OxBlog

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

# Posted 12:41 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

LET THEM EAT CROW: Fred Kagan played a critical role in designing the surge and arguing for its importance. Now he has a simple message for all of his critics: I told you so.

I admit that I sympathize with his message. Yet after all the failures in Iraq before 2007, I'm still afraid of letting myself get too confident. All of the clear indications of progress seem too good to be true. Kagan lists some of them:
In the past five months, terrorist operations in and around Baghdad have dropped by 59 percent. Car bomb deaths are down by 81 percent. Casualties from enemy attacks dropped 77 percent. And violence during the just-completed season of Ramadan--traditionally a peak of terrorist attacks--was the lowest in three years.
It would be useful if the Standard provided links or footnotes. I have plenty of confidence in Kagan as analyst, but every statistic is a controversy in this war, so I'd like to go back to the sources and make sure the numbers are right.

Anyhow, Kagan is crystal clear about the fact that we have won the battle but not the war. Not in Iraq, not in Afghanistan. And Iran looms on the horizon, still working against us in Iraq. We've got a long way to go.

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Sunday, October 28, 2007

# Posted 11:56 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

THE U.N. REPORT ON HUMAN RIGHTS IN IRAQ: Earlier this month, the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) released its quarterly report [pdf] on human rights, covering April, May and June of 2007. The report is 37 pages long and reads pretty quickly. (Hat tip: Duck)

The report seemed pretty reasonable to me. According to its second paragraph:
UNAMI recognizes the enormous difficulties facing the Iraqi Government in its efforts to restore law and order. Its law enforcement personnel are under relentless attack by insurgency groups, and both Sunni and Shi’a armed groups carry out direct attacks on civilians through suicide bombings, abductions and extrajudicial executions while making no distinction between civilians and combatants. Such systematic or widespread attacks against a civilian population are tantamount to crimes against humanity and violate the laws of war, and their perpetrators are subject to prosecution.
That may seem pretty obvious, but I consider it a small victory when even the UN recognizes that anti-American forces are the actual perpetrators of crimes against humanity.

Of course, the report by no means ignores any potential violations by the United States. It discusses the problem of armed contractors such as Blackwater as well as continuing concerns about the treatment of detainees. One of the most interesting sections, especially in light of the previous post, is the one about US air strikes and their relationship to civilian casualties. The UN reports an array of incidents in which 88 Iraqi civilians were "reportedly" killed.

Why "reportedly"? That isn't clear. Presumably it's just a reminder that reliable data is very hard to come by in Iraq. Anyhow, assuming that 88 civilians were killed in the second quarter of the year, that number is in the same ballpark as IBC's assessment that 417 Iraqi civilians were killed by air strikes in the first nine months of the year.

In a comment on an earlier post, one of our readers observed that
The [UN] report makes it clear that U.S. air strikes in densely populated civilian areas are violations of international human rights law. A footnote to the section on "MNF military operations and the killing of civilians" explains, "Customary international humanitarian law demands that, as much as possible, military objectives must not be located within areas densely populated by civilians. The presence of individual combatants among a great number of civilians does not alter the civilian character of an area."
That quotation is accurate, but the first sentence is rather misleading. The relevant section of the UN report (see p.9) never says that US air strikes targeted densely populated civilian areas or that US air strikes violated the laws of war. Perhaps that is what the footnote implies. But the quotation above hardly establishes a clear standard for how a counterinsurgent force should deal with an adversary that uses the population around it as camouflage or even human shields.

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# Posted 10:50 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

IS PETRAEUS TRIGGER-HAPPY? USA Today recently reported that the number of US airstrikes against Iraqi insurgents has more than quadrupled this year, to 1140 as of late September. Slate military correspondent Fred Kaplan argues that this is an extremely dangerous trend, since it may save American lives in the short run, but will inflict heavy civilian casualties that only heighten Iraqi antagonism toward the United States.

I don't buy it. It is essential, of course, to inflict as few civilian casualties as possible in the process of counterinsurgency operations. To that effect, Kaplan cites the Army's official manual for counterinsurgency operations, whose production was supervised by Gen. Petraeus shortly before his return to Iraq:
An air strike can cause collateral damage that turns people against the host-nation government and provides insurgents with a major propaganda victory. Even when justified under the law of war, bombings that result in civilian casualties can bring media coverage that works to the insurgents' benefits. … For these reasons, commanders should consider the use of air strikes carefully during [counterinsurgency] operations, neither disregarding them outright nor employing them excessively.
If certain other generals were in charge, I might be seriously concerned that they were ignoring the sound doctrine elaborated by the Army's field manual. But my gut says that Petraeus is too smart to ignore his own good advice.

What really matters, however, is not my gut. It's the evidence. Kaplan writes that:
The research group Iraq Body Count estimates that 417 Iraqi civilians died from January to September of this year as a result of airstrikes. This is only a bit less than the estimated 452 deaths caused by airstrikes in the previous two years combined.
I'm willing to give some weight to the IBC numbers, even though they are a far-left anti-war activist organization, not just a "research group". As OxBlog has shown in the past, IBC won't let the truth get in the way of their anti-war publicity efforts.

But for the moment, let's assume that IBC got it right. Instead of 200+ civilian casualties, this year there will be around 500 inflicted by US airstrikes. According to iCasualties.org, approximately 15,000 Iraqi civilians have died since the beginning of this calendar year. If US airstrikes have accounted for 417 deaths, that would represent slightly less than 3% of the total. From a human perspective, that is still a tragedy. From a strategic perspective, I have a hard time believing that this kind of fluctuation would have a major impact on Iraqi public opinion.

Yet Kaplan suggests that it does. In a companion piece, he reviews some recent public opinion data from Iraq which indicate that hostility to the US is rising. I haven't had time to review those data in detail, so I will simply observe for now that even Kaplan doesn't draw a clear connection between the public opinion data and the increase in air strikes.

Aside from the IBC data, Kaplan points to another indicator that air strikes save American lives at the cost of Iraqi ones:
In the first nine months of 2007, Air Force planes dropped munitions on targets in Iraq more often than in the previous three years combined.

More telling still, the number of airstrikes soared most dramatically at about the same time that U.S. troop fatalities declined.
That is just plain bad analysis. The leading killer of US troops for quite a while has been the improvised explosive device, or IED. Our casualties have been down significantly over the past couple of months because so many fewer troops are being killed by IEDs. This month, 15 American troops have been killed by IEDs. In May, when US casualties were at their peak, we lost almost 90 soldiers and marines to IEDs.

It should be pretty clear that air strikes can't protect our troops from IEDs. As Kaplan himself observes, air strikes get called in when troops are facing a tough objective, for example a fortified house with insurgents inside. In contrast, IEDs hit our patrols and convoys at the beginning of battle, often taking our forces by surprise.

So, if using more air strikes can't explain our recent success on the battlefield, what can? On that point, I'll stick with the conventional wisdom. First and foremost, Coalition forces have forged a strategic alliance with numerous Sunni tribes, bringing them into the fight against Al Qaeda and giving us the intelligence necessary to be more effective in our own operations. In other words, progress on the political front has led to progress on the military front.

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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

# Posted 12:16 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

IS THE WASHINGTON POST AS CRAZY AS OXBLOG? I've already questioned the sanity of the Post for asserting, as I have, that the US and its allies have made remarkable progress in Iraq over the past several months. Now that top correspondent Dan Balz is talking about a serious McCain comeback, I've really got to wonder whether the Post and OxBlog are drinking from the same pitcher of Kool Aid. According to Balz,
In almost all ways, Giuliani and McCain have been respectful rivals. At an earlier debate, Giuliani said that, if he weren't in the race, he probably would be endorsing McCain...

But as rivals, neither has fully appreciated the damage the other could do to his hopes of winning the Republican nomination. McCain made the mistake first; now Giuliani threatens to repeat it...

McCain's summer implosion appeared to have ended all hope for his candidacy. On Sunday night, however, McCain was full of life on the stage in Orlando. If not the clear winner of the liveliest Republican debate of the year, he delivered many of the evening's most memorable moments...

The last thing Giuliani needs now is a McCain on the rebound.
Especially in New Hampshire, where the third-place McCain is only a few points behind Giuliani and even tied for second with Hizzoner in a recent poll.

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Friday, October 19, 2007

# Posted 11:33 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

HOW MUCH IS AN IRAQI LIFE WORTH? The Army recently released more than 500 documents that deal with the efforts of Iraqi civilians to secure compensation for deaths and other injuries inflicted by US troops. Here are the opening paragraphs of a Baltimore Sun story about the documents:
WASHINGTON - On a dusty street in Samarra, a bustling city north of Baghdad, two brothers, 10 and 12, are carrying plastic bags of groceries home from the market. Approaching an intersection guarded by U.S. troops, they strip off their white undershirts and wave them in the air as they cautiously venture across. Suddenly, shots.

Down goes the 10-year old, his stomach ripped by bullets. Down goes the 12-year-old with his stomach shot away.

This snapshot, as documented by Iraqi witnesses, is the mundane and perhaps inevitable collision between Iraqi civilians and heavily armed troops who are maneuvering, against a shadowy enemy, entirely within a civilian world of schoolchildren, bustling markets and traffic jams.
"Mundane". As if American soldiers killing white-flag waving Iraqi children were an everyday occurrence. Certainly it happens. The case described is taken directly from Army documents. Sadly, the Army denied the boys' father compensation for their deaths. The article continues:
But for Iraqis such as the father and extended family of the two boys killed in Samarra in October 2005, nothing "explains or palliates their loss," said Gary Solis, a retired Marine officer and expert on military-civilian clashes who teaches law at Georgetown University. "The U.S. usually -- almost always -- becomes the object of the survivors' anger and hatred."

That could explain the anger, baffling to some outsiders, that many Iraqis express toward the United States, rather than gratitude for toppling Saddam Hussein. According to an August poll of more than 2,000 people across Iraq, 72 percent said the American presence in Iraq is making things worse, up from 69 percent in February. Eight-five percent said they had "not much" or "no" confidence in U.S. forces, up from 66 percent in 2004.
This argument is both cliche and dead wrong. If killing innocent people translated directly into unpopularity, then the Sunni insurgents and Shi'ite militias would be the least popular forces in Iraq, not the US military. Yet article after article gets written in which civilian deaths inflicted by our forces are held up as the 'real' explanation of Iraqi resentment, without the author even bothering to ask about the impact on Iraqi public opinion of the tens of thousands of intentional murders committed by other Iraqis.

Now, as you probably know, I firmly subscribe to the school of counterinsurgency doctrine that recommends the minimum necessary use of force (although the minimum is still considerable in the midst of war). I subscribe to this theory because there is an inevitable double standard in operation, whereby our adversaries can exploit ethnic, sectarian or other identities to ensure that we are judged more harshly for doing less damage. That is simply a challenge the counterinsurgent must overcome.

To be fair, the Sun's correspondent observes that:
American troops are exhaustively trained to avoid harming innocent civilians, and they operate under strict rules that govern when lethal force can be used. Unlike private security contractors, U.S. military clashes with civilians are routinely investigated
But what is that kind of throw-away caveat worth in article that describes in gory detail only our tragic mistakes but never the enemy's atrocities?

I also found it rather galling that the Sun first described several cases in which the US military found loopholes to avoid paying out compensation for civilian casualties, but only reported in the final paragraphs of the article that the US military has spent tens of millions of dollars on precisely that kind of compensation. If you only read the first half of this article, you'd be left with the impression that the US military regularly kills children and then tries to nickel-and-dime its way out of the problem.

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# Posted 11:24 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

McCAIN VS. HILLARY IN FOREIGN AFFAIRS: I haven't read their essays yet, but Dan Drezner says that they are the two best so far and that McCain's is the best of any Republican. In previous issues, Obama, Edwards, Romney and Giuliani have published their essays on US strategy.

As Dan correctly points out, it is each campaign's foreign policy staff that actually writes the essay. But the staffs write what their candidates want, and the candidates approve only what they want, so this is not a trivial exercise. To this day, Condi's article from the 2000 campaign is frequently cited (if only to remind the audience that she once was a realist).

Also, Dan's post about "engagement" as the fairy dust of foreign policy is a must. He's writing about John Edwards, but the lesson applies far more broadly.

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Thursday, October 18, 2007

# Posted 9:43 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

MOVEON.ORG VERSUS THE FACTS: I've heard a lot of people say that if you ignore the words "General Betray Us", there was nothing really wrong with MoveOn.org's infamous ad. Not so says the NYT's public editor:
On the morning that Petraeus testified, The Times published that MoveOn.org ad with the ''General Betray Us'' headline. Without distinguishing between an opinion piece and a news report, the ad said that, ''according to The New York Times, the Pentagon has adopted a bizarre formula for keeping tabs on violence. For example, car bombs don't count. The Washington Post reported that assassinations only count if you're shot in the back of the head -- not the front.''

After a week of looking into these conflicting reports, interviewing government officials, policy experts and keepers of independent databases on Iraq, here is what I have found:

Back-of-the-head, front-of-the-head is not a distinction the military uses to count victims of sectarian violence. The military's manual for measuring sectarian violence, declassified the day after Krugman's column ran, says that civilians ''shot anywhere in the head'' are counted. On Sept. 25, in a detailed account of how the military counts victims of sectarian violence, The Post quoted an Army chief warrant officer as saying that ''a single shot to the head'' is a sign of sectarian violence.

Car bombings do count. The unclassified manual, ''MNF-I Ethno-Sectarian Violence Methodology,'' says car bombings at such places as mosques or markets are to be counted. Civilians killed in car bombings not deemed sectarian, like an attack on a U.S. convoy, are still counted in the overall casualty numbers.
But really, what's wrong with using rumors and imaginary facts to serve the noble purpose of ending this terrible war?

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# Posted 9:09 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

WE APOLOGIZE FOR THE FACTS! Iraq Body Count (IBC) is a rather brazenly anti-American organization that has sought to discredit the occupation from Day 1 by counting civilian deaths in Iraq. Still, counting has its merits, even if OxBlog has shown how hard IBC works to skew its data in an anti-American direction.

Recently, IBC faced quite a dilemma. By early September, its data had begun to show a correlation between the surge of US forces and a visible reduction in the number of Iraqi civilians being killed. Remarkably, this development led IBC to worry that the anti-war left might consider it a shill for the Bush administration. In its defense, IBC explained that it:
...is aware that official reports are imminent concerning the progress of the US Government’s New Security Plan or ‘surge.’ However, IBC’s work is not linked to the political calendar, and the charts above are not intended to be directly comparable to data which may be supplied from official sources.

These charts sometimes indicate a modest improvement in the security situation for ordinary Iraqis post-surge, and this is not disputed. But these charts will tend to under-represent reported violence for the more recent periods, for the reasons stated above. The observed downward trend in these charts will likely become less marked as data still in the pipeline is added (see Recent Events for as yet unprocessed data).
You have to give IBC credit for hoping that enough Iraqis would die to discredit the surge. Sadly the terrorists and death squads failed to deliver. And the statistics from October aren't any better, even according to IBC. If you add up IBC's list of recent events, the total so far this month is around 600. Still horrific, but a far cry from the numbers of this spring or last fall.

Now, it's worth keeping in mind that accurate statistics about the civilian death toll are hard to come by. iCasualties, another site with no sympathies for the US war effort, list the current October toll at just over 400. For a look at the challenge of compiling such gruesome and tragic statistics, I highly recommend a recent column by Clark Hoyt, the NYT's public editor.

In closing, it is worth keeping mind a good point made by IBC, a point that has merit in spite of its authors' agenda:
It is important to place the events of 2007 in context. Levels of violence reached an all-time high in the last six months of 2006. Only in comparison to that could the first half of 2007 be regarded as an improvement
We should never forget how much Iraqis have suffered because of our failures as an occupying power. The actual killers were Sunni terrorists and Shi'ite death squads, but a successful occupation could have saved thousands and thousands of lives.

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# Posted 8:44 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

ZOMBIE McCAIN IS BACK FROM THE DEAD! There's been some buzz for a few weeks now, at least among the 2008 junkies, that McCain is mounting a come back. Of course, this is quite gratifying for us die-hard McCain-iacs. The question is, why is it happening and what are the chances that it will be anything more than a short-lived improvement?

In a rather flattering article in the National Review, Kate O'Beirne lists some of the reasons. McCain may still be the best bet for a GOP win in 2008. Social conservatives aren't taking to Giuliani. Or Romney. Thompson is stuck in neutral. And Republicans anger about the Bush/McCain stance on immigration is fading.

I generally buy those arguments. But O'Beirne misses the most important development of all: Iraq. That word appears once in her article, in a reference to McCain's son, who is serving a tour of duty there as a Marine. (Well, you certainly can't say that McCain has supported this war because his children are safe Harvard.)

More importantly, the surge is working and McCain is the candidate who has backed it relentlessly. The anti-Al Qaeda alliance remains strong in Anbar in spite of AQ's assassination of its leader, Sheik Sattar. With only 19 KIAs in October, the US military continues to demonstrate that it can keep its casualties down while taking the fight aggressively to the enemy. The Iraqi Security Forces are also losing many fewer men. The montly death toll for Iraqi civilians remains horrific, but has moved significantly downward since the end of August.

Of course, a reversal on any or all of these fronts remains a significant possibility. But there is reason to believe that we've seen until now is the product of an effective strategy, not a random fluctuation. If you cross your fingers and believe that all of these indicators hold constant or improve between now and January, McCain may find himself in a much stronger position.

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Monday, October 15, 2007

# Posted 12:49 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

HAS THE POST DEPARTED FROM THE REALITY-BASED COMMUNITY? Headline from today's front page:
Al Qaeda in Iraq Reported Crippled
. Half of the article's byline belongs to Thomas Ricks, author of Fiasco. Without breaking the rules against explicit editorializing, the articles warns about seven or eight times that it would be foolish to count Al Qaeda out prematurely. I agree.

But the article also indicates just how far the debate has shifed. For example:
There is widespread agreement that AQI has suffered major blows over the past three months.
Does that consensus include the reality-based community?

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# Posted 12:34 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

BEHIND THE FIREWALL: Living without the NY Times op-ed wasn't exactly a burden, but now that it's back in the public domain, good columns there deserve to be recognized. First of all, hats off to Clark Hoyt, the newest public editor. His column this week exposes the entrenched unprofessional behavior of NYT Magazine writer Deborah Solomon. On a more substantive note, I refer you to Hoyt's excellent column from last week about casualty statistics from Iraq. Even though it's the facts that matter, Hoyt's swipe at Paul Krugman is particularly enjoyable.

Moving on, we come to Maureen Dowd, who did us all a favor by turning her column over to Stephen Colbert (the character, not the actor). But Colbert didn't just take over for Dowd:
Bad things are happening in countries you shouldn’t have to think about. It’s all George Bush’s fault, the vice president is Satan, and God is gay.

There. Now I’ve written Frank Rich’s column too.
Heh. Colbert also did a rather clever job of capturing GOP ambivalence about Hillary:
A lot of Americans feel confused about the current crop of presidential candidates.

For instance, Hillary Clinton. I can’t remember if I’m supposed to be scared of her so Democrats will think they should nominate her when she’s actually easy to beat, or if I’m supposed to be scared of her because she’s legitimately scary.
Double heh.

Finally we come Michael Barone, best known for endorsing OxBlog. (Not.) He has a great idea that you will like unless you are running for president: primary debates with candidates from both parties. But it's not only a good idea -- it's worked well before:
What if there were a debate featuring all of the leading Democratic and Republican candidates? It’s happened before, once, on Dec. 1, 1987, when Tom Brokaw of NBC News moderated a debate among six Democratic and six Republican presidential candidates. It was held on bipartisan ground: the Eisenhower Theater at the Kennedy Center in Washington.

Some 18 million Americans watched this debate — considerably more than the number who have been watching this year’s confrontations. (So far, this year’s debates, broadcast on cable news outlets that have far smaller audiences than NBC had 20 years ago, have attracted few viewers: 893,000 to 3.1 million for each debate.)

Mr. Brokaw put in a bravura performance. Rather than ask everyone the same question — which leaves each candidate answering like “a trained seal,” as Newt Gingrich aptly put it recently — Mr. Brokaw asked questions that were appropriate to the various candidates, so that the debate took on the aspect of an extended and well-informed conversation. He questioned Democrats and Republicans separately, during four 30-minute segments, but the format allowed candidates of one party to criticize those of the other party, which several did.
I'd be curious to see which candidates actually show an interest and which express an interest in principle but kill it with delays and scheduling conflicts.

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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

# Posted 3:55 PM by Taylor Owen  

WELCOME TO THE NEIGHBORHOOD: Dave and I had the following oped in the Tyee today on the NYT decision to take down their paywall.

Newspapers Online: Welcome to the Neighborhood
By Taylor Owen and David Eaves

The New York Times made waves in the media world recently by dismantling its subscription paywall. As a result, anyone with a computer and an Internet connection can now read the entire paper online for free.

The failed paywall experiment of the New York Times is emblematic of the newspaper industry's two-decade-old struggle to survive online. So long as the Internet is perceived as nothing more than a new tool for distributing the news to a passive audience -- readers, citizen and the community more generally, will continue to tune out. For newspapers to survive, a more nuanced understanding of the online world is needed.

The key is grasping that the relationship between communities and their news has fundamentally changed.

Prior to the Internet, people determined what was important by reading what newspaper editors thought was important. Today, people have a host of ways to determine what is important and to connect quickly with stories on those issues. Newspapers can shift their content, and advertising, online, but as long as they believe they are the arbiters of a community's agenda, they will continue to struggle.

Online, people engage with news in two new ways, both of which deviate significantly from the traditional newspaper model.

First, algorithm-based aggregators, such as Google News and Del.icio.us, and human-run websites, such as National Newswatch and the Huffington Post, provide powerful alternatives to the traditional newspaper editor.

Aggregators, both human and algorithm-based, don't care about content's origins, only its relevance to readers. They ferret out the best content from across the web and deposit it on your computer screen. This begs the question: if you could read the best articles drawn from a pool of 100 authors (the approximate number of journalists at a daily newspaper) vs. a pool of 1.5 million posts (the amount of new content created online each day), which would you choose?

But it is the second reason that should most concern newspapers. Younger readers don't just use aggregators. They increasingly read articles found through links from blogs. Rather than roaming within a newspaper's walled gardens, younger readers build their own media communities where a trusted network of bloggers guide them to interesting content. Online, bloggers are the new editors.

Take, for example, the relationship many Canadians have with the prominent blogger Andrew Potter. While most people have never met him in person, his readers know his perspectives and biases, and this personal connection creates a loyal following.

Antithetically, people are also drawn back because they are interested in the places Potter links to, virtually all of which direct readers away from the site he blogs for, Macleans.ca.

To most newspapers, the idea of directing traffic away from their news site remains an anathema. Newspaper websites contain virtually no external links. Ironically, this follows the design parameters of a Las Vegas casino -- the goal is to get you in, and not let you leave. Does anyone really believe that all the news and perspectives relevant and important to a community can reside on a single website?

In this manner, newspapers are fighting the very thing that makes the Internet community compelling: its interconnectedness. Like Potter's blog, the Internet's best sites are attractive, not simply because their content is good, but rather because they link to content around the web. And if that content is compelling, readers keep coming back for more guidance.

People enjoy a sense of community, and democracy is strengthened when citizens are informed. The problem is, the New York Times, and virtually every traditional newspaper, fails to understand that a model has emerged that is far better at both delivering information and fostering community than the traditional news industries.

Traditional media supporters will assert that these online communities are fragmented, in disagreement, full of scallywags, immature ranters, educated snobs and partisan hacks. And they'd be right. It's messy and it's imperfect. But then, so is the democratic community in which we live. The difference is, in an online community, everyone is telling us and directing us to issues and news items they believe are important.

The New York Times learned this lesson the hard way. After spending two years trying to wall its exclusive content off from the web, it discovered that rather than becoming more exclusive, it was becoming less relevant. Unable to link to its content, aggregators, bloggers and the online community more generally, simply stopped talking about them. Newspapers should heed this lesson. If newspapers want to transition into the online age -- they'll have to join this community, rather than seek to control it.
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Tuesday, October 09, 2007

# Posted 9:03 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

WALT & MEARSHEIMER: IS THERE ANYTHING LEFT TO SAY? Well, they came out with a new book, so something has to be said. It would be easier to ignore them, but it is dangerous to let such misinformation go unanswered. Perhaps that is why TNR devoted its cover to a lengthy review of Walt and Mearsheimer's new book.

But lengthy reviews aren't the most effective response. Details can only persuade those willing to commit a significant amount of time to a subject. Much more important is just a few sentences that expose this pseudo-scholarship for what it is. The simple case for Walt and Mearsheimer runs as follows:
Two distinguished Harvard professors believe that the US alliance with Israel damages US security by provoking terrorists to attack us. The terrorists' anger is a result of Israel's horrific abuses of Palestinian human rights.
If that's all that most people remember about this small episode, then it is a victory for Walt and Mearsheimer. (Especially for Mearsheimer, who actually teaches at Chicago.) So how do you dismantle a perception like that? You could try to defend Israel's record on human rights, but that isn't an argument that anyone can win without writing a book of your own. At a cocktail party, it always comes out a tie. You could try to point out the many other reasons that terrorists have for resenting America, but it's pretty clear that Al Qaeda and the rest really do hate Israel.

A third strategy is to try and argue that Walt and Mearsheimer are anti-Semites. But Walt and Mearsheimer knew better than to make any statements that could easily be clealry labeled as anti-Semitic rather than anti-Zionist or anti-Israel. This issue isn't irrelevant, but it isn't a winning point in a short discussion.

I think the real way to go is to brand Walt and Mearsheimer as conspiracy theorists. It's an approach that should work because it's true and because it's a category of thinking that people understand. But the words "conspiracy theorist" aren't a magic talisman in the same manner as "tenured professor at Harvard". The former is a judgment, the latter is a fact. So you have to be able to back it up in no more than a sentence, maybe two. Here's my one sentence:
Walt and Mearsheimer say that the Jewish lobby pushed American into invading Iraq.
Here are the exact words from the Harvard working paper that started this whole fiasco:
Pressure from Israel and the Lobby was not the only factor behind the U.S. decision to attack Iraq in March 2003, but it was a critical element...the war was motivated in good part by adesire to make Israel more secure... (p.30)
But wait, didn't they also write in the same paper that:
It would be wrong to blame the war in Iraq on "Jewish influence." Rather, the war was due in large part to the Lobby’s influence, especially the neoconservatives within it. (pp.31-32)
Walt and Mearsheimer want to have it both ways, but they can't. A distinction between "Jewish influence" and "the Lobby" (with a capital 'L') just won't cut it. Their lobby includes everyone, from the Jewish left to the Jewish right, even Howard Dean, who isn't a Jew. As TNR observes in its review, Walt and Mearsheimer say that Dean's "unabashed" support for Israel makes sense because "Dean's wife is Jewish and his children were raised Jewish as well." [No page citation provided.]

So, getting back to the point, is it self-evidently conspiratorial to argue that the Jews and their Lobby pushed us into invading Iraq? Although I am not against sophisticated discussions of the role that lobbying groups play in American government, also you really have to say to make this point is that Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld are all Christians. Some folks will go on and on about Wolfowitz and the yidn at the Weekly Standard -- and I'm one of them! -- but if you really want to say that the President, Vice-President and Secretary of Defense didn't really control the government, then you're retreating into the darkest reaches of conspiracy theory, where:
Jews, operating in the shadows, manipulate gentile leaders to unknowingly advance Jewish interests. In order to believe this in the case of Iraq, the argument would have to be made that Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld were not merely idiots, but also uninterested in ruling.

A couple of years ago I asked Rumsfeld to comment on accusations that the Jewish lobby maneuvered the administration into war. "I suppose the implication of that is the president and the vice president and myself and Colin Powell just fell off a turnip truck to take these jobs," he said. But Mearsheimer and Walt mention Cheney and Rumsfeld only for fleeting instants in their discussion of the origins of the war.
That is another quote from TNR, whose review was written by Jeffrey Goldberg, so perhaps it suffers from an inherent lack of credibility.

It really all comes down to the "Jews in the shadows" argument. Anyone who advances that argument in American political automatically compromises their credibility. The challenge facing Walt and Mearsheimer's critics is really just to ensure that they cannot escape their own words and aren't allowed to masquerade simply as distinguished professors.

You might say that any argument about Jews' secret power is anti-Semitic. Maybe it is. Maybe it isn't. Personally, I think it is a trope that has simply migrated to the paranoid extremes of the political spectrum, both left and right. But that isn't the point. The issue here is how to prevent pseudo-scholarship from entering the mainstream. The answer: keep it simple and keep it true. They are conspiracy theorists.

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# Posted 6:39 PM by Patrick Porter  

THE APPETITE FOR CONSPIRACY: Strolling through a big commercial bookstore today, I was taking a quick browse through the 'Politics/Current Events' section.

There was the usual fare, but very quickly I couldn't help notice that there were at least five titles putting forward various versions of the theory that 9/11 was a deliberate act of the US government.

This is a bookstore that doesn't do much in the way of fringe/marginal titles. So, is 9/11 conspiracy now selling well, or even moving its way into the mainstream?

Similarly, the other night I sat through Mark Wahlberg's thriller, 'The Shooter.' Early on, Wahlberg's character is about to surf the web at home, and as the camera pans across his copy of the '9/11 Commission Report', he mutters something like 'What lies is the government telling us today?'

The notion that the Bush administration not only willingly permitted but actually orchestrated the 9/11 atrocities can be countered either by ignoring it or arguing back with reason or empirical evidence, etc.

But it seems that the chorus is getting louder and that the idea is becoming institutionalised. An understandable skepticism about many claims of government mutates into a fanciful idea that a government which would struggle to organise a drink in a brewery was capable of pulling off this profound conspiracy.

Its hard to disentangle why this idea might be becoming institutionalised. In part, perhaps, it is a broader reaction to the catastrophe(s) in Iraq, to the revelations about torture and constitutional abuses in government. But it must be more than that, because it is still a big leap from the banal realisation about government corruption and misbehaviour to actual full-blown 'the government did it' paranoia.

Could it be this: there has long been a strand of anti-government and anti-state suspicion in American history for various historical reasons, where the state is not only the main threat but also responsible for inventing, fabricating or directing all other threats. Is this view now becoming more a reaction to be found all over the world?

Its certainly strong in popular culture. The British TV series Spooks, for example, where the culprit or hidden hand behind terrorism is almost always the British government, the American government, or at one point, Israel.

There are a lot of disturbing things about the apparent resurgence of 9/11 conspiracy theory, but this is the one that strikes yours truly, the naive view that because the state is a powerful political force and potential threat, it is the only one, that we live in a world without other self-directed predators.

What was that line from the Usual Suspects, that the smartest thing the devil ever did was persuade the world that he didn't exist?

I've clearly been watching too many films lately.

NB not to mention the classic, widespread element in many conspiracy theories and at the core of the most toxic ones, anti-semitism. but if this is part of the resurgence of 9/11 conspiracy theory today, the resurgence of anti-semitism also needs to be explained.
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Saturday, October 06, 2007

# Posted 11:23 AM by Patrick Porter  

YET MORE APOLOGIES: Like Taylor, sorry to our readers for my lack of posts. While Taylor's computer was busy imploding, my wife and I bought a house. After a long time as a postgrad student bum doing everything in one room, having my own study is the sweetest pleasure.

Back to blogging. Historian Eric Hobsbawm has some interesting thoughts today in the Times. Hobsbawm is a 90 year old, unrepentant Stalinist who, amongst a lifetime producing some of the most powerful Marxist histories, also supported the Soviet invasion of Finland in 1939-40.

However, his recent commentary on modern football as an emblem of the competing forces of nationalism and globalism, and the internal contradictions they create, is worth reading. Hobsbawm is

intrigued by the way that the game has mutated into a global business dominated by the “imperialism of a few capitalist enterprises” such as Manchester United and Real Madrid. “Neither the local nor the national identification is what defines the economy of football today,” he said.

'What defines it is that since globalisation it’s been possible for a consortium of wealthy clubs in a particular set of Western European countries to build themselves up as global brands which have relatively little contact with their original local roots and hire people from all over the world.

“They make money by selling goods, such as T-shirts, by television and to a diminishing extent by people watching [live] football.'

Indeed they do. (Although I tread lightly over his willingness to describe football corporations as agents of imperialism, given his support for Stalin's 'Winter War' on the Finns. Imperialism has varying intensity - there's spending lots of money to buy great players and price poorer clubs out of the market, and there's attempting to annex other countries with military force).

But his views on soccer themselves suggest a paradox: the nation-state is crumbling, he argues, but nationalism and national identity is integral to retaining peoples' enthusiasm and devotion to football.

Hobsbawm seems to view the globalising drive of big football clubs as a reactionary or sinister development. Looking at it from another direction, while the tendency for big clubs and corporations to overwhelm the others might be seen as a bad thing, it is also arguably a liberalising force in other ways.

Teams and clubs sign up foreign players, parochial loyalties and tribal prejudices must now mix with a sense of an international market and the nomadic movement of talent from country to country, and the very collision between new foreign players and racist fans, say, in Spain or Italy, generates tensions but also progressive results, such as the movement to 'Kick Racism Out of Football.' National identity can happily remain, but as a pleasing texture to life, not as an ugly force.

Imperialism in football? Maybe. But for my money, its better than narrow tribalism. Sometimes there are even worse things than big money.
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Wednesday, October 03, 2007

# Posted 9:16 AM by Taylor Owen  

APOLOGIES: for the lack of posting. It has been due, in part, to the twin challenges of being on the road for the better part of the past two months, and having a sustained and agonizing computer melt down. On the latter, a few notes.

First, computer repair people are a lot like car salesmen. I took my computer to three different places over the course of a month. The first two didn't identify what the last said was the obvious problem, but who then couldn't fix it, after a week and 400 bucks (and yes, Canadian bucks are now real bucks, but that's another post). Frustrating to no ends.

Second, just backing up your files, which I am relatively good at doing, is insufficient for actually allowing work flow to continue post computer breakdown. The number of settings on my computer, such as all of my blogging cookies, means just shifting files is only part of the battle.

Third, gmail is the only email webmail ap that actually works to ANY degree like a client side program, on which I have become crack-like dependent. Having to use three different web based aps to run my three separate main accounts, was torture. The other two were so bad, that I started forwarding all messages through gmail. This experience, and now sort of having Thunderbird back, showed me unequivocally that email management is the central peg in my disheveled productivity.

Fourth, and related to the second and third, I just heard about a Sun system, where you can put a keycard into any networked Sun computer, and ALL of your desktop settings and files appear (h/t JV). Any programs that you have on your system, that aren't on the unit you are using, get emulated by server-side programs, while client side ones are downloading to your terminal in the background. Once on the couputer, it seemlessy switches to the client side version.

This to me is the future of computers. Seemless integreation between server and client, combined with terminals that recognize who you are, and automatic server side backups. I am probably bastardizing the description of this process, but come on Jobs/Gates - which of you are going to get to this first!
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