Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Bush should pardon shoe thrower

By DeWayne Wickham

Two days before Christmas, President Bush issued 19 pardons and one commutation. But nowhere on that list was the name of Muntazer al-Zaidi.

Al-Zaidi is the Iraqi journalist who hurled his shoes at the president during his surprise visit to Iraq earlier this month. Of course, Bush's power to forgive the bad acts of people doesn't extend to crimes committed by foreigners in their native land.

But al-Zaidi is a special case, and there is still time for Bush to launch a pre-emptive strike against his prosecution. Bush should ask the leaders of the government his administration played a big role in creating to pardon the shoe thrower.

As it stands now, al-Zaidi's trial is scheduled to begin on New Year's Eve. If convicted, he could be imprisoned for five to 15 years.

Al-Zaidi was attending an impromptu press conference held by Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki when he ripped off his shoes and tossed them at the American president.

What he did was a foolish expression of the disdain many Iraqis feel for Bush. In the Arab world, showing someone the soles of your shoe is a sign of contempt. Bush nimbly ducked both shoes. After security officers hustled al-Zaidi from the room, Bush joked about the incident, then linked it to his efforts to turn Iraq into a democratic state.

"I don't know what the guy's cause is," Bush said. "But that's what happens in free societies, where people try to draw attention to themselves."

Exactly. And it is a free society that Bush wants as his legacy in Iraq. Al-Zaidi wasn't trying to harm Bush physically, he wanted to insult him. What he did was - in the context of his culture - an act of political protest.

But the Iraqi journalist is charged with "aggression against a foreign head of state" and could end up spending a lot of time behind bars. And that could undermine Iraq's fragile democracy.

With provincial elections set for the end of January, opponents of al-Maliki are trying to paint the Iraqi prime minister as an American puppet and al-Zaidi as an Iraqi hero who stood up to the leader of the country that invaded Iraq.

Americans can argue the merits of this argument (again, an expression of democracy), but in Iraq and much of the Middle East the shoe-throwing is seen as a David-and-Goliath incident.

If al-Maliki's government convicts al-Zaidi for an offense not considered a criminal act in that region of the world, it will hand the opponents of democracy in Iraq a highly symbolic victory at a crucial time.

Bush can take al-Maliki off of the hook by asking him to pardon al-Zaidi.

"There is hope in the eyes of Iraqis' young," Bush said shortly before al-Zaidi tossed his shoes. "This is a future of what we've been fighting for - a strong and capable, democratic Iraq that will be a force of freedom and a force for peace in the heart of the Middle East."

Maybe so. But the prosecution of al-Zaidi could become the cause célèbre that unravels all of what Bush thinks he has accomplished in Iraq.

Al-Zaidi is not Richard Reid, the Briton who tried to blow up a Miami-bound airline using a shoe packed with explosives. He rightfully got a life sentence from an American court for that act of madness.

For throwing his shoes at Bush, al-Zaidi should be judged only for the political statement he was trying to make in the newly democratic Iraq.

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