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74th Annual Summer Conference, August 4–7, 2005

Closing Keynote Session

Elizabeth Palmer
News Correspondent, CBS


I have been a journalist for 25 years. I began my career as a general assignment reporter in the Fraser Valley of BC for a small newspaper, the Haney Gazette.

I think almost from the very beginning from the start, I knew I wanted to be a war reporter. Somehow, even back then – when I was covering town council debates on clearing ragweed from the municipal ditches – I knew that war and conflict would put life and the human condition into sharper relief: ideology, culture, human frailties and vice, and the human virtues too, including courage and generosity.

The first conflict zone I reported in was the Occupied Territories in 1994. It was an interlude of optimism after the 1st intifada, when Oslo was on the horizon and peace seemed possible. Back then Israelis were actually driving into the West Bank to enjoy evening meals in little Palestinian restaurants.

Just a month ago – I was back in Israel, and could not venture into the West Bank at all with my Israeli camera crew, even properly accredited. It is reminded me – as the conflict in Israel and the Occupied Territories has reminded me often over the years – how complex conflict is, and how the use of force – even overwhelming force – is not enough to end it. This is especially true when there are vested interests in having that conflict continue. Given the cost of war in dollars and in lives, it is profoundly sad that there are almost always parties who do not want to end or avoid fighting, but work actively to prolong it.

I worked for the CBC for 20 years and then 5 years ago, went to work for CBS. I went, as many Canadians do, with some preconceived notions of what working for Americans would be like – and I must say I've been proven wrong on just about every count.

One striking feature of my new job was the fact that I was working with truly international crews, and colleagues from many countries. It was especially striking because the CBC – as many Canadian Crown Corporations and national organizations are – was almost completely staffed by Canadians. Our institutions are small and top-flight opportunities limited in this country, so we give preference to hiring Canadians.

This is not so at the American networks, and especially in their foreign bureaus. Our crew’s members include Italians, Iraqis, Greeks, Britons, Australians, Israelis and Palestinians. And in fact, three of the four CBS London-based correspondents are Canadian.

I mention this because there is a widespread assumption that American networks will be insufficiently critical – and inclined to ignore the rest the world’s opinion – in the way they cover America’s foreign policy and especially its wars. Having such a large proportion of non-Americans on staff as active members of the editorial team in the field helps mitigate any such tendency.

Covering conflict is an intense thing – fascinating, occasionally dangerous, and certainly tiring. When I come home after a long overseas assignment, my notes and my memories are filed away and I return to the welcome routine of domestic life and family. It's not often that I'm called upon to think of my experience in conflict zones as a whole, to discern patterns and principles.

Being asked to speak here today has forced me to think critically about nations and the way they use force. I feel privileged to be here and glad of the opportunity to share some of my observations with you, but I am no political scientist. I offer the following remarks tentatively, as food for thought and discussion.

As I made a list of all the conflicts I have covered – and they range from the Chiapas uprising in Mexico in the early 90's to Iraq this year – it occurred to me that none of them can be described as having ended in an unequivocal victory.

We seem to be living in a post-imperial age. It used to be that armies marched into someone else's country and declared victory when they had defeated the opposition and taken over.

This is no longer the case. The deployments of force I have covered have been much more complex and far less decisive.

The ability for states – especially democracies – to declare victory in the modern age of warfare probably has a lot to do with defining the objectives of the war – or deployment – before it begins. And also convincing the world and the public at home that the war in question has indeed been won – even if by other perhaps more honest or complete criteria – it has not.

Let me begin with the two conflicts I have covered which resulted in at least a partial victory – really, and in the public imagination.

Kosovo. The bombing campaign organized and led by NATO had international legitimacy through the coalition of countries that participated.

As an aside I wanted to address something that Paul Heinbecker said earlier. He warned that Canadians must be careful about which American military deployments we support, so we aren’t judged guilty by association of bullying or adventurism. During the bombing of Belgrade, I was out on the streets asking Serbs whether they would accept an occupying army once the bombing ended in order to stabilize Kosovo and protect the citizens. Although they were infuriated by the bombing, many accepted that some kind of international, possibly European, force might be acceptable. “What about Americans?” “Not a chance!” they said. “Soldiers from the NATO countries?” “Absolutely not.” was the reply. “Well,” I asked. What about Canadians?” “Oh yes,” they replied. “Canadians would be alright.” That’s when I realized Canada’s low profile was sometimes conveniently low enough to be invisible, and many Serbs did not realize that some of those bombers roaring overhead had Canadian pilots in the cockpit.

The Kosovo military campaign was well conceived for an area renown for tribalism and factionalism because it did not rely on a foreign ground troops. The military planners’ calculations proved correct – that a bombing campaign alone would be enough to break the will of an army and a dictator with relative ease and little loss of life.

Also, victory was defined narrowly – as the prevention of a genocide, or at least the ending of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, which is a fairly small territory. The specific challenge for NATO was reinforced in the public imagination by television pictures of wretched Albanian refugees pouring toward the Macedonian border.

To oversimplify – when the Yugoslavian army left Kosovo, and the ethnic cleansing was halted – and then reversed – politicians declared victory and the public accepted it as fact. It was the military left behind along with the armies of bureaucrats and aid workers who know the long-term truth: Kosovo is unfinished business – troubled, unstable and with a murky political future – still eating up money and resources.

Western countries, and citizens, generally judge the end of conflict in Afghanistan to have been a victory. Planned in the fearful and vengeful period just after 11 September, 2001 – the objectives of that war were narrowly defined: to get rid of the Taliban, and restore order in a failed state which had harboured Osama bin Laden and his terrorist training camps. (The one stated objective at the outset which was not fulfilled was catching Osama himself, but time and spin from the American administration mean that generally we accept that victory without Osama is nevertheless victory.)

As I said, the United States, which was led the way to war in Afghanistan – defined its objectives there as a function of 9/11.

As in Kosovo, the Western military deployment was a bombing campaign, using a proxy army of Tajik-speaking tribes – the Northern Alliance – as ground troops.

As it turned out, the military overthrow of the Taliban was a cakewalk. Once they came under attack, they and their Arab allies simply ran away.

Soon after the military campaign began in 2001, President Bush made it sound as if a short-term, narrowly defined victory would be enough: both politically popular with the electorate, and sufficient to protect America’s national security interests. We all remember those famous last words: “We will not get into the business of nation-building.” Major General Leslie and thousands of Canadian – and now American – ground troops who are currently struggling to build the Afghan nation against terrific odds know first-hand how optimistic and premature the White House was.

And yet Afghanistan, of all places on earth, should remind Western leaders that the long view is the one that counts. After the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, it fought a decade-long sapping war there. Now and again over those years, it looked to Soviet politicians, peering into the short-term future, that they were winning. How wrong they were. In fact, Afghanistan helped inflict the greatest military and ideological loss of all on the Soviet Union: defeat in the Cold War.

It was in Afghanistan, too, that the deadly seeds of 9/11 were sown. America, fighting its great Soviet Cold War enemy, armed the warlords and Osama bin Laden himself. Hamid Karzai, desperate to keep international support for the long-term and difficult process of nation-building, was on a speaking tour in London last month. There he repeated the warning: shortsighted, short-term military action is often a boomerang that comes back to haunt and damage the aggressor.

So, in the public imagination the war in Afghanistan like the one in Kosovo, remains a victory of sorts. That is certainly the politicians’ version, bolstered by and large by the media. Once the sharp edge of conflict was over, we ceased to examine the so-called victory – to expose it to public scrutiny so citizens could judge how complete or lasting it might be. We assumed it would be difficult to maintain public interest in the complicated, tedious and long-term story of reconstruction.

Surely, one of the factors is judging a victory is its cost. A war that is truly won should not carry on costing the winner vast sums of money – unless it is for a finite and well-defined reconstruction as the Marshall Plan was at the end of World War II. This is simply not the case in Afghanistan, (or Iraq, which I will come to in a few minutes.) For budgeting and accounting purposes, the US rolls the costs of financing conflict and post-conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq into one. Already, the American government has spent 314 billion dollars on these two “interventions” – and the Congressional Budget office projects an additional 450 billion will be needed over the next 10 years. That will make it the most expensive American military project in more than in 60 years; costing 100 billion more, in 2005 dollars, than Vietnam.

The fact that America, and Canada, and many other countries continue to spend in Afghanistan and Kosovo is an implicit recognition that the victories in those countries were incomplete. I consider that a fine thing; that we are setting our sights higher than simply stopping a mass eviction of Kosovar Albanians, or the toppling of brutal, utopian Islamists. Generally the Western democracies – led by America – recognize that real victory after military intervention means leaving behind a stable and functioning state. Ideally, a state that aquires vigour and strength by allowing all its citizens to contribute to the best of their abilities and talents.

It’s a noble objective. Using force to get there – although deemed necessary – is both inefficient and expensive. Even in Kosovo, and Afghanistan, where the deployments were limited, we saw how messy military intervention is and how costly the cleanup. Force and the military are very blunt instruments of foreign policy – expensive, cumbersome and limited. Even when you're talking about a well-trained, well-disciplined and well-funded military – which the US forces undoubtedly are. When the military in question is a large, poorly equipped and badly-trained conscript army – the result is not only messy, it’s disastrous.

Which was, and is, the case in Chechnya, the former Soviet Republic in southern Russia.

Russia has been fighting with the Chechens for more than a century. In the 1900’s, the Tsarist forces waged an imperial campaign in Chechnya to control the territory. Stalin decided genocide would be quicker and easier, so he simply had the entire population of the republic deported to Kazakhstan. They began to trickle back in the 1950’s, and the Chechen struggle for independence slowly built up steam again, culminating in an all out war against the Russian army that began in 1994. It ended, two years later, in a stalemate: a half-baked peace agreement that did not spell out full terms of Chechnya’s independence from Russia.

Historians will argue for a long time about Russia’s role in letting Chechnya disintegrate and become a failed state after 1996: weak, tribal, corrupt, awash in weapons – and ruled by ruthless criminal gangs.

Winning a war in Chechnya and leaving behind a stable and functioning government would have been hard work for the best military in the world. For Russia’s army, it was impossible.

To make matters worse, many of the Russian forces sent to reinvade Chechnya in 1998 had the brutal and humiliating battles of the earlier Chechen war fresh in their minds. Even the officers were cynical, and even self-defeating.

I recall setting out one day to visit a Russian base set up temporarily on Chechnya’s western border, where soldiers waited for the orders to march in. My escorts and guides were two Chechens, who drove to a battered jeep up to the guard post on the road. There we found two drunk conscripts huddled in a dugout. When they found out I was a reporter, they would not allow us onto the base, but radioed the base commander. Eventually, an armoured personnel carrier appeared careering across the fields with a very drunken officer clinging to the outside waving a bottle of vodka. He hospitably offered me a drink, and gave me an interview full of bravado about how his men were ready to take on the Chechen the moment he received the orders to advance.

Once the interview ended, I got back into the jeep with my Chechen guides and found it bristling with guns: both AK-47’s and military issue pistols. It turned out that as I had been talking to the officer, my guides had been quietly buying Russian weapons through the two soldiers on guard duty. The conscripts on the base were only too happy to sell their guns for a bit of pocket money – and either didn’t realize or didn’t care that they would be sold on to the very Chechen fighters they would shortly be facing in battle!

I have no doubt that Russia set out to invade Chechnya in 1998 to bring it back under Russian control, but not to occupy it militarily in the long term. The Russian government wanted to set up a functioning Chechen administration that would foster a stable society.

It wasn’t only the Russian military that was not up to the task, but also the Russian government. It was by then no longer functioning as a Soviet totalitarian state – and had not (has not) yet developed an alternative structure that was strong or effective.

In the end, the second round of the Chechen war was as brutal as the first and the battle for the capital, Grozny, was more brutal and heavy-handed than – I think – would be tolerated in the West. I entered Grozny on a Russian APC a few days after the city fell. It was a vast smouldering ruin under silent snow. Russian soldiers huddled over campfires at main intersections. There was hardly a building standing. Certainly, I tried – and failed – to spot a single apartment or a house without holes ripped through it by rockets, or flattened by bombs. Here and there, shadowy figures crept about in the rubble – Chechen citizens looking for a little fuel to burn for warmth, or perhaps for a few scraps of food.

I asked one of the young Russian soldiers who was manning the APC and who had been part of the fighting force that retook control of the city whether he was proud of having achieved their goal. He looked around at the desolation, and then said “Proud? How could anyone be proud of this?”

Even a military man recognized that what the Russian army had achieved there was no real victory. Later, many of them admitted they knew it had set the scene for a wider, costly war that continues to this day.

It is a war that the world has chosen to ignore. The European countries did for a time try to prod Russia into a serious long-term solution in Chechnya that would have included a serious reconstruction and spending program. Lately, though, Europe has muted its criticism of Russia and scaled back its engagement on Chechnya because Russia is too powerful a strategic ally. It has become one of the most important suppliers of energy to Western Europe.

The fact remains, though, that Russia’s failed intervention in Chechnya has the potential to affect us all. Chechnya, although traditionally not at all home to radical Islam, has become a magnet for disaffected Islamists. In the violent and anarchic territory, especially in the southern mountains, would-be terrorists can learn to make bombs, plan deadly ambushes and even get battlefield experience.

The world had a little taste of the result when Chechen terrorists took over a school in the North Ossetian town of Beslan. Amply equipped with the weapons and explosives that are so easy to come by in this warn-torn area, they took more than 1,000 people hostage for three days.

In return for liberating the hostage, they asked the impossible of the Russian government – a full withdrawal from Chechnya. But instead of responding with the best hostage-negotiators it could muster and calling on the international community for help, the Russian government bungled the rescue effort which ended in disaster – and killed, according to official estimates, 344 people – 172 of them children.

I also like to mention how I was struck in Beslan that paradoxically, sometimes when a nation uses force, it in fact it is, reveals its weakness.

With the eyes of the world on the tragedy unfolding in that school, with tiny children forced to drink their urine to stay alive, sitting in stifling heat in the school gym under bombs strung up overhead – President Putin was under huge pressure. He had to marshal his very best forces: military, intelligence, diplomatic, medical and civic. But he failed utterly – and as a result we saw exposed the weakness and corruption of the modern Russian state.

To this day we don’t really know what the catalyst was for the free-for- all that ended the hostage-taking. (And I should add that the Russian government bulldozed the school hours after the hostage-taking ended so that no forensic examination would ever take place that might provide clues about the terrorists or allow us to understand what really happened.) In any event, at the time, the team of Special Forces soldiers who were supposed to rescue the hostages were 30 kilometers away, practising a rescue attempt. The contingent of local Ossetian troops had failed to establish any kind of security cordon around the school, and the authorities had continued to lie about the number of people trapped inside the school (they stuck to the original estimate of 3 or 4 hundred, instead of well over a thousand) long after it was clear that this was a lie, and that there was no way of hiding the truth. When the first bomb exploded, all hell broke loose. The soldiers rushed toward the school. So did the firemen – and the relatives of the school children, many of them armed and furious. There was a hail of gunfire – from the terrorists inside the school as well from those outside – and although many, many rescuers put their own lives on the line to get the hostages to safety, Russian doctors have established that many of the children who were killed or wounded by bullets fired by soldiers or their own relatives.

To return to the theme of victory – it was clear in Beslan what the objective of the state’s use of force was there. It was also clear from early on that the state had suffered a crushing defeat. But that didn’t stop the government from trying to declare victory anyway – and using old-style Soviet censorship, actually show it on television.

The foreign media were broadcasting details of the botched rescue attempt in real time all over the world by satellite. The relatively few Russian viewers who had satellite could watch English or American TV – and then compare it with the official lies that the Russian networks were obliged to air. Most Russians could only tune in the cover-up.

In Moscow, one brave Russian journalist – Rem Shakirov who was the editor of the influential newspaper “Izvetia” – decided he would expose not only the state’s lies in Beslan, but also the fact that only foreigners were getting the truth. The front page of Izvestia the next day carried pictures of the actual TV screens of CNN and BBC’s Beslan broadcasts along with the journalists’ reports. The very next day, he was out of a job.

Finally, I would like to talk to you a little bit about Iraq which is the conflict I have covered most recently. I have been in and out of that country about a dozen times in the past 3 years, since before the American invasion to report on the conflict.

It seems to me that the victory the American administration so clearly wanted and expected in Iraq has eluded them partly because they were never honest about why the US invaded.

Was it because senior White House officials really believed that Iraq's was getting ready to use Weapons of Mass Destruction that posed a threat to American strategic interests?

Was it to simply to secure a generous oil supply?

Or to protect Israel?

Or did the decision spring from an ideological commitment to seeding Islamic democracy in the Middle East?

Or, less nobly, a lingering need to seek more revenge for 9/11?

Or, perhaps, an altruistic desire to rid the world of a dictator?

Most probably, the decision was driven by elements of all of the above?

But as long as the real motivation for this war wasn't clear – the terms of the victory could not be clear either…

They have been shifting ever since in a kind of increasingly panic-stricken improvisation.

Hence the mess we are in.

I would like to leave you with an observation from working all over Iraq, with both American military and civilian personnel.

It is my belief that the soldiers, and frequently American officers who are highly trained and sophisticated, often polyglots and students of history understood what it would take to win – really win – a decisive victory in Iraq better than the core group of White House politicians who were giving the ultimate orders.

The initial purely military victory was quick and decisive, but the army commanders knew that the real war was just beginning.

During the orgy of looting that followed the fall of Baghdad, I heard deep misgivings again and again from officers and soldiers. Even as Donald Rumsfeld tried to dismiss the wave and crime and stealing as simply the way “free” people behave – a Special Forces officer told me with disgust “One of the first things they teach you in War College is – if you’re going to occupy a place, you have to restore order immediately – whatever it takes.”

In spite of the difficult and dangerous circumstances, teams of soldiers very soon were helping to organize local councils and bodies of government to handle the day to day running of the country. They began to train the police, and got to know the tribal leaders.

There’s no question the military’s efforts were flawed. The terrible pictures of the Abu Ghraib prisoners naked, hooded, and leashed are symbolic now of how seriously some elements of the military effort went awry.

But by and large, the soldiers were the first ones to realize what they would need to succeed: not more tanks or bunker busing bombs, but they things they did not get from their political masters: more men, more Arabic-speakers, more electricity generators, more international help. They also knew the decision to disband Iraq’s army was a mistake, and how wrong George Bush was when he declared major combat operations over.

Even so, I heard time and again from soldiers and officers that they were prepared to do whatever it might take to establish a functioning state in Iraq. These were men – and occasionally women – who did not have the training to do the jobs they got saddled with: as water engineers, or magistrates, or police or fundraisers. Frequently they were fed up, and they were often naive – but they were dedicated to the job at hand as Americans with a strong sense of justice. I would say as much out of pride for the institution of the US military as a genuine desire to see democracy in Iraq. And time and again I heard them say “More than the difficulty of the job at hand, we fear that American’s politicians won’t leave us here long enough to get it done.”

The tragedy is – as increasingly panic-stricken political adhockery has taken over policy making in Iraq – more and more often in the past few months I have heard them say “...and they never gave us a proper chance to achieve what would we believe could have been a victory of us – and for Iraq.”