Regime Changing

This all-American kid from Monterey is now one of the foremost experts on Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Where does he go from here?

He has given hundreds of interviews -- and missed some because he couldn't keep track of them all -- but throughout the entire production, he has maintained an air of professionalism and confidence, even if some of it was an act.

"If I don't know an answer, I fake one," he confides. "The worst thing is pausing and not knowing the answer, so you learn how to fake an answer or change the question to your knowledge.

"It's a system you have to master. You give them what they want -- short, succinct answers, yes or no, black or white."

Now an expert on Arab politics, al-Marashi didn't focus 
on the subject until 1991.
Paolo Vescia
Now an expert on Arab politics, al-Marashi didn't focus on the subject until 1991.
After an article he wrote was plagiarized by the British 
government, graduate student Ibrahim al-Marashi 
became a favored media pundit on the war with Iraq.
Paolo Vescia
After an article he wrote was plagiarized by the British government, graduate student Ibrahim al-Marashi became a favored media pundit on the war with Iraq.

It would be only later -- after the media tumult had died down -- that he would realize that in perfecting the media game, he had sacrificed his original goal of offering a nuanced perspective on a misunderstood country.

In late April, the day before he left for Oxford to finish his doctoral dissertation, and with plans to travel to Iraq afterward, al-Marashi gave his last talk in the United States on the Iraq conflict at a high school in Monterey.

He spoke before a small after-school gathering called World Without Borders, a group he'd previously visited in September 2002, at the time surprising the class with his strident pro-war stance. Al-Marashi had made such an impression during that meeting, in fact, that the teacher heading the group had written in her notes, "Ibrahim proposed we attack Iraq to save his homeland."

This time, he gave the opposite message.

Settling into a chair at the front of the classroom, al-Marashi began his talk the way he begins every presentation. He carefully removed a tattered, mud-stained postcard with scalloped edges from a plastic sleeve and held it up in the air.

"This is a postcard that was found in Iraq [after the 1991 Gulf War]," he said. He translated the contents of the card from Arabic: It thanks Iraqi citizens for performing a "national duty" by reporting on neighbors, friends, and family who are suspected to be "murderous criminals and ... foreign agents."

"This is something the police department would send to you for giving them information," he continued. "It gives you a sense of the old Iraq, how people were encouraged to serve the state and turn against their neighbor. Any talk on Iraq, I'd open up with this card to give you a sense of what life was like in Iraq."

But unlike in previous talks, al-Marashi added, "I'm glad to say this is a piece of history."

Placing the postcard back into its protective sleeve, he shifted into a discussion of the war and the media -- the topic the students had asked him to address.

He began by lambasting the press' reliance on splash rather than substance. "[During interviews] I had two minutes to speak, and then they cut and they go to the next speaker," al-Marashi told the students. "[What] I realized about this is that this is not enough time to say what I have to say. Iraq is not a country you can summarize in 30 seconds before the commercial starts. That made us gloss over a lot of minute details of Iraq politics and internal dynamics. And a lot of times when you summarize something, you don't get the information across correctly.

"The thing is, you're under pressure. You have these bright lights on you and you have to, you know, say it in a couple of sentences to tell the whole thing. When you do that, you don't get the whole picture."

As the talk progressed, his tone changed slightly, and the speech transformed into al-Marashi's unintended mea culpa to the world. In an almost cavalier manner, he began listing several things that he and other analysts had predicted incorrectly, such as underestimating the Fedayeen army and predicting Saddam Hussein's use of chemical weapons.

"Analysts -- I include myself -- these overnight experts on Fox News and MSNBC, they got the war completely wrong," he said defiantly. "I admit my mistakes; other analysts don't. I put it out there that I and others were completely wrong, and we need to re-examine how we study these countries. And the other analysts would never say that because that's the end of their career, where I'm willing to risk that."

The students seemed unaware of the significance of al-Marashi's admissions, and interjected questions at random, asking whether Saddam Hussein was still alive and how the war would affect the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In his responses, al-Marashi made a point of noting the suffering of Iraqi civilian casualties, and challenged what he now perceives as the U.S. government's self-interested agenda toward Iraq.

The teacher, a wild-haired woman with a gentle manner, seemed surprised by al-Marashi's answers. Finally she asked, "When you last visited us, you said that you would be glad, with qualifications, that the U.S. go [invade] Iraq. Do you regret saying that?"

Al-Marashi, fiddling with a pocket watch, laughed. Addressing the students, he said, "That's why, when Dalia [a student] asked me [to speak here], on literally the day before [I travel to] England, I said, 'Let this be my last talk in the U.S.' Because very much I regret what I said. I wanted to come back [to this group] because what I said back then has come back full circle.

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