MOSCOW, August 1. RIA Novosti political commentator Peter Lavelle sought some perspective on the ABC interview with Shamil Basayev from Robert Bruce Ware, associate professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, and noted expert on the North Caucasus.
RIA: Did you watch ABC's interview of Shamil Basayev?
Robert Bruce Ware: I'm relieved to say that I didn't, but I read the transcript.
RIA: What's the difference?
RBW: The first difference is that the transcript omitted the advertisements; ABC didn't make money from it. The second difference is that an examination of the transcript allowed for scrutiny of Basayev's claims. The ABC format did not.
RIA: What did you think of ABC's justification for the interview?
RBW: ABC failed to grasp several important points. For example, Ted Koppel defended the interview on air by noting that he also interviews common criminals. Yet there is an important difference between common criminals and terrorists. Common criminals do not commit their crimes for the purpose of attracting media attention; terrorists do. Terrorists depend upon media coverage, and without media coverage they are powerless. If we are serious about preventing terrorism, then we must begin to accept responsibility for limiting media access for recognized terrorists.
RIA: What do you mean?
RBW: If Basayev had a large army behind him, or if he were popular, even in Chechnya, then he would not need to be a terrorist. He is a terrorist because he lacks popular support, and so the only way that he can attract attention, and acquire power, is to commit shocking atrocities-such as Budenovsk, Dubrovka, and Beslan-that attract media coverage. No one can blame the media for covering a hostage crisis at a school, but that is different from turning the microphone over to the terrorist, and permitting him to spread disinformation.
RBW: So it was. For example, Basayev said that his ambitions were strictly confined to Chechnya. Yet if Basayev's ambitions were confined to Chechnya then he would not have invaded Dagestan on two separate occasions. In 1998, when Basayev was sitting in Chechnya and leaving the rest of the North Caucasus more or less in peace, Russian troops were not sitting in Chechnya. Russian troops went into Chechnya in 1999, only after Basayev led 2,000 fighters into Russia, where they murdered scores of people and displaced 32,000 Dagestanis from their homes. As another example of disinformation, Basayev claimed that he had wanted merely to "hijack" two Russian planes last summer, but that when he attempted to do so, the Russian military shot them out of the sky simultaneously. Yet there is no evidence either that there was a hijack attempt or that the Russian military had time to intervene. The two planes simply exploded without warning. They exploded because of the bombs that Basayev has previously acknowledged that his people smuggled aboard, and they did not explode simultaneously. As another example of disinformation, Basayev blamed Russian officials for the Beslan atrocity, as if Russian officials herded 1,200 hostages into a school gymnasium, denied them food, water, and opportunities to use a toilet for three days, watched children drink their own urine, murdered several people in cold blood execution style, and hung bombs all around the room. ABC failed to note these, and several other, important inaccuracies that together constitute systematic disinformation.
RIA: What about the response of the American government?
RBW: The U.S. government is right in saying that ABC has a constitutional right to interview controversial figures. However, this means neither that the public airwaves are unregulated, nor that anyone can use them to say anything. You and I are American citizens; yet we cannot use American public airwaves to promote criminal activity, let alone terrorism. So why is it that Basayev was able to do so? In the face of an abuse of the American Constitution, such as this case, the U.S. government should, at a minimum, launch an investigation into the legal status of the Basayev interview, and open a public debate into the numerous issues raised by ABC's action. Moreover, since terrorism cannot succeed without media attention, it may be time to consider legislation that limits media access for recognized terrorists, such as Basayev.
RIA: Does the ABC interview with Basayev tell us something about the perception of Russia in Western media? I don't see any of the major networks vying for an exclusive interview with Osama bin Laden - a person clearly at war with the U.S. Basayev, on the other hand, is portrayed as some kind of nationalist.
RBW: If Basayev were a nationalist he would have spent the years from 1997 through 1999, building a truly and effectively independent Chechnya, and if he had done that Chechnya might, in fact, be independent today. Instead Basayev undermined the government of Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov; organized, and otherwise tolerated, horrific criminality; harbored international Islamist extremists; and then invaded Dagestan. There is nothing the least bit nationalistic in any of that. Yet ABC brought out none of these facts. That is simply inconsistent with any standard of balanced and informative news coverage. The fact that ABC was able to get away with that, and indeed probably failed even so much as to realize that it was doing so, is a symptom of a failed media culture, and ultimately of a failed intellectual culture. The American public is slowly awakening to the uncomfortable fact that their media failed to inform them about the causes and origins of the Iraq war, and indeed about the failure of American policy in the Middle East over the last 50 years. However, it has not yet begun to appreciate the failure of the media in its coverage of Russia.
RIA: What is the impact on America's war on terrorism? Doesn't the ABC interview signal to allies that the U.S. will pick and decide who is a terrorist depending on American national interests? Does it signal, "We don't like terrorists who are against us, by don't care if our friends and allies are victims of terrorism?"
RBW: In order for Americans to appreciate the Russian position, they should try to imagine how they would feel, and what they would do, if Russia granted political asylum to the Taliban's foreign minister, set him up in a prestigious professional position at the expense of the Russian government, and then broadcast an interview with Osama bin Laden in which he threatened more attacks upon the United States. Then imagine that the journalist interviewing bin Laden is on the payroll of the Russian government, since Andrei Babitsky was working for the Voice of America when he interviewed Basayev. Finally, imagine that the Russian program moderator accepts outrageous disinformation from bin Laden in an uncritical manner, and at times repeats bin Laden's inaccurate claims.
RIA: You're referring to Illyas Akhmadov's position at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington?
RBW: That's right. Akhmadov was Chechnya's foreign minister in 1999 when Basayev invaded Dagestan. After Basayev's invasion, Putin called upon Aslan Maskhadov to extradite Basayev, close his terrorist training camps, and renounce terrorism. Those are essentially the same three conditions that President Bush gave the Taliban in the autumn of 2001. Both the Chechen foreign minister, and the Taliban foreign minister refused those conditions. Yet the Taliban foreign minister is currently hiding in a cave, and the Chechen foreign minister is working in his office at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington. The only thing that the two of them have in common is that, in both cases, the American taxpayer has picked up the tab. If I were an American ally, I would find that disconcerting.
RIA: How does the ABC interview encourage the recent escalation of terrorist acts in Daghestan? As Basayev is being given media attention in the U.S. (and thus the world), doesn't this empower his followers to continue their efforts to destabilize Daghestan and environs?
RBW: Not immediately and directly. America is simply too far away from Dagestan. Dagestanis pay attention to what America does, but not to what America says. Dagestani Islamists are intensifying their terrorist campaign according to their own agenda without regard for anything else. They've been killing Dagestanis for more than three years, and it's not likely that the ABC interview will do much to change that in any direct way. However, the Dagestani Islamists coordinate with Basayev, and the ABC interview will certainly encourage Basayev. It is possible that this encouragement will eventually culminate in more terrorist attacks in Russia, and Dagestan is part of Russia.
RIA: Who benefits from such an interview? The United States? Basayev? Freedom of speech? Those who have a mission to see Russia destabilized?
RBW: Basayev is certainly the chief beneficiary. The ABC interview allowed him to justify his Beslan atrocity. The justification of Beslan and his own self-redemption were clearly Basayev's chief purposes in the interview, and the primary reasons that he granted the interview to Babitsky. When Ted Koppel said that ABC had a duty to consider all sides, he implied that it is possible to justify the murder of 180 innocent children and the horrific abuse of over 800 more children. For why would it be necessary to consider such a justification, if it were not possible to offer one? But if it is possible to justify the murder of nearly 180 children, then Basayev has done something at Beslan that is potentially justifiable, and he is therefore off the hook. Islamist extremists everywhere benefit secondarily, because if the murder of 180 children is potentially justifiable, then the destruction of the WTC, the beheading of innocents, and everything else that they've done is potentially justifiable. Just like Basayev, bin Laden makes claims that attempt to justify his position. Indisputably, there are elements of truth in some of bin Laden's claims. However, we Americans are committed to the view that nothing can possibly justify what bin Laden did on 9/11. We are therefore committed to the view that 9/11 is not potentially justifiable. We are right about that. But for the same reasons, there is nothing that can possibly justify what Basayev did in Beslan, Dubrovka, Dagestan, Budenovsk, and the scenes of his many other atrocities. That's why we don't need to hear from Basayev any more than we need to hear from Bin Laden, and that's why ABC was dead wrong.
RIA: ABC may have been wrong, but was it a winner?
RBW: ABC exploited the suffering of 1,000 children and their families in order to market a pain reliever, and evidently no one is going to hold ABC accountable. If anyone wants to regard that as winning, then perhaps ABC is a winner. But for me, it simply means that ABC has nothing left to lose.
RIA: Any other winners? What about those who want to destabilize Russia?
RBW: Interesting phrase. Perhaps some of those people felt like winners at the end of last week, but the fact is that they never win. They are simply a clique of naive and uninformed individuals, who inhabit the world of 40 years ago, and are of no consequence in the world today. They have a knack for making noise, and the ones in Congress are even capable of symbolic gestures, but none of them ever really accomplishes any real change in Russian-American affairs, and they know it. The only problem is that Russian officials and opinion makers have failed to understand this. Some Russians act as if these people had real influence in America, and this illusion occasionally complicates Russian-American relations, making things more difficult for those in Washington who have real work to do.
RIA: Who are the losers in the aftermath of Basayev's interview?
RBW: First, Americans are losers: the cases of Basayev and Akhmadov are not going to destroy America's strategic relationship with Russia all by themselves. But America's strategic relationship with Russia is gradually being undermined, and these cases have contributed to it. Second, Russians are losers: Basayev used the ABC interview to redeem himself. He will eventually raise a little more money as a result. He will feel strengthened and encouraged. Somewhere down the road more Russians will suffer and die. Third, Chechens are losers: Basayev is supported by less than 5% of the Chechens, and he is hated by nearly all Chechens. Yet he continues to present himself as their international face, and much of the world thinks that his cause is their cause. This is a falsehood for which the Chechens have gravely suffered, and for which they will continue to suffer. In order to begin to understand what the Basayev interview meant to most Chechens you might wish to consider how most Americans would feel if much of the world was operating under the illusion that Timothy McVeigh (the Oklahoma City bomber) was speaking for the American people. Finally, humanity is a loser: whenever a spotlight shines on somebody like Basayev, the rest of the world grows darker.
RIA: So what should we conclude from all of this?
RBW: We should conclude that ABC has possibly acted illegally, has certainly acted irresponsibly, and has certainly violated the public trust. We should conclude that the American government has fallen short of justice and leadership. We should conclude that Americans are uninformed, but we should not conclude that Americans are malevolent. The only way that most Americans will ever be able to find the North Caucasus on a map is if Survivor films a segment there. Most Americans will never hear of Shamil Basayev, and will never know anything about what is happening in Russia. They want America to maintain good relations with Russia, and they wish all Russians and all Chechens peace and prosperity.
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