Tuesday, December 9, 2008
The End of the Automobile?
Just an observation to keep things in perspective:
When the American auto industry goes belly up, no one talks about the end of the automobile. They talk about poor corporate management in Detroit.
By comparison, when the newspaper industry starts losing readers and revenue, the end of the newspaper can't be far behind.
The difference, of course, is in the alternatives. Online news amounts to the equivalent of a fleet of volunteer chauffeurs patrolling city streets, stopping beside anyone fumbling for their car keys and helpfully offering a lift.
But online news is only free on the consumption end, mainly because of an early adapter rush to lower entry barriers to readership in order to establish brand loyalty. That will ultimately change, whether through subscription walls and/or adapted advertising models. And when it does, the revenue picture will improve dramatically, because the thirst for news is obviously greater than ever (for reasons that I'm not sure are necessarily healthy).
I'm also convinced that once the complementary roles of print and online editions have been more formally established, a residual demand for print will survive. It's a different reading experience, with different functions in terms of how and what kind of information is delivered. We're still very much in a transition period, where the vast majority of newsrooms are trying to actively evolve their operations on the fly. But the range of alternative models is increasingly taking shape, and that will lower transformation costs and facilitate the process for those that follow.
Meanwhile, newspapers are still by and large profitable, something that is left out of the doom and gloom forecasts. Which means that the ones that aren't managed like the Big Three auto companies will live to see another day.
Sunday, December 7, 2008
The Reincarnation of the Newspaper
A quick thought on the crisis facing the American newspaper industry, which has often been described as a battle between online vs. print, with online winning. The problem with that description, though, is that American newspapers are really pretty cutting edge in terms of their approach to online news. Like the major broadcast companies' transition from radio to television in the mid-20th century, newspapers are uniquely positioned to benefit from readers' growing preference for online news. There are also online niches where they enjoy significant advantages over their broadcast competition. As an example, they have far deeper reporting resources than most television news outlets, with lower production overhead. So when it comes to video and mulitmedia reporting for their online editions, there's an enormous upside potential.
The crisis would be more accurately described as a battle between online revenue vs. print revenue. The problem for American newspapers isn't that they're losing readers to online editions, since they are the online editions, by and large, their print readers are abandoning them for. The problem is that no one has yet figured out how to monetize online readership.
Or online anything, for that matter. Unlike television, which provided even more lucrative revenue streams for the radio broadcasters who made the transition, the internet's reach and ease of reproduction -- in other words its very strengths -- have undermined traditional intellectual copyright revenue streams in general. The recording industry faces the same challenge, and if it survives, it will be due to alternative revenue sources, such as the cost of licensing included in pre-loaded mp3 readers, internet service provider subscriptions, and brand affiliations.
Some papers have already begun experimenting with "sponsored" editorial content. But the predictable backlash confirms that a newspaper's public interest function limits the kinds of revenue arrangements it can innovate, if it wants to maintain its journalistic credibility. Licensing fees from e-readers like the Kindle, and eventually e-paper, might make up some of the print revenue that's gradually being lost. But not all of it.
Newspapers could change their business model, whether by adapting to niche print markets (trains, planes and automo... make that buses) or going non-profit, but in that case they'll be unlikely to maintain the kind of reporting resources that are their main strength. Most of the major national dailies, I'm guessing, will survive either through philanthropic foundation money, or else strategic partnerships with universities or other cash-rich public interest institutions.
That leaves the mid-level and local dailies, which is a significant loss if they do eventually go under. These are the papers that are often the first reference when a local story takes on national signficance. Think of the Anchorage Daily News' coverage of the Sarah Palin abuse of power inquiry.
But ultimately, there's a circular logic whereby the death of print means the rebirth of print. Because anyone who thinks there will be online editions once the print newsrooms no longer exist is in for a rude shock when they check their RSS reader or the Google news homepage the day the last print edition folds. Either online becomes sustainable, which means print runs will probably survive, too, even if they are limited. Or else we're heading into the newspaper equivalent of the Cambrian mass extinction, whereby the newspaper landscape is wiped clean, only for newspapers to reemerge in some new evolutionary form. But if that happens, it's hard to see how that new form won't include some sort of print format.
Friday, October 31, 2008
WPR Stays a Step Ahead
A handful of stories we've brought you recently in WPR are back in the news. Last month, Dorian Merina reported for WPR on a controversial and divisive anti-pornography bill under consideration in Indonesia. Today the IHT reports that the bill was passed into law. A few weeks back, Christina Madden reported for WPR on the Andean Trade Preferences Act that was recently signed into law. Yesterday McClatchy reported that the Bush administration's subsequent suspension of Bolivia's privileges under that act will enter into effect today. Finally, the NY Times has two articles today that cover familiar ground for regular WPR readers: the first on Somalia's pirate crisis, which David Axe covered in a WPR feature article three weeks back, and the second on the political power struggle taking place in South Africa between the ANC and a newly minted splinter party, which Mxolisi Ncube covered for WPR last week.
Just a few more examples of how WPR keeps you a step ahead on significant developments around the world, providing not just the news but the context and analysis to help you make sense of it all. If you're a regular reader, of course, you already know that. But feel free to spread the word.
Cross-posted to World Politics Review.
Thursday, October 30, 2008
Patriotism and the Press in Times of War
Speaking of Nir Rosen's Rolling Stone article, Bing West discusses some of the ethical and legal issues it raises over at Small Wars Journal. West manages to present some very thorny and potentially explosive issues passionately but not stridently (quite a feat these days), keeping the piece both thoughtful and thought-provoking. Mostly light, with just enough heat (and in the right places) to make it resonate.
West addresses two aspects of Rosen's "embed" that had occurred to me when I read the piece. Namely, the fact that he was basically agreeing to at the very least the possibility of accompanying hostile forces on operations against American troops. And he also accepted the terms of the embed, which depended on his guides being subject to a family-wide death threat to secure his safety. The latter is, to my mind, a clearcut ethical lapse. The former lies in what even West concedes is a ethical-legal gray area.
I held off making those criticisms in my remarks at the time, because I wasn't quite sure about what was driving the negative reaction I had to the piece. As an armchair analyst, I felt reluctant to engage in kneejerk criticism of what, despite the ethical gray areas, remains an incredibly courageous field assignment. There's also the question of what role the press plays, and whether it is, in fact, above and beyond the ethical and legal issues that proscribe other citizens in times of war.
I don't have any definitive answers. If you have any thoughts on the matter, feel free to weigh in via email.
Cross-posted to World Politics Review.
Tuesday, October 28, 2008
WPR Feature: The Al-Qaida We Don't Know
One of the reasons posting has been increasingly light here at HJ is that I've been picking up more reponsibilities over at World Politics Review. Among other things, I've been helping put together our new biweekly theme issues. The latest one just went up yesterday, and it's worth a glance:
Ten years after al-Qaida declared war against the U.S., and seven years after the U.S. followed suit, much of what we know about the group is filtered through the lens of the Global War on Terror, a rubric that hides and distorts as much as it reveals. But in reducing al-Qaida to a terrorist organization, we have ignored the broader socio-cultural movement it represents. The result has been to overlook the range of its activities on the one hand, while exaggerating its strategic outlook on the other.
To formulate a sound strategic response to al-Qaida, we must first have a clear understanding of just what kind of enemy it is. To provide a fuller picture of the group's origins and goals, its future prospects, as well as the conventional component of its activities, WPR examines The Al-Qaida We Don't Know.
In "The 055 Brigade," Brian Glyn Williams of the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth and an expert witness in the military commission hearing of Salim Hamdan, discusses the little-known history of al-Qaida's conventional fighting force.
In "AQIM, the North African Franchise," Joseph Kirschke examines the potential threat posed by local al-Qaida franchises, as well as the challenges they face.
In "The Limits of the Counterterrorism Approach," Nathan Field examines the historical origins and socio-economic context of al-Qaida to determine its strategic outlook.
Let me know what you think here.
Tuesday, October 14, 2008
The Future Face of Conflict at WPR
We've got a couple of features up over at WPR as part of a theme issue, The Future Face of Conflict, that should be of interest. Jack Kem, of the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, gives a rundown of where the Army's new Stability Operations manual fits into its "doctrinal renaissance." And Paul McLeary, a senior editor at Defense Technology International, describes from up close how the Army's Human Terrain Teams of cultural anthropologists are helping to change the way war is waged. The issue's third article, David Axe's insightful analysis of the Somali pirate crisis, was published last week due to its timeliness, but it's back on the front page again, too. We've got some exciting plans for the WPR site that I'm looking forward to sharing when they're ready. For now, though, click through and enjoy.
Monday, October 13, 2008
At the risk of tooting our own horn, I'd just like to point out a couple of stories in the news today that World Politics Review has been out ahead on. The IHT reports on the impasse in the negotiations over the Zimbabwe unity government, a story we brought to you on Friday. The NY Times reports on developments in the North Korea nuclear program talks, all discussed in detail by Richard Weitz in his regular column last Tuesday. And Diplomatic Courier has a piece on the Turkey-Armenia rapprochement, a story we reported on three weeks ago. I imagine you don't need me to point it out, but WPR is a pretty good place to keep up to date on what's going on in the world, and we're working on some ideas for how to make it better.
Cross-posted to World Politics Review.
Friday, October 10, 2008
Folks, this is clearly well past the realm of, You can't make this up. Here's the headline:
Palin pre-empts state report, clears self in probe
And here's the lede:
Trying to head off a potentially embarrassing state ethics report on GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, campaign officials released their own report Thursday that clears her of any wrongdoing.
Apparently the McCain campaign has decided that their real competition in this election is Tina Fey and the SNL writers team. Either that or sometime after falling asleep last night in my apartment in Paris, France, I was transported by a space-time vortex to a location in 1930's Soviet Russia.
Seriously, if this is what the McCain gang calls oversight, a whole bunch of execs in the banking sector are popping the bubbly right about now. And in the way they frame the story, the AP (which I assume now stands for American Pravda) is very much part of the problem.
On second thought, you can make this up. I recall reading a novel along these lines, written by a guy named... Ah, skip it.
Saturday, September 27, 2008
McCain's Pakistan Flip Flop
This isn't the first time I've flagged these comments made by John McCain in an interview with the editors of Defense News last October. I'm posting them again in light of last night's debate, where McCain once again attacked Barack Obama for his stance on American strikes against al-Qaida leadership in Pakistan's tribal frontier:
Q: Does the U.S. have any options with regard to al-Qaida and reputed al-Qaida strongholds in the federally unregulated areas in Pakistan? Other than what seems to be sort of a status quo of waiting for them to come over the border, the Pakistani Army occasionally launching a strike to -- well, it's hard to say for what end because they don't seem to be sustained efforts. What are the U.S. options there?
McCain: I think they're very difficult options. I think that if we knew of al-Qaida -- more specifically Taliban, it's mainly Taliban that are operating in these places -- that we have to do what's necessary. We don't have to advertise it. We don't have to embarrass or humiliate the Pakistani government. . .
. . .These are all very tough calls, and in summary I think that what happens in Waziristan will be dictated by events in Islamabad, but I also think that we, where necessary, without in any way embarrassing our friends, can have a lot of options.
Q: So if you were president and you knew that bin Laden were over there, you had a target spotting, you could nail him, you'd go get him?
McCain: Sure. Sure. We have to, and I'm sure that after the initial flurry, that whoever our friends are, wherever he is, would be relieved because, as I mentioned to you before, he's still very effective in the world, very, very effective.
That's a pretty clear case of political bad faith, but oddly enough it hasn't gotten a whole lot of traction.
Thursday, September 25, 2008
Missing the Obvious Followup
This entire post is covered by the caveat that I didn't see the entire Katie Couric interview with Sarah Palin, just the brutal clip of Palin's Russia answer. So it could be that Couric went on to ask the question I formulate below. But it seems to me that getting into a debate about whether or not proximity to two foreign countries qualifies as "foreign policy credentials" actually lets Palin off the hook. Couric should have taken Palin at her word and moved on to the obvious followup: "In that case, what should our policy towards Russia be in the aftermath of the Georgian invasion?" Granted, it's a question that no one can really answer right now, but by forcing Palin to actually discuss a foreign policy question of substance it would have put her claims of being qualified to the test.
Saturday, September 20, 2008
All Bark, No Bite
The NY Observer ran an important piece earlier this week that didn't seem to get much of an echo on the political sites I follow. Not surprising, since the piece discusses the way in which political print journalism and political journalism in general has lost its ability to resonate:
In-boxes crammed with New York Times articles and Huffington Post hyperlinks do not advertise their relative value or importance. Everything is equal, everything is a tie and nothing, it seems, is important anymore.
Nobody has felt this more acutely than the Newspapers and Magazines of Record in the United States. The New York Times, The Washington Post, Time: all over the world of “quality” journalism, there is a feeling of decline.
The internet is an echo chamber and, of course, one of the effects of an echo chamber is that all you hear is the echo and not the original message. Add to that the "noise machine" that drowns out news with spin and deflection and it's easy to see how the power of the press has been diluted.
But the impact of technology overlaps with a concerted effort by the Bush administration over at least the past four years to endrun the national press of record. This went beyond repeating the longstanding conservative mantra of "liberal media bias" to become an official communication strategy of "taking the message to the American people" that consisted of using "town hall meetings" and local press outlets to broadcast the administration's talking points. This strategy has reached its apogee in the McCain campaign's handling of Sarah Palin, whose inability to credibly address policy on a national level is being camouflaged by an attempt to challenge the very role of the press in scrutinizing candidates.
Now, there's nothing unconstitutional about this, because contrary to the Congressional oversight that the Bush administration has treated with contempt, the Constitution only guarantees the press its liberty, not its access. But the result, when combined with the evolution in communication technology, has been a fundamental shift in the extra-Constitutional system of checks and balances as it had been established over the course of the previous thirty to forty years. We're witnessing the end of the press as "watchdog of democracy," not because the press isn't barking, but because no one's listening.
One of the consequences is the ease with which McCain can get away with a campaign based on lies; the old saw that everyone's entitled to their own opinion but not their own facts seems to no longer apply. Anyone familiar with human nature knows how stubbornly people can hold onto their beliefs in the face of contradictory evidence. That has become even more acute now that the authority of the press, formerly the arbiter of what qualified as evidence, has been so thoroughly undermined.
Thursday, September 11, 2008
I'll be appearing as a guest on Sirius Radio's Blog Bunker program this evening at 5pm EST. I did the show from their NY studio last May and had a blast. (I'd forgotten how sweet a high-quality studio mike can make your voice sound.) Tonight, I'll be doing it by telephone from Paris. If you're not already a Sirius subscriber, you can catch the show by registering for a free 3-day trial period here. (Don't tell 'em I told you.)
Friday, June 27, 2008
I'd just like to flag a couple of WPR articles for any readers who might enter the site directly through the blog. David Axe, who is a frequent WPR contributor, has travelled to Eastern Chad to report on the humanitarian crisis in the region as over 250,000 Darfur refugees, refugees of the Central African Republic's civil war, and internally displaced Chadians converge on the frontier delta. I covered the story last March for WPR from the comfort of Paris. David's conditions are quite a bit more dangerous, and his first two dispatches (here and here) are well worth a read. These are the kinds of stories that really go overlooked unless courageous people like David stick their neck out to get them, and journals like WPR decide to run them. Hats off to both.
Cross-posted to World Politics Review.
Friday, May 23, 2008
I'm not sure I'll have a chance to post again beforehand, so for any Sirius Satellite Radio listeners, I'll be representing the WPR blog on Sirius' The Blog Bunker program this Tuesday, May 27, from 5:30-6pm.
Sunday, April 20, 2008
The War That Never Was
The NY Times story detailing how the Pentagon used "military analysts" to spread administration talking points on the Iraq War is sure to dominate the news cycle, and rightly so. The story reveals the fundamental role Information Operations (IO) play in the Pentagon's strategic vision, as I noted here, and as confirmed by this October 2003 report (.pdf) titled Information Operations Roadmap, personally approved by Donald Rumsfeld and kept secret until January 2006, when the National Security Archive at George Washington University obtained it through a FOIA request. While far from a smoking gun, the report makes for interesting reading, especially the passages that recognize the difficulty of maintaining boundaries between foreign and domestic audiences in the contemporary media landscape.
A lot of discussion of the story's revelations is almost certain to center around the Smith-Mundt Act, but significantly, nothing that took place violated its prohibitions, which are on the domestic dissemination of public diplomacy "propaganda" targeting foreign media markets. The same talking points echoed by the "analysts" were being distributed for domestic consumption by official DoD and White House spokespeople. The fact that the "analysts," who were under no direct orders, were not identified as official Pentagon mouthpieces is a matter of personal integrity (or lack thereof) and their network employers' lack of rigor in vetting them.
That's not to say that the operation isn't alarming and repugnant, both from the point of view of the Pentagon and the "analysts." It is. But it's also not very surprising, and falls short, in its flagrant contempt of press objectivity, of this administration's other abuses, mentioned in passing in the article. The major systemic failure, to my mind, was not in the "analysts," who were led astray by human nature and misplaced institutional loyalty, or in the Pentagon, which was faithful to its institutional nature, but in the media which, by failing to vet the "analysts" for independence of viewpoint, betrayed one of its central functions.
To the extent that the operation was successful, it illustrates the Pentagon's savvy appreciation of contemporary media. The "analysts" were "paid by the hit" by the networks, which meant that, like Debka and Drudge, their privileged media positions were dependent on access to their sources more than veracity of their information. The identification of "analysts," as opposed to reporters, as key opinion shapers also demonstrates an understanding that in an age of media saturation, those who frame narratives are more important than those who gather facts.
But insomuch as the information they were peddling was demonstrably false, the operation reveals the extent to which the DoD has failed to integrate the lessons of Vietnam, which it has identified as the media filter slanting public opinion, as opposed to the dissonance between the Department's official line and the reality on the ground. It also leaves the Pentagon wide open to what amounts to a devastating counter-op targeting the very assets (the "analysts" themselves) it would normally deploy to defend itself. As such, the Times story should probably be understood as part of an internal DoD battle for control of the Iraq War "narrative," and the cameo appearances by Gen. Petraeus, in this context, are hardly surprising.
The demonstrable falsehood of the talking points will also ultimately determine whether the DoD crossed whatever statutory lines might apply, since it is forbidden from domestic use of Psychological Operations (Psy Ops) both by executive order and department regulation. For an in-depth treatment of some of the ways IO and Psy Ops have already been employed during the Iraq War, as well as how the lines between foreign and domestic consumption have been blurred and/or exploited, Daniel Schulman's Columbia Journalism Review piece from back in March 2006 is must reading.
Ultimately, the story really drives home the degree to which the Iraq War has existed mainly as a battle between competing narratives, whose defining feature is the fading centrality of fact, and whose defining historical figure may end up being neither George W. Bush nor Saddam Hussein, but Muhammed Saeed al-Sahaf, the Iraqi Minister of Information who declared America's military defeat even as U.S. forces occupied Baghdad. Launched in response to an imaginary threat, planned to facilitate an imaginary liberation, waged to secure an imaginary peace, and now extended to achieve imaginary outcomes, the administration's version of the Iraq War has from start to finish replaced reality with denial, analysis with wishful thinking, and factual assessments with fairy tales. Indeed, were it not for the deaths of 4,000 Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis that make such an idea obscene, you could almost say that the Iraq War has never really existed at all.
Wednesday, February 27, 2008
Foreign Policy And The Press
There's been a lot of back and forth about David Signer's WaPo piece this weekend taking the major media to task for ignoring foreign policy in its coverage of the presidential campaign. Ilan Goldenberg at Democracy Arsenal has got all the links and some original insights that warrant a glance.
I'd add that part of the problem has to do not with a lack of interest so much as a sense even among journalists that foreign policy is better left to experts and the specialized press. Most people are comfortable discussing the political calculus of tax cuts, even if they aren't economists. Same goes for universal healthcare or education reform and a whole host of other domestic policy issues. But how many people really have an opinion on the expansion of NATO into Russia's periphery, or the best way to counter Chavez-style neo-Bolivarism in South America? Both foreign and domestic policy have concrete impacts on the lives of the end consumer of the news, but the former (outside of the big ticket items) are often more indirect than the latter, and more difficult to trace.
I'm also not sure how relevant it is to talk about foreign policy when what we really mean is a multitude of foreign policies, some broad and regional, others more narrow and local. Ideally they form a coherent strategic whole, but sometimes the result ends up being something of a patchwork of contingency and convenience that combines to offer a least bad rather than an ideal approach. While Matthew Yglesias is right in saying that the president has far greater control over foreign policy than domestic policy, it is often in the form of reacting to events on the ground rather than formulating and implementing a grand strategy. Which leaves me somewhat immune to foreign policy white papers and addresses, as well as the coverage they might inspire.
Meanwhile, although the major media has been remiss in this regard, the foreign policy press has been doing its job. Case in point is Ximena Ortiz's rundown of the three remaining candidates' foreign policy records, statements and agendas. None of them gets off easy, but Barack Obama scores some points for owning up to it when he changes his position. Worth a read.
Cross-posted to World Politics Review.
Tuesday, February 26, 2008
Today, instead of just reminding you that I'll be posting primarily over at the World Politics Review blog, I'll also call your attention to an article by Parag Khanna that just went up on the site. Khanna just made a big splash (deservedly so) with his recent NY Times Sunday Magazine cover story on the geopolitical transformations that are re-shaping the global strategic landscape.
In his WPR piece, titled "On the Road to Disaster in India", he uses a recent trip back to his city of birth to illustrate the very real challenges that are often obscured by the media narrative of India's rise:
India, like the majority of the planet's countries that I call "second world," is perpetually on a knife's edge: rising in status while dwindling in resources, growing richer in some places and poorer (as if that is even possible) in others, trying to build one nation while globalization and money empower narrow political and corporate interests to place their agendas above all else. In India all of this is playing out in what will soon be the most populous country in the world, with neither rules nor historical precedent to guide it.
It's an eye-opening piece that doesn't shrink from calling attention to the many ways in which India's political culture and society serve as brakes to its economic and strategic development. The article also gives me a chance to plug World Politics Review. It's a really solid outfit with great contributors, updated with new material daily. Click through and give it a look and you'll see what I mean.
Tuesday, February 26, 2008
The Blog Ghetto
As someone who began "blogging" just over a year ago, I don't really identify myself as a blogger in the way that most early adapters do. So I usually don't get too wrapped up in debates about the relative merits of blogging vs. reporting. But like Andrew Sullivan, I was surprised to see the NY Times write-up of Josh Marshall and TPM's Polk Award for their US Attorney coverage reference the "stigma" attached to blogging. Here's the quote:
"[H]e operates a long way from the cliched pajama-wearing, coffee-sipping commentator on the news."
Now, the fact that this sentence shows up in a NY Times article in February 2008 has so many layers of ridiculousness to it that it's hard to figure out which one to unravel first.
Ridiculous layer no. 1)
I mentioned that I just contracted a freelance editing gig working for a newspaper trade publication. It consists of sifting through content (from their blog, no less) and synthesizing it into coherent articles. I'd say that about half of the articles I end up with mention -- among the many ways that newspapers are scrambling to integrate new media into their content delivery models -- the proliferation of blogs springing up on newspaper online editions. I'm too lazy to check, but I'd bet dollars to donuts that the reporter who wrote the Times profile has got a blog, or else contributes to one, either on the Times site itself, or privately.
A good deal of the rest of the articles I end up with mention the newspaper industry's enthusiasm for citizen journalists, and their increasing experimentation with volunteer reporters. This is of course driven by the challenging revenue outlook and the demand for content. But the fact is, in the battle between the MSM model and the blog model now being waged in newsrooms worldwide, the blog model is carrying the day.
Ridiculous layer no. 2)
The idea that blogs are in some way a novel activity is absurd. Having opinions and expressing them is probably the second oldest profession known to humankind. (In all likelihood, it springs from the first.) That's why newspapers employ op-ed columnists. Now it's true that these are usually experienced reporters who have worked their way up the ranks through the obscure metrics that preceded the measurement of web traffic: accuracy, ability to maintain sources, reader popularity or responsiveness, invitations to popular talk shows, etc. In other words, they have accumulated a certain authority.
But at a certain point, these experienced journalists begin trafficking in opinions that far exceed not only their own limited expertise, but also any objective measure of the accuracy of what's being expressed. I'm thinking here of pronouncements on what America believes, or what's driving independent voters, and the like. At that point, there's little that differentiates them from the bloggers who engage them, other than the number of people who take their opinion seriously. And that's a metric that doesn't always work in the op-ed writer's favor.
Ridiculous layer no. 3)
If you compare the news media to a sports broadcast, reporters are the play-by-play announcers, op-ed writers are the color commentary, and bloggers are the folks sitting around the set watching the game. Now, as anyone whose ever watched a game with a group of friends knows, you don't do it in silence. You shout, cheer, make observations, and more often than not you tell the color announcer to shut his trap because he doesn't know what he's talking about. The power of the internet is that it got the folks sitting around watching the game into the broadcast booth, and suddenly the color man has to answer to more than just the TV critic of the local paper.
But even there, blogging is nothing new. It's talk radio, written down and hyperlinked, with a range (from Rush Limbaugh to Diane Reems) that's just as broad. So, really, it's time for reporters to get over it. Everybody else has.
Wednesday, February 20, 2008
World Politics Review
I've got some good news to announce. Starting today, I'll be the principal contributor to World Politics Review's blog. It's a trial arrangement, but the idea is to make the blog a more active part of their site. So if you like what you find here, I hope you make the WPR blog a part of your regular reading as well. Here's a teaser from my first post over there:
Two major stories, two major symbols: Fidel Castro and Kosovo. I think it's obvious how Castro's retirement represents the disappearance of the last vestiges of the 20th century. Sure, there's still N. Korea, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could qualify as well. But the least you can say about the latter two is that, while anchored in the geopolitical realities of the last century, they still managed to evolve in recent years. Kim Jong-Il has a warhead, after all, the Palestinians have an Authority, and an optimist might still hold out hope that there's a way forward on both fronts.
Castro and Cuba, on the other hand, seemed to have remained frozen in time, as did American policy towards both. His retirement might not change anything for the time being, but the writing's on the wall...
I'll be doing some cross-posting, and most posting on politics and domestic affairs will still be done here. But this is a real exciting opportunity to be involved with a great foreign policy and national security daily that deserves more attention. So please help spread the word. Thanks.
Thursday, February 14, 2008
Byline vs. Bottom Line
I just landed a freelance editing gig for a newspaper industry trade organization helping to prepare their annual report. So I've got my head crammed full of all the latest industry jargon, from media convergence to newsroom integration to platform interchangeability. And while everyone seems to agree that the technological possibilities of the internet -- which have revolutionized the way in which news is gathered, produced, disseminated, and consumed -- benefit the end consumers of the news food chain, there are still some lingering questions about new media's impact on the hunter-gatherers (read: journalists) out in the field. Those questions just became dramatically less abstract to the one hundred NY Times staffers whose jobs will soon be trimmed to satisfy shareholder demands to improve the bottom line.
Thursday, February 14, 2008
One Of The Few, The Proud, The Five
There's all sorts of awards out there for blogs and such. But sometimes, the real honors fly in under the radar. Like writing an article that Danger Room's Noah Shachtman includes in his "Five for Fighting" daily round-up. Now that's what I call sweet.
Wednesday, February 13, 2008
Blogs Eat Their Young
In many ways, the Clintons' brand of politics, if it didn't actually spawn the blog, served as a precursor to it in that the Clintons popularized techniques at the dawn of the internet era -- rapid response war rooms, spin, talking points, polarized partisan broadsides -- that blogs would later appropriate, greatly contributing to the proliferation of the new form. The polarization of blog discourse came to a peak during the first term of the Bush administration, where in many ways blogs were the only platform available to resist a media narrative that was at best complacent and at worst complicit. What's more, as recently as the 2006 Congressiona mid-term elections, blogs seem to wholeheartedly embrace the idea of partisanship.
So it's kind of ironic that so much of the Hillary Clinton backlash, especially among the blog set, has focused on the polarizing effect of the Clinton brand. It's also worth considering what blog discourse will look like under an Obama administration where bi-partisan cooperation and respectful dialogue have become the norm.
Friday, February 1, 2008
Timing Is Everything
As you've probably noticed, between fighting off a flu bug and working on a couple of articles, I haven't been as active as usual in following the news. So it could be I've just missed something. But a quick Google search seems to confirm that no major American news outlet has picked up on the story of the Bush administration submitting a nuclear energy cooperation deal with Turkey to Congress. In the meantime, Turkey has announced that it will be opening bidding for construction of its first nuclear energy plant in February.
Update: Meanwhile, Turkey's energy minister just suggested that Turkey could finalize its gas deal with Iran -- whereby Iran would serve as a transit link for Turkmenistan gas destined for Turkey, and Turkey would develop Iran's South Pars gas field for European delivery -- next month. The deal is strongly opposed by Washington, and I'd assumed that the move to certify Turkey for nuclear cooperation was in part meant to serve as a counter-offer. Stay tuned.
Wednesday, December 19, 2007
Outta Here Like Vladimir
I'm not sure if Vladimir Putin is really Man of the Year, as Time Magazine maintains. But if there were a MVL (Most Valuable Leader) award along the lines of the MVP in professional sports, he'd certainly be high in the running this year. Between his bellicose rhetoric on American missile defense, his high-stakes maneuvering on Iran, his suspension of the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty, and his reintroduction of long-range bomber sorties and Russian navy flotillas on the high seas, about the only thing Vlad didn't do this year was bang his shoe on a desk at the UN.
There's also a pretty strong argument to be made that he's about ready for a Lifetime Achievement award, too. Judging by his human rights record, the guy's a psychopath, it's true. But if you compare the bareknuckled arena of realpolitik to the Ultimate Fighting Championships, Putin's Royce Gracie. It's hard to think of another leader over the past ten years who has consolidated his or her country's position as effectively as Putin. Tony Blair comes close, but the Iraq War put a pretty big black mark on any assessment of his tenure. Meanwhile, neither Chirac, Schroeder, Berlusconi, or Aznar comes close to measuring up. He's had a bunch of help, ranging from George W. Bush's decision to run America into the ground, to the massive influx of oil and gas revenues. But like it or not, Putin's been at the helm for a pretty incredible turnaround in Russia's geopolitical fortunes.
Meanwhile, the difference between Time's gimmicky pick last year and their selection this year is sobering: viral videos on the one hand, ruthless realpolitik on the other. It's almost as if the shock of 9/11 is beginning to wear off and, in looking around, America's suddenly realizing that while we've been squandering our political capital, there are other countries out there who have been slowly but steadily building their's up.
What a difference a year makes.
Tuesday, December 4, 2007
Hold The NIE Euphoria
A lot of the reactions to the NIE are understandably focusing on the discrepancy between the Bush administration's alarmist characterization of the threat posed by Iran's nuclear program and the intelligence community's finding that Iran froze the weapons component in 2003. And to be sure, the NIE is reassuring, especially in that it discredits the claim that any sort of military option, whether unilateral or multi-lateral, is urgently necessary.
It's important not to overlook, though, the fact that Iran's entire nuclear program is the result of a decades-long clandestine procurement effort that was in direct violation of their legal obligations under the NPT, that at no time since the program was revealed has Iran ever been in full compliance with its obligations under the NPT, and that they have repeatedly backtracked on promised concessions both to the IAEA and EU. It's also worth noting that while Iran has recently been more transparent with regards to its declared nuclear activity, the one area where they still have been obstructive is in giving the IAEA more intrusive access to its program sites in order to verify that no un-declared activity is taking place.
On a theoretical level, one may be willing to minimize the danger of a nuclear-armed Iran due to Israel's and America's deterrent power, and willing to accept Iran's regional influence under the protection of a nuclear umbrella. I think there are reasonable arguments in defense of both propositions.
But on a very practical level, there are three reasons why Iran's mastering of the nuclear fuel enrichment cycle while remaining non-compliant with the NPT poses real threats to regional and global stability. To begin with, it further de-legitimzes the NPT at a time when it has already been severely destabilized. (Yes, the US-India deal contributes to this process.) Second, it has already caused a rush on the nuclear bank, with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Morocco and Libya already declaring their intentions to go nuclear within the next 15-20 years. (Keep a close watch on Turkey, which for the time being has had trouble finding a seismically safe location for its declared nuclear ambitions.) That process could be reversed with a NPT-based resolution to the Iran standoff. It's unstoppable in the absence of one. Third, it will likely push Israel to shed even more of its posture of nuclear ambiguity than what Ehud Olmert revealed in apparently off the cuff remarks earlier this year, which would only accelerate the aforementioned regional race for nuclear capacities.
In other words, it's a good thing that Cheney and his gang's nonsense have been revealed for the Iraq redux they are. But that doesn't diminish the need to deal very carefully with the very real dangers presented by an Iranian nuclear program outside the auspices of the NPT. One of the strongest arguments often made against the Iraq War, both in the run up and the aftermath, was that it was a needless distraction from North Korea and Iran, two countries whose nuclear ambitions were further advanced and more determined. Nothing about the catastrophic nature of the Iraq War diminishes the argument, as demonstrated by North Korea's newfound nuclear status. The NIE confirms that Iran has proven more cautious than North Korea, but it doesn't say anything about what happens next.
There's no question that the Bush administration's approach to the standoff has been needlessly bellicose, and remarkably uncreative, given the openings for a broader kind of bargain that seemed possible in 2003. As Matthew Yglesias puts it, Sometimes you have to be willing to take yes for an answer. But in the rush to celebrate Cheney's defeat, we shouldn't treat Iran with kid gloves. My thoughts have evolved on this question over time, it's true, primarily due to getting pretty deep into the weeds on the issue. A unilateral strike would be disastrous. But so would a nuclear-armed Iran outside the NPT. Of the two, the second would probably be more manageable, and therefore less undesirable. But it's by no means a benign option.
Again, the key is to keep the pressure on, but to make sure it's multi-lateral pressure. In addition to pressure, some sort of opening has to be offered to Iran, and given that Europe already has pretty strong commercial and diplomatic ties with Iran, that opening can only come from us. But Iran has to be held accountable for its commitments under the NPT. Otherwise they'll have bluffed their way into normalized relations, without ever revealing just what cards they're holding.
Thursday, November 29, 2007
You Be The Judge
Armchair Generalist on today's DoD blogger's roundtable with Dr. Ali Al-Dabbagh, the Government of Iraq Official Spokesman:
I was more irritated by two of the "correspondents" in our group...The other bozo was from Armed Forces Press Service - he asked (and I'm not kidding), "would you like to express your appreciation to all the US service men and women who want to know their service counted?" Al-Dabbah said some nice things about sacrifice and Iraq's appreciation. What a maroon.
American Forces Press Service on today's DoD blogger's roundtable with Dr. Ali Al-Dabbagh, the Government of Iraq Official Spokesman:
The government of Iraq appreciates the efforts and sacrifices of U.S. servicemembers engaged in the country's fight against insurgents, and it desires a continued American troop presence as Iraqi security forces improve in numbers and capability, an Iraqi government spokesman said today.
Yup. I think Jason nailed it. The guy's a maroon.
Sunday, November 25, 2007
License To IL
Laura Rozen directs our attention to this Yossi Melman Haaretz piece, which adds yet another veil of uncertainty onto the Israeli airstrike in Syria two months ago. Melman cites an Israeli professor who, after analyzing satellite photos, claims the Syrian site was not a reactor after all, but a nuclear bomb-assembling plant. The explicit assumption is that Syria was already in possession of the fissionable material necessary for constructing the bomb, and the implicit assumption is that it came from the only place on Earth where fissionable material is not held very accountable to the international community's standards of non-proliferation. Which gives me the perfect excuse to unload this photo, which I've titled "The Mack" and have been holding onto for just such an occasion.
This story had lain dormant for long enough that I was beginning to wonder whether or not it would re-surface. Of course, given the lack of any meaningful attempt to actually reveal what took place, as well as the epistemological challenges involved in using "intelligence" to convince anyone of anything anymore, there are two possibilities about the latest theory, namely 1) the phony reactor meme had been conclusively debunked, so it was necessary to find a new phony meme to alarm people about the threat posed by North Korea; or 2) the phony reactor meme doesn't even come close to doing justice to how seriously IL Kim Jong really is.
I've always dismissed the worst-case scenario that has one country (usually Pakistan, North Korea and lately Russia) just handing over a bomb to another country (usually Iran and lately Syria) in a fit of pique over an American unilateral military intervention, mainly because it seems farfetched, but also because it seems implausible to assume that any of those countries would assume the risks of actually transporting a nuclear device. Anything approaching appropriate security measures would almost guarantee attracting surveillance attention, and any attempt to sneak the thing in would leave it too vulnerable to interception.
But if the Melman story is true (and that's a big if), Kim Jong-il decided it just ain't no thang to sling some plutonium on The Corner of All Corners, the Middle East. And that's ill.
Wednesday, November 21, 2007
Via Andrew Sullivan comes this Matt Drudge interview:
...We're now in a totally new era where information is information and you just really have to set your own threshold in what you believe.
Just because you get it from an established source doesn't mean it's true.
This is relevant, if somewhat tangential, to a point I've been meaning to make about the evolution in what's known as "actionable intelligence". It used to be that actionable intelligence referred to intelligence that was so unimpeachable that it rendered a military response not only possible, but ipso facto legitimate and justified. (Think the satellite photos of the Cuban missile installations that President de Gaulle didn't even need to see to believe.)
All that has changed in the post-"slam dunk" era. Now actionable intelligence is anything that, by meeting Drudge's standards with enough people, creates the political climate necessary for military action to be possible. (Think Bush's "sixteen words" or Colin Powell before the UN Security Council.)
In practice it means that instead of intelligence generating the necessary course of action, a pre-determined course of action generates the necessary intelligence. Bush and Cheney have been particularly egregious offenders, but in all likelihood they won't be an isolated case. To be clear, this is more than just exagerrating an incident, like Tonkin Bay, or even provoking one. It's a reflection of how epistemology has been effected by the information age. The defining feature, as Drudge says, is no longer the relationship between a source's authority and the truth. It's between an individual piece of information and each individual's belief.
And as far as I can tell, the increased transparency of the information age will do nothing to mitigate the effect of this dynamic. Partly because, as Drudge says, in an information environment devoid of authority, facts don't necessarily get the best of falsehoods. But also because people's sense of what's true is very often based on innuendo and association, rather than information. Mention Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein in the same sentence often enough and a sizable amount of people will be of the opinion that attacking Iraq is part of the War on Terror. The transparent falseness of the conclusion does nothing to mitigate the propaganda value of the technique.
Tuesday, November 20, 2007
The Fogged Goggles Of War
I understand why Kevin Drum needed a drink after reading this Anne Applebaum column about the collateral damage of Iraq. Applebaum begins by correctly describing the impact of the Iraq War on our credibility, and as I wrote yesterday, Congressional Democrats would do well to pay attention to the way she frames her assessment of the good news out of Iraq (short version: don't get too excited about it).
But after acknowledging the difficulty of convincing people to take anything we say seriously when they basically no longer take anything we say seriously, Applebaum goes on to lament that in such a climate of distrust, we'll never be able to convince our European allies of the need for a military strike. Which effectively leaves us with a policy of crossing our fingers and hoping that Iran either doesn't end up with a bomb, or remains deterrable if it does.
Now, as things stand, I think a unilateral strike on Iran would be disastrous, so to see this kind of stuff on the WaPo editorially page definitely makes me want to reach for a drink, too. I'm also not convinced that the chances of the crossed fingers approach resulting in acceptable outcomes are zero, although that doesn't make it a very attractive policy option.
But having said that, I think that on a broader level, the Iran standoff illustrates the way in which the Iraq War has fogged our own (meaning war opponents) goggles a bit as well. Take for instance Matthew Yglesias' use of a Richard Holbrooke quote about Saddam Hussein and Iraq from back in January 2001 to illustrate the risks of a hawkish Hillary Clinton presidency. As Kevin Drum later pointed out, a hard line on Saddam Hussein was perfectly reasonable in January 2001.
As for Iran's nuclear program, I think that in the absence of the Iraq fiasco, a hard and even bellicose line would be widely regarded as reasonable today as well. In fact, were it not for the aftermath of the Iraq War, there probably would be broad domestic support for a unilateral strike -- or at least the credible threat of the use of force -- and probably tacit support in both Europe and the Middle East as well.
Now that's not to say that such a consensus would have been any more correct today than it was in the run-up to the Iraq War, either on the facts or on the strategic consequences of such a strike. But if in the absence of the Iraq War, the Iran nuclear standoff would have risen to the level of liberal hawks' threat threshhold (which I think is the case), the question becomes, What has the Iraq War changed? Are we simply adjusting our foreign policy to the realities on the ground, or have we re-considered the underlying principles that led to the mistakes in the first place? I think it's a discussion that's worth having, if only to find out whether we're being pragmatic or wise.
Friday, November 9, 2007
Progress Or Metastisization?
By now the consensus is that things are going better in Iraq, and that all the major casualty figures are significantly down. Call me a cynic, but when I see the Iraqi government announcing that 46,000 Iraqi refugees returned home from Syria in the same week that the Iraqi Red Crescent announces that 67,000 Iraqi have fled their homes during the month of September, it makes me wonder. Even if both reports are correct, it still leaves a net outflow of refugees and suggests that the violence, like so many Iraqis, is just being internally displaced.
Most of the reassuring casualty reports I've seen have been sourced to the Iraqi government or the American military. Both have a vested interest in showing progress. Even assuming civilian sectarian killings are down, if you take a glance at the weekly summaries of recent incidents over at Iraq Body Count, you'll notice how many Iraqi police (read: militia members) are being targetted.
To my mind, taken together all this certainly reflects a significant change in what's going on over there. But I'm not so sure that's progress.
Monday, November 5, 2007
I think a more appropriate title for this article would be "Meeting Between Gates, Chinese Counterpart Yields Carefully Worded Statements". Instead they went with "Gates, China Agree On Iran Plan". Go figure.
Sunday, November 4, 2007
From Paris With Disbelief
I find it hard to believe that Roger Cohen actually pulls down a steady paycheck for this. It's one thing for an op ed (if you want to call it that) to be poorly written, but this one lacks any substance as well. It's especially maddening to someone -- like yours truly -- trying to pitch articles on French politics, given the quota system on French political coverage in the American press.
Friday, November 2, 2007
From My Blog To Obama's Ears?
Either great minds think alike, or Headline Junky has got readers in high places. A few days ago, I posted a piece on Iran, suggesting the following:
With that in mind, I'd love to see one of the Democratic candidates formulate a list of concrete steps Iran could take, independent of the nuclear dossier, in order to establish diplomatic relations with the US, as well as areas of co-operation that we might develop. There's been so much discussion of what sort of stick to wield against Tehran, and too little about what sort of carrots we can offer.
Via Kevin Drum, comes this passage from an interview Barack Obama gave yesterday to the NY Times:
Making clear that he planned to talk to Iran without preconditions, Mr. Obama emphasized further that "changes in behavior" by Iran could possibly be rewarded with membership in the World Trade Organization, other economic benefits and security guarantees.
"We are willing to talk about certain assurances in the context of them showing some good faith," he said in the interview at his campaign headquarters here. "I think it is important for us to send a signal that we are not hellbent on regime change, just for the sake of regime change, but expect changes in behavior. And there are both carrots and there are sticks available to them for those changes in behavior."
As long as you're listening, Senator, you can run a solid, issues-based campaign without searching America's soul. Drop the charismatic healer routine. You'd get my vote in a second.
Sunday, October 28, 2007
Via Art Goldhammer over at French Politics comes word that Nicolas Sarkozy walked out of his "60 Minutes" interview with Lesley Stahl after she asked him about his divorce from Cecilia. In the "60 Minutes" clip, you can hear Stahl wondering outloud, "What was unfair?", to which Sarkozy responds by basically giving her the French version of "Talk to the hand, girlfriend."
Two things. First, while it's true that French political culture respects the boundary between a politician's public and private life more than in the States, Sarkozy is the French politician most identified with putting his personal life in public view. During his long rise to power, Cecilia was never far from his side, and was considered one of his closest advisors. Her trip to Libya to negotiate the release of the Bulgarian nurses was considered an official state mission.
Second, by many people's best guess, Sarkozy wasn't above using the announcement of his divorce -- which he dangled for three days before finally officially announcing the day of the first major strike in protest of one his reform packages -- for his own political advantage. Needless to say, the top story that night on the news was Sarkozy vs. Sarkozy, not Sarkozy vs. the unions.
So while I've yet to hear the exact wording of Stahl's question, in some ways the Sarkozy's divorce -- at the very least inasmuch as it effects his access to a close collaborator -- is very much fair ground. His reaction shows the "dark side" of a man known for seduction but capable of strong-arm tactics. Simply put, the guy likes to get his way. When he doesn't he can be brittle and crass, both of which are on display in the clip.
Thursday, October 25, 2007
Allegedly Stupid, Too
Here's the lede from today's LA Times article on the fallout from James Watson's remarks on race and intelligence:
Nobel laureate James D. Watson, the renowned co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, resigned today as chancellor of the prestigious Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in the aftermath of an uproar over allegedly racist comments he made last week. (Emphasis added.)
Here's the offending passage from the Sunday Times profile/interview:
He says that he is “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours – whereas all the testing says not really”... His hope is that everyone is equal, but he counters that “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true”. (Emphasis added.)
Now, I understand that the first remark is supported by enough research data to make it defendable, even if it is both highly contested and extremely provocative. Indeed, the context of the quotation as well as the profile in general demonstrate that Watson is no stranger to provocative, even inappropriate, declarations.
But I just don't see how that second remark can be considered anything but flat out racist. There's no "allegedly" about it; it's the real McCoy. Even if Watson himself isn't necessarily a virulent racist, as evidenced by this passage which closely follows the above citation:
In his mission to make children more DNA-literate, the geneticist explains that he has opened a DNA learning centre on the borders of Harlem in New York. He is also recruiting minorities at the lab and, he tells me, has just accepted a black girl “but,” he comments, “there’s no one to recruit.”
I don't know enough about the medical research community to know if there really is a shortage of qualified black candidates or not. But Watson strikes me as an Al Campanis-type, albeit a more articulate version. Here's a man who obviously does have a conscience, seems to have gone out of his way to advance the careers of individual black and female proteges, but in a moment of candor lets slip some wildly outlandish views on race, and elsewhere in the profile some veiled misogyny.
As Watson himself said, the change in leadership at the lab is overdue. But imagine he weren't a 79 year old man at the tail end of his career, but someone with years ahead of him. Does the punishment fit the crime? Again, his actions seem to have been beyond reproach, and there's every reason to believe he'd engage in even more outreach and recruitment now that he's under the microscope. He also immediately took responsibility for his comments, expressing his dismay and regret at the sight of his own words in print. Is it possible the guy can get a pass on something like this?
Update: Based on this comment from one of Josh Marshall's readers, I take it back. Screw Watson. The guy deserved it.
Thursday, October 25, 2007
Off Their Meds
The slow trickle of satellite imagery and intelligence leaks about the Syrian site bombed by Israel last month is either increasingly incriminating or increasingly misleading. For the time being, I don't think there's any way for those of us without access to classified source material to know which. Should the claims of a nascent Syrian nuclear program prove true, though, it doesn't really matter how far off the actual threat was. The fact that they would even think of going down the nuclear road demonstrates just how unhinged the entire region has gotten, all the more so in light of the ease with which the facility was detected and destroyed.
It would also seem to make the case that the threat of loose Russian nukes winding up in the hands of rogue states, the scenario so dear to Hollywood's heart, is largely overblown. Because no one in their right mind would go through all the effort of building a warhead, let alone a warhead that stands absolutely no chance of ever seeing the light of day, if all they had to do was mail order one from a down-on-his-luck Russian nuclear scientist.
Wednesday, October 24, 2007
I've been meaning to post about the strange cult of personality that's suddenly sprung up around Benazir Bhutto in the American press. Ken Silverstein just made that unnecessary. Getting run out of office by a military junta doesn't automatically make a crooked politician straight. Neither do backroom deals for immunity from prosecution. Bhutto's our horse in this race because, as a twice-elected former prime minister with a large and loyal following, she adds a useful element of credibility to the Pakistani electoral process, whether or not she brings her Swiss IRA's back home with her.
Thursday, October 18, 2007
After The Surge
I've given up following whether the Surge has actually decreased casualties, civilian and military, in Iraq. Because I've honestly lost track of who's pedaling which numbers and how they came up with them. Which essentially means Mission Accomplished for Gen. Petraeus, because if someone who follows these things relatively closely -- as I do -- can't keep up anymore, the confusion must be pretty widespread. And in this case, confusion favors the status quo.
Be that as it may, here's where the rubber really hits the road on the Surge:
...An Army spokesman confirmed Wednesday that the 3rd BCT, which is re-deploying to Fort Hood in December after 15 months in theater, will not be replaced. Instead, soldiers from the 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team working in neighboring Salahuddin province will expand their area of operations into Diyala province...
The decision not to replace 3rd BCT, 1st Cavalry Division, signals the beginning of a downsizing in the surge of five additional brigades that began pouring into Iraq in the spring.
It's only logical that the Surge should have had an immediate impact on levels of violence in Iraq, and it's even possible that it actually did. That still doesn't prove that it was a sound strategy. The final judgment will depend on whether the levels of violence remain low now that the surged troops are drawing down.
So don't be surprised to see Petraeus working the refs over the next few months in an effort to inluence American public opinion. Because contrary to what some people might think, that (and not downtown Baghdad) is now the war's center of gravity.
Thursday, October 18, 2007
The Reality-Based Community
When I first stumbled across this brief item titled "Anti-Syrian Propaganda Unmasked" over at the Arab Monitor, I thought it was a fascinating example of disinformation made up out of whole cloth:
From the Israeli media, the legend of the existence of a Syrian nuclear facility spread to Western news outlets. Today, the United Nations' General Assemby's First Committe was forced to admit that the legend of the alleged Syrian nuclear facility was the fruit of an error committed by the UN translation office.
So of course I googled "israel strike un translation office" and -- lo and behold! -- it turns out it's disinformation made up out of half-cloth:
The United Nations on Wednesday blamed an interpreter's error for an erroneous report that Syria said an Israeli airstrike hit a Syrian nuclear facility, a mistake that made headlines in the Middle East and heightened concerns over Damascus' nuclear ambitions...
The incident started Tuesday night with a UN press summary of the disarmament committee which paraphrased an unnamed Syrian representative as saying that Israel was the fourth largest exporter of weapons of mass destruction and a violator of other nations' airspace, and it had taken action against nuclear facilities, including the 6 July attack in Syria.
Israel Air Force warplanes carried out a strike in northeastern Syria near the border with Turkey on September 6, not July 6.
The target remains unknown but widespread reports say it may have been a nascent nuclear facility, a claim Syria has denied.
Not quite enough to justify the Monitor's conspiracy theory, especially since Western media have been reporting the target as a nuclear facility since well before Tuesday. But at least there's a kernel of factual truth buried in there.
Sunday, October 14, 2007
Dept. Of Bitter Ironies
Here's a rundown of today's headlines from a news page I monitor:
- Condoleezza Rice criticises Putin's concentration of power
- US appeals for Turkish restraint on Iraq
- US to watch Russia's military agenda: Rice
- Gates warns Russia against break with arms treaties
No word on whether they were able to keep a straight face.
Thursday, October 11, 2007
The Little Death
In answer to what Matthew Yglesias calls "the necessary questions" (Why the second wetsuit?), it's because human sexuality is such a complex intersection of biological urges, physical stimuli and psychosocial imprints that for some folks (read: most all of us to varying degrees) the only way to feel marginally in control of it is to keep it pretty tightly under wraps. Reverend Aldridge's death is just a remarkably vivid illustration of a universal phenomenon. So the need to ridicule him (and Larry Craig and John Vitter et al.) is understandable, and transcends (or more accurately is submerged beneath) the fact that they're all hypocrites. (I say that assuming that Rev. Aldridge espoused the typical "values agenda" of the Christian right.)
Don't mistake this observation for sanctimony, because truth be told, I don't really care one way or the other. But this does strike me as one way in which the left engages in its own form of moral hypocrisy. Liberating politics from sexuality means more than just supporting gay marriage. It means eschewing macho posturing, avoiding the trap of the "bitch slap theory", and not stigmatizing people based on infantile conceptions of sexual gender roles. And the fact that "they (ie. the right) did it first" doesn't absolve us of not having the courage of our convictions.
I'm under no illusions that we'll see the disappearance of this blind spot any time in the near future. Transformation is driven by transgression, which always puts it at a disadvantage when confronting the dominant ideology. Not very likely in an age where strength is increasingly fetishized as brutal dominance.
But so long as we internally reproduce the dominant paradigm of sex, gender and power in our own political discourse, it makes no difference how superficially liberated we appear to be. We're still stuffing human sexuality, in all its messy complexity, into the comforting confines of a wetsuit.
Wednesday, September 26, 2007
Regular HJ reader Gerald Scorse donates $0.02 to the Gray Lady, pointing out the flawed logic often used by conservatives to argue against increasing the capital gains tax.
Gerry's been a faithful supporter of the site since its inception, as anyone who clicks through to the Comments section knows. I've tried to convince him to put some of his thoughts down on the frontpage, but so far he's been too busy grazing on greener pastures...
Monday, September 24, 2007
That, Mr. President, Is A Diss
Over the past week, there was some wringing of blogger hands and declarations of outrage over just how to deal with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Josh Marshall over at TPM suggested that it was beneath us to worry about the kind of propaganda points Ahmadinejad might score by laying a wreath at Ground Zero. Ezra Klein concurred. Kevin Drum wondered if he were alone in feeling queasy about letting such a creep use such a potent symbol for his advantage.
While I didn't post about it, I agreed with Josh and Ezra that it revealed a certain brittle fragility to deny him the right to visit the site. I also agreed with Kevin, though, that it wasn't wise to leave him alone to mind the store, so to speak. My thinking was that we risked nothing letting him go down there, so long as we came up with a good PR riposte, like a delegation of 9/11 widows to meet him there with a petition demanding that he cease funding terror groups like Hamas and Hezbollah.
But I think Columbia University President Lee Bollinger showed us all the proper way to handle the Iranian President. You call him out for the petty dictator he is. Because when it comes right down to it, the man is ridiculous. But that's easy to forget if we build him up into some malevolent super-villain.
Thursday, September 20, 2007
That's A Start
The YouTube debate might have been flashier, but it really just amounted to the old debate format with a new gimmick. The Democrats' Online Debate, on the other hand, better exploited the strengths of the new medium. Charlie Rose asked the questions; each individual candidate answered fully. The viewer lines up the answers he or she wants to hear and clicks play.They call it a mashup, but it's more like a video archive of the candidates' substantive policy positions.
If there's a drawback it's that the viewer selects the clips, so while the lesser known candidates get equal opportunity, they don't necessarily get equal exposure. But that's democracy, I guess. The customer is king.
Now what I'd like to see is a series of round-robin, one-on-one debates between all the candidates, whether online or live. Whatever happened to the country of Lincoln-Douglas?
Thanks to Jason over at Voices of Reason for the tip.
Wednesday, September 19, 2007
Annoying Isn't A Crime
Just a quick follow-up to the Univ. of Florida tasing incident. By now, the video has gone viral. Conspiracy theorists are pointing to the coming police-state apocalypse. Consensus seems to have coalesced around the hypothesis that the student in question, Andrew Myer, is a jerk who intended to provoke an incident. It also appears that the viral video doesn't include the incident's debut, in which Myer jumps to the front of the line of questioners and interrupts another student at the microphone. Finally, according to an eyewitness, Sen. John Kerry did try to defuse the situation, in general, and to get the police officers to stand down, in particular. In light of which, the officers were probably justified in removing Myer from the microphone and the gathering, and I was probably unjustified in condemning Sen. Kerry for inaction.
Be all that as it may, my main point was that this was an inappropriate use of the taser, and that in light of other similar abuses, there ought to be some national discussion and/or regulation of what constitutes appropriate use of it. The fact that the taser is non-lethal force doesn't make it universally applicable. And while abuses might persist in the face of regulation, at least there will be laws on the books protecting citizens and allowing for effective legal oversight.
Tuesday, September 18, 2007
The Silence Is Deafening
The web's been abuzz with speculation about what actually happened in Syria last week. So far, what's actually known is that Syria announced that it had fired on Israeli warplanes that had violated its airspace. Turkey later announced that it had recovered fuel tanks of the type Israeli fighter jets use on its border with Syria, and very mildly protested about the Israeli violation of its airspace.
The rest is really speculation, because Israel has neither denied or confirmed the raid, and the only people who have commented on it have been "unnamed American officials" who at first suggested the target had been Iranian arms shipments transiting Syria for delivery to Hezbollah, and later tried to grow legs on a Syrian-Korean nuclear link story. The latter angle was picked up by the so-called "responsible" press, suddenly unable to resist a sensational story.
But this story's significance, as Ilene Prusher of the CS Monitor points out, lies not in what happened, but in what didn't happen. Namely, a rousing condemnation of the Israeli provocation. Not only has no one forcefully reprimanded them (aside from the Syrians), there's almost been a tacit sigh of relief.
My initial reaction to the story last week, before the Syrian nuclear installation got tagged onto it, was that the Israelis were conducting a dry run to smoke out Syrian air defences for an eventual raid on Iran's uranium enrichment facilities. And this map that accompanies the CSM article seems to bear out that hypothesis. Continue along that trajectory and before long you're in Isfahan and Natanz. In other words, the heart of the Iranian nuclear program.
Whether or not that's the case, though, I think Prusher's spot on in her conclusion. Israel sent the entire region, but especially the Iranians, a message, and it was willing to jeopardize any chance of peace talks with the Syrians to do so. The message? It can do what it pleases. And it can do it with impunity.
Thursday, September 6, 2007
Treating The Wounded
With all the debate over the Surge being reduced to whether or not the statistics for sectarian violence have gone up or down, and whether or not there's been political reconciliation from the top down or the bottom up, it's easy to lose sight of all the metrics that are being left out of the equation.
For instance, this article from the IRIN news service which describes the crisis gripping Iraqi hospitals and clinics. According to the Iraqi Medical Association, roughly 75% of doctors, nurses and pharmacists have left their posts, and 55% have left the country altogether. Low wages and a shortage of equipment and medications are contributing factors. But the primary reason Iraq's doctors are packing up and leaving is the threat of violence from sectarian militias.
In other words, the Bush administration and Lt. Gen. Petraeus have succeeded in defining the terms of the debate. And while we're all busy parsing the who, what, where, how and why's of casualty statistics, there's nobody left in Baghdad to treat the wounded. Which strikes me as a far more significant barometer of the country's viability, or lack thereof, than whether or not a bunch of thugs in the Green Zone have hammered out the fine print for how to divvy up the petro-dollars. Andrew Sullivan posted a video about a visual phenomenon, which he calls "inattention blindness", but which magicians call misdirection. This is the political version.
When Iraq's doctors not only stop leaving the country, but start coming back, we can start talking about progress. Until then, it's all just smoke and mirrors.
Sunday, September 2, 2007
Here's a funny exchange from a roundtable interview President Bush gave the foreign press in advance of next week's APEC meeting in Sydney:
Q: So what are your outlook and hopes for U.S.-Malaysia relations, and especially with Malaysia being the 10th largest trading partner?
THE PRESIDENT: First of all, I do believe we ought to have -- take this notion of trade and have meaningful discussions with a potential free trade agreement with Malaysia. Secondly, I respect Prime Minister Badawi, admire his leadership. When his wife died I tried to call him early just to let him know I cared about him.
Q: He has remarried.
THE PRESIDENT: Has he? Good. I'll congratulate him. Thanks for giving me that heads-up. Don't put that in the article that you had to tell me that. You can put it in there if you want. (Laughter.) I'll be glad to -- I'm going to congratulate him. That's neat.
MR. WILDER: You did, sir.
THE PRESIDENT: What?
MR. WILDER: You did congratulate him.
THE PRESIDENT: Exactly. I'm going to congratulate him again. (Laughter.) I'll double the congratulations. (Laughter.) That's right, I did write him a note. I forgot. Did I call him or write him a note?
MR. WILDER: You wrote him a note.
THE PRESIDENT: That's right, yes. Sent him a couple flowers. Anyway, Malaysia is an interesting example of how a free society can deal with movements that could conceivably change and alter the nature of the free society.
It's striking how charming he can be when he's humble enough to be self-deprecating. But as soon as he's pressed with an agressive line of questioning, his pride gets the better of him and he comes across as petulant and embarrassingly simple-minded.
Wednesday, August 22, 2007
Sarko The Slender
Nicolas Sarkozy has often been accused of having an unhealthy influence over the French media. In one famous episode, he allegedly had the editor of Paris Match fired after that magazine ran a cover photo of Sarkozy's at-the-time estranged wife, Cécilia, with her lover in New York.
Apparently, the message got through, because in Paris Match's August 9th edition, a photo of the French President canoeing with his son was re-touched to remove Sarko's protruding love handles. The magazine's explanation?
The position on the boat exagerrated the bulge. In lightening the shadows, the correction was exagerrated in the printing process.
In other words, all they did was lighten the photo a bit and the pounds just disappeared by themselves. Here's a side-by-side of the original and doctored photos. You be the judge.
Tuesday, July 24, 2007
The Prose And Cons
If you like flawless prose, rich character portraits and seamless development, click through and read Dominick Dunne's Vanity Fair article on the Phil Spector trial. Think Raymond Chandler meets Gore Vidal.
Friday, July 20, 2007
Ummm, maybe I'm missing something, but I don't understand why I keep seeing this referred to as showing cleavage.
Monday, July 2, 2007
Our Man In Turkmenistan
Ken Silverstein provoked quite the little brouhaha over at Harper's with his Abscam-style reporting on Washington, DC lobby shops and their willingness to shill for brutal dictatorships in exchange for hefty fees. Some folks questioned his undercover methods in posing as an associate of the government of Turkmenistan. I'm just wondering if President Bush's decision to waive trade sanctions for Turkmenistan (under the Jackson-Vanik amendment to the Trade Act of 1974) was a freebie the lobbyists organized before they realized Silverstein wasn't on the up and up.
Monday, July 2, 2007
Corporal Cutten Paste
I've mentioned before how the US Army's official news page carries a sidebar with links to often-critical coverage of the US Army. I'm not sure if this is official policy, or if it's just the result of some malcontent HTML programmer buried deep in the bowels of the Pentagon. I prefer to think of it as the latter, even if it is unlikely that he or she would go unnoticed for this long.
At any rate, my favorite Army programmer just outdid himself, by linking to this story about the deteriorating mental health of American GI's over at Press TV. In case you're unfamiliar with Press TV, it's the brand-new, 24-hour news service launched today by... the Iranian government. (Among their other breaking stories is one about the US decision to dust off a plan to deploy NATO forces in the Gaza Strip and West Bank.)
In all seriousness, though, I wonder if the army could find a way to be less heavy-handed in terms of media management, without necessarily broadcasting the enemy's propaganda.
Thursday, June 28, 2007
Following the spate of stories this month about Tony Blair shutting down an investigation into BAE's greasing Prince Bandar's palm to the tune of $2 billion, the Justice Department has opened an investigation of its own. Ostensibly, they'll be trying to determine whether the funds that BAE pumped into a Stateside Saudi governmental account were for Bandar's personal use or for his official functions, as he claims.
But the real question is, Why all the attention now? A friend of mine here, a Dutch ex-pat who worked on the original Yamamah contract in the 1980's auditing the construction component, told me that the kickbacks in general, and for Prince Bandar in particular, were common knowledge from the very beginning, to the point of being a running joke in the accounting department. It's also not the first time that investigations into the project were opened and closed. So, again, why an investigation into a business deal between two close allies, and why now?
Friday, June 15, 2007
More Dept. Of Shameless Plugs
For anyone interested in French politics, I've got another article up over at The American Prospect. This one's about the legislative elections, and in particular, how Nicolas Sarkozy turned a hard-fought presidential victory into an overwhelming parliamentary majority in just over a month. Drop any feedback you might have in the Comments here.
Wednesday, June 13, 2007
Josh Marshall and Al Franken, separated at birth? Maybe it's just the glasses. The other thing that occured to me watching the video interview is that Franken's comic persona offers him constant cover in the event that he says something kind of lame or unsophisticated. There were a couple of times where I couldn't tell if he was deadpanning or choking, and I just chalked it off to him being Al Franken. Whereas if it had been someone else, I probably would have thought he had just said something kind of lame or unsophisticated.
Sunday, June 10, 2007
Nancy & Laura
Funny how when Nancy Pelosi wore a veil to meet with Syrian President Bashar Assad, it was a sign of meekness, diffidence, and surrender. But I don't recall hearing a word about this photo on the White House website:
You'd think that if the President can address the Pope as "Sir" instead of "Your Holiness" then Laura could ditch the veil. And in case you're wondering whether it was just part of the snazzy outfit, here's the First Lady later that day, meeting with the Italian President's wife.
Friday, June 1, 2007
Hold The Outrage
That Dutch reality show where the dying woman chooses who she'll donate one of her kidneys to? It was a hoax.
Tuesday, May 29, 2007
Dead Trees Update
Sorry for the light posting this weekend. I've been finishing off two articles for the summer issue of WAD Magazine (articles are print only, unfortunately). The first is an interview with Martha Cooper, who's best known for her work documenting the 1980's graffiti art movement in New York. Before that, though, she focused on children at play in the streets of New York. The book, Street Play, is just now being released here in France. I highly recommend it, for anyone who loves New York , children or photography. Martha's a genius, and a really cool genius to boot. (You can take a look at some more of her photography here.)
The second is also an interview, with a French rapper called Rost. You might remember the riots in the French housing projects two years ago. Rost decided to form an association to encourage the kids to register to vote, which they did in record numbers. He then organized a "citizen's tour" whereby he interviewed all the major French presidential candidates about issues affecting "les banlieues". Now he's busy organizing a political structure to keep the pressure on the politicians. Did I mention he's funding it all himself? Definitely an inspirational figure, for whom "...utopia is the reality of the future."
So if you're in Paris this summer, keep an eye out for the magazine.
Saturday, May 26, 2007
Police State Revisited
Remember when I mentioned that the news page on the Army's official website has a sidebar that often links to critical or unflattering media coverage of the Iraq War? Here's what's up there today:
- Iraq Violence Surges, U.S. IDs Body of Missing Soldier (ALJ | Story)
- Did the U.S. Lie About Cluster Bomb Use in Iraq? (MEO | Story)
- Five U.S. Soldiers Killed in Separate Iraq Attacks (STR | Story)
- Spanish Judge Persists with U.S. Soldier Charges (RT | Story)
I'm not sure, but I'd be willing to wager that that compares pretty favorably to most militaries worldwide. I'm also beginning to wonder if there isn't some disgruntled programmer working in the Army's web shop.
Friday, May 11, 2007
Out Of The Frying Pan, Into The Fire
According to an LA County Fire Dept spokesman quoted in the LA Times, "the backbone of the fight" against the wildfires threatening Catalina Island are small firecrews from the Fire Camp program. "They're the frontline, infantry," the spokesman went on to say.
But if one of the crew members ever tries to bum a cigarette off you, be sure to say no. Not because it's a fire risk. But because the firecrews are actually made up of non-violent inmates on loan from the California Dept of Corrections and Rehabilitation. And as the Fire Camp website says:
You cannot give anything, including cigarettes and smokeless tobacco, to an incarcerated crewmember.
There's also this nugget:
The CDC (sic) supplies the workforce for each camp and the Fire Department supplies the fire crew supervisor. Both agencies benefit from this arrangement; the Department and County of Los Angeles gain an eager and willing workforce to complete a myriad of necessary projects and CDC (sic) is able to provide a structured learning environment with an emphasis on teamwork and a strong work ethic for personnel under their care.
Oddly enough, the LA Times didn't see fit to inquire as to whether and how much the inmates are paid, as well as whether the CDCR gets a cut. I did, however, and I'll keep you posted as I hear back from the CDCR.
Update: I just heard back from the CDCR. The inmates are paid $1.00/hr. while on emergency assignment, and $0.20/hr. for non-emergency work between fires. Which begs the question, Are these positions that the Fire Dept has trouble filling? Or is this just an obscene cost-cutting policy? I'll follow up on that next week.
Another Update: Something I forgot to mention: One of the Fire Camps is made up of juvenile inmates, or "wards", who are paid at the same rate. And something that occured to me after I published the post: If you're a non-violent offender in California, and you've got the dough, you can buy yourself a spot in a "soft" county jail. Otherwise, you've got to put your life on the line fighting fires for eight bucks a day if you want to avoid doing time with hardened criminals. Can we get prison reform onto the list of Democratic priorities for 2008?
Wednesday, May 9, 2007
Hold The Hysteria
Although there's every reason to be vigilant and indignant about the Bush administration's multiple infringements upon our civil liberties these past six years, it's also important to recognize how lucky we are to live in (or in my case, to come from) a country with such a strong tradition of free speech.
Take the US Army's website, for instance, and in particular it's News page. Sure, it's peppered with the kind of fluff pieces and propaganda excercises that you'd expect. But if you take a look at the righthand sidebar you'll see a box titled, "World Media News Today". Here are the headlines I found today when I checked in with the site:
- Retired U.S. Army Generals to Make TV Commercials Criticizing Bush's Handling of Iraq War (IHT);
- U.S. Attack Kills Iraqi School Children (Al Jazeera);
- How Bush Sabotaged Reconstruction in Iraq (Counter Currents).
This isn't the first time that I've found highly critical articles linked to on the site. In fact, it's a pretty common occurence. It's not uncommon to hear people claim that America is slowly becomong a police state. But police states don't allow that kind of criticism to see the light of day, let alone diffuse it. By comparison, for example, it's pretty well-known that criticizing the Russian government and military these days can be dangerous to a reporter's health. So while there have been some excesses in the past six years, ones that need to be corrected, it's important to keep things in perspective.
Thursday, April 26, 2007
I've been mulling over my last post about Wolf Blitzer's interview with Dennis Kucinich, trying to come up with a more precise formulation of what I find so troubling about it. Unlike Blitzer, the Constitution never suggests that the powers of impeachment should be suspended during times of war. Not because of some glaring omission on the parts of the Founders. But because the idea that a declaration of war confers some sort of absolute power to the executive branch would have been anathema to the guiding principle behind the document.
But while the logic behind the question is hostile to the very notion of separation of powers, it does raise another more valid question. Under what circumstances are the people justified in removing the power to wage war from the hands of the President? And I think the answer is pretty clear: When a sufficient majority of them are convinced that the war does more harm to the national interest than good.
No general would go into battle without the option of strategic retreat in the event the attack fails, and none would confuse such a retreat with surrender. President Bush and the last supporters of the War in Iraq would have us choose a counterfeit version of honor over self-preservation. But they'll find no support for their masquerade in the Constitution.
Wednesday, April 25, 2007
The Invisible Filter
Jason over at Voices of Reason makes some good points about how the internet in general, and blogging in particular, have "democratized democracy", as he puts it. He identifies three areas in particular: the citizen watchdog function, the heightened efficiency of fundraising, and the broadening of participation in the political multilogue.
The first two seem self-evident. The third, on the other hand, is a bit more complicated, since a lot of what goes on behind the scenes of "political blogging" doesn't necessarily wind up onscreen.
Although anyone can click the "publish" button of their blog platform and present their views to the world, the sheer mass of available online opinion functions as an inherent editing function. In other words, traffic on the internet, and especially blog traffic, is directed, much like "Letters to the Editor" are selected. So while the outcome might be democratizing, the process itself is far from democratic.
It takes a lot of effort and some dumb luck to get noticed by a wide reading audience, which, as Jason notes, is concentrated around a relatively small number of high-traffic sites that either horde or distribute their "clicks" as they see fit. I've compared it to trying to get one's piece of confetti noticed at a ticker tape parade.
My point isn't that the editing role played by high-traffic blogs is unfair (it isn't any more fair or unfair than the role played by any editor), but rather that it is largely invisible to the average reader.
My major caveat, then, with regard to the impact of blogs on democracy is that when access to opinion is directed, it can be manipulated. And the explosion of energy that blogs once represented has been to a large degree harnessed. Should the filter ever become stifling (something that has not yet happened), people will have to find or invent new ways to circumvent it.
Because news, by its nature, travels. But opinion needs to work a little bit to get heard.
Monday, April 23, 2007
The Morning Paper
As you might have guessed, I'm back online after a week spent relaxing with a couple families and a small horde of kids down at the beach. A week during which my news consumption was regulated by the antiquated rhythm of daily edition newspapers, and punctuated by a running conversation about the French presidential campaign with an erudite Parisian friend. By Friday, both of us were a little burned out from the non-stop electoral coverage, and that was just from the print media, as we didn't even turn the televised news on once. I can only imagine what the rest of the country was going through.
I feel obligated to mention the senseless tragedy of Virginia Tech, if only to admit that I was thankful to have been shielded from the blanket coverage of it that I imagine filled the airwaves Stateside. The initial shock and horror I felt upon reading the news gradually subsided and gave way to other concerns, and each following day saw the same kind of ebb and flow as I discovered new developments from the morning paper, only to find my thoughts moving on to other things as the day progressed.
But even if I ended up spending less time thinking about the story than I otherwise would have, the emotions it provoked seemed somehow more authentic without the prurient, morbid carnival-like atmosphere of the non-stop news cycle reminding me what I should be feeling.
Tomorrow I'll be getting back to news-blogging. But the next time I hear someone say that old-fashioned newspapers are doomed to disappear, I'll think of this past week and reply, "I sure hope not."
Monday, April 9, 2007
If A Tree Falls In The Forest
I don't know about you, but I consider an operation involving thousands of troops backed by helicopters in which eleven soldiers and fourteen insurgents are killed in the course of a long weekend pretty newsworthy. Especially if it's one that seriously jeopardizes the stability of Iraq.
So why did the major flare-up in southeastern Turkey between government troops and guerillas from the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK) barely get a mention in the American press? Or this angry exchange that followed it between Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iraqi Kurdish Provincial President Massoud Barzani?
"They should be very careful in their use of words... otherwise they will be crushed by those words... Barzani has again exceeded the limits," Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters in televised remarks...
"Turkey is not allowed to intervene in the Kirkuk issue and if it does we will interfere in Diyarbakir's affairs and other cities in Turkey," Barzani told Al Arabiyah television.
Iraqi Kurdistan is supposed to be the success story of the invasion. But the Kirkuk referendum has long been seen as the sleeping dog of the whole Iraq mess. Turkey has repeatedly warned that they'll intervene before they allow the Kurds to control the oil-rich city. It's also complained about the safe harbor they claim the PKK enjoys in Iraqi Kurdistan.
So when guns start going off in the general vicinity, you'd think we'd at least hear about it.
Friday, April 6, 2007
What A Difference Six Years Makes
China lost. But it is not yet a win for us. For that we must make China pay a price. There has to be a cost for buzzing a U.S. plane, causing a collision, taking the plane apart and holding the crew hostage.
You don't try to extract that cost while they're holding our guys. The administration played that coolly and correctly. But now that they are out, it is time to show some steel.
Iran has pulled off a tidy little success with its seizure and release of those 15 British sailors and marines: a pointed humiliation of Britain, with a bonus demonstration of Iran's intention to push back against coalition challenges to its assets in Iraq. All with total impunity...
You would think maintaining international order means, at least, challenging acts of piracy. No challenge here. Instead, a quiet capitulation.
Like a fine wine, he gets better with age.
Saturday, March 31, 2007
Who's Zooming Who?
Michael Crowley of TNR took issue with Charles Krauthammer's "Iraq or Afghanistan" WaPo op-ed as well, specifically Krauthammer's dismissal of Afghanistan as "geographically marginal". Trouble is, he's a little wide of the mark:
I see the Pakistani bomb as a greater near-term threat to my own life than anything that might happen in Iraq in the next few years. Given the proximity of Afghanistan to Pakistan, and the way Islamic radicals play the two countries off one another, it seems to me that creating stability and a climate inhospitable to anti-American terrorists there is no "marginal" thing at all.
First of all, it's important to remember that the ISI, Pakistan's military intelligence agency, was responsible for creating stability and a climate hospitable to anti-American terrorists in pre-9/11 Afghanistan. Far from being a threat to Pakistan, our enemies in Afghanistan functioned as useful pawns for Pakistani interests.
I'd also disagree with Crowley's characterization of who's triangulating whom. The ISI's been tossing the Coalition crumbs since the invasion, while continuing to supply covert aid to the Taliban and their terrorist fellow travellers. If anyone's playing both sides, it's Pakistan.
As annoying as Krauthammer generally is, he's correct when he says that, as of today, Iraq is strategically more important than Afghanistan. Whatever threat Afghanistan posed to our national security was eliminated when the terrorist training infrastructure that it harbored was dismantled and Al Qaeda's command & control capacity was disrupted. And we can keep both from reconstituting that threat with targeted special forces operations and aerial firepower.
Regardless of the fact that Iraq didn't pose a credible threat to America in 2003 (which I think is indisputable at this point), the consequences of a failed state there now would pose a much greater threat to our strategic interests than the consequences of failing to stabilize Afghanistan, which, it's important to remember, has essentially been a failed state for the past 20 years.
That doesn't mean that a stable, de-Talibanized Afghanistan isn't in our interests. It is. More importantly, it's actually an attainable result, assuming we throw the necessary resources at the problem. Unlike a stable, de-Iranianized Iraq, which at this point is an impossibility.
Which is why the Democrats are correct in calling for shifting our priorities and our resources from Iraq to Afghanistan. Even if they, and Crowley, are using the wrong arguments to do so.
Friday, March 30, 2007
Half-Right vs. Mostly-Wrong
I hesitated before clicking through on Charles Krauthammer's op-ed in today's WaPo. The tagline, since changed, was typical Krauthammer nonsense, the gist of it being that Congressional Dems are wrong about shifting the focus of the War on Terror from Iraq to Afghanistan.
Now I've hated Krauthammer ever since he used to write for the NY Post back when it didn't even have the excuse of being owned by Murdoch for its mindless editorial line. But in all fairness, on this one he happens to get two things right: First, for all the bitterness about how it was started four years ago, as things stand today the War in Iraq is by far more vital to American strategic interests than the War in Afghanistan. And second, the War in Afghanistan is not the central front in the War on Terror, Pakistani Waziristan notwithstanding.
Of course, Krauthammer being Krauthammer, that doesn't stop him from getting three things wrong:
- The War in Iraq isn't the central front in the War on Terror either.
- The War in Iraq is no longer winnable, and therefore doesn't justify the disproportionate resources it is being allocated.
- The War in Afghanistan is, and would benefit from a resource infusion, particularly in the form of reconstruction and development projects.
In other words, the Democrats are using the wrong arguments to advocate for the right policy. Which is still better than Krauthammer, who uses the wrong arguments to advocate for the wrong policy.
Thursday, March 29, 2007
The Big Lie, Pt. 1213
In today's White House press briefing, Helen Thomas asked about the President's reaction to Saudi King Abdullah's comments at the Arab League summit that the American presence in Iraq is illegal. Deputy Press Secretary Dana Perino correctly responded that under international law, we are no longer an occupying power, since we are now in Iraq at the invitation of a diplomatically recognized Iraqi government. But here's the tail end of their back and forth:
Q Did we invade that country?
MS. PERINO: We were there under the U.N. Security Council resolution...
Q Did we have a right to go in?
MS. PERINO: We were there under a U.N. mandate, yes.
Contrast that with this article from the BBC back in September 2004, titled "Iraq war illegal, says Annan":
He said he believed there should have been a second UN resolution following Iraq's failure to comply over weapons inspections.
And it should have been up to the Security Council to approve or determine the consequences, he added.
When pressed on whether he viewed the invasion of Iraq as illegal, he said: "Yes, if you wish. I have indicated it was not in conformity with the UN charter from our point of view, from the charter point of view, it was illegal."
It's this kind of blatant disregard for what's commonly known as reality that results in the President's die-hard base living in an alternate universe of convenient, reassuring, faith-based falsehoods. That this sort of stuff passes among the readership of World Net Daily is one thing. But that not a single person in a roomful of White House correspondents called Perino on it is shocking.
Thursday, March 22, 2007
I understand that "-gate" when used as a suffix has come to mean an Executive branch scandal involving illegal activity, lies and a cover up regarding same, and stonewalling Congress when they attempt to investigate. But I'm really tired of seeing it hauled out and tacked on to whichever word it fits best any time the White House press corps smells Presidential blood in the water. It's time to put the Sixties (and Watergate was the Sixties, even if the date in the history books says different) behind us. Besides, Purgegate sounds like some sort of pre-party group ritual for bulimics.
As you can tell from the title of this post, I propose "-ica" as a replacement. Despite its obvious shortcomings, it has the advantage of working with just about any word imaginable. But if anyone has got any better ideas, drop them in the comments.
Wednesday, March 21, 2007
When Comedy Gets Serious
Jon Stewart's 2004 appearance on Crossfire, where he wryly observed that "...the news organizations look to Comedy Central for their cues on integrity", is by now legendary. But take a look at this clip of former UN Ambassador John Bolton's recent appearance on The Daily Show, and you'll see that it wouldn't be such a bad thing if they did.
Wednesday, March 14, 2007
Iran And The Israel Lobby
Scott McConnell's got an interesting article in The American Conservative on how the Iran question is driving a wedge between mainstream American Jewish opinion and the American Jewish "Israel lobby" (AIPAC, ADL, AJC), with the latter significantly more hawkish, and outspokenly so, regarding a potential American military intervention in Iran than the former. He then describes the dangers involved in, a) criticizing the lobby groups, and b) disagreeing with them, both for journalists and politicians. But he concludes by suggesting that bloggers, and Jewish bloggers in particular, have recently managed to puncture the lobby groups aura of invincibility, citing Matthew Yglesias, Ezra Klein, and yours truly (I'm quoted as a "regrettably anonymous" commenter on Ezra Klein's blog) as examples.
I think there's no disputing the fact that American Jews wield a disproportionate influence over America's Israel policy, in the same way that American Cubans wield a disproportionate influence over America's Cuba policy. And both have a sort of veto power over who gets elected based on their respective single issue litmus tests.
The difference lies in how generalized the veto power is. Someone running for Congress in Miami doesn't stand much chance of getting elected on a pro-Castro platform. I'm not sure it poses a problem for someone running in South Dakota, on the other hand.
Not so with the Israel lobby. Apparently, no one makes it to Washington, or the NY Times editorial board, unless they toe the AIPAC line. So goes a certain line of thought, anyway. One that, while often condemned (by the Israel lobby) for echoing the anti-Semitic trope of the Jewish "cabal", is not necessarily untrue.
Besides the paragraph quoted from my comment, though, I find this to be the most intriguing passage in McConnell's article:
It may be beyond the American people’s power to stop George W. Bush from launching another preventive war. But even though the president and his top advisers can isolate themselves from currents of public opinion, that is less the case for top military officers. And it is far more likely that they will find ways to raise meaningful speedbumps and roadblocks on the route to an expanded war if there is a large enough public outcry against it. Right now there is not.
I've often seen civilian command of the Armed Forces cited as a check on the potential bellicosity of the military. This is the first time I've seen the military cited as a check on the potential bellicosity of the civilian command.
Sunday, March 11, 2007
It's amazing the disconnect that results from even a short time away from the information interface that my computer has become. With the exception of two brief e-mail & homepage checks, I was basically internet-free for the past four days. Not much time away from the news cycles, you might think. But enough for a few of the blogs I cover to clear out their homepages several times over. To say nothing of the news dailies, which I haven't yet had the courage to check in with. And enough, it now seems as I slowly start to get back into the swing of things, to feel totally out of the loop. Jet-lagged. Disconnected.
Yes, the internet has speeded up the transfer of information around the planet. But it's also created quite a bit of overload, a white noise that can settle over the information landscape like a blanket of snow. Especially if given enough time to settle. And apparently four days is enough, because I feel snowed in.
Tuesday, March 6, 2007
US Attorney Hearings
Anyone following the US Attorneys story should definitely head over to TPM and TPMmuckraker for some great team coverage of today's hearings, including video highlights and updates. In case this story's flown under your radar, it's basically a methodology of how the GOP, through the Bush Department of Justice, fired eight US Attorneys for either not filing corruption indictments of local Democrats in advance of last November's election, or for pursuing corruption cases against Republicans.
Gitmo, Jose Padilla, the torture memos, the Iraq War, warrantless surveillance, the Libby conviction, the US Attorneys. The common thread that connects them all is an assault on the rule of law. Not surprising for an administration that was essentially installed by a rigged Supreme Court decision.
Sunday, March 4, 2007
Ann Coulter's Comic Genius
The fascinating thing about Ann Coulter is that when you take her out of the context of political debate and put her into the context of political satire where she belongs, she's actually kind of funny. In the same way, albeit with less intelligence, that Bill Maher, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are funny. (Or Dennis Miller, if he actually were funny.) Which is to say, crudely, offensively and often childishly.
What makes her uniquely brilliant, though, is that unlike Maher, Stewart, and Colbert, her schtick actually does as much damage to the right as it does to the left. How? Because she develops her caricature of "liberals" (by which she means anyone to the left of Chuck Hagel) as weak, gay, traitors. But she does it by adopting a persona that is itself a caricature of the rightwing nutjobs that make up the bulk of her cheering section. Which is why she's at the same time so effective and so radioactive.
Think about it. Ann Coulter is the only controversial or provocative figure in the three ring circus that passes for contemporary American politics who could conceivably switch sides of the aisle on a moment's notice without changing one word of her act. (Okay, Joe Lieberman probably could, too, but that's another story.) All it would take would be a subtle gesture (and it could remain very subtle) to tip off the audience, and the joke would suddenly be on the other guys. She'd remain just as crude, offensive and childish. But the humor would be just as effective.
Just like with Sasha Baron Cohen's Borat character, the salient aspect of Ann Coulter's routine isn't any given remark she herself makes. It's the response that she's able to elicit, both from her conservative supporters and her liberal targets, that matters. That's why Democrats calling for apologies and denunciations play right into her game and let the GOP off the hook. Hold them to their immediate reaction, there in the room, which revealed them for the caricatures they've become. And give Ann Coulter's comic genius its due.
Friday, March 2, 2007
We Don't Need Another Hero
I understand Democrats' desire for a champion who's not only got the cojones to stand up to Republican bully tactics, but who also seems capable of giving them a fat lip, bloody nose and a black eye while they're at it. After all, Al Gore's civility in the face of the Supreme Court's electoral intervention in December 2000, as well as Democrats' solemn solidarity in the aftermath of 9/11 and the run-up to the Iraq War, suddenly became sources of shame when it became clear that Bush & Co. had been playing them for suckers from the very start.
So don't get me wrong. I recognize the need he fills with his tough-talking, moral indictments of the Bush administration. But still, I can't help but consider Keith Olbermann a sanctimonious windbag who's difficult to take very seriously. And all the comparisons to Edward R. Murrow and Joseph Welch only reinforce that feeling. Am I missing something?
Monday, February 26, 2007
Interesting. You'd think that Moqtada al-Sadr withdrawing his support for the Surge would be front page news. But while all the major American dailes carried the story, it took some digging to find it. Could it be that it's actually a non-story?
The NY Times had this to say:
Members of another major Shiite group, the political bloc loyal to the anti-American cleric Moktada Al-Sadr, sought to clarify the cleric’s stance on the new security plan today, declaring that Mr. Sadr still supported the plan, despite a statement attributed to him on Sunday saying that the effort to pacify Baghdad was doomed to failure because it relied on American troops.
Saleh al-Ugaili, a member of parliament spokesman for Mr. Sadr’s political movement, said the statement was meant to emphasize a need for more Iraqi control.
Like I said. Interesting.
Sunday, February 25, 2007
Are You Scared Yet?
There's been a lot of chatter over the last few days about Israel seeking (and by some reports receiving) overflight clearance for a hypothetical airstrike against Iran, although the Israeli Deputy Defense Minister has denied the reports. At the same time, alleged contingency plans for an American aerial campaign against Iran have been leaked to the British press and now to the New Yorker's Seymour Hersh, although the Pentagon claims there's nothing unusual about them, since they maintain and revise contingency plans for dozens of potential conflicts at any given time.
Now these reports might very well be true, although that's far from certain. What's clear, though, is that the psy ops campaign designed to convince Tehran that time is running out for them to freeze and eventually abandon their uranium enrichment program has just cranked up a notch.
Thursday, February 22, 2007
I recommend giving this Dana Milbank piece about a National Press Club panel discussion a read. The panel consisted of Tony Snow and six members of the White House press corps. And it sheds a little light on what goes on behind the scenes: the personalities, the relationships, the camaraderie. As a news consumer, it's important to remember how much this stuff influences what ends up in the headlines.
Tuesday, February 13, 2007
Obama As Rorschach Test
In a previous post on Barack Obama, I was tempted to say that his blackness was like a national Rorshach test, meaning something different to everyone who looked at it. But that seemed to be too broad a claim to defend at 3 o'clock in the morning, so I opted instead for the simple observation that his blackness is already playing out in some very counterintuitive ways.
Now the beginnings of a Barack backlash have begun to show up on the national radar. And it should come as no surprise that one of the early arrivals focuses on his racial identity. Specifically the racial politics of his church, the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, and its pastor, the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, who has been described as Obama's spiritual mentor. Here's how Investors Business Daily puts it in this hatchet job:
Those spreading rumors that Barack Hussein Obama is a "closet Muslim" are off the mark. His religion has little to do with Islam and everything to do with a militantly Afrocentric movement that's no less troubling.
Wow. Seems like pretty strong stuff for a guy who was asked on national TV as recently as two days ago whether he was black enough. (His response, that when it comes time to find a cab he is, might have been lost on many white Americans, but I'm sure scored some points with the Black community.)
Is it true? The easy response would be, Of course not. This sort of claim is not meant to stand up to scrutiny. Its purpose, similar to the madrassah story, is to plant an image in the minds of people who don't know much about Obama yet, the image of the Black bogeyman.
But to dismiss the story out of hand would be to miss an opportunity to advance the dialogue of racial understanding that Obama's candidacy presents. Because the real answer is a bit more complicated...
Read the full post>>
Monday, February 12, 2007
Russia's defense minister said Sunday that Russia had succeeded in its latest war in Chechnya, defeating separatists and what he called their “emissaries from 50 states.”
“We have scored a success in Chechnya,” said the defense minister, Sergei B. Ivanov. “The problem has been solved.”
Human Rights Watch:
Human Rights Watch also documented numerous cases in which personnel of the Second Operational Investigative Bureau (ORB-2) of the Russian Federal Ministry of Interior tortured detainees in official places of detention.
Detainees described being subjected to electric shocks and severely beaten with boots, sticks, plastic bottles filled with water or sand, and heavy rubber-coated cables; some also said that they were burned. In addition, a number of interviewees told Human Rights Watch about psychological pressure, such as threats or imitation of sexual abuse or execution, as well as threats to harm their relatives...
The climate of impunity is worsened by the authorities’ persistent efforts to close Chechnya to outside scrutiny and prevent documentation of abuses. Last month, Russia refused to allow the UN special rapporteur on torture to conduct unannounced visits and meet with detainees in private, forcing him to postpone his visit to Russia and Chechnya indefinitely. Such conditions are standard for the special rapporteur’s visits around the world.
Monday, February 12, 2007
Encyclopedia Brown On The Case
It looks like we're going to have to add another three-letter acronym to our vocabulary in a hurry, because after WMD's and IED's, we're now going to be hearing quite a bit about EFP's (explosively formed penetrators).
A good part of the case laid out by American intelligence supposedly proving that Iran has been supplying Iraqi insurgents with mortar shells and RPG's is based on the weapons' serial numbers:
The shells had serial numbers in English in order to comply with international standards for arms, the officials said. One grenade, for instance, was marked with the serial number P.G.7-AT-1 followed by LOT:5-31-2006. The officials said that the serial numbers clearly identified the grenade as being of Iranian manufacture and the date showed that it had been made in 2006.
Now, here's a question that no one seems to have asked, but that I'm trying to get answered. Is it possible to manufacture these weapons without the serial numbers, or with falsified ones, or to in some other way get around the international weapons standards? And if so, is it likely that the Iranians would leave such an obvious fingerprint on their work? I'll post the answer as soon as I get one.
Saturday, February 10, 2007
"A Moment Of History"
That's how the head of Splash News and Picture Agency described the grainy video footage his paparazzi managed to get of paramedics trying to resuscitate Anna Nicole Smith while gurneying her to a waiting ambulance. Footage that fetched a cool half-million dollars:
Tetley defended the selling of the footage. "It captures the vain battle to save her life. People want to know what happened," he said.
"It was good journalism. We knew where she was staying, we sent in a team of photographers and cameras and we were in the right place at the right time..."
Two things immediately come to mind. First, the dude who videotaped the Saddam Hussein hanging is probably feeling pretty stupid for having dumped it online for free right about now. And second, when this lowlife Tetley kicks the bucket, I'd be surprised if he even warrants an obit.
Thursday, February 8, 2007
Edwards' Blogging Headache
The spherical world of blogs has been abuzz the last few days with a story that might not translate so well for folks who don't follow blogs as obsessively as most bloggers do. Last week, the Edwards campaign hired two women to handle the campaign's online opinion-shaping efforts. Both are accomplished bloggers in the activist "netroot" style, with wide readerships and long, easily vetted public policy positions.
But apparently no one at the Edwards campaign bothered to do so, since both have since come under fire, albeit from dubious right-wing critics, for their provocative stances on various issues, as well as their use of colorful language to express them. Among the offending passages? A number of offensive and inflammatory remarks towards Catholics and evangelical Christians. Now everyone (that either publishes a blog or reads one, that is) is waiting to see whether the Edwards campaign caves in and fires the two, or stands by the hires.
The whole episode raises lots of interesting questions, including how mainstream campaigns, by nature discrete and cautious (in Freudian terms, retentive), can hope to harness the power and influence of bloggers, often flamboyant and provocative (in Freudian terms, explosive). The arrangement seems inherently unstable, given the campaign's need for presenting a unified front, and the blogger's instinct for airing dirty laundry in public.
But assuming it is possible, the question arises of whether it's advisable. Can outspoken bloggers who become paid employees, ie. spokespeople, of a campaign retain their credibility as independent critics? How will they respond to the accusations that arise each time they start toe-ing a line that contradicts their previously published opinion? Or worse, if they remain silent?
To illustrate the point, let's substitute rappers for bloggers. While I don't think it would surprise anyone to see a politically engaged, socially conscious rapper endorse a presidential candidate, the idea of one being hired as a liaison to the hip hop community would probably raise eyebrows. As well as questions about their credibility each time they recorded a "sponsored" rap.
To bring it back to the case of the Edwards bloggers, imagine now that in addition to a sterling progressive record, our rapper has in the past recorded a lyric or two bashing gays, to pick a sadly common example. Do you think progressive bloggers would still be calling for the campaign to stand behind him?
It seems like at the very least, a strong disavowal of any offensive (hence divisive) positions is in order. As well as a re-consideration of whether it's in either party's interest to bring the online opinionators in from the cold.
Update: Looks like they've taken the disavowal route after all. TPM Cafe has the statements just released by Edwards and the two bloggers.
Saturday, February 3, 2007
Must Read McClatchy
It just occured to me as I was clicking the "Must Read" checkbox on yet another McClatchy News Service article that these guys have been doing some of the best reporting on Iraq & Iran out there. Plus, they've got a bunch of "inside Iraq" blogs, from both Iraqi journalists and Iraqi-based American reporters. If you're not already checking in with them, you should be.