and attempted foreign domination.
Once American troops are out of Iraq, people around the world will rejoice that we have recovered our senses. What’s more, the killing of Americans and the global loss of American credibility will diminish. As Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, a Republican and Vietnam veteran, said, “The longer we stay, the more problems we’re going to have.” Defeatist? The real defeatists are those who say we are stuck there for the next decade of death and destruction.
In a memorandum to President Kennedy, roughly three months after his inauguration, one of us wrote with respect to Vietnam, “There is no clearer example of a country that cannot be saved unless it saves itself.” Today, Iraq is an even clearer example.
This campaign – which is being hyped on Fox and conservative talk radio – is an odd one. Christmas remains ubiquitous, and with its celebrators in control of the White House, Congress, the Supreme Court and every state supreme court and legislature, it hardly lacks for powerful supporters. There is also something perverse, when Christians are being jailed for discussing the Bible in Saudi Arabia and slaughtered in Sudan, about spending so much energy on stores that sell “holiday trees.”
What is less obvious, though, is that Christmas’s self-proclaimed defenders are rewriting the holiday’s history. They claim that the “traditional” American Christmas is under attack by what John Gibson, another Fox anchor, calls “professional atheists” and “Christian haters.” But America has a complicated history with Christmas, going back to the Puritans, who despised it. What the boycotters are doing is not defending America’s Christmas traditions, but creating a new version of the holiday that fits a political agenda.
The Puritans considered Christmas un-Christian, and hoped to keep it out of America. They could not find Dec. 25 in the Bible, their sole source of religious guidance, and insisted that the date derived from Saturnalia, the Roman heathens’ wintertime celebration. On their first Dec. 25 in the New World, in 1620, the Puritans worked on building projects and ostentatiously ignored the holiday. From 1659 to 1681 Massachusetts went further, making celebrating Christmas “by forbearing of labor, feasting or in any other way” a crime.
The Christmas that Mr. O’Reilly and his allies are promoting – one closely aligned with retailers, with a smack-down attitude toward nonobservers – fits with their campaign to make America more like a theocracy, with Christian displays on public property and Christian prayer in public schools.
It does not, however, appear to be catching on with the public. That may be because most Americans do not recognize this commercialized, mean-spirited Christmas as their own. Of course, it’s not even clear the campaign’s leaders really believe in it. Just a few days ago, Fox News’s online store was promoting its “Holiday Collection” for shoppers. Among the items offered to put under a “holiday tree” was “The O’Reilly Factor Holiday Ornament.” After bloggers pointed this out, Fox changed the “holidays” to “Christmases.”
In a nutshell, the rabid homophobes at the American Family Association threatened Ford with a boycott earlier this year because they were advertising in the gay press. Suddenly in June the AFA called off their threatened boycott because local Ford dealers had contacted the national Ford office and, apparently, suggested Ford might be amenable to working out a deal. Now we find out that Ford is pulling its gay ads and that Ford even tells the Advocate that the AFA’s press release claiming credit for this entire thing is accurate.
Ford wants to dance with bigots, that’s fine. But you don’t get to do that in the year 2005 and remain a prosperous company in America.
I drive a Ford product — a 1995 Mustang — but I didn’t buy it new from the factory; in fact, the last time I bought a “new” car — with 0 miles on the odometer — was in 1973. (My blogonym “Mustang Bobby” derives from the nickname of a character in a novel I’m writing; he has a 1965 Mustang convertible.) I fully support the efforts to inform the Ford Motor Company that their actions cast them in poor light. If you feel the same way, I suggest you let them know as well. And while I’m not an advocate of screaming “Boycott!” at the top of my lungs, I have a feeling that if Ford thought they would avoid a scene with the AFA, they sorely underestimated what it’s like to deal with a bunch of pissed-off queers. Hell hath no fury, honey.