In an era of journalistic austerity, as foreign newsrooms are being shuttered and correspondent journalism is waning in favor of news and analysis that can be done from a New York office, being an on-the-ground reporter is increasingly rare. Rarer still are the reporters who get to fly all over the world and bring a team — cameraman, driver, translator — with them.
Jane Ferguson, currently a correspondent for PBS NewsHour but with credits from Al-Jazeera and CNN, is one journalist who is lucky enough to have this dream job. Having spent most of the past 10 years traveling around the Middle East and Africa following the story, from Yemen to Sudan to Iraq to her home base in Lebanon, Ferguson has seen things and gained perspective on Middle East and African politics that few could dream of. Journalism, after all, is the pursuit of the publicizing of truth; it stands to reason that journalists like Ferguson, who guide these revelations, have an especially wizened outlook on the world.
A seasoned reporter fluent in Arabic, Ferguson has an unparalleled ability to rattle off the political debates and ideological divides that paint the region she covers. Her experiences in Yemen led her to write a lengthy feature for the New Yorker earlier this year on how hunger is being used as a weapon — not a novel tactic historically, although re-emerging in this cultural moment among military commanders. Her reporting on this topic has shaped public perception and leaders’ decisions regarding the Yemeni civil war.
Most importantly, however, Ferguson is an articulate and clear voice on issues related to Middle Eastern politics, a field where the U.S. government is deeply involved yet the average citizen is deeply confused. Few Americans understand that “there is this proxy war going on in the Middle East between Iran and Saudi Arabia,” as Ferguson told Salon. “It’s been going on for some time, but it's really stepped up in the last year or two. And in America, Saudi Arabia is winning the PR war -- hugely.”
Though she is Irish, Ferguson primarily freelances for an American outlet, PBS, and has lived in the U.S.; she is an expert on the politics of a region that many Americans find incomprehensible, yet her observational reporting gives her an uncanny means of portraying it as simple. I spoke with Ferguson at the Original Thinkers festival in Telluride, Colorado, where she was speaking. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
I wanted to ask you about Iraq. You've done reporting in Iraq, and you've been all over Iraq over the years. A lot of Americans don't totally understand the Iraq war and its aftermath. Would you say that it's become a failed state? What is America's culpability in how Iraq’s politics have evolved since the “end” of the war?
I wouldn't call Iraq a failed state outright right now. I don't think it fulfills all the necessary criteria to sort of tip it quite over the line. But it has edged towards some of the characteristics you'll see of a failed state. For instance, after this event, I'm going to be traveling to Basra. What we've been seeing is people protesting the effects of what one would associate with a failed state, failed services. No clean running water, power shortages in the middle of summer when temperatures reach higher than almost anywhere else on the planet. Lack of jobs, affordable housing … these sorts of things are huge issues for Iraqis. I think that sometimes gets lost. I think that took the international press and some governments by surprise. Not journalists who are based there, who know. But sometimes we miss the day-to-day challenges for Iraqis — which is a lack of services.
But yes, over the years, since the toppling of Saddam [Hussein] there have been massive mistakes made in foreign policy with Iraq. Famously, initially it was with the sectarian divide. … [There was] a tacit tolerance of the repression of Sunnis which famously, of course, led us to ISIS via al-Qaida in Iraq.
This is something I would love for you to talk about. ISIS is portrayed in popular culture and media often as this big bogeyman that just popped out of the ether spontaneously. Obviously American intervention has a lot to do with their rise. I was wondering if you could talk about that your observations there.
You're right. There has been no group as bogeyman-ish as ISIS. In fairness, that's partly because they themselves created this incredible online persona of your nightmare group. However, it was always really important to look into what was going on there. The Sunni population of Iraq — this happens in any country where there's an uprising or an insurgency — if you give one community a sense that they have no stake in the state, the state is their enemy. Let alone not that they don't belong to it. If you isolate an entire population to that extent, then you give them very little to lose from an uprising.
In the initial stages, I think it was true that many Sunni populations did welcome ISIS, and not simply because these people are bloodthirsty but because they wanted to feel protected. They wanted a degree of security. We even saw that in Afghanistan in the ‘90s, when the Taliban came. People were relieved because they weren't being harassed by corrupt state institutions or officials or warlords. Anything that will give people a sense of stability and a sense of fairness will be tolerated initially. But of course, the populations eventually came to really resent ISIS.
There was a misunderstanding there, and the problem is that we're actually seeing history repeat itself now. The post-victory over ISIS has unfortunately been viewed by many of the “victors,” the state actors and Shia militias, as a victory over a Sunni people. That is where the dysfunction really cuts away at building a real state in Iraq. If the state is allowing people to act as though Sunnis are our enemies regardless of who they are, that's really difficult.
One of the saddest things that I've found traveling around Iraq actually just dawned on me when I was covering the Yazidi crisis -- this was last year when I [saw] communities putting their lives back together again — I went to Sinjar and talked to some of the women that had escaped or had had their freedom bought, and I visited some of the religious ceremonies that were going on and talked to people there. What was really sad was how the past 15 years in Iraq has really turned neighbor against neighbor. People just don't trust one another.
I talked to Yazidis who were like, “The village next door is Arab and they sold us out. They invited ISIS in.” Whether it's true or not is almost beside the point. In some cases, it is true. People of different ethnicities and different backgrounds just don't trust one another anymore.
It’s like a breakdown of society in the larger sense. It's a social bond breakdown?
Exactly, and I think that it's not total, but it's there enough to undermine efforts to build a functional state.
The other big Middle Eastern political issue that I wanted to ask you about —because it's another thing that Americans don't understand — is the role of Saudi Arabia in the politics of the region.
It's really important for the American public to understand. I think there is this proxy war going on in the Middle East between Iran and Saudi Arabia. It’s been going on for some time, but it's really stepped up in the last year or two.
In America, Saudi Arabia has been winning the PR war hugely. And that's not just because of their strategic alliance with the United States, but it is also optics. To my understanding, the day that President Trump was in Riyadh and was being welcomed there with great fanfare, there were some limited but nonetheless significant elections taking place in Iran. I think that was the greatest example of the optics. The optics war is being lost by Iran.
Now of course the Iranian government — I mean both governments meddled massively in sovereign states' affairs across the Middle East. Recently we saw the prime minister of Lebanon essentially kidnapped by Saudi Arabia in a bizarre turn of events last year. Iran obviously has groups like Hezbollah also operating in Lebanon. Lebanon is a good example of both states interfering. I think that the American public are not always aware of Saudi Arabia's radicalizing influence, the export of things like Wahhabi Islam and its role in the rise of radical Sunni Islamic movements.
I think that is something that doesn't always make it into the Western press, Saudi Arabia's role in conflicts like the Yemeni one … and I think that it's very important for the American public to understand that America has very much picked a side in this proxy war in the Middle East, and by picking a side there will be repercussions. I think that is perhaps not clear to the American public.
I'll just add one last thing to that if I may. We now have such a hysterically anti-Iran White House. I don't use that word lightly, but it is such that America closed its consulate in Basra [Iraq] and said it was because Iran was threatening it, yet provided no evidence. In fact, Iraqi experts and journalists based in Iraq working for the main broadsheets in the United States have said they were always planning to do that because of budget cuts in the State Department. It's just a small example of the ramping up of rhetoric. It is constant.
I was watching Fox News a few weeks ago from my apartment in Beirut. I try to make myself watch Fox News because I think it's really important to see what people are watching. There was a long discussion about how [Venezuelan President] Nicolás Maduro survived his assassination attempt in part because of Hezbollah’s involvement in politics there.
Not to say that there are not hugely nefarious activities by the hardliners in Iran, or that Hezbollah's presence can undermine governments around the world … but it's just interesting to see this rhetoric coming out of the current White House, especially having scrapped the Iran deal. We’re seeing a huge 180.
I don't know how closely you follow the advisers and the sphere of influencers around the Trump administration. I know that he's kind of unpredictable, but do you have a sense of whether Trump may actually start a hot war with Iran, as Bush did with Iraq?
Ever since he came into the White House, it has been a major talking point in the Arab street, as you might say. People have waited to hear what his policy is, and I think it took a long time for people to understand that there really isn't one. There isn't a clear strategy and in many ways, I think, for those fearing war with Iran that has been somewhat encouraging. Because on the one hand, we do have this really big buildup of rhetoric, but on the other hand, so far, we don't really have major action.
Whereas with George W. Bush, in the run-up to the Iraq War, we could see there were things happening. A plan was being put in place, this was going to happen. You had people like [Dick] Cheney and [Donald] Rumsfeld, who were clearly not just pushing rhetoric that we were going to invade Iraq — this was going to happen. There were plans being made. I don't see that happening right now. We’ll probably see more sanctions, much more fiery rhetoric and much, much more support to countries like Saudi Arabia who are opposing Iran in proxy wars.
There is a fear perhaps of stumbling accidentally into a war. I'm not saying America would accidentally send troops, but the situation in the Middle East is very, very tense, and many people there are terrified of the cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran becoming a hot war. And that can be something that can happen by accident. People fear that more, as it doesn't appear that Trump has some secret master plan.
Keith A. Spencer
Keith A. Spencer is the cover editor for Salon, and manages Salon's science, tech and health coverage. His book, "A People's History of Silicon Valley: How the Tech Industry Exploits Workers, Erodes Privacy and Undermines Democracy," was released in 2018 from Eyewear Publishing. Follow him on Twitter at @keithspencer. MORE FROM Keith A. Spencer • FOLLOW keithspencer
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