New York Times Finally Deigns to Cover Tunisia

Tunis Air(Pictured: President Ben Ali’s means of escape?)

What a difference a month makes. After more than 50 deaths, hundreds of wounded, perhaps thousands of arrests and tortures in Tunisia at the hands of Zine Ben Ali’s security forces and repressive apparatus, the mainstream media in the West has ‘discovered’ the Tunisian crisis.

And now the race is on: which media outlet can win a Pulitzer by feasting on the political corpse of Zine Ben Ali? Will it be the New York Times which has awakened from its Tunisian stupor with a series of hard hitting, excellent pieces? Will it be NPR that is trying to recruit Tunisian bloggers and Facebook addicts (admittedly I am one too) to gave an ‘authentic’ flavor? Are members of Congress now getting out their atlases, trying to get it straight that Tunisia is not a part of the Indonesian island chain?

That the New York Times is taking the Tunisian crisis seriously, is of course, welcome and not only because the story deserves coverage. It suggests something else far more important: that the powers that be in the United States have given the Times the go-ahead. And this is important for another reason: when trying to learn about Tunisia, the Congressional flock pretty much always takes its lead, advice from the State Department. This in turn opens doors for peace movements, human rights organizations who have long been well informed on the Tunisia situation, to exert genuine influence.

Speculation? Of course. But I’ll bet dollars to high-quality donuts – even bagels – that this is what is transpiring. But why the New York Times take so long to address the Tunisian crisis? I would imagine the process went something like this:

For starters, history suggests, and here we have many examples, that the Times would not move on Tunisia without the express consent, the go-ahead from the State Department. The fact is that as the WikiLeaks Cables concerning Tunisia (called TuniLeaks) vividly reveal, the State Department wrote off Ben Ali as a viable political asset long ago. But ‘State’ couldn’t give the Times their blessing until they convinced the Defense Department and the National Security Council, both of which were unsure of how cutting Ben Ali loose would impact U.S. security arrangements with a Ben Ali replacement. Would a post-Ben Ali government maintain Tunisian commitments with AFRICOM, or Tunisia’s support for extraordinary rendition?

After all, if such ‘arrangements’ come unglued in Tunisia it could trigger a regional stampede, a kind of ‘domino effect’ with other countries – Egypt, Morocco, Syria, Yemen – backing out. Some modus vivendi needed to be consummated, some assurances extracted from the Tunisian military – with which the United States has many and varied contacts – that Tunisia’s ‘treaty obligations’ with the United States would be honored.

Only then was the New York Times, for whatever its limitations, still the most politically minded and sophisticated media in the United States, ‘unleashed’ to cover the increasingly pathetic last days and hours of Ben Ali’s 23-year rule, a rule long given a veil of acceptability, the State Department seal of approval, having been stamped as ‘moderate’. The ‘moderate’ label is undoubtedly the highest honor that can be bestowed on an otherwise corrupt and repressive dictatorship. Few wore this badge of honor more proudly than the little two-bit political skunk, U.S.-trained at a police academy in Maryland, than Zine Ben Ali.

It is likely that future revelations will suggest that the debate in Washington over Tunisia was intense with the State Department arguing even before the current crisis erupted that Ben Ali goose was cooked, that the U.S. interests could best be served finding a ‘suitable’ replacement who would cause as little disruption as possible to US interests.

On the other hand, the (not so) strategic thinkers at Defense and the National Security Council, little more than apologists for U.S. militarism – the neocons still flourishing in both places, special forces addicts – argued in Ben Ali’s defense. Theirs is not particularly convincing logic but it has carried the day for nearly a decade now: that Ben Ali is/was a faithful ally in the war on terrorism, that he has cooperated with the U.S. in numerous (mostly insidious) ways in violation of international law, has cooperated with U.S. attempts to establish AFRICOM, etc. And as strategic support for U.S. military plans in the region trump human rights concern every time, the Obama Administration should ‘hold the line’ in Ben Ali’s defense.

Nor was the issue resolved by the way. U.S. foreign policy might think in terms of military pre-emption to neutralize potential long term competitors, be they Iran or China, but diplomatically in the case of Tunisia, Washington is trailing, not shaping events. Indeed what stands out in all this is how helpless both Washington and Paris have been to coax the crisis in Tunisia in one direction or another. And it was only when, in reality, there was virtually nothing left of Ben Ali’s regime, nothing left to support, only after those remaining fragile threads on which his legitimacy rested had frayed and then snapped – that administration hawks had to concede defeat.

And so Defense unshackled State which suggested that the New York Times shift gears and get on the Tunisia story, but even then there were ‘stipulations’, ‘parameters’…

  • Ok to go heavy on the economic crisis, ‘democratic deficiency’ and the corruption of the Ben Ali/Trabelsi families but…
  • If possible, ‘go light’ on how Tunisia is an IMF/World Bank structural adjustment utter failure and not the “success story”, or “African lion” it has so often been portrayed.
  • Go even lighter, if possible avoid mentioning/exploring the implication of US-Tunisian security arrangements.

With these reservations in mind , and visions of another Pultizer Prize dancing in their heads, the New York Times sent David Kirkpatrick, one of its most talented reporters, along with a photographer to Tunis and let them loose to do their thing, just as Ben Ali, hoping for a reprieve from his people, lifted all press and internet censorship.

Just in the nick of time; wasn’t much left to report, to uncover actually. After a month of non-stop, increasingly broad based and militant demonstrations, scores of deaths, a tightening noose of repression leaving Ben Ali increasingly exposed and isolated, there isn’t much pioneering journalism left for Kirkpatrick to unearth. Frankly Facebook and You Tube had beaten the Times (and Le Monde) to the punch long ago. All that is left of the story for David Kirkpatrick are the scraps, along of course with stories that others have told earlier and in many cases as well or better than he will (although the guy can write and I am already impressed with his insights and descriptive abilities – it is just they are hardly original).

Look at his first article. Well-written, yes. New material? Hardly. What does he discuss?

  • The looting of Ben Ali’ and Trabelsi clan villas in Hammamet with photos.
  • The ‘TuniLeaks’ (WikiLeaks cables from Tunisia) cables from 2008-9 detailing corruption.
  • The level of anger and disillusion of the Tunisian people that has yet to peak.
  • The beginning – there will be many more – of the flight of Ben Ali/Trabelsi family members to foreign safer havens.

Minus the looting, none of this is new. For good measure, this first major piece (page 1!!) on Tunisia in the New York Times was accompanied by a short but hard hitting editorial about the dangers of supporting scurrilous types like Ben Ali meant to prick liberal consciences. Whatever…

Some day it will be interesting to learn how accurate or not are the above speculations.

But regardless, more concretely, the new interest that the New York Times is showing in Tunisia, cynical and late in the day as it might be, has important political consequences. It changes the political chemistry in this country about Tunisia, a place almost unknown to readers in this country. Tunisia is now on the map and U.S. policy in Tunisia, until now little more than a footnote to other U.S. Middle East policy concerns, is now front and center.

For now ‘the great fear’ is mounting in Washington, and it is not of an Islamic fundamentalist take over in Tunisia, the pretext for U.S. support for Ben Ali for decades, but something far more threatening to U.S. interests: ‘the threat’ of a genuine democratic revolution in the place, fueled from below, driven by democratic ideals. And if it happens in Tunisia, which remains to be seen, who knows which country is next? Egypt? Jordan? Algeria? Morocco?…or should I even dare suggest it, the least democratic but most strategically important of them all, Saudi Arabia.

Rob Prince is the publisher of the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.