Since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait early this month, Tahseen Basheer hasn’t needed an alarm clock. The longtime, well-connected spokesman for the Egyptian perspective in Middle Eastern affairs has gotten plenty of wake-up calls from the global media, eager for his insights into the latest developments in the Persian Gulf crisis.
“At 5 a.m., the Japanese and Australian networks start calling,” he explained. “In the (later) morning and afternoon, it’s the Egyptian and European press. Then in the evenings, I do American TV.”
Although his may be an extreme case, Basheer’s demanding interview schedule illustrates the frantic pace that many Middle Eastern experts have experienced since Iraqi soldiers and tanks crossed into Kuwait Aug. 2. The crisis has created an apparently insatiable appetite for their expertise, these specialists say, noting that this media hunger for instant analysis probably is unprecedented both in volume and duration.
Furthermore, some specialists say the complex crisis has forced them to scramble for information too, tapping pipelines to government sources, meeting with associates, and keeping up with colleagues by reading their comments in newspapers and catching what they have to say on television. A few also say the crisis is a chance to gain prestige, widespread attention and, just maybe, exert some influence on the course of events.
For Basheer--a confidant of Egypt’s leaders for decades, a press spokesman for assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, ambassador to Canada, a representative to many Arab state conferences and now an ambassador at large--the nonstop commenting had become a little too much by the end of last week. To escape, he flew to Los Angeles as a late addition to UCLA’s conference on “Conflict Management in the Middle East,” which ended Wednesday after three days of presentations, discussions and a well-attended public forum.
“I came because I needed a break and because I cannot take a break in Cairo . . . (and) because I did not get any vacation all summer,” he said of his busman’s holiday. The trip also provided Basheer with a rare opportunity to see himself on American television in a report taped before he left Cairo.
“I looked rather tired, but I agreed with what I said,” he commented wryly.
The UCLA gathering, planned long before the current crisis, drew about 50 American, Soviet, Israeli and Arab participants. Appropriately, when they weren’t picking each other’s brains, many spent a good deal of time being interviewed.
Like Basheer, conference organizer Steven Spiegel, a professor of political science at UCLA and a Middle East expert, said his usual routines have been thrown into disarray. “To some extent, my life’s been turned upside down,” he said in an interview, referring to requests for his thoughts on the crisis.
Spiegel added that “people have started to talk to each other through the media . . . I think there is a dialogue going on. People ask, ‘Did you see X on CBS? Did you see Joe on CNN last night?’ ”
Spiegel believes analysts have come to the front because there is a relative dearth of film footage and other reporting from the focal points of the crisis, Iraq and Kuwait. Moreover, the sheer length of the crisis has created a media vacuum, particularly on Cable News Network, whose round-the-clock coverage practically begs for talking heads.
“Talking has become the way to fill in so that analyzing has become a substitute for news,” he said.
Martin Indyk, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, estimated that his five-man think tank has been “fielding 50 calls a day,” largely from the media, and that he has been interviewed as many as 12 to 15 times in a day.
“I’ve never experienced such a demand,” he said. “You have a situation where the press can’t get to the people who are in the loop in the government . . . the best they can do is call up the experts. It’s amazing, every story quotes an expert.”
Because of this outpouring, Indyk said the institute will begin publishing a daily, two-page analysis of various aspects of the crisis.
Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait “shattered all previous assumptions about Arab behavior” and thus represented an “enormous intellectual challenge,” Indyk said. “But we are long used to not being able to predict events in the Middle East.”
As the crisis developed, he and his colleagues at the institute met daily, “trying to make sense” of events, as well as pooling what they had gleaned from contacts with officials and other sources, Indyk said. But even now, nearly a month after the crisis began, Indyk’s judgment is that “it’s anybody’s guess where this leads.”
Like Indyk, John G. Ruggie, a political scientist and director of the University of California’s Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation, found himself working hard to say informed. Among other things, Ruggie bought newspapers he doesn’t usually read and telephoned friends and experts on the East Coast.
“If someone is going to shove a mike in my face, I want to be sure I know what I’m talking about,” he said.
Ruggie, whose institute sponsored the conference jointly with UCLA’s Center for International and Strategic Affairs, said the lucky timing of the conference could help California’s Middle Eastern experts get more time in the national media. The university’s experts are “terribly under-utilized” by national news programs, which “typically go back to the same Beltway Bandits,” he said, using a slang phrase referring to private consultants in the Washington area with lucrative contracts with the federal government.
Meanwhile, Michael D. Intriligator, an economics professor and director of the strategic affairs center at UCLA, said he and his peers willingly appear on news shows and field calls from foreign radio stations because “it’s part of public responsibility.”
While Western experts like Ruggie and Intriligator were clearly comfortable with the media game, Soviet expert Georgi Mirsky played to a different audience entirely. Early in the crisis, he “had a talk with some people rather close to (Soviet President Mikhail) Gorbachev,” he recalled. He advised them to take a tougher line with Iraq, he said, because the crisis would be the first test of Gorbachev’s “new thinking” about global issues. “If the aggressor is not punished this time . . . the law of the jungle will prevail,” Mirsky said he told Gorbachev’s associates.
Before the advent of glasnost , Mirsky said, he would not have been able to speak so freely and would have had to couch his advice in an ideological language sprinkled with terms such as imperialism and neocolonialism .
Now, “we may say everything, we may write almost everything,” Mirsky said, somewhat dryly.
And, he noted, he sometimes keeps up with colleagues in the West by hearing them on international radio broadcasts.