BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. This week in Washington the State Department assembled 17 Iraqi dissidents from North America and Europe to train them to use the media to more effectively spread their message against Saddam Hussein. As Undersecretary of State Donald Feith said recently on a U.S.-funded Arab language radio station, "The question has been, in the absence of military action, what can we do? So ratcheting up the rhetoric is the kind of thing we can do now. We can stir the pot and see what happens. It could push someone over the edge to act." One of those prospective pot-stirrers is Muhanned Eshaiker, an architect from Irvine, California who serves on the board of the Iraqi Forum for Democracy. We called him in the midst of the training to find out how it was going.
MUHANNED ESHAIKER: Well it's actually a workshop where we had Iraqis worldwide who have been separated by geography to meet together in one spot. I knew most of the men and women who showed up, and, and they knew me, and, and we just had, you know, very fruitful discussions on how to formulate a, a strategy for the media and we also were, were given the benefits of experts in the field of media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:What have they shown you about dealing with the media that you didn't already know? You know are there any sort of tricks of the trade?
MUHANNED ESHAIKER: Yeah, well there, there's stuff like - let's just take one example I just got to my mind is that when you're in front of the camera, that's an opportunity to talk to millions of people around the world, so just don't waste that opportunity. Don't waste that opportunity with questions back and forth that where you're beating around the issue - just go straight to the issue.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Is there anything that the activists found that they were doing wrong according to the experts and that needed a major re-thinking.
MUHANNED ESHAIKER: Yes, I think the Iraqis in exile were not really taking advantage of the media opportunities. We, we -- because we're not very well organized, that's why when the opportunity arises, instead of taking the story straight to the media and go on CNN or ABC or wherever, BBC -- we probably stumble or wait and say well, I mean what's the use -everybody knows he's a criminal, so what's the use if we just add another story over or another crime? But everything counts! You know, the-- if we keep hammering on the same nail, the nail is going to find its way through.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What is your role in the meeting? Why do you think you were called in?
MUHANNED ESHAIKER:Well because I'm active in California, and I've been active for the last 10 years and I've knocked the doors of the State Department and the Congress and-- and other officials. So-- that's why I was picked and not somebody else.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What about your organization -- the Iraqi Forum for Democracy? Does it have a real constituency?
MUHANNED ESHAIKER: Yeah, we have members. Our membership is below 200 worldwide.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: 200. Doesn't really make for much of a movement. Do you think that you can actually have an impact?
MUHANNED ESHAIKER:Well it's not really a movement. It's really a-- collection of intellectuals who could make a difference. It's not a mass movement to change the regime.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:You know that our president is gearing up for a war on Iraq. Do you worry that you might be being used by the administration to muster up support for that war?
MUHANNED ESHAIKER: That's not the case! The, the case is -- we had the floor; nobody interfered in our agenda. We set the agenda for ourselves during these 3 or 4 days of meeting and-- and we're carrying through!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thanks very much.
MUHANNED ESHAIKER: Thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Muhannad Eshaiker is a member of the board of the Iraqi Forum for Democracy and an architect in Irvine, California.
BOB GARFIELD:Hussein Ibish is the communications director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee which opposes a U.S. invasion of Iraq. Mr. Ibish, welcome to OTM.
HUSSEIN IBISH: Delighted to be with you.
BOB GARFIELD: So the administration is seeing to it that various representatives of the American Iraqi community fan out to spread their message about Saddam Hussein. Tell me why that doesn't make perfect sense.
HUSSEIN IBISH: Well actually it does make perfect sense. It makes perfect sense in that one of the tactics that we usually see, you know, in trying to provide a justification for a war is to present, you know, a compelling case that it's actually in the interest of the country that's going to be attacked that that happens, and you, you know it's, it's quite standard. I don't think it's surprising that the administration would try to train and recruit Iraqi opposition figures or people close to the administration here from the Iraqi-American community to go out and play that role, which until now they really haven't been doing an effective job of. The point is that groups like that don't have a presence or a constituency in Iraq, and that's what matters, you see. The, the point is that there is the actual opposition groups in Iraq - people with men under arms with a constituency with a presence in the country, and those are 3 groups - 2 Kurdish groups in northern Iraq and the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution of Iraq. And the 4th group are these former army officers, the defectors and retirees, who mostly live in, in various different European countries. But I think these quasi-official groups like the Iraqi National Congress and the Iraqi Foundation for Democracy and others, you know, the, the point of view that they have really is, is linked to domestic politics here and not anything that will - that either is happening or will happen in Iraq.
BOB GARFIELD:We just heard from Mohanned Eshaiker who works for the Iraqi Forum for Democracy. Why should we doubt his credentials as a legitimate opposition figure?
HUSSEIN IBISH: Well I don't think you should doubt his credentials as someone who may well represent the point of view of a decent number of Iraqi Americans. I mean he probably does.
BOB GARFIELD: Does it really matter if the people who will be fronting for the administration represent a, a large constituency? Does-- [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
HUSSEIN IBISH: No, I don't think [...?...]. [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
BOB GARFIELD: -- Isn't the only thing that matters whether they can mount a persuasive argument? [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
HUSSEIN IBISH:Yes. I think that's right. I, I think -- I mean in terms of affecting American public opinion, yes. But it does matter ultimately in terms of the way the war is conducted, and there's going to be a problem, because you know if you put forward a bunch of people as the Iraqi opposition now, and then you get rid of Saddam Hussein and then those people vanish because they're of no use, you know, when it comes to actually setting up a new credible, functional, viable government in Iraq, you know, and suddenly you bring forward some bunch of retired generals or some other group of people nobody has either heard of or that have a very dubious background, you know it, it, it does lead I think ultimately to damage to credibility as long as people have any memory. I think the only thing is that, that in a s--in a situation like that is you could maybe try to count on the fact that many people are perfect post-modern subjects with no historical memory, and they won't even remember, you know, or tell the difference between one group of Iraqis and another.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Well I, I'm pretty confident that that's the-- the situation. I-- [...?...]-- [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
HUSSEIN IBISH:Well yeah! I mean I am too, so it in fact doesn't matter. And you know it, it wouldn't really necessarily even matter if you hired some bunch of-- people from Morocco and dressed them up and pretended, [LAUGHS] you know, and, and made believe they were Iraqis and you know as long as you know you could get away with that, that would probably do the trick too!
BOB GARFIELD:So once again, putting aside your absolute opposition to a U.S. invasion of Iraq, as a communications director and a professional opinion-molder-- [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
HUSSEIN IBISH: Yeah. Yeah.
BOB GARFIELD: -- not a bad move, huh?
HUSSEIN IBISH: No, it's, it's not a bad move depending on the-- on the competence of the people involved. But as -- in theory it's, it's a good move.
BOB GARFIELD: All right. Hussein Ibish, thank you very much.
HUSSEIN IBISH: Pleasure.
BOB GARFIELD: Hussein Ibish is communications director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. [MUSIC]
"Just Like I Pictured It"
by Medeski Martin & Wood