Tuesday, May 28, 2013

A Credential Problem?

As I was making pancakes on Sunday, I heard something on the radio that made my jaw drop.

I was listening to Weekend, the “breakfast” news program on the BBC World Service. The program’s format has the host, in between news reports, chatting with guests who have been invited, presumably, for their ability to provide interesting and insightful analysis of the news.

Toward the end of the program, Edward Lucas of The Economist was making a very good point that, during the Cold War, there were agencies and organizations that were actively engaged in countering Soviet propaganda and promoting Western values. The implication was that there is no similar effort to counter the messaging and recruiting that is winning over individuals like the ones who committed recent atrocities in Boston, London and Paris. The West has become complacent since 1991, he said, adding, “Standing back and being neutral is not working very well.”

The other guest was Chris Laidlaw, who hosts a similar radio program in New Zealand and is a former rugby player, diplomat and, briefly, Labour MP. His response: “The West has got to improve its credentials when it comes to Islam. It’s up to a society to be more tolerant and more open and more embracing.”

The part that made my jaw drop was when he added, “You look at that young Nigerian citizen—I think he’s a Nigerian—in London standing with a knife in his hand saying, I did this for this particular reason, I did this for a political reason, and it is aimed fairly and squarely at the Western mentality, and all you can do is kind of sympathize.”

He was referring to the man who used his knife to behead a British soldier on a London street. In fact, the man who committed the atrocity in London was born and raised in Britain. His family was from Nigeria, and he was raised as a Christian before he converted to Islam.

When Lucas said he was “astonished” to hear Laidlaw say he sympathized with the killer, Laidlaw backtracked by saying he meant he sympathized with the people watching the incident. Still, the New Zealander’s comments were clearly typical of the kind you hear from some after an incident like this and which are completely useless. Be more tolerant and more open and more embracing? Yes, we should all strive to be those things and to be self-critical when we fall short. (Maybe we could start by not ignorantly calling British-born people Nigerian citizens?) But, realistically, where can an emigrant, of any ethnicity or religious belief, go in the world and be more welcomed and tolerated than in Western Europe or North America?

What really bothered me most about Laidlaw’s fatuous comments, though, was that they were a huge insult to the large, heartfelt outpouring of the London Nigerian community on the streets of Woolwich, where the crime took place. UK television carried scenes of people marching in rejection of the bloody attack, and it was impossible not to be moved by the warm hugs between the marchers and residents watching from the footpaths.

Yes, there have also been anti-Islam marches by right-wing groups, as well as an increase in reported hate crimes. But does it undermine or build up those groups when commentators suggest that an atrocity might have been justified and that the fault really lies with the British people?

The insidious thing about groups like the English Defence League and the British National Party is that they suggest that terrorists claiming to act in the name of Islam are representative of all Moslems. But what is strange to me is that so many self-styled defenders of Islam seem to work from a similar premise. They treat any condemnation of so-called jihadists as an attack on all Moslems. Or they divert blame from the terrorists by asserting, as Chris Laidlaw did, that the real problem lies with the values of the West.

If Edward Lucas is right and we need to cop on to the fact that the West is a no-show in a propaganda war, then maybe the place to start is by strengthening and promoting Western values rather than agreeing with the forces of barbarianism that there is something fundamentally flawed about them.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013


Pretty much everyone acknowledges that the establishment press (i.e. the major non-cable broadcast networks, The New York Times, The Washington Post) went pretty easy on President Obama during two presidential elections and during his first term. So are they going overboard making up for it now?

Unfortunately, things have gotten to the point where most politically engaged people no longer care about the fairness of news coverage or public opinion, but only about whether their side is up or down. And among the political class, hardly anyone even pretends to care about principles, and no one even looks embarrassed when they swap from one side of an argument to another because their guy is now in or out of the White House.

So now the “mainstream” press gives the appearance that it is simply following a timeworn script. “Everyone knows” that second terms are when the scandals come out and, besides, when the incumbent has no reelection battle for them to look forward to, reporters need to find something to entertain themselves with. So now that the president is safely ensconced for a second term, they have free reign to dump on him, right?

There does indeed seem to be some of that going on. The only question is: are the media being too hard on the president or are they only doing what they should have been doing all along?

I’ll vote for the latter. I’m a firm believer that the press should be adversarial toward the government, no matter who is in power. The man who sits in the White House has plenty of resources at his disposal to burnish his image or argue his case. The press’s job should be to fact check his assertions aggressively—and also those of his opponents. Sad to say, the more influential a journalist is, the more comfortable he or she seems to be in the Washington bubble. You see it on the Sunday news programs as well as on shows like PBS’s Washington Week. There is an argument to be made for newspapers and networks rotating their correspondents frequently in and out of Washington, if only to help them keep some sort of perspective.

I have heard a few outlets refer to President Obama’s “trifecta” of scandals, which I find kind of interesting. A trifecta, in its original meaning anyway, is a bet on all of the first three finishers, usually in a horse race. Secondarily, it can refer to winning three major prizes or racking up three major accomplishments. It’s a strange term to use for political scandals.

So what are we to make of this “trifecta”? I’ve already made my thoughts known on Benghazi. Somebody really fell down on security for U.S. diplomats in Libya, and it’s very clear in hindsight that a lot of danger signs—and pleas from people on the ground—were ignored. And after the attack, the administration spun the story to such a point that it’s not too harsh to call it lying. Was any of it criminal or illegal? Not as far as we know. Bad judgment is not a crime, but that’s not the same thing as saying that penalties shouldn’t be paid.

Not surprisingly, the press has gotten most passionate about the fishing expedition into Associated Press phone records. But even the administration’s harshest critics concede that nothing illegal was done here. But it does show that the Obama team, living up to the venerable Chicago political tradition, is not afraid to play hardball in using the levers of power for its own advantage. This is even more apparent in the tactic they used in getting Fox News’s James Rosen’s phone records: naming him as a “co-conspirator” in a leak investigation. Maybe the administration isn’t worried too much about media blowback on that one because, after all, it’s only Fox News. But it does represent a worrying shift from the past practice of going after leakers rather than the people they leak to.

Speaking of an administration not afraid to use government power against enemies, we also have the IRS affair. House Speaker John Boehner’s rhetorical question about who will go to jail aside, it’s not clear any laws were broken here either. The scandal is over how IRS employees used their discretion, but no one can really argue that, under the current mess that is the tax code, they do not have that discretion. Barring a smoking gun that shows that someone in the White House directed the targeting of conservative groups, nothing much is likely to come of this other than months of congressional hearings. What the eventual political fallout will be is another question, though.

The scary thing about the IRS revelations isn’t even the notion that the White House might be using this agency against its enemies. It’s that the agency—or elements within the agency—might just be doing this on its own. After all, it seems perfectly plausible that they picked their targets not because they were Republican but specifically because they were in favor of smaller government. Like any organism in nature, why wouldn’t the IRS instinctively protect itself? And it’s not like they’re accountable to anybody. After all, didn’t the president say he read about the whole thing in the papers like everybody else?

At the end of the day, what I really wonder about is how things are at home for Jay Carney. After all, this presidential spokesman has had to spin some pretty laughable scenarios to the press corps. And he actually used to be one of them. He’s not just some guy who was always a political flack. He was a correspondent for Time and CNN. Would he have had any patience for this kind of misdirection when he was covering the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush White Houses?

Carney’s wife is Claire Shipman of ABC News. I wonder if they have had any chats about the strange campaign to smear her colleague Jonathan Karl over a transcription error in his report on the White House’s Benghazi email trail. In the end, The Washington Post’s factchecker awarded three Pinocchios to White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer for his assertion on five news shows on Sunday that this somehow invalidated what the emails clearly show.

Yet that hasn’t stopped Media Matters—which essentially functions as an arm of the Obama press office and is, incidentally, tax-exempt—from continuing to spread the smear anyway.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Beyond Spin

When a presidential re-election campaign is over, there are an awful lot of people for the winning candidate to thank. I wonder if, when he is alone with his own thoughts, President Obama thanks Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods.

There is no way to know for sure, but it could well be that those two ex-Navy SEALs did more than any two individuals to ensure the president’s re-election. They are the pair who rushed over from a CIA annex to fight off the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on September 11. It seems probable that the aim of the attack was to take hostages. If that had happened, it could have turned into a drama that might have dragged on for weeks. In the end, Doherty and Woods lost their lives, as did Ambassador Chris Stevens and Information Officer Sean Smith.

Of course, there is no way to know for sure that would have happened. And, if it had, there is no way to know whether it would have hurt Obama politically in the run-up to the presidential election. Such a development could conceivably have helped him, since people tend to rally around their leadership in a crisis. But, if such a crisis drags on too long, it can be damaging politically. Just ask Jimmy Carter.

So why speculate about this now? Because we are all talking about Benghazi now. The president was asked about it at his event with Prime Minister David Cameron yesterday, and he shot back that “there’s no there, there” and “the fact that this whole thing keeps getting churned out, frankly, has a lot to do with political motivations.”

That kind of talk worked okay when Fox News was the only broadcaster working on the story, but now the president has to include ABC News in his political media conspiracy. And, in fairness, he would also have to include Sharyl Attkinson of CBS News who has reliably dug into the affair. There is talk, though, that Attkinson may be leaving the network, which fuels conspiracy theories on the right since CBS News president David Rhodes is the brother of Obama’s deputy national security advisor.

Personally, I don’t think it is realistic or fair to hold the president personally responsible for the security failure at Benghazi. On the other hand, the people who have been held responsible are pretty low level, which seems par for the course in these situations. The deputy chief of mission in Benghazi was demoted after the attack, but now he is in front of Congress saying it was because he questioned UN Ambassador Susan Rice’s version of events the Sunday after the attack. Rice’s own career suffered too. Her reward for being a good political soldier was to be passed over for secretary of state.

As for the “cover up” of Benghazi, yes, it looks very bad. Now, it would be naive not to expect political people to spin things to their best advantage, but the way the State Department and the White House dealt with Benghazi goes beyond spin. We now know for sure that they were all aware of the exact nature of the attack, and yet they continued to begin every answer to every question about it by talking about a YouTube video that they knew was not a factor.

But the real blame for the confusion lies with the establishment press which never pushed back against this deliberate disinformation campaign. The best excuse I have heard for this came out of the mouth of Bloomberg’s Margaret Carlson Sunday on Howard Kurtz’s media criticism show on CNN. She basically said that the mainstream press couldn’t cover the story because there was too much distraction from loud people on the right. Huh?

Carlson also reminded us that she thought that, in congressional testimony on Benghazi in January, “Hillary Clinton did a great job at her hearings.” But what did Clinton say at those hearings? She said, “Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk one night decided to go kill some Americans? What difference at this point does it make?” Four months later she was still throwing every scenario out there other than the one that actually happened.

In the end, I can’t really improve on what I wrote about this back in September. Back then I called the maker of the YouTube video a sleazeball for putting his cast and crew in danger. But didn’t the Obama administration only magnify that danger to them by casting such a relentless spotlight on the video? And for no good reason other than distracting the public from an inconsistency in its narrative about having Al Qaeda on the run?

At least the video maker himself is safe. He has been in federal prison on outstanding charges that the police suddenly decided to follow up on right after the president publicized his video.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Simon Says

There is a new biography of Simón Bolívar out. It is written by Marie Arana, a Peruvian-born author, editor and journalist. Her previous books include the memoir American Chica: Two Worlds, One Childhood and the novels Cellophane and Lima Nights.

Her Bolívar book is timely since its subject is a figure much evoked around the recent transition from the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez and his successor Nicolás Maduro.

I happened to hear Arana interviewed by Scott Simon on National Public Radio last month, and one particular exchange has stayed with me. After Arana began with a brief summary of Bolívar’s military successes against the Spanish, Simon—taking his cue from the book—said, “Almost the major factor that separated Simon Bolívar from the American founding fathers is, Bolívar believed that you couldn’t fight a revolution for freedom if you kept slavery.”

Arana then told about Bolívar travelling to the United States and being irked by the slave market in Charleston. She concluded by saying, “And though he loved George Washington… he couldn’t do things the same way.”

The discussion then moved on to the Liberator’s tempestuous love life, his frustrated later years and the eventual rebirth of his legend.

There is nothing inaccurate about Arana’s and Simon’s comparison of Bolívar versus the U.S.’s founding fathers. The latter did leave slavery in place after the American Revolution while the former was against slavery. But it does leave a strangely distorted impression of the two. If you knew nothing more about North and South American history than what was provided in this interview, you would have no doubt that Bolívar was eminently superior to Washington, both morally and militarily.

But the fact is that, while Washington refused to accept an offer of becoming a monarch and only reluctantly agreed to stand for president which he relinquished after two terms, Bolívar ignored constitutions he himself implemented and ultimately declared himself dictator. Thousands of prisoners and civilians were slaughtered under his orders and, in the end, he was preparing to flee to exile in Europe when he died of tuberculosis at 47. Yes, it is to his credit that he proclaimed that “slavery is the worst human indignity” and that he freed the slaves he himself had inherited. More generally, however, he offered freedom to slaves only on the condition that all men between 14 and 60 serve in his army.

The bottom line, in terms of history, is that the nation Washington helped found has gone on to prosper under democratic principles ever since. As Arana notes, Bolívar did achieve impressive military victories against the Spanish and did free a larger territory from colonial rule than did Washington. But Bolívar’s dream of a united Gran Colombia fell apart disastrously, and the various countries that comprised it have been struggled—with varying degrees of success—to retain democracy and raise the living standard of their populations ever since.

The point isn’t, or shouldn’t be, which of the two leaders was “better.” Although separated by just a few years, their times and places in world history are very different. But Arana falls prey to an annoying habit of many in academia and the media and, frankly, at NPR. She concentrates on a couple of points of comparison that are not really representative to the overall accomplishments of the two men.

Moreover, she applies a double standard in her comparison. One gets judged by his deeds, complete with blemishes. The other gets judged mainly by his lofty but failed goals.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

French Toast

Some have characterized the 2008 financial crisis—and the persistent economic stall that has afflicted much of the western world ever since—as evidence that capitalism doesn’t really work.

In the end, that’s not really an argument worth having. It simply can never be settled. One side in the argument gets to compare the real world to a non-existent theoretical world, which means it can never be proved wrong. Besides, no country in the world really practices pure capitalism, just as no country practices a pure form of any other economic system.

On the other hand, an argument that is worth having is one that compares one real-world case against another. It is always worth looking at which countries have successful economies, i.e. ones that benefit society broadly, and figuring out what they are doing right. The thing to be avoided is having someone imagine a perfect system (one that has never existed before) and try to implement it. That always seems to end badly.

As for those who think that European socialism is a great way to run an economy, well, I’m afraid there hasn’t been much to encourage them recently. About a year ago, François Hollande succeeded Nicolas Sarkozy as president of France. Hollande is a Socialist with a capital S, meaning he actually leads a party called the Socialist Party. His campaign promises were a virtual wish list for those who say the only way out of a recession is for the government to increase spending. He promised to raise taxes on corporations and wealthy individuals, to hire scores of thousands of new teachers, to lower the retirement age and to subsidize jobs in high unemployment areas.

After he slapped a whopping 75 percent tax on people earning more than one million euro, some of those people (most famously the actor Gérard Depardieu) promptly left for more tax-friendly territories. In March the government was forced to drop the tax when an administrative court advised that it was illegal. Then last month there was a fair amount of embarrassment when new rules aimed at uncovering tax avoidance turned up Hollande’s own budget minister—whose previous job had been tackling the country’s tax fraud—when he got caught lying about his Swiss bank account.

Meanwhile the International Monetary Fund has forecast that France will slip back into recession next year. Companies have stopped investing and, as The Economist reports, “Scarcely a week goes by without another factory closure or a redundancy plan.” Because the European Union has strict rules (on paper anyway) about deficits, France finds itself pleading not to be held to its 3 percent target for this year, having missed its target for last year (4.5 percent). Public debt is at 94 percent of GDP. Hollande’s poll numbers are at a record low, and his own industry minister (considered a left-winger) is now criticizing the government and calling for “fiscal responsibility.”

The point of all this is not that socialism doesn’t work—any more than the dead slow recovery in the U.S. is some kind of proof that capitalism doesn’t work. It just reinforces the point that governments are run by individuals and some individuals are better at dealing with the economy than others. President Hollande is clearly not very good at managing an economy, and that would probably be true no matter what political party he belonged to.

The real danger comes when leaders who are inept at managing the economy turn out to be very good when it comes to convincing voters that a bad economy is the best they can realistically hope for. The French at least seem to have copped on to their president’s ineptitude.