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Sean Penn's Baghdad Homecoming By: Ben Johnson
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, January 21, 2004


Sean Penn’s account of his recent trip to postwar Iraq – written in two articles published in the San Francisco Chronicle – reveals the deep changes that have taken place in liberated Iraq, and the shallow man who observed them. A more generous soul might have considered apologizing for the unkind words directed at President Bush and his counselors who are responsible for the freedoms that Penn now acknowledges are burgeoning in Iraq, yet Penn cannot bring himself to praise the Americans who brought this about, acknowledge his role in opposing Operation Iraqi Liberation, or, indeed, rise above the pettiest concerns over his own comfort.

Penn’s Marxist Travel Buddy

Penn made his return trip to Iraq in late 2003, one year after his first visit in December 2002. According to Penn’s full-page ad in the New York Times, he visited Iraq in an attempt to capture the “feel” of Iraq and thereby emote whether an invasion would be just or unjust, an attempt at “method acting foreign policy." Norman Solomon of the left-wing Institute for Public Accuracy set up the first visit.
 
For his homecoming, Penn enlisted the help of both Solomon and arch-leftist Medea Benjamin. Benjamin, who described Castro’s Cuba as “Heaven,” is head of Global Exchange, Code Pink and Occupation Watch. Global Exchange, which conducted the Iraq trip, leads credulous American leftists like Penn through staged scenes meant to demonstrate the progress of regimes its favors (Cuba, prewar Iraq) and the horrors wreaked by any American intervention it opposes (Afghanistan, liberated Iraq, and all the rest of them). The members of Code Pink pretend to be typical housewives opposed to war, although its leadership met while agitating on behalf of Nicaragua’s Marxist Sandanista dictatorship. Occupation Watch is a collaborative effort between Medea Benjamin and longtime Communist Party member Leslie Cagan, whose stated goal was to get enough U.S. servicemen to declare themselves conscientious objectors that the U.S. “occupation” would grind to a halt. She encouraged leftist protestors to work with indigenous groups to “channel the bursting anti-American sentiment overseas.” Penn records Medea plying her trade, as she tries to convince Dean Mohamed Taka of Iraq to write a book opposing American investment policies; he demurred.
 
Sean Penn coordinated his trip with Medea Benjamin, who was leading a contingent of military families to Iraq under the auspices of both Global Exchange and Occupation WatchMedea’s group intended to meet with family members serving in Iraq, in an attempt to discourage them and possibly encourage them to become conscientious objectors. The U.S. authorities were not so easily taken in and refused to allow them to visit soldiers, although the group scored a brief meeting with L. Paul Bremer himself (a meeting Penn belittles in his article). This suggests that U.S. intelligence is missing a beat. Why would Bremer meet with a domestic support group for America's enemies?
 
With a tour guide like Benjamin, one would expect Penn’s article to be  peppered  with cheap shots at the United States and its “occupation,” and it is, though to a lesser extent than in Penn's paid ads. Unlike his nearly undecipherable ads of last year, Penn's twin articles for the Chronicle benefit from the services of an editor, although he still sneaks in words like “geo-psychological.” However, what  stands out for  the reader is his positive portrayal of post-Saddam Iraq – and his lack of contrition, or apparent introspection, about how wrong he was to oppose the policies that brought it about.
 
Kill the Soldiers; Save the Actor
 
After his plane touched down in Jordan, Sean Penn separated from Medea Benjamin’s group and took a dangerous 12-hour drive into Baghdad. “As we race through Fallujah, I take selfish comfort in the sight of black smoke billowing in the aftermath of the recent shelling of a one-story building several hundred yards off the highway, figuring that the closest guerrilla fighters might currently be occupied or on the run from U.S. soldiers.” In other words, Penn is happy now to be protected by the American troops he didn't want there in the first place.  
 
Spicoli Explains It All
 
As he describes contemporary Iraq, Penn recycles various leftist catch-phrases but goes further than most left-wingers in shilling for the Saddam loyalists.“People from all sides of the debate acknowledge that the insurgency movement builds every day in manpower and organizational strength.” This is the Medea Benjamin line: everything is going badly for the U.S. peace, the anti-American forces are on the offensive and the U.S. should get out. The reality? Since the capture of Saddam (which took place after Penn left Iraq but a full month before he published these articles) the average number of daily attacks on U.S. forces dropped from 29 to 17. It is not America's presence that invited violence but Saddam's provocation.
 
Penn continues, “Many Iraqis I speak to tell me there is no freedom in occupation, nor trust in unilateral intervention . . . Certainly, in any transition period such as the one in which Iraq finds itself, security support from other nations is necessary.” America occupied and ruled Japan for seven years (1945-52) and essentially wrote its constitution. Japan is not now a hotbed of terrorist resentment. Yet Penn wrote that six months after the end of major combat, with the head of the enemy forces still at large and – by Penn’s own account – a great deal of violence and infrastructure damage still extant, we should turn our backs on the Iraqi people.
 
Penn also presses the Left's claims of economic imperialism. “The alienation bred by war on a people doesn't stop with armies,” he tells us, “but instead continues with corporations and privatization dominating and shaping the very culture and economic participation that freedom might otherwise express.”  Medea Benjamin refers to this as the "corporate invasion" of Iraq. Penn here reveals how thoroughly he has bought the neo-Marxist line. 
 
The contracted officers providing security to American troops and interests also receive Penn’s reprobation. He derides employees of DynCorp, a private security company, as “mercenaries.” They are as much “mercenaries” as the average group of security guards; DynCorp has been hired to secure Americans and free U.S. soldiers from the burdens of police work. Penn’s objections seem ironic, considering one member of Medea Benjamin’s contingent on the same trip remarked that policing is “a job that is totally inappropriate for our troops. Soldiers are not police officers.” If soldiers police Iraq, the Left attacks this is inappropriate and dangerous; if the U.S. government hires officers to shield soldiers' lives, the Left attacks that decision.
 
Penn is right to draw attention to DynCorp's spotty record; its officers ran a sex slave industry in Bosnia. (Ironically, the most outspoken periodical on this matter, which raised serious questions about DynCorp’s use in Iraq, was the conservative Insight magazine.) However, it's not all bad news. DynCorp has also distinguished itself by its bravery while extracting endangered U.S. servicemen in Colombia. Three DynCorp security officers were killed last October in a Gaza bombing while securing the U.S. embassy. DynCorp is also developing biometric security technology for a Boston airport.
 
Penn has a litany of other complaints and outrages. He intimates that Dick Cheney had a similar “mercenary” force at his disposal via Kellogg, Brown & Root, a Haliburton subsidiary currently providing cafeteria services in Iraq. Penn also claims Iraqis have displaced innocent Palestinians and implies America is responsible for this second Palestinian refugee problem. He also agonizes over the fact that he cannot trust “Ahmed,” the man who was charged by Saddam with spying on Penn during his trip last year. “Ahmed” now sets up interviews and news tips for the mass media (which explains a lot about their coverage of postwar Iraq). Penn twists a soldier's words to imply America is fixing Iraqi elections and makes the obligatory reference to the Florida recount.
 
Where’s the Beef?
 
Penn can't avoid noticing the differences wrought by the American war machine. Upon visiting a large clearinghouse documenting Saddam’s atrocities, Penn  observes:
 
“Many of the death warrants are signed by Hussein. Our tour ends in a room of moldy documents piled head-high and wall to wall, representing some of the lives claimed under this horrific regime. Our guide makes the point simply: ‘We will put all these names in a museum as a way to say thank you to all those who sacrificed their lives on the long road to reach freedom.’ It's a reminder that it wasn't only the Americans and coalition forces that ‘liberated’ the country. There were tens of thousands of Iraqis who lost their lives opposing the regime as well.”
 
As though Iraq could have been liberated without the despised George Bush. (And why the scare quotes around 'liberated'?) Penn never expresses regret, remorse or so much as a second thought about his opposition to those responsible for these blessings. In one revealing exchange, Penn records a young Iraqi's statement: “This whole country is a mass grave.” At that very moment, “the fatigue of the trip hits me in the back of the head like a rocket-propelled grenade,” as though Penn were psychosomatically avoiding a confrontation with his own hypocrisy.
 
Penn records genuine affection between Iraqi children and U.S. servicemen, and says GIs behave with “dignity and grace.” This directly  gives the lie to Medea Benjamin's Occupation Watch website, which alleges constant human rights abuses by Allied soldiers.
 
Penn also records the sea change in freedom of speech that has taken hold in Iraq. “It is a compelling experience to have been in Baghdad just one year ago,” Penn writes, “where not a single Iraqi expressed to me opinions outside Baathist party lines, and just one year later, when so many express their opinions and so many opinions compete for attention.” No thanks to Sean Penn or Medea Benjamin.

Ben Johnson is Managing Editor of FrontPage Magazine and co-author, with David Horowitz, of the book Party of Defeat. He is also the author of the books Teresa Heinz Kerry's Radical Gifts (2009) and 57 Varieties of Radical Causes: Teresa Heinz Kerry's Charitable Giving (2004).


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