In the ongoing struggle between the Powell soft-liners and the Rumsfeld-Cheney-Wolfowitz hardliners in the Bush administration, a small outrage has taken place in the realm of the Department of State. Stephen Schwartz, one of the most prominent commentators on the war against terrorism, and particularly on the role of the Saudis, has been dismissed from his post as an editorial writer, assigned to the new Middle East radio network at The Voice of America.
Readers of FrontPage are undoubtedly familiar with Schwartz’s work, some of which has appeared on these very pages. His articles have also appeared in such distinguished venues as The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, The New York Times, The London Daily Telegraph and the single largest daily in Latin America, Mexico’s Reforma. For ten years, Schwartz was a reporter and editor at The San Francisco Chronicle, where he won five in-house rewards for his reporting. With a youthful background in the Communist, Trotskyist and other socialist groups, Schwartz is among those individuals who moved away from his youthful commitment to radicalism, but who maintained his commitment to support of the rights of journalists and employees. In his years at The Chronicle, he was a Secretary of the San Francisco Bay Area division of The Newspaper Guild, the union representing newspaper writers, as well as a delegate to the AFL-CIO San Francisco Labor Council.
In recent years, Schwartz has become one of the most important commentators on the Saudi role in the sponsorship of terrorism. Eleven days after 9/11, he made headlines around the world with the cover story in the London Spectator. This comprehensive article was the first to explain the role of Wahhabism as the force behind the most extreme radical version of Islam. Last April, his article in The Weekly Standard revealed the role played by the Saudis in arranging payments for suicide bombers.
Schwartz’s dismissal, as William Safire suggested in yesterday’s New York Times, takes place in the context of the VOA’s decision, in the name of editorial balance, to broadcast interviews with Muslim supporters of terror, including a platform for the Taliban leader Muhammad Omar. As Safire told the country, Secretary Colin Powell presided over an award ceremony for the radio official who refused to follow the US policy of denying terrorists air time. And then, a few hours later, this same director, Andre de Nesnera, dismissed Schwartz, claiming that his work was not competent. Given the major journalistic scoops of Schwartz, the apparent "reason" is clearly nothing but the usual bureaucratic excuse offered by the cowards running the VOA shop. Schwartz obviously was let go because he refused to toe the line, and had refused previously to join 100 of his VOA colleagues who signed a petition supporting the defense of a radio platform to terrorists and their supporters.
Schwartz had gone to VOA expecting to find himself part of an established outfit that followed the rules of journalist’s culture; instead he found what he now calls an "absolute dictatorship of political correctness." His superiors berated him for taking part in a VOA online talk program on the funding of terrorist funding of Islamic charities, on the grounds that he was moving away from journalistic standards; his column in The New York Post on Richard Reid and John Walker Lindh was criticized for his harsh evaluation of their actions. Moreover, he was told that he had to take his name off two recent articles criticizing the Saudis which appeared in The Weekly Standard, even though he never identified himself as a VOA employee or spokesman for their network in his articles, but rather, as an independent observer who had written a soon to be published book, The Two Faces of Islam: The House of Sa’ud from Tradition to Terror.
Evidently, to the people who now run the VOA, toadying to the Saudis is more important than allowing the network to air anything which reveals the role played behind the scenes by the Saudi government in sponsoring terrorism, which would interfere with State’s diplomatic approach to the Saudis.
In reality, Stephen Schwartz probably is one of the most accomplished reporters to have graced the VOA desks in recent times. Not only does he have a long and distinguished career as a newspaper reporter, but he has written seminal books and articles on major issues of intellectual concern. As Safire points out, Schwartz covered the Balkan crises and wars from their beginning in the late 1980s, and later wrote a book about the conflict which was published in Britain. The preface to his book was written by none other than Christopher Hitchens, a man of the Left who then as now, stands firm in opposition to left-wing defenders of and apologists for terrorism. Schwartz’s "moral and scholarly seriousness," Hitchens wrote, puts him in "distinguished company. His work makes it impossible…to go on regarding the Kosovars as in some way inconvenient." And the noted writer Timothy Garton Ash, writing in The New York Review of Books, called Schwartz’s account "an interesting book by one of the few Westerners who knew Kosovo well before the war."
Schwartz, in fact, is a rare man of many colors; at home not only in reporting, but in evaluating major historical and intellectual questions. I know this first hand. When Mary Habeck and I were putting the finishing touches on our book, Spain Betrayed: The Soviet Union in the Spanish Civil War, we turned to Schwartz to look over the book’s first draft, correct errors, and make suggestions. Without his help and advice, we could not have done the kind of job we did. We knew that as the co-author of the most important book written about the P.O.U.M., Spanish Marxism vs. Soviet Communism, that Schwartz knew more about the Stalinist assault against independent radicals in revolutionary Spain than perhaps any other living American, and that the breath and depth of his knowledge made him a dependable critic whose expertise could be counted on.
Indeed, his work has covered such major topics as the nature of international Communism and the subservience of a generation of intellectuals in the West to the allures of Stalinism. His book Intellectuals and Assassins, as Roger Kimball has pointed out, is a “useful antidote to that amnesia” so many show about this topic. Kimball notes accurately that Schwartz “possesses an encyclopedic knowledge” of the role played by intellectuals in gathering support for Stalinism, and that he “expertly helps us sort through the tangled episodes of twentieth century totalitarianism.” The late Octovio Paz, the Nobel prize winning Mexican writer, called Schwartz’s writings on Nicaragua in the 1980s a "valuable contribution" that was most often "obscured in the United States by ignorant journalists and intellectuals" who were "moved by ideological passions." And Robert Conquest, a man who is undoubtedly the most eminent historian of the Communist experience, calls Stephen Schwartz "one of our most determined and successful investigators of the whole Communist phenomenon."
In a saner time and a more responsible news organization, the participation of an intellectual newsman with Schwartz’s stature would be regarded as nothing less than a star in the news organization’s orbit. But it seems that our current Voice of America, meant to be our country’s voice to the world at large, seems more interesting in placating the Saudi princes who apply diplomatic pressure, than allowing someone like Stephen Schwartz to report the kind of news that tells the truth. His dismissal, therefore, has to be regarded as not just a personal matter, but as an example of the paucity of the State Department’s current version of public diplomacy.