During the Gulf War, NBC reporter Arthur Kent was famed for his boyish good looks. Today, liberated from the network, he's free to say that Bush is out of control.
Arthur Kent is pessimistic. A few weeks ago, Kent, an independent documentary filmmaker and journalist based in London, thought another war with Iraq could be avoided and a negotiated settlement could be reached with Saddam Hussein. Not anymore. He fears “dark forces” will unleash a conflict that will kill and maim thousands of innocent civilians, give rise to virulent anti-Americanism and anti-Westernism and plunge the world into strife for years to come.
This isn’t idle speculation. Kent first reported on Afghanistan in 1980, soon after Soviet forces invaded the country to subdue mujahedin guerillas. A decade later, NBC News sent him to Dharan, Saudi Arabia, to cover the impending war with Iraq. That’s where Kent became an instant celebrity when, in January 1991, he reported live on an Iraqi Scud missile attack. With his dashing good looks, as well as his stylish Italian leather jacket, the media dubbed him the “Scud Stud.” After the Gulf War, Kent continued to report on the Middle East and Afghanistan. In June 2001, three months before Sept. 11, PBS aired his film on the Taliban’s brutal rule, “Captives of the Warlords.” A few weeks ago, his show on the History Channel, “History Undercover,” interviewed U.N. weapon inspectors about Saddam’s arsenal.
So, who are these “dark forces?” Our leaders. Kent harbors no love for Saddam Hussein. He considers him a tyrant who has starved his people for the past 12 years while buying even more weapons. But the 49-year-old journalist fears that the Bush administration’s heavy-handed foreign policy toward Iraq will have devastating and long-lasting repercussions. “These people appear to be doctrinaire political fundamentalists,” he told Salon during a recent interview in New York. “I think the Bush administration proceeds at its own peril.”
In the city for a few days to film shows for the History Channel, Kent strode into the lobby of the midtown Omni Berkshire Place for our interview looking precisely the part of a broadcast TV journalist: navy blazer, a light blue shirt open at the collar and pale gray trousers. Even in the middle of a long winter, he had a slight tan. Only a few gray hairs at his temples hint at how much time has passed since he became the Scud Stud. To have some privacy and quiet, Kent suggests we talk at a corner table in an empty dining room. We barely sit down before he launches into his criticisms of Bush’s foreign policies. Clearly, he’s agitated about the imminent war.
Kent is a bit of an oddity. In a media world obsessed with packaging stories for mass consumption and high ratings, he has an almost Frank Capra-esque vision of journalism, one where the reporter pursues the truth with single-minded devotion. He grew up in a family of journalists in Alberta, Canada. His father was a columnist for the local paper, the Calgary Herald, and his brother was a TV reporter. From his father, Kent learned journalism was a noble crusade, an effort to present facts in such a way as to either stir readers to action or encourage them to think about issues. In his 1997 book, “Risk and Redemption: Surviving the Network News Wars,” Kent says coverage of the Gulf War “galvanized my faith in the very special public service our profession can and should deliver.”
Yet his earnestness almost derailed his career.
NBC News executives loved the fact that Kent, with his unruly dark hair and blue-gray eyes, had turned into the Satellite Dish, Arthur of Arabia, the Scud Stud. He was barraged with fan mail, love letters, marriage proposals and invitations for postwar rendezvous complete with topless pictures. Not surprisingly, his reports on Operation Desert Storm boosted the Nightly News’ ratings among women.
But NBC bosses were less thrilled about his tenacity in following controversial stories, such as the Pentagon’s tight control of media coverage during the Gulf War. When fighting began, Kent and most other reporters were hundreds of miles from the front line in Kuwait. (CNN, then an upstart cable network, hadn’t evacuated its camera crew and reporters from Baghdad, so they were able to broadcast the U.S. attack on the ancient city.)
When Kent confronted military officials about censorship, he incurred his bosses’ wrath. In his book, he says that Steve Friedman, then the executive producer of Nightly News, warned him, “I think we should stop whining about this censorship thing.”
After the war, NBC capitalized on Kent’s popularity and considered grooming him to replace Tom Brokaw. But Kent’s star was already fading. By summer 1991, NBC, owned by General Electric Co., was cutting international coverage. Kent survived. In early 1992, he was asked to join a new newsmagazine, “Dateline NBC.” Kent was an awkward fit; he believed the show was more interested in entertainment than hard news. While his contract to move back to the “Nightly News” was being renegotiated, NBC ordered him to report on the war in Bosnia. Kent refused to go until his contract dispute was settled. NBC fired him. In fall 1992, Kent filed a $25 million breach of contract suit against the network.
The break with NBC turned out to be a lucky one. A year and a half later, NBC settled. With the money, Kent founded his own film company in London, Fast Forward Films. Since then, he’s won awards for several of his documentaries, including “A View of Bosnia” (1993), “Return to Afghanistan” (1995) and “A Wedding in Basra” (1998) and the more recent “Captives of the Warlords.” Kent now has the freedom to pursue stories he thinks warrant coverage. Besides running his own film company, he writes for the London Observer, the Canadian newsweekly Macleans, and he hosts “History Undercover.”
With this independence, Kent can speak his mind. And he did, at length.
Last week when we were setting up this interview, you were optimistic that war on Iraq could be postponed, giving the inspectors more time to assess Saddam Hussein’s weapons. Today, your outlook is bleaker. Why?
Most of us have been hoping that somehow this looming catastrophe would not go forward at this pace. Everybody wants to deal with Saddam Hussein, even France and Russia, who are complaining about losing their oil rights in Iraq. They don’t enjoy dealing with Saddam Hussein’s regime. He’s an unreliable tyrant. Almost all governments want to see a regime change in Baghdad, but there are ways of doing it and there are ways of doing it.
The war plan as devised by the Bush administration, pouring in hundreds of thousands of troops, a massive air force and navy, and directing intense firepower on Iraq, as a nation, and the Iraqis, as a people, will result in bloodshed and destruction. Even if Saddam and his inner circle are removed, the consequences in terms of anti-Western and anti-American feeling in the region will outweigh the benefits. We could be looking at a regional war that will rage for years.
Do you see this war evolving into a larger conflict?
Handled improperly, we’re almost certainly seeing the commencement of a broad regional war in and around Iraq. Many learned statesmen and leaders have warned that this campaign against terrorism, and the Bush administration’s approach to Iraq, Iran and North Korea, could trigger a war of generations, a very long-lasting, ugly war that shifts its focus from region to region and from nation to nation. Some will be low-intensity conflicts, some will be terrorism and counter-terrorism conflicts, and some will be wars, as we’re seeing now with the deployment of vast armies in the desert.
Won’t superior American forces quickly overwhelm the Iraqis?
You can’t move and employ these kinds of weapons in a peaceful way. Last week, I interviewed the field commander of one of Britain’s legendary armored corps in the first Gulf War and he said, ‘This is not a good idea. When you employ military power on this scale, you kill a lot of people.’
One thousand two hundred-odd cluster munitions were used in Afghanistan, 60 times what were used in the first Gulf War. These cluster munitions kill a lot of people, and they leave a lot of unexploded bomblets and submunitions around that kill people for years. The war in Iraq is going to be a very intense, violent campaign.
Will the U.S. and its allies face much resistance from the Iraqi people?
After Saddam Hussein, the United States, Britain and other Western countries are large hate objects in the minds of most Iraqis. Look at 12 years of sanctions, 12 years of the people starving, while Saddam Hussein cheats the system and builds his weapons. We’ve known about it. Our governments have done nothing. It’s naive in the extreme to expect the people of Iraq will welcome American troops the way the people of Afghanistan welcomed Western forces after the Taliban’s collapse. Western countries have been directly damaging the Iraqis for more than a decade. We will not be seen as white knights who have come to rid them of their evil dictator, as I’m afraid the policy makers in Washington would have us believe.
Why do you think the Bush administration is reluctant to give the U.N. inspectors more time?
Too many advisors, too many policy makers within Bush administration appear, by the substance and the inflexibility of the policy collectively, to be doctrinaire political fundamentalists. They have a very fixed, inflexible political and social mentality, and a very limited knowledge of how complex the world is and how great a role nuance and inconsistencies play in the world’s different regions. They have a lack of sensitivity to cultural, religious, social, economic disparities around the world. In other words, you have very determined, stubborn and simple-minded people pursuing policies in spite of international resistance, objections by America’s closest traditional allies, and the great discomfort of a good portion of the American public. I think the Bush administration proceeds at its own peril.
Look at what is happening across town at the United Nations. Russia and France taking a very stiff line against the Bush administration. They want weapons inspectors to have perhaps months, years. They want containment of Saddam Hussein, not war. They have their own interests in doing so, but largely they have an immense groundswell of public opinion behind them. Even among the Bush administration’s allies–Spain, Italy, Great Britain–between two-thirds to 80% of the public is against war with Iraq. Countries, like Canada, are saying, let’s have a solution that comes half way between what France and Russia are saying, let’s compromise, let’s give them another deadline: maybe the end of March, maybe the end of April. Still, the Bush administration says, no.
The U.N. pulled its inspectors out of Iraq in 1998, fearing U.S. military strikes. At that time, Saddam banned further inspections until the U.N. set up a timetable to lift sanctions. What’s happened in the past five years to change U.S. policy?
We’ve known Saddam Hussein’s character for decades. Mr. Rumsfeld, in particular, worked with and supported Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war as a member of the Reagan administration. Saddam Hussein was an ally. We’ve known what Saddam has been up to since the Gulf War. He takes our economic sanctions, distorts them, redirects their worst impact on his own domestic enemies, cheats the embargo, and enriches himself to invest in his weapons program. The West has known this for years. Why suddenly do we have the right to announce, no, the deadline’s today: It’s disarmament, or war, and the deaths of thousands of people?
It’s rash amateurism, a doctrinaire, hard, right-wing attitude on the part of the Bush administration and its advisors. There are other explanations of ulterior motives related to the exploitation of oil resources, or the redrawing of the political map.
Why are Bush administration’s policies amateurish?
I’m still trying to shake from my mind the disbelief that a modern American administration can be as clumsy, as brusque and as crude as this one. Think back to Sept. 12, 2001: Kids in Paris were wearing American flags out of solidarity with the American people. Countries were lining up, tripping over one another, to come and touch the hem of the cloak of power in Washington D.C. The Bush administration had allies and support and emotional empathy from people around the world. It’s gone. Where has it gone? It hasn’t disappeared by Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein pouring a potion over people. It’s gone because the administration has so offended the sensibilities of peace-loving, democracy-loving people that they simply have to take to the streets, or demand of their leaders to tell the Bush administration to stop and to think.
I don’t want to see a “coalition of the willing.” We need a coalition of the thinking. We need countries and leaders to get together and think. The campaign against terror is a battle of ideas. We have better ideas; we have better societies. You outthink terrorists and you outmaneuver them, economically, socially, politically, diplomatically, as well as militarily. We have got to get into the Muslim world and the Third World in a nonviolent fashion and outperform the al-Qaidas and Saddam Husseins of the world with the promise of a better tomorrow for those people, as well as our own. Otherwise, we lose.
Americans should ask themselves: Whose agenda, besides the Bush administration’s, is served by a rush to war? The answer is Osama bin Laden’s and those of the people like him. They don’t care about the Iraqi people, or Saddam Hussein, but they are confident a deployment of raw, American military power in the Middle East will create more anti-American sentiment, which will help them. If you’re falling into your enemy’s trap, what’s the hurry? Why aren’t there smarter solutions? As journalists, these are the questions that we should be prompting the public to ask. Instead, I see coverage about the inevitability of war and the deployment.
Why isn’t the media taking a closer look at Bush’s foreign policy and its ramifications?
We get news overseas mainly in reaction to what the White House or the Pentagon has said that day. Foreign correspondents and people in different countries appear as bit players and hecklers of the official Washington line. The administration is not in the business of telling American people all the information. It and the Pentagon are in the business of narrow-casting, of public relations, of releasing information that they gauge will produce the desired effect. Which is support for the Bush administration policy. It’s a sales job. It’s like being on a used car lot.
News organizations are more reliant on the Bush administration official line than ever. That’s a dangerous thing when you have an administration more determined than ever to go to war quickly, and with more overwhelming military force than we’ve ever seen before.
Did the conservative complaint that the media is liberal-biased make it less willing to criticize the government, especially a Republican one?
It’s normal when journalists question, or write a critical story, to hear this noise. We shouldn’t listen to it. We are the true guardians of the public good. That’s what we should be thinking. The bad news for American television journalism, in particular, is the concentration of ownership by major corporations more interested in revenue and ratings than they are in news divisions having appropriate editorial control and keeping entertainment values out of the news. That has been disastrous. You find a broadcast news establishment that is simply incapable of serving the American public in emergencies, as it really should. The answer is clear: American journalists have to take greater control of editorial content.
Could better coverage of Afghanistan have helped avert the Sept. 11 attacks?
Yes, in part. But we have to remember that Sept. 11 was the culmination of more than a decade of activity on the part of fanatics and loose cannons, like Osama bin Laden and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. It is true that Western countries, and the United States in particular, were not well enough informed about what was happening in Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East. Until we improve the quality and the quantity of reporting from those regions, we’re going to run the same risks.
Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai recently spoke before Congress about the need for the U.S. to focus on rebuilding his country. What does that portend for a U.S. occupation of Iraq?
Hamid Karzai is the captive president of Afghanistan. It’s very sad. He’s a wonderful person; a good leader and he could be a great leader. He could reconstruct that country, but he doesn’t have the security forces he requires. Recently he came to Washington and openly asked for it and was told, no: We’re going to Iraq. That’s bad news for the American people.
The recklessness of this situation in Afghanistan is revealed by the fact that last year the world’s great powers got together in Tokyo and voted $4.5 billion of aid to rebuild the country. In the last few weeks, the Bush administration was waving $6 billion in cash in front of Turkey just to allow the U.S. Army to get through to attack Iraq. Now where are the scales? Where is that money coming from in the first place? Do the American people understand how deep a hole that’s going to put in their pockets in the future? It reveals a lack of planning on the Bush administration’s part. There is no plan for a post-Saddam Iraq. It’s still being cobbled together. That’s a huge problem. What we may see over the coming weeks is the tragic situation of a rather swift, violent and bloody war, followed by an immense question mark.
After Sept. 11, the Bush administration basically told Americans not to question our foreign policies. What’s the danger of that mentality?
Every American has the right to demand a cost-effective foreign policy. Americans saw more of their tax dollars invested in Afghanistan in the 1980s than in any other CIA covert activity. Yet, where was America’s influence in the ’90s when the Taliban came along? It was gone, because the Bush Senior administration squandered gains of the defeat of the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. The administration turned away at exactly the wrong time, just as the Bush Junior administration is turning away now, ignoring what’s going on.
The capture of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed in Pakistan last week is a triumph, but it’s evidence as well that if we had put significant enough manpower and resources on the ground in Afghanistan and Pakistan a year ago, all the al-Qaida leadership would now be located, or behind bars, or eliminated. Instead, the president and the administration allowed the focus to shift to Iraq. The war against terrorism in Afghanistan is far from won: It’s looking very shaky indeed.
Warlordism is rampant and anti-Americanism is rampant in Afghanistan and in Pakistan. One year after collapse of the Taliban, the fundamentalists, the zealots, the religious parties, responsible for creating the Taliban in the first place, won the balance of power in Pakistan’s parliament. They control the governorships of the border provinces, where Osama bin Laden, presumably, and many of his lieutenants are holing up, as was the case with Khalid Shaikh Mohammed.
About 4,000 civilian Afghans were killed during the U.S. campaign. Why weren’t those figures more widely reported?
The most reliable assessment I think has been made by a University of New Hampshire study, which tracked all reports of civilian deaths. Something like over 3,600 Afghan men, women and children have been killed thus far. And every innocent killed is a gain for Osama bin Laden; it makes his work easier. He’s able to say, see, there they are, the rich Western countries, the greedy, self-centered, crass, heartless Western countries killing our people and not even keeping count.
Journalists should it point out. We quite properly keep accurate counts of the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks. But it’s quite improper, and wrong, that the Pentagon and the U.S. administration have not been forced to support international efforts to ascertain the exact number of civilian dead and wounded in Afghanistan. Sweeping those deaths under the carpet and calling those deaths collateral damage is not good enough. It’s not good enough morally and ethically, but more important, from a purely self-centered point of view, it’s not good for the American people. That blows back in future terrorist animosity and public animosity in the Arab, Muslim and Third World against the United States.
You criticized the Pentagon’s control of media coverage of the Gulf War. Do you think its “embedding” program will let reporters give a more accurate picture of this war?
It’s important for American journalists to accompany American forces. The men and women in uniform deserve it. And the public deserves an independent eye. Having said that, all news organizations have a duty to deploy journalists on the other side, if possible, and be free of U.S. military control. In the final analysis, I’m afraid past experience indicates that the Pentagon will try to ensure journalists are deployed, moved around and allowed to operate only in a way that tells its side of the story.
What are you going to do if there is war?
I’m going to be covering this side of the story: the United States government, the United Nations and the allies. What they are doing. What positions and roles they take in the coming weeks. I’m going to be writing and doing projects for the History Channel. And yes, I’ll be doing a number of documentary and television commentaries throughout the war, if there is a war, as need arises. I have to say if I had my fondest wishes come true, there would not be a war.
Do you regret being remembered as the Scud Stud?
No. We were of the middle of a very tense, difficult situation. We were trying to cover a war. We were being kept 200 miles from the front. Suddenly, we had a story falling, literally falling, on our heads, and I was able to report it in real time by satellite. There was an unusual response and we treated it as something of a laugh. It didn’t change my reporting, except to the degree that my masters at NBC News put me on the air more often where I was able to talk about issues like censorship and command and control within coalition warfare. So, the benefits were huge to me as a journalist.
It’s enabled me to win my independence as a journalist and keep doing it. Remember, I’m from a journalistic family who were always the first people to remind me who I was and who I am and to never let something affect my reporting, except to make me more determined to keep going and keep speaking independently.
Louise Witt is a writer who lives in Hoboken, N.J. More Louise Witt.
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