2008/05/26

The value of mea culpas (Not much)

Glenn Greenwald acknowledges the sort-of mea culpa offered by the Politico's John Harris in which Harris admits that he and his organization focused too much on:

Trivial stories -- the kind that are tailor-made for forwarding to your brother-in-law or college roommate with a wisecracking note at the top -- can dominate the campaign narrative for days. . . .
As leaders of a new publication, Politico's senior editors and I are relentlessly focused on audience traffic. The way to build traffic on the Web is to get links from other websites. The way to get links is to be first with news -- sometimes big news, sometimes small -- that drives that day's conversation. [emphasis added by Greenwald]

It's all very fine and well that Harris is now sorry over his and his organization's misguided emphasis on going after audience traffic at the expense of serious reporting, but I'm reminded of another scandal in the political media:

On May 26, 2004 -- more than a year after the invasion of Iraq -- the Times published a belated semi-mea-culpa article by two top editors, including executive editor Bill Keller. The piece contended that the Times, along with policy makers in Washington, were victims rather than perpetrators: “Administration officials now acknowledge that they sometimes fell for misinformation from these exile sources. So did many news organizations -- in particular, this one.”

But the Times did not “fall for misinformation” as much as jump for it. The newspaper eagerly helped the administration portray deceptions as facts.

Even worse, on 10 Feb 07, the NY Times reporter Michael Gordon published a piece on how Iran was sending a diabolical device into Iraq that was killing American soldiers, i.e., Iran was waging a proxy war against the US by arming Iraqi insurgents. Media Matters reports that Gordon was permitted to issue this without any hint of skepticism or even any voices other than those of government spokespeople. On 5 May 08, Gordon did it again, acting as a stenographer for anonymous government sources and passing on the scary, scary tale of how Iraqi insurgents were receiving training in Iran. In a slight modification (Owing to the skepticism that the EFP story had received, such as in: "EFPs are Made in Iraq by Iraqis") the story now read:

In a possible effort to be less obtrusive, it appears that Iran is now bringing small groups of Iraqi Shiite militants to camps in Iran, where they are taught how to do their own training, American officials say.
The militants then return to Iraq to teach comrades how to fire rockets and mortars, fight as snipers or assemble explosively formed penetrators, a particularly lethal type of roadside bomb made of Iranian components, according to American officials. The officials describe this approach as “training the trainers.”

Of course, one could also say "In an effort to make our propaganda less blatantly obvious, we're just saying that Iranians are teaching Iraqis how to make EFPs as opposed to saying the Iranians are producing EFPs." The point is that although the NY Times issued a "semi-mea-culpa article" on Judith Miller and her fanciful WMD tales they haven't changed their essential mode of reporting and are still putting out highly questionable stories that seem designed to lead to war.
Only time will tell if Harris' reporting in the Politico will change for the better. All we have now is a "semi-mea-culpa article" that may or may not lead to any changes in how they cover the issues.

2008/05/22

Bush Administration and the art of diplomacy

"Two Audiences, Two Speeches" May 19

Speculation in Jerusalem was that Bush will return in October, this time to try to push the parties over the finish line, and the White House was not discouraging that view Sunday. [emphasis added]

The "parties" are the Israelis and the Palestinians. Hmm, and just what is the status of the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks?

However, the US's failure in rolling back Syrian and Iranian influence in Lebanon pales in comparison with the withering away of the US-sponsored Arab-Israeli "peace process". The latter hung like an albatross's cross on Bush's Middle East tour. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' credibility has greatly suffered; Fatah has been eliminated from Gaza; Hamas is significantly gaining ground in the West Bank after its consolidation in Gaza. Thus, there were no takers when Bush told the Arab audience in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, on Friday, "All nations in the region must stand together in confronting Hamas, which is attempting to undermine efforts at peace with continued acts of terror and violence."

What might be one of the reasons that negotiations aren't going anywhere? Well,

In particular, Elliott Abrams, Mr. Bush's deputy national security adviser, has cautioned against an Israeli-Syria negotiation, according to Israeli and Bush administration officials. Administration officials said they feared that such a negotiation would appear to reward Syria at a time when the United States was seeking to isolate it for its meddling in Lebanon and its backing of Hezbollah. [emphasis added]

This appears to be a real theme in how the Bush Administration deals with those who are outside their inner circle. CBS News asked in August 2005: "Should President Bush take an hour out of his vacation to sit down for a chat with Cindy Sheehan?" Bush somehow couldn't make any room in his tremendously busy summer vacation schedule to tell Ms Sheehan just what the glorious cause was that her son, US Army Specialist Casey Sheehan, died for. CBS got in some snark: "[Bush] ... found time to go mountain biking and went to one of the regional Little League playoff games." Bush's stated reason as to why he wouldn't see her was

‘‘And I think it's important for me to be thoughtful and sensitive to those who have got something to say.''

‘‘But,'' he added, ‘‘I think it's also important for me to go on with my life, to keep a balanced life.''

In other words, it's a privilege for citizens to have an audience with their president and the president gets to pick and choose who gets to receive that privilege.

As with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, if the administration considers merely talking to be a reward that they are free to grant or withhold, then it shouldn't be terribly surprising when serious negotiations never really get off the ground.

As with First Lady Laura Bush and the Myanmar/Burma junta and Cyclone Nargis, the Bush Administration doesn't seem to have any real clue (3rd letter) as to how to conduct negotiations. Fortunately, Laura Bush appears to have backed down a bit on her earlier heavy-handed efforts to get US aid into that country.
From yesterday's interview with Voice of America:

Q. "Now, there's some who have said that there should be no criticism of the Burmese regime in the context of trying to get aid there. Should -- in the course of the aid relief efforts, should it just be sort of hands off and no criticism of the regime at all?"

Bush: "Well, you know, if that would make the regime accept aid -- and I'm sure that that's the point -- but the regime knows that many, many countries have been critical, that many leaders of many countries have already been critical, long before this disaster.
"I think it's just important now to focus on the needs of these people who have been -- whose lives have been destroyed by the cyclone and try to get as much aid as possible there. But I think we can't lose sight of the real long-term goals for Burma, and that is a free Burma and a democracy that can be a part of the world."

If I were a member of the junta, I'd be concerned with this talk about "real long-term goals" and the possible desire of the US to conduct another "regime change," keeping in mind that the Iraq War was preceded with many protestations that the US just wanted to see to the safety of America.

The Bush Administration appears to have very serious problems conducting diplomacy. The possible reasons could fill up a good-sized book, but the feeling on their part that merely communicating with both inconveniently petitioning citizens and various "bad guys" appears to reward them seems to be a really large part of it.

2008/05/16

Obama, McCain and Bush mix it up!

Ah, gone, we hope forever, are the days when first Mike Dukakis, then Al Gore and then John Kerry responded to attacks by remaining silent! Dukakis said nothing as the elder George Bush hammered him with Willie Horton and disparaged his manhood in failing to respond to the hypothetical rape of his wife. Gore was actually hammered more by the media than he was by the younger George Bush. Constant repetitions of "I invented the Internet" and complaints about his audible sighing as Bush told lie after lie dominated that campaign. Kerry was done in by the media collaboration with the Swift Boat Veterans and by Bush focusing the campaign on anything but his own record.

Presidential candidate Barack Obama has taken the speech given by President Bush in the Israeli Knesset (Their equivalent of the British Parliament) wherein Bush said:

Jews and Americans have seen the consequences of disregarding the words of leaders who espouse hatred. And that is a mistake the world must not repeat in the 21st century. Some seem to believe that we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along. We have heard this foolish delusion before. As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator declared: 'Lord, if I could only have talked to Hitler, all this might have been avoided.' We have an obligation to call this what it is -- the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history. (Applause.)

Of course, as (of all people, we lefty bloggers didn't expect words of wisdom to come out of this guy) Chris Matthews pointed out:

...there's a difference between talking to the enemy and appeasing. What Neville Chamberlain did wrong, most people would say, is not talking to Hitler, but giving him half of Czechoslovakia in '38. That's what he did wrong, not talking to somebody. . . . Appeasement is giving away things to the enemy.

But Obama has not stood silently by as Bush has questioned his wisdom and manliness:

"I'm a strong believer in civility and I'm a strong believer in a bipartisan foreign policy, but that cause is not served with dishonest, divisive attacks of the sort that we've seen out of George Bush and John McCain over the last couple days," he said.
Obama said McCain had a "naive and irresponsible belief that tough talk from Washington will somehow cause Iran to give up its nuclear program and support for terrorism."

And yes, Obama is very consciously and deliberately trying (successfully) to tie Bush and McCain together as strongly as possible. He's very clearly attempting to paint a John McCain presidency as a third Bush term. Oh, and by the way, there really isn't any doubt that Bush was speaking of Obama in the Knesset. CNN's Ed Henry reported that:

White House aides privately acknowledged the remarks were aimed at the presidential candidate and others in his party.

Is attacking a presidential candidate from a foreign parliament standard operating procedure? Not according to Democrats:

Democrats accused Mr. Bush of breaching protocol by playing partisan politics overseas. . . .
Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic [Senate Majority] leader, called Mr. Bush's remarks "reckless and irresponsible." Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California said Mr. Bush had behaved in a manner "beneath the dignity of the office of president."

Apparently, Republicans are rattled by this response and aren't quite sure how to answer a non-doormat Democrat. Governor Mike Huckabee "joked" (At least that's his explanation) about Obama having to duck a gunman. Huckabee quickly apologized, but it clearly shows a very scattered and confused GOP.

2008/05/09

Santorum's word choices

Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum has a gig writing a monthly column for the Philadelphia Inquirer. His latest column had some interesting choices of words. He said that the words "jihadist or mujahedeen or Islamo-fascist" are all now in the category of forbidden terms. Folks are officially advised not to use these terms anymore. Putting jihadist or mujahedeen into this category strikes me as very peculiar as I don't think either term has ever been considered insulting. In fact, mujahedeen was the term used by Osama bin Laden and his fellow fighters against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. This may be the State Departments' way of saying "Don't glorify our enemies."

"Islamo-fascist" on the other hand, was very clearly a silly term when it was first coined. As Paul Krugman pointed out:

[T]here isn’t actually any such thing as Islamofascism — it’s not an ideology; it’s a figment of the neocon imagination. The term came into vogue only because it was a way for Iraq hawks to gloss over the awkward transition from pursuing Osama bin Laden, who attacked America, to Saddam Hussein, who didn’t.

I commented on this a few months back in response to David Horowitz's "Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week." I had a commenter make the very earnest argument that because various Arab groups have declared themselves to be fascists, that they were then fascists. Well, 'fraid it's not that simple.

David Neiwert on the blog Orcinus responded to Jonah Goldberg's book "Liberal Fascism" by doing a lengthy series of posts delineating precisely what fascism is and is not. One of the best posts for readers who aren't entirely clear on the concept is largely written by "Woodrowfan," a guest blogger who runs through Goldberg's chapter that calls President Woodrow Wilson a fascist. Woodrowfan examines Wilson's actions against 13 criteria and finds Wilson only took the fascist position four times. More than is proper for a American president, but not a good reason to award him that particular title.

Do Arab Muslims fit the Orcinus definition of fascism? Hardly.

-- the right of the chosen people to dominate others without restraint from any kind of human or divine law, right being decided by the sole criterion of the group's prowess in a Darwinian struggle.

Um, no. Arabs are hardly in a position to win a "Darwinian struggle" against the West. It's precisely the restraints imposed by higher ideals and principles that has been their salvation in struggle after struggle against Israel.

-- the beauty of violence and the efficacy of will, when they are devoted to the group's success

Yes, Arabs have been quite violent towards national and religious opponents, but it doesn't seem to me they glorify it. They feel that wonderful things await martyrs who perish in a glorious cause, but that's hardly the same thing.

- a sense of overwhelming crisis beyond the reach of any traditional solutions

and

-- the belief that one's group is a victim, a sentiment which justifies any action, without legal or moral limits, against the group's enemies, both internal and external

No, it seems to me Arab diplomacy was characterized well by Donald Regan:

Asked what he had recommended to the President when no hostages were freed after arms shipments to Iran in February 1986, Mr. Regan said, ''I told him that we'd been snookered again, and how many times do we put up with this rug merchant type of stuff?''

The image of Iranians and Arab Muslims acting as "rug merchants" is utterly inconsistent with the idea of Arabs feeling that they are in a unique crisis sort of situation and with the sentiment that "Ordinary moral strictures don't apply to us because we're victims." A "rug merchant" in Regan's view, is someone who carefully calculates advantage and cost and opportunity and who acts accordingly. A "rug merchant" is a supremely rational actor, unlike how we could expect a fascist to behave.

Nah, the term "Islamo-Fascist" is just silly.

I'm in 100% agreement with the following sentences of Santorum's:

"We are not fighting a war on terror," I said then, "any more than we fought a war on blitzkrieg in World War II."
Blitzkrieg, of course, was a tactic. So is terrorism.

There are designated military specialties, or in the case of the Navy, there are "rates." Neither the Army nor the Marine Corps has a "terrorist" specialty, nor does the Navy have a "terrorist" rate. One cannot be a "Terrorist Second Class" as there's simply no such job description in any military service. However, Santorum goes on to say:

In World War II, we fought against German Nazism, Japanese Imperialism and Italian Fascism - militarist, totalitarian ideologies that governed these societies and motivated believers elsewhere to rally and spread these movements across the globe.

My understanding of history is that states fight for pragmatic, mostly economic reasons. Sure, ideology plays a part, but I don't really see it as actually motivating nations to start wars. Of course, fascism as defined above is not really a rational system, but as we saw, fascism doesn't apply to Muslims in today's world.

This statement puzzles me: "We are at war only with terrorists motivated by Islam who view themselves as true followers, as self-described holy warriors." Obviously, this does not describe anywhere close to all of the people US forces are battling either in Iraq or Afghanistan. Most of those people are fighting strictly because the US has invaded their homeland and with Iraq, because the people of Iraq have suffered horribly with over a million dead, several million displaced and shortages of all sorts of necessities. The declaration that the US is battling jihadists who are fighting as holy warriors is certainly true for a large number of people over there, but I doubt that it describes all that many.

"In speeches I give across the country, I ask basic questions about the ideology and motivation of the enemy. The response? Blank stares." Well yeah, when one describes the enemy as motivated by ideology but when no one really knows what that ideology is, yes, confusion will result. If the Iraq War is simply a colonialist war to obtain Iraq's oil, yes, it will result in blank stares when one tries to paint it as an ideological struggle. Describing the war as something it's not will indeed result in confusion.

2008/05/05

More scary stories on Iran from the NY Times

The NY Times passes on a report that's, on first read, very scary. It charges that "four Shiite militia members" (From what country? From which militia?) have provided details on training camps in Iran that have taught Iraqi insurgents such subjects as "how to fire rockets and mortars, fight as snipers or assemble explosively formed penetrators, a particularly lethal type of roadside bomb made of Iranian components, according to American officials."

To take the last item first, there is no evidence that the "explosively formed penetrators" (EFPs) they refer to have been manufactured exclusively in Iran or even that only Iran is capable of making these. There is much evidence that Iraqis are perfectly capable of manufacturing EFPs in local machine shops. Second, Iraq fought a very lengthy war with Iran from 1980 to 1988. The skills of "how to fire rockets and mortars [and to] fight as snipers" are simply not difficult to obtain there. Iraq has millions of veterans of that war that have been more than capable of passing on this kind of knowledge.

The Mideast is a heavily militarized place that has seen much fighting over the last several decades. There is no reason that jihadists can't "hit the ground running," i.e., arrive in Iraq fully competent, equipped and ready to start fighting Americans. There is no reason to think they have to make a stop-off in Iran first. As Juan Cole points out about the weapons themselves:

After all, Iran has a well developed criminal black market in arms (Ronald Reagan once got involved in it). So the presence of Iran-made weapons proves nothing about Iranian government intentions. The ayatollahs in Tehran have been openly siding with the al-Maliki government against the Mahdi Army militia.

The really important point to make about this article is that every single, solitary scrap of information included in it comes second-hand from anonymous American "officials." Some also makes its way from Iraqi officials, who were in turn briefed and shown "captured Iranian equipment" by, you guessed it, anonymous American "officials." Absolutely nothing, none of the interrogated prisoners, none of the "captured Iranian equipment," has been personally viewed by reporters or by anyone who might provide anything approaching an objective, non-deeply-compromised point of view.

Everything in the article comes from a Presidential administration that has shown a very deep interest in launching a war against Iran. As Glenn Greenwald points out:

Worse, despite noting that "there has been debate among experts about the extent to which Iran is responsible for instability in Iraq," the article does not contain a single skeptical word about any of these accusations, nor does it quote a single "expert" who questions or disputes them. This omission is particularly glaring in light of this McClatchy article from yesterday reporting that "the Iraqi Government seemed to distance itself from U.S. accusations towards Iran," which echoes an Agence-France-Press report that "Iraq said on Sunday it has no evidence that Iran was supplying militias engaged in fierce street fighting with security forces in Baghdad." There's not a word about any of that in Gordon's article (though it does note that the Iraqi government "announced Sunday that it would conduct its own inquiry into accusations of Iranian intervention in Iraq and document any interference").

This article ratchets up tension still further. Two NYT Public Editors have been critical of reporter Michael Gordon's work in the past, Byron Calame:

(Mr. Gordon has become a favorite target of many critical readers, who charge that the paper's Iran coverage is somehow tainted because he had shared the byline on a flawed Page 1 W.M.D. article. I don't buy that view, and I think the quality of his current journalism deserves to be evaluated on its own merits.)

The problem with Gordon's work, however, is far more extensive than just one article. He collaborated with Judith Miller on many Saddam-Hussein-has-WMD pieces that served as justification for war with Iraq and as we've seen in today's article (May 5th), these problems with uncritically repeating administration claims have hardly stopped. Public Editor Clark Hoyt also criticizes Gordon and Gordon's style of reporting Administration claims:

...as the newspaper has slipped into a routine of quoting the president and the military uncritically about Al Qaeda’s role in Iraq — and sometimes citing the group itself without attribution.
And in using the language of the administration, the newspaper has also failed at times to distinguish between Al Qaeda, the group that attacked the United States on Sept. 11, and Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, an Iraqi group that didn’t even exist until after the American invasion.

As to claims about Iranian involvement in Iraq being presented by Iraqis as credible, believable sources the Christian Science Monitor reports that Iraqis are feeling squeezed between America and Iran.

"We do not want to start a conflict with Iran," says Iraqi spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh. "We need our own government documentation of this interference, not from the Americans, not from the media."
He suggested Sunday that Iraq had no "hard evidence" of Iran's involvement or of the 2008 markings on seized weaponry, and that a top-level committee would be formed to investigate. 

Very interestingly, this statement appears nowhere in the NY Times article cited above.