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'Useful Idiot': Star Learns Little on Baghdad Visit By: Clifford D. May
The Wall Street Journal | Friday, December 27, 2002


I know exactly what Sean Penn went through in Iraq. Unfortunately, Sean Penn hasn't a clue.

In the mid-1980s, I was the New York Times correspondent in Ethiopia, covering the Great Famine, the one that inspired Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie to write "We Are the World."

For a time, it became fashionable for Hollywood types to descend on Addis Ababa. As a result, I got to fly in a helicopter with Harry Belafonte and play tennis with one of Michael Jackson's brothers, Jermaine or Marlon, I can't quite recall.

I also got to dine with Cliff Robertson at my favorite Italian restaurant . A survivor of the Mussolini era -- the restaurant , I mean, not Mr. Robertson -- it was run by an Italian expatriate family. The waiters were Ethiopians who were fluent in spoken Italian but illiterate. They memorized the customers' orders and I never knew them to make a mistake. The owner of the restaurant  recognized Robertson -- or at least remembered seeing him in "PT 109." He pointed excitedly and shouted: "Kennedy! Kennedy!"

It wasn't difficult for these celebrities to get a glimpse of Ethiopia's suffering -- one visit to a camp like those at Korem and Makele to see the babies with their swollen bellies and rust-colored hair (symptoms of severe malnutrition) was all that was required.

Comprehending the cause of the famine was more difficult. Was it the result of not enough rainfall? Or was a different "root cause" suggested by the curious fact that Ethiopia had the largest army in black Africa -- and a very well-fed army -- while most of those who were starving came from the countryside where the food was grown?

Some of these celebrities -- Mr. Robertson comes to mind -- were genuinely open-minded and eager to hear different perspectives. Others had barely stepped off the plane before they began blaming America, accusing Washington of providing less aid because Ethiopia was ruled by a pro-Soviet, pro-Cuban, Marxist dictatorship. Such prepackaged views were reaffirmed by ever-present government minders.

This is what Sean Penn experienced. He may have believed that he would be able to mystically intuit the truth in Baghdad -- "In my professional life, I function on impressions," he told CNN -- but in fact all he could hope to see is what his Iraqi hosts showed him, for example children's hospitals where, he's been grimly told, illness is the consequence of American-imposed sanctions.

Lenin, father of the Soviet Union, had a name for people like Mr. Penn: "Useful idiots." Lenin's successor, Stalin, was even able to dupe Walter Duranty, the New York Times correspondent in Moscow whose Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting helped convince the world that no government-orchestrated famine was occurring in the Ukraine.

Similarly, during World War II, the Nazis took representatives of the Red Cross to the model concentration camp at Thereisenstadt, where they established to the Red Cross's satisfaction that those nasty rumors about Hitler's mistreatment of the Jews were unfounded and really quite outrageous.

How can Sean Penn be so naïve as to believe he would see the reality of Iraq touring around Baghdad by limo and dining on kabobs with Saddam's deputies? Does he really believe that average Iraqi citizens were going to invite him into their living rooms and share their feelings with him? Did he expect Saddam to open his dungeons to show him the political prisoners whose tongues have been sliced and whose eyes have been gouged? Did he think he'd have more luck finding caches of biological and chemical weapons than has Hans Blix?

Mr. Penn also told CNN: "The insight that I would have and I think for it to be productive, I would hope that this would not be a political commentary on my part but more a human commentary . . . ." To which one can only respond: "Whaaa???"

If Penn & Co. were serious about grasping Iraqi reality, they would meet with those who have fled Saddam's oppression to London and Washington and, yes, probably to Los Angeles. They would visit the Kurdish areas in northern Iraq, protected from Saddam troops by U.S. and British air power. They would learn about the 182,000 Kurds who were slaughtered by Saddam, about the villages wiped out by poison gas, women and children lying in the gutter in a final embrace.

In other words, if Sean Penn and other Hollywood types really want to see what life under Saddam Hussein is like and the kind of danger he represents to the people of Iraq, the Middle East and the world, Baghdad is the last place they should go.

Mr. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a think tank on terrorism founded immediately after 9/11




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