Democracy Now! Hosts Int’l Roundtable in Doha On State of The Union, State of The World

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A roundtable of top international journalists reacts to Bush’s State of the Union address, and gives us their take on the state of affairs in their respective countries and around the world. We’re joined by Andres Izarra, President of the newly-launched Latin American television network TeleSUR; Alain Gresh, Chief Editor of France”s Le Monde Diplomatique; and Abdul Bari Atwan, Editor in Chief at Al-Quds Al Arabi–a leading, London-based newspaper on the Middle East. [includes rush transcript]

  • Andres Izarra, President of TeleSUR, a two-month old multinational satellite network launched by Argentina, Bolivia, Cuba and Venezuela. Prior to that, he was Venezuala’s Minister of Communications and Information under President Chavez.
  • Alain Gresh, Chief Editor of France’s Le Monde Diplomatique. He is president of the Association of French Journalists specializing in Morroco and the Middle East and is author of several books on the Middle East.
  • Abdul Bari Atwan, Editor in Chief at Al-Quds Al Arabi–a leading newspaper in the Middle East–since 1989. He is also author of the new book Secret History of al Qa’ida.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We are broadcasting today from Doha, Qatar, and we’re joined by an international roundtable to respond to President Bush’s State of the Union, to talk about, well, the state of the world today. Particularly, we’ll focus today on the Middle East. Tomorrow we’ll talk about Al Jazeera, which is based here in Doha, Qatar. Again, our guests, Andres Izarra, who is President of TeleSUR, the new Latin American TV network; also Abdul Bari Atwan, the author of The Secret History of al Qa’ida, Editor-in-Chief of Al-Quds, which is based in London; and we’re joined by Alain Gresh, who is the Editor of Le Monde Diplomatique, the French newspaper. We’re going to begin with Abdul Bari Atwan. Your response to President Bush’s statement last night in his State of Union address, “We are winning.”

ABDUL BARI ATWAN: Well, actually, I’m surprised when he said “We are winning,” because if he’s winning, he is supposed not to be in Iraq and not to be in Afghanistan, but actually, when you lose more than $300 billion in a war against terrorism, when you lose 2,245 American soldiers, when the country is in a complete anarchy, I think you cannot talk about winning, especially when the Iraqi people lost more than 100,000 people who were killed in this war. The Middle East is actually going from bad to worse. I believe terrorism is increasing. It’s not decreasing.

The war or — the world, actually, is not safer, as President Bush used to say. Just about a week ago Osama bin Laden came out with an audio tape saying that he is planning or preparing to launch more attacks against the United States. Ayman al-Zawahiri just two days ago issued another videotape saying that there will be more attacks against the United States. So if those people who — the war against terrorism supposed actually to eliminate them, supposed to remove al-Qaeda, supposed to actually make the world safer, it’s not working. It’s not happening. How the President of the United States claiming that he is winning this war? I believe he is losing, and he should admit it.

And he is losing the support of his own people. 39% of the American people support him or are convinced he is a good leader and his policy is the right one. So a man in his place, I believe he should resign, not to continue saying, “We are winning,” because he is not fooling anybody. He is only fooling himself.

And that’s how we see it in the Middle East. I believe the war against terrorism is actually won by Osama bin Laden, by al-Qaeda. Iraq is not actually safer. Iraq is more dangerous. Iraq is not a basis or actually a model of democracy. Iraq now is exporting terrorism. We notice that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the man of al-Qaeda in Iraq, is sending his suicide bomber to Jordan. So I don’t know, you know, why he is saying this statement. I’m really shocked to hear it.

AMY GOODMAN: You are based in London. What about your Prime Minister Tony Blair? Does he take the same approach as President Bush?

ABDUL BARI ATWAN: Actually, Tony Blair is taking the same approach. He is actually trying to say that they are winning. But he is not actually repeating the same mottos as he used to say, that the world is safer after they removed Saddam Hussein. Actually, he stopped repeating the same thing. He stopped saying we are winning the war against terrorism. What he is saying now, he’s saying we are trying to — he’s more apologetic. He is trying to say that, you know, it does worth it to have democracy in Iraq. It does worth it to have elections, and the Iraqi people elected their government, but where is this government? The Iraqi people — actually it took the government about a month and a half to declare the result of the election. Imagine, a month and a half, and now, actually, we are waiting maybe three months, six months until we see a government established in Iraq. So what kind of democracy and what kind of Iraq is really established by the American and the British? I think Tony Blair is losing also, and now his party is in a very, very difficult position.

AMY GOODMAN: Alain Gresh of Le Monde Diplomatique in France, do you agree that Osama bin Laden is winning?

ALAIN GRESH: At least I agree that George Bush is losing. I don’t know who will win in the end, and I am afraid that chaos will prevail in Iraq and in some other countries of the —


ALAIN GRESH: Chaos, yes. Like we’ve seen in some way in Iraq and perhaps tomorrow in Palestine. So I think he’s losing the war, and what is strange for us, looking from Europe, is how can he say this to the American people without any — he has problem inside, of course, with public opinion. But he got support, until now, 40% of the people, and I don’t think this would be possible without the role played by the media since the beginning of the war.

Of course, there were some changes. We know how the media lied to the American people concerning the arms of mass destruction and etc., but until now, I’m not sure that Iraq is — that American people get a clear picture of what is happening in Iraq on the ground. I mean it’s really a terrible situation. It’s more difficult to see it today because there are very few journalists. It is very difficult to have information, but I think there are information showing that the situation is getting worse and worse, and I don’t believe for one moment that Americans will be able to withdraw even 40,000 people — 40,000 soldiers before the end of the year.

AMY GOODMAN: Now France, the French government was opposed to the invasion and occupation. Would you say that that determined a lot of the difference of the French press from the British and U.S. press in the lead-up?

ALAIN GRESH: I hope it was not only the position of the French government, especially now that the position of the French government, unfortunately, has — not changed, but is more — is less against the war and against American presence in Iraq. There was, at first, a very strong public opinion movement from the beginning, and also I think there are special relations between the Middle East and France, and I think French journalists know better, you can say, the Middle East, so some of the lies were not bought by the French press. So I think it has played a role, but now even with a government who is silent on Iraq, the press is still criticizing. This is one of the aspects of American policy in Iraq.

If you look at the public opinion in the world, not only the Muslim world, but even in Europe — there was a headline of the Herald Tribune concerning a poll done in 15 countries about the image of United States, China, etc., and the title was “Even China is Doing Better.” I mean, now the — even in England, people think more positively about China than about the United States, and this is a result of Bush policy, because, as you know, after the 11th of September, generally, at least in Europe, there was a movement of sympathy with the American people, and he has — President Bush has completely crushed this movement’s sympathy. I think anti-Americanism in the sense anti-Bush policy has never been so strong than now.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let me go south to Latin America. Andres Izarra, you head up TeleSUR, this brand new network out of Latin America. As you listen to President Bush give his address, talking about winning the war on terror, what are your thoughts?

ANDRES IZARRA: Well, I cannot think but about the Venezuelan government denouncing this addiction to oil several times. President Chavez has said it publicly, and the consequences that this addiction to oil is bringing to the world, not only in environmental terms but also in political terms. We have to remember that this addiction to oil has caused the Venezuelan government a couple of crises due to U.S. interference in Venezuela’s political process. It’s no secret that the U.S. was behind a coup d’état in 2002 to topple President Chavez. It was also behind an oil sabotage that stopped the oil economy in Venezuela for over two months and is pushing every effort to destabilize the Venezuelan economy, as denounced by President Chavez on several occasions. Even President Chavez has denounced U.S. efforts to kill him. This addiction to oil means for Venezuela a stronger or a rising risk of U.S. intervention in Venezuela to guarantee that this addiction is satisfied.

AMY GOODMAN: And yet, Venezuela also profits from the addiction to oil.

ANDRES IZARRA: Sure. Venezuela, as you know, is the owner of one of the biggest U.S. refining and distribution companies, such as Citgo, but at the same time, Venezuela is taking a very interesting initiative by providing heating oil to low-income families at a discount price, and this is also another issue that was left out of President Bush’s address, which is the rise in poverty in the United States, and what is the U.S. government going to do to attack that rising poverty? You will have — the energy issue is key, considering the rising prices in energy and how are people now going to do to heat their houses, to heat their homes. So, yes, the Venezuelan government profits from that oil, but at the same time, it’s the only multinational company that is trying to do something about poverty in the United States. Citgo has invited other companies such as Exxon, Chevron-Texaco and other U.S. and multinational companies to do something about this issue, because it’s an issue of the Venezuelan government’s concern, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go back to something you said about 2002. We, in the last period, have been looking at what has been happening in Haiti in the lead-up to the — to next week’s election there. We’ve looked at the role of the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute, the National Endowment for Democracy, and the information that is continually coming out about their role in supporting the opposition and ultimately the ouster of President Aristide and now today in the opposition forces. Can you talk about those same organizations in Venezuela?

ANDRES IZARRA: Definitely. Definitely. You have the N.E.D. involved in many of the efforts to try to topple President Chavez, financing — public documents released last year. There is even a book by Eva Golinger about the financing by N.E.D. of anti-democratic groups who acted before, prepared the coup d’état and acted during the coup d’état. You’ve had different groups, still financed by the N.E.D., working in Venezuela also to destabilize the government, like in Haiti, many of them disguised as NGOs who really are groups who are working for a definite political objective traced by the U.S. government.

AMY GOODMAN: You say that the U.S. has attempted to assassinate Chavez. What documentation do you have of that?

ANDRES IZARRA: No, I have said that President Chavez has denounced this possibility on several occasions. When you have a country that is addicted to oil, and you have the supplier of that oil claiming its sovereign decision, its sovereign will to use those resources to finance its own development and the development of Latin America as a priority, and this hostile administration to that political objective traced by the Venezuelan government, you see clearly there is an antagonism there, that this oil addiction is behind it.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask about TeleSUR and what you are trying to accomplish with TeleSUR.

ANDRES IZARRA: Yes, well, TeleSUR is a multinational enterprise backed by the governments of Argentina, Uruguay, Cuba and Venezuela. Our purpose is to be a window to the region, show what the region is about, inform about the region with the voices and the talents of Latin America. Nowadays — or up to the launching of TeleSUR, we were only able to know what went on in Latin America through the eyes of the big multinational media companies, such as the big agencies or CNN. There was no way we could know what was happening in Argentina or in Chile or in Brazil or in Bolivia through an information service that came from the region itself.

In that sense, it’s very similar to Al Jazeera, which is the first network that was able to talk to the Arab world from the Arab world itself and show what went on in the Arab world through their news service. So TeleSUR is trying to do the same thing, in the sense that it’s trying to inform Latin America from its own perspective, using its own talent, its own capacities, and that it’s giving us a possibility to go deeper in what’s going on in the region in showing our audiences what is happening and cultivating a bigger conscience of what we are and what we do.

AMY GOODMAN: One of the criticisms of the corporate media in the United States is it’s very much beholden to the government. It may not be run by the government, but it has acted as a megaphone for those in power. In the lead up to the invasion, it kept emphasizing weapons of mass destruction, and it turned out it was not the case. If TeleSUR is run by the various governments, how it is separate? How will it give us an honest depiction of Latin America outside of the governments’ view of the countries that sponsor it?

ANDRES IZARRA: Well, we’ve been on the air for three months now, and I think it’s been enough time to show our independence in how we are covering the region. Al Jazeera is also an initiative financed by the Qatari government, and I understand it has caused the Qatari government several headaches, especially with the relationship to its neighbors. Nonetheless, the independence of Al Jazeera has not been curtailed because of this issue. So is the case with TeleSUR. TeleSUR, although it is financed by these states, by these governments, it has in its principles to act independently and especially to stand for the highest ethical and professional standards of journalism.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you, Abdul Bari Atwan — you focus on the Middle East. You’re based in London. We have gotten some news over the last month of another Downing Street memo.


AMY GOODMAN: We’ve not seen this memo. The newspapers, publications, media outlets in London have been forbidden from publishing it, if it indeed exists. And it’s about, supposedly, the reports are, President Bush telling Blair that he wanted to bomb the headquarters of Al-Jazeera, which is right here in Doha, Qatar. Can you explain more about this and if, in fact, you believe this memo exists?

ABDUL BARI ATWAN: Yes. Actually, I do believe it does exist, because if we noticed the American reaction toward Al Jazeera and its free reporting, especially from the hot spots like Iraq and Afghanistan, we can understand why this administration is so sensitive vis-à-vis Al Jazeera. We know the Americans bombed Al Jazeera’s office in Afghanistan, in Kabul, during that war against Afghanistan. Also, we know that the Americans bombed, you know, Abu Dhabi and Al Jazeera office and killed one of Al Jazeera’s reporters inside Iraq, in Baghdad, during the war. We know that the American administration, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and even President Bush himself, criticized Al Jazeera several times and its coverage of the situation in Iraq.

It seems the American administration doesn’t want anybody to give a fair account of what’s happening in the Middle East. They are actually talking about democracy, talking about freedom of expression, but at the same time, trying, actually, to impose censorship on Al Jazeera. I know, personally, the American administration several times complained that certain Arab media and satellite television having guests like me who is very critical of the war against terrorism and the war in Iraq, and I know that from my colleagues in these satellite channels, that there is a blacklist, and I am at the top of this blacklist.

So, in London, now there is a trial about — against journalists of the Daily Mirror and also American officials who leaked these documents. So the document is there, and in this documents, it was indicated that President Bush was seriously thinking of bombing Al Jazeera. And Al Jazeera several times asked for these documents to be published or to have a look at it, and the British government refused to do so. And the British government admitted in a letter from 10 Downing Street to a citizen who asked about this, that yes, the document existed.

So if the document exists, why they don’t publish it? Why actually they don’t say exactly what happened? It is actually a setback for the American administration and for its credibility about talking about the human rights and about their freedom of expression, about democracy. Our problem in the Middle East, we’re always trying to imitate the American media. We are always trying to present ourselves as actually free, as objective, like the Americans, those in the media. But we notice recently that the Americans, who are the leader of freedom of expression, the leader of democracy, actually they are not encouraging us, encouraging our media outlets to be as free as they’re supposed to be, as they teach these kind of values to their students, media students in the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we have to break. We’re going to come back to this discussion. Our guests are Abdul Bari Atwan, who is author of The Secret History of al Qa’ida. It is a book that’s just being published. He is also the Editor-in-Chief of Al-Quds, a newspaper that focuses on the Middle East, based in London. Andres Izarra of TeleSUR. He is President of the Latin American TV network. And Alain Gresh. He is Editor of Le Monde Diplomatique, based in France.


AMY GOODMAN: We are broadcasting from Doha, Qatar. I’m Amy Goodman. As we talk about the State of the Union and the state the world, at least as far as the Middle East today, as we focus both on the Middle East and also on Latin America. Our guests are Andres Izarra, President of TeleSUR, the brand new Latin American news network. We’re also joined by Alain Gresh. He is the Editor of Le Monde Diplomatique in Paris, France. And we’re joined by Abdul Bari Atwan. Al-Quds Al Arabi is his newspaper based in London. He has a new book out; it’s called The Secret History of al Qa’ida. And they are all here for the second annual meeting that Al Jazeera is sponsoring — Al Jazeera is based here in Doha, Qatar — talking about the state of the media with journalists from all over the world. Alain Gresh, I wanted to talk you to about a subject you raised today in the open session of this conference, and that is, on the stories that are focused on by the media and the stories that are missed.

ALAIN GRESH: There are sometimes — I was saying that there are sometimes lies made by the media, and we spoke about the arm of mass destruction. But sometimes it’s not lie; it’s a problem of how you focus, of how you put a news in its context. I was giving the example of the Oil for Food resolution in the United Nation. You know, one year ago there was a commission from the United Nation, a commission from the Congress saying that this exchange between oil and food in Iraq during the embargo has been profited by Saddam Hussein, who has taken some billion from this. And there was a big fuss about it. But I think this is a true — I mean, it’s true.

But the problem is that nobody mentioned that this embargo for ten years and this Oil for Food program have contributed in a direct way to the — not only to the poverty of the Iraqi people, but also to the fact that the state in 2003 in Iraq was no state. There was no state. People were — I went there, and I think many people went there. It was not functioning. So it was not very strange that just after the Americans entered, the [inaudible] break up. And this should have been told by the media. Otherwise, I mean, we would speak about scandal, and we can find other scandals.

There are also scandals linked with Iraq, which we have not spoken about. I spoke about the United Nation Competition Commission, which worked also during this embargo. 30% of all Iraqi oil exports were used to pay people who has been [inaudible] by the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. That means that billion of dollar were given to Kuwaiti, Saudi, big friends at the moment where Iraq was crushing. And this commission is still functioning now; of course, on a small basis. That means that we take today a part of Iraqi money to pay big firms in Kuwait, Iraq, Saudi Arabia. This is a real problem. And I think it’s much more important than the scandal. I don’t think the scandal is not important, U.N. for food, and the fact that there was people taking bribes, etc., etc. We should fix it. But was it the main story? I don’t think so.

AMY GOODMAN: Another example?

ALAIN GRESH: Another example is how we — I was really shocked — this time I will criticize the French media, not only the American media — about the reaction of the French media to Hamas victory. I mean all the media had more or less the same point of view: Hamas is a terrorist organization, and we should pressure Hamas, and that’s all. Meaning, they — nobody spoke in a clear way that this was democratic election, even under — I mean, democratic election under military occupation. We must not forget this. And, okay, 76% of the Palestinian people went to vote. They decided to vote. We Westerns are giving lessons to everybody in the world about democracy. And once there is democracy, we say, 'Oh, okay, can you have democracy, but you can't vote for this or for this.’ It’s really strange.

Second, okay, I can understand as a European, we want — I mean, Europe wants a solution based on two states — one Palestinian state, one Israeli state — and there must be an agreement, and Hamas must be part of this agreement. And we must pressure Hamas so to reach this agreement. But must we — why you put pressure only on one side? I mean, it’s very strange. We don’t say anything about Israel. Before Hamas election, for one year there was Abu Mazen, who was a very moderate Palestinian leader. Has Sharon accepted to discuss with him? No. There was only one meeting between them. And finally, there was nothing discussed between them. And I think there is no Israeli leadership today or even tomorrow after the election that is ready to accept the international law which says that West Bank and Gaza and East Jerusalem are Occupied Territories. And this is a real problem. If we want to define international law as European law, as Western law, please ask the two parties to accept what we consider as a base for resolution. We can’t ask only Hamas and say, “Okay, you must accept this,” but in a change, we don’t ask anything to the Israeli government.

AMY GOODMAN: Your response to that?

ABDUL BARI ATWAN: Well, actually, I’m very happy to hear that, because seriously the Western media, they are looking for scandals. They are looking for the crimes of Saddam Hussein. They are looking for things which actually can go ahead with the previous agenda set by the American administration and other Western governments who are involved in this war. Yeah, if I will refer to what’s happening in the Occupied Territories, I would like to add something more to what Alain said.

AMY GOODMAN: And Abdul Bari Atwan, you are a Palestinian?

ABDUL BARI ATWAN: Yes, I’m a Palestinian. I remember during the Israeli pullout of Gaza, you know, the people were absolutely jubilant about this. The media were very happy to portray the Israeli pullout as a great achievement. And also they were talking about the suffering of those settlers who are really going to be deprived of their homes and characterizing them as, you know, poor people. They should gain the sympathy.

The facts on the ground is completely different. Those people were rewarded about a quarter of a million of dollars, you know, as a compensation for their houses. My niece, actually, her house was blown up by the Israeli. She was given five minutes to clear the house before they blew it up. She wasn’t given a single pound or dollar as a compensation. And when she moved to live with her in-laws — I mean, her parents, father and mother-in-law, the Israelis came back and bulldozed her house. Again she was — twice. And she wasn’t given no notice at all.

Those people were given notice — six month’s notice and a quarter million as a compensation, and then people were crying about it. Those people were actually — if you actually go and use stolen property, you are a criminal. Those people took this land and set up the settlement, the best land, the best water resources, swimming pools, while the people around are really suffering. The 7,000 settlers got about 40% of Gaza Strip, which is 360 square kilometers, while a million and a half million living in the 60% left to them, which is the most crowded area in the world.

So the media actually did not give us facts, did not give us some history about those people, why they are there, what the international law are saying about them. This is the problem. Usually they go for live things and forget the crux of the matter.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring Andres Izarra into this. There are many people of Arab descent who live in Latin America, are there not?

ANDRES IZARRA: Yes. Only in Brazil it’s estimated around 10 million people who are Arab descent living in Brazil. If you add that — I don’ t know the statistics of the rest of the region, but the Arab or Arab-descent community in Latin America is huge, and it’s very, very influential. It’s very well off economically, and because of that, it has a lot of political influence. In fact, we saw for the first time last year an effort by the Brazilian government to bring together — there was a table of discussion where heads of states from the Middle East and heads of state from Latin America were brought together to discuss for the first time in the history of our continent. So these two regions — there’s really an effort to bring these two regions that have so many things in common, that have so many cultural similarities in many ways, because we inherited from the Arabs through the Spanish occupation of Latin America, trying to build bridges. And, well, we see one example with what TeleSUR is trying to do with Al Jazeera, which is to sign an agreement to exchange content, exchange or complement our efforts for Al Jazeera to cover Latin America for TeleSUR, to cover the Middle East. We are helping in every way we can the correspondent of Al Jazeera in Latin America, that for the first time we have an Arab media based in Latin America, covering Latin America on a day-to-day basis and showing the Middle East audiences what Latin America is about and what’s going on in this very important part of the world.

AMY GOODMAN: This may be an odd question, but do you think Iraq saved Latin America? What I mean by that is the U.S. has had years of intervention in Latin America, but with its focus almost completely diverted to Iraq, although it focused some on Haiti, we have seen one election after another in Latin America, where there is a very clear change. And I’m wondering if you think that has anything to do with the U.S. focus on Iraq right now.

ANDRES IZARRA: Well, not really. I think the U.S. did all it could to try to stop Evo Morales from rising to the presidency, just to pull out a recent example of new governments with broad popular support that are not sympathetic to, especially to, the actual foreign policy of the United States. But in terms of Venezuela, which is one of the most critical cases, I think the U.S. really pulled an effort to try to topple the Chavez government through the oil sabotage. During 64 days, the elite of the oil bureaucracy walked out of their jobs, and a part of the society related to that elite went on strike for over 64 days. Those were 64 days where no oil production came out of Venezuela, which is very critical for us, considering that Venezuela depends almost 90% of its income from oil production. Although that effort was launched, it was very related to Iraq. It was a couple of months before the Iraq invasion happened. That was an effort thrown by the United States to try to control its main strategic reserve closer to the United States. They could not succeed in what they were trying to accomplish, which was, again, to regain control, absolute control, of those reserves. But now, the effort — the U.S. government is still trying to put a government in Venezuela which they can control, which is more sympathetic to what their interest is, more aligned to what their foreign policy is pursuing. So, an oil-addicted neighbor in the region is very dangerous to us especially, and it’s a destabilizing force. It’s the biggest destabilizing force in Latin America nowadays.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you all for being with us. Andres Izarra, President of the new Latin American news television network called TeleSUR; Abdul Bari Atwan, who is the Editor-in-Chief of Al-Quds Al Arabi, based in London, and he has written a new book called The Secret History of al Qa’ida; as well, Alain Gresh, the Editor of Le Monde Diplomatique in France. We are broadcasting from Doha, Qatar.

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