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

Closing Keynote Session:
Elizabeth Palmer

By Aly Verjee

Keynote speaker CBS Correspondent Elizabeth Palmer has reported from all over the world, her assignments including Lebanon, Syria, Israel and London, a world away from her initial start reporting on the ragweed eradication budget in British Columbia!

Ms. Palmer commented that the experience of working as a journalist puts things into very sharp relief, making them especially vivid and detailed. She recalled her first experience in the Occupied Territories in the early 1990s when peace seemed really achievable, in dramatic contrast to a recent visit of a month ago when her accompanying Israeli camera crew could not enter to film the area.

Ms. Palmer observed that we must attempt an understanding of how complex conflict is and how the use of force can easily exacerbate situations. Ms. Palmer spent 25 years at the CBC before “crossing the floor” to the slightly bigger pond of CBS. In contrast to the rather homogenous nature of Canadian media personnel, Ms. Palmer found an immensely diverse and multicultural team of reporters and journalists for the American networks. In fact, three of the four London correspondents for the American networks are Canadian. There exists a widespread assumption that American news media reflect an American bias when it comes to American wars and interventions. More accurately, the bias that does exist is mitigated by the polyglot and international nature of the staff.

As a journalist, Ms. Palmer observed that one tends to file away experiences and memories once assignments are complete. The opportunity to speak today allows for reflection on a whole body of work. From Chiapas to Iraq, it seems to Ms. Palmer that none of the conflicts on which she has reported have resulted in either a resounding success or defeat. War seems to have become more complex and less decisive in the post-imperialist world. Two recent situations do provide more examples of success, those of Kosovo and Afghanistan.

Ms. Palmer was in Belgrade at the time of the bombings of the Kosovo campaign. Local public opinion was adamantly opposed to the deployment of European and American ground troops. But when asked whether Canadian troops would be accepted, there was general agreement, despite the role of the Canadian forces in the air campaign. Ms. Palmer suggested that perhaps we’re not as easily tainted by our association with the U.S. as we might think.

In Kosovo, victory was narrowly defined as the prevention of genocide and the halting of ethnic cleansing. In a larger sense, Kosovo remains unfinished business, as the many who have served in the area can attest.

A partial victory is also perceived to have been achieved in Afghanistan. Very lucidly, what constituted success in Afghanistan was defined entirely as a function of 9/11.

In 2002, President Bush believed that American-defined victory would satisfy the American public. He went so far as to say that the United States would not engage in nation building in Afghanistan, which has certainly not been the case for the 18,000 U.S. troops on the ground. But true victory would have been the elimination of the region as a threat of any sort.

In taking the long view of the repercussions of deploying force in Afghanistan one must recall the Russian defeat in Afghanistan, which was a decisive factor in the defeat of the Soviet Union in the cold war, and also saw sown the seeds of 9/11.

Ms. Palmer observed that the use of force is impressive, but rarely decisive, even for a focused, well-trained military. Things are evidently much more disastrous in the face of a large, poorly run conscript military force as with the Russians in Chechnya. A strategic mistake, not agreeing on a peace settlement in Chechnya, and the reinvasion in 1996, has left a difficult, pre-modern state, a totally failed and corruption ridden state.

Ms. Palmer recounted the scene of a checkpoint at the beginning of the Chechen war where the on-duty officers, drunk and disinterested, epitomized the cynicism and hopelessness of the force. The checkpoint soldiers had no compunction selling their weapons to the Chechens accompanying the journalists for vodka money, despite knowing that these arms would be likely used against their compatriots.

Two years later, the Russian soldiers taking in “breathtakingly bleak” Grozny felt no pride in the victory that had been declared. Ms. Palmer suggested that today the potential for Chechnya to become a major problem for the world as a reservoir of, and training area for, terrorists.

Reporters take refuge in facts, and try to discern the details and logistics of exactly happened what has happened. As a firsthand observer of the Beslan school hostage taking, this usual protocol became extremely difficult to follow. Ms. Palmer recalled the emotion and horror of walking through the school, viewing the bodies of seemingly countless children.

For Ms. Palmer, the Beslan episode exposed the extreme weakness of the Russian state. President Putin knew the world was watching, and that the forces he had at his disposal had to be marshaled effectively. As we all know, it was a fantastic failure. To this day no one is entirely sure what set off the free for all that led to the massacre. It appears one of the bombs went off accidentally and the shooting began. If it wasn’t for the tragedy of the situation, Ms. Palmer observed, it would not be possible to devise a more devastating parody. The most basic precautions were not observed. No security perimeter was established, the operation was chaotic and ill-coordinated, and at the time of the firefight the elite special force assigned to the task was staging a rehearsal 30 miles away.

This became a defining moment in Ms. Palmer’s Russian experience, to see how flimsy the Russian state had become. The old Communist method of declaring victory no matter what the facts was adopted for Beslan. As a matter of journalistic freedom, technology overcame state suppression. A major Russian paper printed the contrasting BBC and CNN reports compared with the official state version, in what signaled a renewed clampdown on the media and the end of a free press in Russia.

Ms. Palmer spoke briefly on her current experience in Iraq. The terms of victory have shifted because of the untruth and purported motivations about the reasons for invasion. As long as the real motivation is not clear, the terms of the victory cannot be clear. With the actual war won easily, the day Baghdad fell was the day the real war began.

In Ms. Palmer’s view it was the military, rather than the politicians, that understood that the real terms of victory would be in the area of nation building. The military understood that their orders not to act to restore public order and prevent the looting of hospitals and the national museum would undermine the success of the occupation of the country.

While many mistakes have been made in Iraq, notably in the securing of military materiel such as yellowcake nuclear material, Ms. Palmer voiced the concerns of the many American officers who initially felt they would not have long enough to finish the job properly and are now even more resigned to this reality.

In her response to comments from the floor, Ms. Palmer addressed the issue of how the American media failed the United States public about Iraq, with lack of access to information and a vindictive, reactive administration. She reiterated that in a world of media plurality, consumers as well as the news media have a responsibility for the information they receive. No single medium can follow up on one story due to practical constraints and so there must be an onus on consumers to seek widely sources of news.