Chasing the Story

As journalists race to Tripoli to cover Qaddafi's fall, a veteran correspondent reflects on what they're witnessing -- and what they're missing.

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia—Watching from afar the televised scenes of the rebel takeover of Tripoli and the collapse of the Qaddafi regime, I found something satisfyingly familiar about the rituals.

There is the celebratory gunfire as the liberators toast their surprising victory -- without realizing that Newton's law of gravity also applies to bullets fired from AK-47s. There are the portraits and posters of the fallen dictator, once ubiquitous on walls and in houses, now dragged into the streets for stomping. There are the reports of holdouts, "pockets of resistance," "loyalists," or "die-hards," who will start firing on the liberators and spoil the party. The palace, compound, or headquarters will be combed through for curios or evidence of past atrocities. Secret prison sites will be found. Then come the inevitable questions about a breakdown in law and order, revenge killings, and whether the newly victorious force is really capable of governing.

And we will be there to record it all. For at least a week or so, or until another autocrat is toppled somewhere else in the world and the process begins all over again.

By "we," I mean those of us who make our living as foreign reporters, responsible for an entire region or continent and ready to move at a moment's notice to the next hottest hotspot. I've done the job on and off for the last 25 years, covering regime collapses for the Washington Post from the fall of Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier in Haiti in 1986 to the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan in late 2001. In addition there was the fall of Suharto in Indonesia, the withdrawal of Indonesian troops from East Timor, the withdrawal of Vietnamese troops from Cambodia, the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq (which I covered from southern Iraq, without the benefit of the U.S. military's "embedding" system for reporters). In Africa, there was the aftermath of the collapse of Mohamed Siad Barre's regime in Somalia, which led to a famine similar to the one we are witnessing today and the "Black Hawk Down" incident, and the genocide in Rwanda after the assassination of President Juvenal Habyarimana.

Almost every new case inspires a mad journalistic race to get early, if not first, on the scene of the collapse of another longtime autocrat. Often we are there when it happens, and we get to look like sages. Just as often, we are stuck on the outside trying to figure out some way to get in.

That was my situation in Afghanistan after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. We knew early on the attacks had likely come from Afghanistan and that the Taliban regime headquartered in Kabul would be the target of an American retaliatory strike. My colleague Bill Branigin, an old Afghanistan hand, was already up north with the bedraggled troops of the Afghan Northern Alliance, who suddenly found themselves on the right side of history. My job, in early October 2001, was to meet him and journey together to cover the fall of Kabul.

It was a long trek from my then-base in Paris across several time zones -- to Moscow, to Tajikistan, by road to the Afghan border and then a night trip by boat across the Panj River to the Northern Alliance's base camp. Two photographers and I hitched a ride in the back seat with an Afghan physician trying to take medical supplies to the front.

Then, somewhere in the peaks of the Hindu Kush, with a high mountain pass separating us from the front lines of the U.S. bombing of Kabul, the first snow of the winter began to fall. We spent the night in a dug-out cave in the mountainside, huddled together with Afghan truck drivers also stranded by the flurries. The next morning, the mountainside was a vast whiteness, and our driver and interpreter said, matter-of-factly, that after the first snow, nothing makes it over the mountains to Kabul until spring -- except horses.

"Horses?" I heard myself say. Within a few hours, a bearded Afghan had led a team of horses over the mountainside, and there I was, haggling like it was a frozen, snow-covered horse bazaar, picking the best mounts for myself, the photographers, and the guide, plus a spare horse to carry our luggage.

After a frigid 24-hour ride on horseback and then a cab ride that took us in the opposite direction from the hundred other cabs fleeing the city, we finally made it to Kabul. And there we found evidence of the Taliban's, and al Qaeda's, hasty exit. Al Qaeda "safe houses" dotted the most affluent parts of the city, filled with piles of shorn beard hair, evidence of Taliban and al Qaeda figures apparently trying to disguise themselves in retreat. We found stacks of notebooks, teaching materials, and documents in Arabic, Pashto, and other languages, attesting to al Qaeda's international aspirations. There were scenes of bloodletting in the streets, as those few remaining Taliban who didn't flee in time were summarily executed, hung from trees in the parks, beheaded, or set on fire, their bodies lying uncovered on the ground because no one wanted to bother burying them.

I'd seen similar revenge attacks in Haiti, as a novice correspondent, when I witnessed the celebration of Baby Doc's fall turn to violence and then widespread disorder and outright anarchy. Duvalier had left behind the enforcers of his brutal regime, including the dreaded Tonton Macoute. But once he fled, average citizens armed with machetes and any weapons at hand took revenge on anyone deemed a supporter of the old regime.

In Haiti, I got what journalists call a lucky break; I was there on the ground when Duvalier left the country, while most of the rest of the press corps was trapped in Miami, with the airport closed due to the unrest. It was that kind of luck -- I like to think of it as journalistic prescience -- that placed me in Jakarta for the fall of Suharto in 1998. I could tell that Suharto's three-decade-long regime was in trouble. These student-led demonstrations seemed dramatically different from earlier protests: This time, the students stood toe-to-toe with the police in riot gear, hurling Molotov cocktails and carrying signs specifically denouncing Suharto and his family by name, something previously unheard of.

The foreign editors in Washington indulged me and let me relocate our Southeast Asia bureau from Hong Kong, where I had been living, to Jakarta. Before long, Suharto's security forces ended one protest violently, killing four students at Trisakti University. The regime lost its legitimacy and the end was in sight.

I was lucky to be on the ground to watch the orchestrated chaos that followed, as Suharto sent his thugs into the streets to loot and batter his erstwhile subjects. On a later trip, I felt less lucky to be there.

In 1999, I spent a lot of time trying to get into East Timor to cover a referendum declaring independence from post-Suharto Indonesia. Once the results were announced, the Indonesian-backed Timorese militias and Indonesian troops went on a shooting and burning spree, torching many of the buildings in the capital, Dili, and laying siege to the rest -- including the Hotel Turismo, where I and most of the other foreign journalists were staying.

Like the journalists trapped in Tripoli's Rixos hotel, I was evacuated out, hitching a ride on the last chartered network TV flight in a small 10-seater that was taking out its equipment and crew. When I returned, it was in the company of Australian peacekeeping troops.

More than a decade later, the U.N. mission in East Timor is about to end, after elections scheduled for 2012. This year also marked the 25th anniversaries of the fall of Baby Doc and of Ferdinand Marcos's regime in the Philippines. It's a reminder that the race we all undertake to get to a story is often only matched by the race we undertake to get out of there, once we deem the story to be over. We rarely go back once the violence ebbs and the world considers a place to be on the path to stability or democratization or whatever.

The story is never really over, however; the toppling of a regime is often just the beginning of a long process that will have many twists and turns and setbacks along the way. But we rarely have the time to go back and see the next chapter unfolding. Too often we are too busy trying to get over the next closed border, to the next story, to whatever is the next big thing.


The Cowboy Abroad

We know plenty about what Rick Perry, the GOP's newest presidential front-runner, thinks of America. But what about the rest of the world?

In May, after President Barack Obama called for Israel and Palestine to negotiate their borders based on "the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps," Texas Gov. Rick Perry's office sent around a statement of his own. "As someone who has visited Israel numerous times," it read, "I know that it is impracticable to revert to the 1967 lines." It was a departure from the Perry camp's usual missives, which are typically about how Texas has just created 40 new jobs by poaching a paper-clip company from California or something like that. And it was revealing -- but what it revealed, to this Perry watcher, was simply that he really was thinking of running for president.

This is the tricky thing about governors who would be commander in chief: Unlike members of Congress, who arrive on the campaign trail encumbered by voting records and committee-hearing transcripts, we have little idea what state-level chief executives think of the world beyond the borders of Texas, or Arkansas, or Alaska. In the case of Perry -- the longtime governor of Texas who before officially announcing his candidacy on Aug. 13 was better known in parts of the national media for carrying a gun while jogging than for his position on anything -- what little we know is as follows: This summer, he reportedly met with Douglas Feith and William Luti, neoconservatives who served in George W. Bush's administration. He also met with former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf in Austin last month, though Musharraf explained that this was because he, like so many other observers, was curious to learn about Texas's economy. In his 2010 book, Fed Up!, Perry warns that Washington has lost its focus on its "fundamental defense mission." Perry dings  Obama for indulging in the "utter fantasy" of a world without nuclear weapons and for having devoted more attention in his Quadrennial Defense Review to climate change than to China, Russia, North Korea, or Iran. (That last bit is probably especially vexing to Perry, who says he doesn't believe in man-made climate change.)

Going on these scant data points, Perry certainly looks like another Republican hawk, and possibly of the neocon variety. But rhetoric is one thing, and behavior another. Indeed, looking at his record as governor, there are indications that a Perry White House's foreign policy could be more pragmatic than his words and political associations might suggest.

Perry's record on foreign affairs, such as it is, suggests that business interests take precedence over more abstract concerns. Perry has been hawkish on border security, for example, and has even said that the United States should consider deploying troops to Mexico to stop the country's bloody drug war from spilling over the Texas border. But he also campaigned for Mexican trucks to be allowed on American highways -- a development that was promised in the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement and anticipated by Mexico, but held up by the United States until earlier this year, when the Obama administration lifted the ban.

Perry also riled the nativist wing of the Republican Party with his plan for a significant expansion of the state's overloaded infrastructure. The Trans-Texas Corridor, proposed in 2002, would have built a new network of roads and rail lines, including a major thoroughfare cutting through the middle of the Lone Star State, from Mexico to Oklahoma. Because the state budget was already strained and Texans are resolutely opposed to tax hikes, the plan called for the roads to be privately financed and tolled. A half-Spanish developer partnership, Cintra-Zachry, was contracted for much of the work; fringe commentators warned that the whole thing was a step toward the dreaded North American Union. The plan eventually met with less-paranoid criticism -- Texans were not enthused about large swaths of their land being seized by eminent domain for a for-profit enterprise -- and was scuppered. But Perry has been a pragmatic business-first internationalist on other issues as well, publicizing his willingness to do business with countries whose regimes he has criticized in other contexts. In 2004, he announced a $5 million grant to Venezuela-owned Citgo as it relocated its corporate headquarters to Houston, and last year he riled the cybersecurity community when he wooed Chinese telecom Huawei to set up its American headquarters in Plano.

Perry's constant cheerleading for the 10th Amendment -- the constitutional touchstone of states' rights advocates -- points to another pattern in his politics, which is that he defers to the will of the people on those occasions when they coalesce to express it. This, combined with his pro-business bent, may mitigate Perry's hawkish tendencies. One of his critiques about entitlement spending, for example, is that it contributes to the deficit so much that it diminishes America's ability to maintain the world's most effective military. But having a strong military doesn't mean you have to use it. And on the campaign trail Perry has struck some pragmatic notes. "We need to be thoughtful before we ever go into an area that America's interests are truly being impacted," he said last week in South Carolina, speaking of Afghanistan. These aren't the words of a man who wants to spread democracy from Kyrgyzstan to Syria; they are the words of a politician who doesn't like losing causes.

One thing that can be said with confidence about Perry is that as president he wouldn't be much concerned with international opinion (which is lucky for him, because otherwise he would get his feelings hurt -- a President Perry is unlikely to be be feted in Oslo). Two factors make this so. The first is Perry's cynical-yet-not-inaccurate belief that the global community is not always effective. Remarking on the 2010 sinking of South Korea's Cheonan in Fed Up!, Perry observes acidly, "The United Nations responded with its characteristic force, passing yet another resolution expressing displeasure." On Barack Obama's 2009 call for a new treaty to end the production of fissile materials for use in nuclear weapons, he writes, "We don't need a stable of U.N. lawyers to tell us that the international system has no reliable mechanism for enforcing such a treaty." Given that North Korea has yet to be punished for the Cheonan's sinking and that the fissile material treaty is going nowhere fast, Perry seems on solid ground here.

The second, and more problematic, is Perry's conviction that the United States isn't always bound by international rules -- a tricky argument for him to make, given that he believes a lot of American laws are themselves suspect. This was most clearly on display in the 2008 case of Medellín v. Texas. José Medellín was a Mexican national who, along with several other criminals, raped and murdered two teenage girls in Houston in 1993. He was also a vicious thug who, having admitted to the assault and signed a confession, was summarily sentenced to death. The case was straightforward, except that Medellín was not advised of his right to contact the Mexican Consulate. Mexico sued the United States in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 2003, arguing that it had the right to review the cases of Medellín and 50 other Mexican nationals in American prisons. The ICJ sided with Mexico, finding that the United States had breached the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. President George W. Bush issued a memorandum ordering state courts to examine the convictions, and Medellín sued. In 2008, the Supreme Court sided with Texas, finding that the ICJ's judgment was not enforceable as domestic law. "Amazingly, however, three justices did not agree," Perry writes in Fed Up!, "perhaps believing instead that international law should trump the laws of Texas."

None of this is predictive of Perry's hypothetical behavior as president, of course; Bush, you'll recall, spoke on the campaign trail in 2000 of a "humble" foreign policy, and we all know how that turned out. The best predictor, should it come to that, might be the views of the voters. Recent polling from the Pew Research Center suggests an uptick in isolationist sentiment. In 2004, 44 percent of respondents and 58 percent of those identified as conservative Republicans agreed that it was "best for the future of our country to be active in world affairs," as opposed to concentrating on problems at home. By this year, only 33 percent of respondents took that view, including 39 percent of conservatives.

These results may be on account of war fatigue or the beleaguered economy, but it is the mood of the day. Although this election will likely center on economic issues, it would hurt Perry's chances if he took a starkly different perspective from the voters on foreign policy, and if elected, he is not the kind of politician who will try to convince people otherwise. While Perry hardly sounds like an isolationist, neither does he have the record that would suggest a hard-core neoconservative temperament. There will always be the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns, as former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld -- who has also reportedly had a hand in Perry's foreign-policy education -- would say. But looking over Perry's record, there are no examples of him leading people somewhere they're already determined not to go.

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