WASHINGTON -- One of the most enjoyable parts of my day is to open the front door of my condo and see my five newspapers lying there -- so crisp and somehow brave facing this digital era. I am at best half-awake, but they are screaming at me, "Attention, attention -- attention must be paid this world!"
Over coffee in my favorite chair, I slowly awake to their world. I consider that world gravely. What are the terrible things the papers will duly inform me of this day? Oh, once in a while, there is the saving of a lost child, or a kitten who went around the world in the engine of an Airbus and walked out grumpily, but just fine.
But today -- not unexpectedly -- the news is almost all on the Middle East.
Egypt, for whom 5,000 years of history is not enough, is making more every day; now the military's Supreme Council has taken command (once again), and this development looks promising, since it chose representative people for the new governance. Tunisia, after setting off the entire region, seems, to the contrary, to be wandering in a desert of indecision. Tiny Bahrain on the Persian Gulf is only an island to itself, but no one is writing about the real problem behind its violent uprising -- that a majority is Shiite and has been fighting the ruling Sunni minority for years.
But of all the aftermaths of the Egyptian revolution, by far the most serious is the uprising -- a continuation of the "Green Revolution" of last year -- on the streets of Tehran.
This makes Tahrir Square look like a Sunday school picnic or a sweet Sufi Muslim mystical dance. Compared to the rest of the Middle and Near East, Iran has always been a notably violent place. It's hardly worth a lifted eyebrow that officials of the present religious government said this week that two of the opposition leaders, both highly respected men, should now be executed.
(Note: Remember the late and unlamented Ayatollah Khomeini, whom I interviewed in Paris in 1978 before he took over Iran, and how, in the 1980s war with Iraq, he sent children with symbolic keys to heaven around their necks across the desert to clear the minefields?)
I reluctantly thrust my papers aside, thought for a moment, then leafed through them again in order to confirm a suspicion I had. Quickly I realized my hunch was right. On this day, at least, while we were overwhelmed with the stories of others' wars or revolutions, there was not one story in any of these five leading papers on either of the wars that WE are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan (and perhaps we should add Pakistan, too). Indeed, this has been the situation ever since the Middle East exploded in January.
Now, I have often quarreled with my editors about their judgment on the placement of stories in the papers. I believe that, even with space so scarce and newsprint so expensive, we manage to cover "the" story of the day brilliantly -- but we don't cover the rest at all. Most of the 180 or so countries (the U.N.'s list keeps changing) in the world never get any coverage (ever seen a story on the Central African Republic, Swaziland or Bhutan?).
But there is another factor here that, under the circumstances, deserves consideration. We still have tens of thousands of troops more-or-less leaving Iraq but still fighting in a nasty and confusing war in Afghanistan; we have invested vast resources in these wars; we have parents all over the U.S. with children who "won't come back 'til it's over, over there."
But they're not us.
What newspaper editors instinctively know -- and what very few of us want to talk about -- is that most Americans are just not interested in that part of the world. We have no roots there; we don't know the people, and we don't much like them, either. If you noticed, there is almost no mention at all in the desperate budget discussions of the costs of these wars. Ignore them and they'll go away.
The fact is, we are fighting wars -- as in Vietnam, Somalia, and too many other places since World War II -- where we don't even hate the enemy. How can you hate somebody you don't even know?
So here's the conundrum. We are celebrating -- rightly, I believe -- the drive to representative and reasonably non-corrupt government and economic freedom (which is all we can hope for) on the part of the Arab and Persian peoples. It is our example that is effectively their inspiration.
At the same time, ostensibly we speak about wanting to establish similar kinds of regimes in Iraq and Afghanistan; but we have no shared cultural history to base success on, and we are forging more enemies every day by our very presence there.
America's history since the miraculous successes in Germany and Japan are far from what we are experiencing in "our" wars today. These wars, as in Vietnam and Cambodia, are the results of the singular ambitions of small cliques of adventurers in the CIA, military and State Department. The American people don't really care about the wars, any more than newspaper editors do.
This is what we should be quizzing President Obama about -- and also ourselves.
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