No sane American journalist would ever chunk his shoes at the president of the United States because it would be disrespectful of the office and even worse flout the journalist's code, which does not permit a reporter to betray evidence that he has an opinion, particularly an unfavorable one.
Even impertinent questions have been out of bounds for the White House press corps during the George W. Bush presidency. When they assembled Iraqi journalists in the Green Zone of Baghdad Sunday to be props for the president's carefully staged victory tour of the liberated and democratic Iraq, he must have expected that one of those rules or both would apply or, if not, at least the famous Arab custom of unctuous courtesy to guests.
All our prides were wounded by the impudent treatment of the president by the Iraqi TV reporter who aimed his shoes at Bush, a Muslim gesture of contempt, and shouted the salutation “This is a gift from the Iraqis; this is the farewell kiss, you dog!” His second shoe, high and wide, was accompanied by the careful explanation, “This is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq!”
Pride aside, although we would never do it that way, Americans and especially journalists might have a grudging appreciation for the artful way that Muntader al-Zaidi went about doing the job that is every reporter's mission, which is to reveal truth. When the day was done, he had done that.
All across Iraq and indeed the whole Muslim world people showed solidarity with Muntader by using their shoes to exhibit their resentment of Bush and America for what had been done to the country. Muntader was an instant hero. Man-on-the-street comments all across Iraq assembled by the Washington Post, The New York Times and other Western papers showed overwhelming support for the jailed reporter.
So that is the climax of the Bush phase of the war, which began with the administration's assertion, articulated most forcefully by Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, that Iraqis universally would greet Americans as liberators and that peace and pacification would be almost instantaneous and enduring. The shoe-generated tumult also was a final counterpoint to the original rationale for the war promoted by Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, William Kristol and others of the Project for the New American Century, which was that conquering Iraq would establish a loving ally and a beachhead of U. S. influence that would spread country by country through the Arab world.
Bush wanted his trip to emphasize that Iraq is much safer than it was two years ago, when U. S. casualties were mounting by hundreds a week, more than a million Iraqi civilians had died, five to six million had been dislodged and were suffering refugees in neighboring lands, and life for millions who were left was a daily hell. Whatever his point, Bush's trip could demonstrate that much. It is safer.
The president may also have a point that Muntader demonstrated that Iraq is freer now because a reporter felt free to deliver such an unconventional expression of will. Under Saddam Hussein he would have been shot at dusk unless it was deemed that he needed torturing first. As it was, Muntader was only beaten senseless by security agents and imprisoned. He will serve a few years in prison unless the regime yields to popular clamor and lets him go after Bush leaves office. (A report by Human Rights Watch last week said the Iraq judicial system still showed “disturbing continuity” with the Saddam era with systematic torture and delays of years in bringing people to trial, if ever. One advance may be that the victims are mostly minority Sunnis now, not Shia.)
Muntader gave expression to the horrors that many Iraqis have endured for the nearly six years of war and for much longer as a result of the destruction of the country's infrastructure and services in the first gulf war and in the intermittent bombings and embargo of the Clinton years.
The horror of the war has been one-sided, borne in this country only by a small part of the population for whom an airborne shoe in the president's direction would not be a satisfying gesture. Five thousand men and women in uniform and mufti have died and another 30,000 or so wounded for the cause that produced the current state of affairs in the Middle East. The burden will continue long after the last American soldier goes home. An Army psychologist told Congress early this year that almost a third of the troops on their third deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan suffered serious mental disorders, a statistic personalized by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette last week.
And the monetary cost, borne silently in incalculable ways by the American society? No one knows whether a trillion dollars or two trillion dollars will cover it. On the day that the president flew haplessly to the Middle East for his victory lap, officials in Bush's own administration leaked a 513-page government history of the good part of Bush's war, the $100 billion effort to rebuild Iraq. It was an almost total failure, torpedoed by massive corruption on their part and ours, ignorance, violence, incompetence and simple heedlessness by the men who planned and administered it. When things began to go wrong, the history said, Bush's Pentagon simply put out lies and inflated measures of progress to cover them up.
Seen in those ways, some cowhide hurled in the president's direction seems like such a puny gesture.