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Opinion: How a tyrant’s terrible novel helped debunk the premise of a doomed war

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One of the best-known quotations attributed to French philosopher Albert Camus is the assertion that “fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.”

For Camus, who served in the French Resistance during the Second World War and won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1957, the concepts of truth and the realities of war were inextricably bound up in literature and storytelling as a form of resistance. As he wrote in 1951, “It is those who know how to rebel, at the appropriate moment, against history who really advance its interests.”

Camus died in a tragic and mysterious car crash in 1960 at the age of 46. Had he not, he might have connected deeply with American poet Muriel Rukeyser’s “Poem,” included in her 1968 collection “The Speed of Darkness,” which begins “I lived in the first century of world wars. / Most mornings I would be more or less insane” and ends “I lived in the first century of these wars,” suggesting that as cataclysmic as these conflicts were, more surely lay ahead.

As the world looks back with 20 years of hindsight on March 19, 2003, when then-President George W. Bush ordered the US invasion of Iraq, the words of Camus and Rukeyser take on a more urgent context; surely few episodes in recent memory epitomize so directly the potency of falsehood masquerading as truth or a growing feeling of detachment from reality as did the war in Iraq.

And yet, as Peter Bergen laid out in his extensive interview this week with a little-known FBI agent, a more direct connection exists between Camus’s line about fiction and how the untruth at the heart of the Iraq War — that Saddam Hussein was in possession of weapons of mass destruction and was in cahoots with al Qaeda terrorists — was disproven.

For agent George Piro, who was tasked with interrogating Hussein after he was discovered in a hole in Northern Iraq, an actual work of fiction was the lie through which he began to uncover the truth that rewrote history. Over seven months of lengthy interrogations, Piro developed a personal connection with the former strongman — at one point, even bringing homemade cookies from Piro’s mother on the ousted leader’s 67th birthday.

Saddam Statue Toppling

But their conversations started with a book. As Piro told Bergen, “People have asked me about the first interrogation I did of Saddam, saying, ‘What was the topic?’ The majority of that first discussion was about his published novel because I knew he wasn’t going to lie about that. And I had researched and studied the book,” a “terrible” work of fiction called “Zabiba and the King” (as it happens, Hussein is far from being the only world dictator with failed literary ambitions). After they built rapport for months, Hussein went on to share with Piro that he disliked Osama bin Laden and didn’t believe in al Qaeda’s ideology and that, as Piro told Bergen, “Of course, Iraq did not have the WMD that we suspected he had.”

Twenty years later and with the frightening prospect of worldwide conflict not so hard to believe after Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, Bergen asked: Was it worth it, invading Iraq and toppling a tyrant? It’s an impossible question to answer, and in some ways misses the point, Bergen reflected, writing from Sulaymaniyah, Iraq. The conflict “set a precedent for unprovoked wars that we see playing out in Ukraine today, which the Russians are already using to good effect,” he wrote. Meanwhile, the people of Iraq continue to struggle for a better future, and their country’s “chance of moving forward” is what matters most all these years later.

The Iraq War has also left the US with unfinished business, wrote Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat from California, and Bridget Moix of the Friends Committee on National Legislation, arguing that the original Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) that made the invasion possible should be repealed. “There is a tendency to file away chapters of American history of this magnitude as a tragedy of the past,” contended Lee, one of the few vocal opponents of the measure in Congress, and Moix. But by “repealing the 2002 Iraq AUMF, lawmakers (in Congress) can demonstrate their commitment to the constitution and to reining in endless wars.”

The bully and the diplomat

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The conflict in Ukraine has disrupted the world order and amplified chaotic fissures in a number of ways. Notably this week, that came to include the emergence of Chinese President Xi Jinping as global diplomat.

After helping to orchestrate a thawing of tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia earlier this month, Xi is scheduled next week to travel to Russia, where he will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin for the first time since the invasion of Ukraine. Xi is also reportedly planning to speak with Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky. “China has been trying to convince the world that it can offer an alternative to US power. A real attempt to broker peace in Ukraine, even an unsuccessful one, can help promote the image of responsible statesmanship,” assessed Frida Ghitis, though the odds that Xi can persuade Putin that his war is unwinnable “are not good.”

After a Russian jet led to the downing of an American surveillance drone this week, tensions ran high. Russia’s behavior was bullying pure and simple, said Sébastien Roblin, but the “best reaction to schoolyard bullying is to show you aren’t rattled by provocations, and this arena is no different. … (A)n excessively dramatic American reaction could destabilize the current norms surrounding surveillance flights and lead to a tit-for-tat spiral with the Kremlin that could escalate unpredictably. That’s something to be avoided unless absolutely essential — particularly because at present these surveillance flights are giving the US valuable intelligence.”

For more:

Frida Ghitis: ICC arrest warrant for Putin is a stunning statement

Michael Bociurkiw: Once one of Europe’s most vibrant cities, Kyiv looks like an ‘induced coma’

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It wasn’t the avocado toast

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The continuing fallout from the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank is cause for worry for a great many Americans, but Jill Filipovic outlined how this is especially true for Millennials like her. Not only is the sudden instability followed by assurances that it’s all going to be fine reminiscent of the 2008 financial crash — which unfolded as many Millennials were just entering the workforce — but the unspooling of the market feels unsettlingly familiar.

Millennials have “paid the price” for economic upheaval over and over: “While we’ve done everything right — we went to college in record numbers, delayed marriage and childrearing, spend less frivolously and save more diligently — we have still found ourselves entering middle age feeling like financially insecure 20-somethings. And we are wising up to the fact that this isn’t our fault — that it wasn’t the avocado toast,” she said, while pointing out, “We deserve a long-overdue bailout.”

Looking toward the long-term, fully reimbursing SVB depositors may prove to have been a mistake, warned Nicolas Véron. “For better or worse,” that move “makes the system different from what it was before, since uninsured depositors have incurred losses multiple times in the past. The new system is less based on market discipline and risk assessment than the previous one was. … While the structural consequences are not immediately clear, it is easy to envision the detrimental effects of this shift — for example if poorly managed banks find it easier to attract large depositors in the future.” he said.

Whose GOP?

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Former Vice President Mike Pence’s crude remarks about Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg at a recent event in Washington, DC, prompted sharp outcry — and for good reason, according to SE Cupp.

Going after Buttigieg for taking what Pence mocked as “maternity leave” after the birth of his adopted twins — and then belittling postpartum depression — was “disgusting and shameful” of Pence, she argued. “Compassion for the father of two twin preemies? Support for adoptive parents? A celebration of family values? Not when he’s a Democrat and gay. Nope, that makes him an enemy. And even his kids are fair game for Pence.”

Whose Republican Party this will be — and which of their candidates for president will stand in 2024 — is an increasingly fraught question. Gov. Ron DeSantis “has displayed a Trumpian knack for driving media coverage,” wrote Nicole Hemmer, but “his agenda in Florida … is not just about PR stunts: He has used his power as governor to translate provocation into policy with alarming speed. In doing so, he has emerged as a new kind of Republican governor: one who has used his state to demonstrate that he can institute a more effective and aggressive version of former President Donald Trump’s politics.”

With instability at home and abroad the only apparent constant in many Americans’ lives, argued Julian Zelizer, “the candidate who can best convince Americans that they can handle whatever crisis comes their way and bring back stability will be the odds-on favorite to win.” Regardless of party, Zelizer maintained, “voters will be looking for the person who can bring about better times.

Beyond busted brackets

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Brackets got busted and history was made while repeating itself at the NCAA men’s basketball championship tournament. For the second time, a No.16 seed (Fairleigh Dickinson) took out a No.1 seed (Purdue) — in the biggest upset overall since 1985. No.15 seed Princeton upset No.2 seed Arizona, 27 years after Princeton’s coach Mitch Henderson (then a player for the school) helped lead his team to a win over defending NCAA champions UCLA, earning the headline “David 43, Goliath 41” in the student newspaper.

But when it comes to the “American institution” of March Madness, it’s the history of the game that matters, wrote Theresa Runstedtler. She cited the case of Spencer Haywood’s fight in the early 1970s — which coincided with what legendary sports sociologist Harry Edwards called the “revolt of the Black athlete” — against the NBA’s four-year rule, “which stated that players could not enter the college draft until they were four years beyond their high school graduation.” Haywood’s battle shone a spotlight on many dynamics that continue today, where even after the NCAA’s losses in court and the athletes’ gains in “name, image and likeness” deals, the reality is that players “face staggering precarity and lack proper remuneration for their work.” Runstedtler noted that “Black athletes continue to bear the brunt of this struggle; they are also at its forefront.”

Hostile takeover

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For years, citizens of Jackson, Mississippi, have been battling what local resident and NAACP President Derrick Johnson described as the “hostile takeover of aspects of its local governance.” In recent weeks, that hostile takeover came in the form of a bill passed by the GOP-controlled legislature to create a special judicial district within the majority-Black city to be served by judges appointed by the White chief justice of the state Supreme Court (instead of being elected as they are in other parts of the state).

There’s another ongoing crisis, where water became “another weapon that has been wielded against Black people in Mississippi.” The message was clear, wrote Johnson. In Mississippi, the “tenet of self-governance that our democracy was built on does not apply to Black people.”

Johnson argued that the Biden administration can take action to “send a message that it will protect democratic governance for people of color who happen to reside in states where they are not in the political majority. … To do so, though, it must set a new precedent for federal oversight over states that systematically wield state power to violate civil rights. Through the enforcement of civil rights and federal nondiscrimination statutes as a condition of distributing federal aid to Mississippi, the Biden administration must continue its work to make Jackson whole.”

For more on state power:

Henry Seaton: I’m a trans Tennessean. This new law will hurt so many of us

Free body culture

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Who’s afraid of the open-air breast? That’s what Holly Thomas asked after Berlin’s state government confirmed earlier this month that all visitors, regardless of gender, are allowed to enjoy public pools topless. Indicative of Germany’s more relaxed mindset around nudity, shaped in part by Freikoerperkultur (“free body culture”), a movement that dates back to the late 19th century, the move also reflected a potential step forward for the rest of the world, argued Thomas.

Citing social media censorship of breastfeeding images, the shaming of actresses who show their bodies and the arrest of topless protesters, Thomas asserted that more of us should follow Germany’s lead. Breasts “are not inherently about sex. Their primary function is to feed babies. Not all women have babies, or breasts, and some men do. Yet what everyone with breasts still has in common is that their bodies are afforded fewer freedoms than everyone else’s. … But what if breasts aren’t the problem, and are not, therefore, the issue in need of a remedy? The solution, as the city of Berlin so neatly demonstrated, would be simple. In order for all bodies to be equal, we have to treat them so.”

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Part of Ariel’s world

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Actress and musician Halle Bailey took to the stage with co-star Melissa McCarthy at the Academy Awards to preview the upcoming live-action version of the classic Disney film “The Little Mermaid.”

While the promotional nature of the mid-show showcase raised eyebrows for some, the moment also amplified the announced release of a new Ariel doll modeled on Bailey. For her proud uncle Issac Bailey, this new doll is a precious symbol of his family’s story. At age 50, he wrote, he’s going to buy one for himself to keep — with pride.

“Disney chose Halle to depict Ariel because she’s uber talented, works hard and has a long track record of success early in her young life. I don’t know if Disney understood that it was also tapping into a genuinely great American story, the fulfillment of the American Dream on the grandest stage,” marveled Bailey, whose family survived slavery, Jim Crow, poverty, violence and multiple other struggles to thrive.

“The announcement of the Ariel doll did something to me, forced me to introspect even more. I’m a man reevaluating his life, wondering why it has been so easy for me to write, speak and teach about Black hardship but so hard to openly express Black joy. … As a family, back in South Carolina, we are still going to rent out a movie theater and have a fish fry the weekend ‘The Little Mermaid’ is released. Because even while continuing the fight to make things better for us all, there are times we should stop and let ourselves be in awe of what we’ve overcome.”

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