Shoe Thrower Only a Temporary Distraction

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Tick-tock, tick-tock. Muntadar al-Zeidi's 15 minutes are about to run out. The Iraqi TV reporter who hurled his footwear at President Bush last week became an instant hero in the Arab world even before the second shoe dropped. But he will soon discover that the news cycle is a brutal mistress: before you know it, you're yesterday's headline.

Although he missed Bush, Zeidi hit the sweet spot in the last news cycle: media outlets everywhere were looking for something fresh to show and tell their consumers. The Barack Obama salvation show was in hiatus, the Mumbai terror attacks was fading from the front page, the Mideast peace process was stalling (again), the late night comics had run out of jokes about Gov. Rod Blagojevich's hair... and everybody had had quite enough of grim tidings about the economy. For newsrooms, a man throwing shoes at a lame duck American President was like Christmas come early. (See "Aftermath of a Shoe Attack".)

For opponents of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, it was an Eid bonus. With the hubbub over the Status of Forces Agreement having died down, the movement led by the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr had run out of things to denounce: Zeidi's "heroism" was just what they needed to return to the streets, bearing the usual banners of protest and U.S. flags to burn. The Sadrists also made political hay of Zeidi in parliament, bringing it to a standstill. The gadfly speaker, Mahmoud Mashadani — no mean headline-grabber himself — threatened to resign.(See the Top 10 Awkward Moments of 2008)

I'm not suggesting that cynical calculation was behind every expression of solidarity for Zeidi. He undoubtedly captured the zeitgeist in the Arab world (and beyond) over Bush and his calamitous foreign policies. Many Iraqis were genuinely moved by his actions, and want him to be released.

But Iraq is a country with many problems, and the travails of one angry journalist can't distract people from government corruption, the absence of basic services and the continuing bombings and suicide attacks. The arrests of dozens of officials in the Interior and Defense ministries — allegedly for plotting the overthrow of Maliki's government — have already replaced Zeidi as the biggest story of the week. Baghdad is awash with rumors of an impending coup.

In the U.S., the Zeidi story may last a little longer — Bush critics will want to savor the President's discomfiture for as long as they possibly can. But with most of the late-night hosts going into their holiday break, the jokes will dry up pretty soon.

What will come of Zeidi himself? It falls on the Baghdad press corps to keep up pressure on the Maliki government to give their brother reporter a fair hearing in court. With a major election coming up next week, there's reason to hope that the Prime Minister may make a magnanimous (and vote-catching) gesture toward Zeidi.

Now, can we get back to the real news, please?

(See "Aftermath of a Shoe Attack".)