Giving the Cowboy the Boot

You’ve heard by now of the remarkable welcome President Bush received at a press conference during his surprise visit to Baghdad yesterday, yes? Arab journalists may still be in the early stages of adjusting to the freer media environment in Iraq, but at least they don’t settle for flip-flops. No, what George W. Bush instead twice found coming in on a bee-line to his head were the formal dress-shoes of a certain Muntadar al-Zeidi, correspondent for the Cairo-based TV network “Al-Baghdadiya.”

Which of the many available European lenses to take up for review of this incident? Obviously it should be from a culture with a certain shoe-expertise; the Italian press thereby suggests itself, but long-time readers (Hi Mom!) will realize that Italian coverage is here on €S an exception rather than a rule, due mainly to considerations of linguistic familiarity. The French should be a perfectly-suitable substitute.

Turning first to the newspaper of record, Le Monde gives Bush’s Baghdad shoe-in rather curious, even somewhat schizophrenic, coverage. The main article – Bush and Iraq: “The task has not been easy but has been necessary”, with by-line only to Le Monde and to the French news-agency AFP – takes the high road and only describes Bush’s Baghdad visit and his remarks there – that is, just the hightops of his stay – without mention of any untoward incident to otherwise clog up its account. But then in two separate paragraphs lower on the page, to the left and in their own grey-shaded area, it does give the basic details of the shoe-throwing episode: who the guy was, the accompanying insults, etc.

A Viral Video Already

Then, in an entirely separate on-line article, the newspaper treats the truly notable side-phenomenon in play here, namely how the video-clip has widely been exposed to a world very hungry for it (The Web seizes images of Bush dodging thrown shoes, by-line AFP). According to this piece, already 70 videos having to do with the incident have been submitted to YouTube, where they had already been viewed 600,000 times by noon on Monday, 15 DEC 08. Meanwhile, on another video site Dailymotion, about fifty videos had been submitted and viewed by that same time-point more than 200,000 times. Comments accompanying the videos have ranged from admiration at the President’s skill in dodging (“Bush should be good at playing Wii-Fit!” wrote one viewer on YouTube) to suggestions that al-Zeidi be awarded the Nobel Prize. And indeed, each of the on-line articles in the French press gathered for this round-up featured prominently-embedded videos of the shoe-throwing action. (I recommend as best the one on the Nouvel Observateur page, since it shows the action first at normal speed, with all accompanying audio, and then again in slow-motion like a sports-action replay.)

The article in LibérationBush avoids the pump-hit; I suspect that this might be a French attempt at a clever pun-headline – does in fact have a super-sized version of the video at its top, with another just over to the right. But the editors of that rather left-wing French paper, like those of Le Monde, also seem afflicted here by a curious streak of even-handedness towards the American president. It’s true that the piece starts out, after the lede, with “The American president George W. Bush has known his last misadventure in Iraq, just avoiding receiving at full-face a pair of shoes thrown by an Iraqi journalist at the moment when he had just affirmed that ‘victory is near’.” (Actually, that’s not true, what the unnamed author claimed Bush to be saying. As you can clearly hear on the Nouvel Observateur video, Bush was merely saying “thank you” in Arabic to Nouri al-Maliki just before the wing-tips took flight.) But then this piece has for much of its second half rather extensive coverage of the praise lavished on Bush during this last visit by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. It also notes at the end that, of Bush’s handful of visits to the country, this one “is the first time that he comes to a country relatively pacified” – something that is really more a matter of opinion.

It’s not properly French, but do let me include here coverage on the incident from the Belgian French-language paper La Libre BelgiqueAn Iraqi journalist throws his shoes at Bush. La Libre adds some interesting details that I don’t find anywhere else, mainly about what did and did not happen at Bush’s follow-on destination after Baghdad, namely Kabul, Afghanistan. Naturally, some of the journalists there at the press conference Bush held with Afghan president Hamid Karzai were bracing themselves for some sort of repeat there of the shoe-throwing in Baghdad. (The ones who were not were simply those who had not yet heard about the Iraqi incident, which had at that point occurred only a couple of hours previously.) Perhaps their worries were heightened by the fact that the security-screening to which the journalists had to submit for access to that Afghan press conference had devoted no particular extra attention to their footwear. In fact, according to the article one Afghan newspaperman did try to goad a TV-reporter colleague to action, calling him a loafer and a sneaker (OK, so I made that last part up) and urging him to throw his own footgear into the anti-Bush cause. But that TV reporter, his instigator, and everyone else ended up behaving themselves in the end.

What Further for the Thrower?

Was that perhaps simply the prudent thing to do? Put another way, how will our Iraqi shoe-throwing ace, Muntadar al-Zeidi, be brought to heel? On that subject it’s that aforementioned Nouvel Observateur article that has the answers (Bush attacked: 200 lawyers to defend the show-thrower). One the one hand you have one Iraqi lawyer quoted in this piece that al-Zeidi is due for two years in jail for “having insulted a foreign head of state visiting Iraq,” and it’s also true that he is now in detention and has already been subject to repeated interrogations, mainly to ascertain whether any outside government or other agency sponsored what he did. (He also was tested for drug and alcohol intoxication.) On the other, al-Zeidi’s employer, the “Al-Baghdadiya” TV network, has appealed for his release, and he has picked up the support of one Khalil Doulaimi, a Jordan-based former lawyer for no less than Saddam Hussein. Doulaimi further maintains that he could easily recruit two hundred other legal colleagues – among them some Americans, he claims – to join him in al-Zeidi’s defense, all working for free. He adds: “For an Iraqi this is the least thing to do to Bush, a criminal tyrant who has killed two million people in Iraq and Afghanistan. Zeidi should be set free immediately.”

We should eventually know what al-Zeidi’s fate will be, if he does not simply disappear into the maw of the Iraqi prison system. We truly owe the man something, for providing a simple but classic and very-physical metaphor for expressing the lingering feelings of so many Americans and other peoples of the world for George W. Bush. To be sure, far more serious legal and investigative measures are in order to call him to account, but I think that for Inauguration Day – mark my words! – we can definitely expect some sort of footgear theme to be introduced into the festivities.

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