Abu Aardvark

The battle's done, and we kind of won, so we sound our victory cheer - where do we go from here?

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Why shouldn't (America) be exempt from some wacky international treaty on women or aardvarks? - Jonah Goldberg, July 26, 2002

The aardvark appears to be the ancestor of all mammals, including humans. - the BBC

I discovered your blog after you attacked me in it, and I enjoy it. Don't agree with hardly any of it, but it's well-written and witty- Martin Kramer

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Wednesday, August 27, 2003
 
Michael Ledeen is, still and always, insane. Today, he begs Bush to get back to war, because the US can't win in Iraq unless it defeats all of the terror masters. In Ledeen's universe, we shouldn't have just invaded Iraq this spring: "Had we proceeded quickly against the terror masters in Baghdad, Tehran, and Damascus (with explicit warnings to Riyadh that they would be next if they did not stop financing both terrorist organizations and the network of radical jihadist schools and mosques that inculcated fanaticism around the world), we would have had considerable international support." Uh-huh. The rest of the world opposed our war on Iraq because we didn't also want to invade Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. Honestly, comment fails me.

That's right, folks, the aardvark has been rendered silent, believe it or not, and will remain so until Monday. Enjoy your weekends, everyone!

 
I'm often asked why I don't recommend MEMRI as a window into the Arab media. After all, there aren't many ways that non-Arabic speakers can get access to it, so why not take advantage? For me, the problem isn't that MEMRI is run by Israelis - it's that their agenda, more or less explicitly, is to highlight the worst and ugliest of the Arab media. They generally don't mistranslate - I haven't seen any instances of that - but their selections and emphases give a misleading picture of the state of Arab public debate. For example, here are the headlines of the last three MEMRI special reports:
Aug 28 SD# 559 - Columnist in Leading Egyptian Government Daily: U.S. Forces in Iraq Strip the Flesh from Their Victims' Corpses

Aug 27 SD# 558 - Hamas Leader Rantisi: The False Holocaust - The Greatest of Lies Funded by the Zionists

Aug 26 IA# 146 - The New Iraqi Press and the Jews

Reading these, you would get the sense that the Arab public debate these days is dominated anti-Semitic and anti-American ravings.

Just for contrast, here are the articles that I printed out from my daily rounds of the Arabic press online. It isn't a scientific sample, but neither is MEMRI's - I try to print out everything dealing with Iraq, with relations with the West, or with the condition of the Arab media, since those are my main areas of interest.

"The media attack on the Arabs.. to where?" by Amir al-Halou (al-Zaman). Looks at the attacks on Arabs and Arabism in the Iraqi media, and worries that this new, overenthusiastic trend could really weaken Iraq's position relative to its neighbors. He warns against spreading unnecessary hatreds, and about the precedent of Arabs turning on Arabs.

"When Arabs hate their Arabness," by Salah al-Din Hafez (al-Ahram). The author worries that the calls for Arab reform are morphing into a kind of self-hating discourse, which can only weaken authentic calls for positive change. He worries that the political divisions between Arabs are deepening into cultural and ideological divisions, spreading hatred among natural brothers, and - most alarmingly - are increasingly being seen not only between Arab regimes (which have always bickered) but also on the streets . And he warns that such divisions only serve the enemies of the Arabs. Looking at occupied Iraq, he applauds the end of a monstrous regime that pretended to be Arabist, but is deeply concerned that the new Iraq has become the ground for a fierce struggle over identity and belonging, in which Iraq risks losing its Arab identity.

"Israel and its postponed plan to change the Middle East," by Atif al-Ghamri (al-Ahram). Compares current American plans to reshape the Middle East to the ideas advanced by Shimon Peres in the mid-1990s, and by Netanyahu after Peres, and finds a lot of similarities. He attributes much of the American agenda to the permanent Zionist interest in achieving hegemony over the region.

"Deficiency of Sunni Arab representation in the 'ethnic' Ruling Council," by Haroun Mohammed (al-Quds al-Arabi). Denounces the ethnic composition of the Council, and Bremer's method of appointing it, and above all the idea of using ethnic criteria to decide. But if the Council has to be made up that way, then Sunni Arabs are underrepresented, and this will be a problem.

"The ruling council and the Arabs," by Adnan Abu Zayd (al-Zaman). Explores the Arab refusal to recognize the Council. Do the Arabs really think that denying representation in international bodies really helps the Iraqi people, asks the author? And he calls on the Arabs to live up their responsibility to rise above politics and do what is best for the Iraqi people.

"Contributing to Baghdad's crime," by Hazem Saghiyeh (al-Hayat). Argues that Bush has helped to create the very problem that he once warned about, helping radical Islamists get a foothold in an Iraq long closed to them. But at the same time, Arabs should admit that Saddam's practices took him all too close to bin Laden's nihilism, and the convergence between his form of tyrannical Arabism and bin Laden's repressive Islamism is all too close. Arabs should be more honest about this, even if they enjoy Bush's clumsiness and failures.

"Great honorific names in our cultural heritage and daily life: ending the roots of authoritarianism in our culture means getting rid of totalitarian elocutions," by Hassan Hanafi (al-Zaman). A densely argued critique of Arab culture, typical of Hanafi, which near as I can tell seems to argue for the symbolic importance of the use of honorifics and grand titles for explaining the wider deficiencies of Arab political life.

All in all, a diverse grab bag. Interesting arguments, on a range of themes. Now, if I were a betting aardvark, which of these essays would I bet would show up on MEMRI? Well, my money would go on the guy who talks about the Zionist plans for hegemony in the region. And the rest of the much more interesting debate just disappears out the window - not because it isn't important to Arabs, but because it doesn't serve the goals of MEMRI. My point here is to show, again, how little resemblance the real Arab media bears to common assumptions and stereotypes. Sure, the nasty stuff is out there, but it's not all that's out there. And that's why I don't recommend MEMRI.

(note: the last paragraph has been slightly edited)

 
Just came across this essay by Justin Lewis from about a month and a half ago. Setting it against Josh Chafetz's "straight from the blogs" Weekly Standard cover story on the BBC is instructive. Chafetz begins with his ideology, and goes in search of ammunition. He finds a few bits and pieces, and uses them to piece together the storyline he wants to tell and his readers want to hear. This is political journalism, not particularly good nor particularly bad.

Lewis, on the other hand, is a social scientist (though, judging by his excellent book Constructing Public Opinion, he might question that label). To assess the same question - was the BBC biased against the war - he and a team of researchers conduct a comprehensive analysis of coverage of the war by the BBC and the three other major British broadcasters. Among the indicators they use are the proportion of government sources, the proportion of official Iraqi sources, the proportion of independent critical voices, the number of times the TV news portrayed the Iraqi people welcoming US and British troops, reporting of Iraqi casualties, and reporting of Iraqi WMD.

The results? They find that across the board, the BBC tended to be more pro-government than the other stations. The BBC was twice as likely as ITN and Channel 4 to quote official British sources, and more likely to use British military sources. It was less likely to quote Iraqi sources, and less likely to quote independent sources ("Channel 4 used such sources 3 times more often than the BBC, Sky twice as often."). The BBC had more or less the same ratio of "happy Iraqis" - about 3 times more likely to show that than protesting Iraqis. The BBC had fewer reports of Iraqi casualties: 22% of its reports on the Iraqi people mentioned civilian casualties, compared to 30% on Sky and 44% on Channel 4.

In other words, when you actually do some falsifiable social science research, it turns out that the conservative talking point on the BBC is - surprise! - exactly the opposite of the truth. I'm not really familiar with the Oxblog lads, but it appears that some of them are going to grad school. Let's hope that they pay attention in their courses on research methods, and don't let the fun of political journalism overwhelm the rigors of social science.

 
Begging to Differ (via Calpundit) writes on the recent Arab music awards - democracy in action! Satellite television uniting the Arab consciousness! Arabism against patriotism! All that, and cheesy music to boot. Check it out.

Tuesday, August 26, 2003
 
Crazy busy today, probably will be tomorrow, and then I'll be out of town at the APSA meeting until Monday. So consider this the age of the aardvarkian hibernation, or something, unless Dan Drezner has convinced the APSA council to provide free blogging stations.

Until then, I'll leave you with some interesting notes from an Arabic language essay by Ibrahim Ghurayba on al-Jazeera, on the topic of the Arab satellite stations (how's that for self-referential?). Ghurayba points out that there are now more than 50 satellite stations, so it hardly makes sense to generalize about them based on just al-Jazeera. For example, the amount of time devoted to news coverage ranges from 11% to 40%, with much of the balance taken up by cultural programming (no, I don't know where his numbers come from - he doesn't say). He also claims that the coverage devoted to "local and Arab affairs" ranges from 55-84%, and claims that the satellites are the primary source of news and information for 73% of Arab viewers (once again, he doesn't give sources for these numbers - which is a pity, because it would be interesting to know, and most of the satellite stations closely guard their audience stats).

Ghurayba's main point, though, is to explore the evolving methods by which Arab governments are attempting to regain some control over these satellite stations, and how the satellites are struggling to maintain their independence. He offers this vivid description of the condition of Arab journalists working at the satellites after years of navigating government censorship: "we are like animals at a small zoo... suddenly released into a wide open field." He carefully balances a pessimistic and rather harsh reading of the conditions of Arab journalists today against what he sees as the very real impact that the satellites have had in breaking down the government monopoly over information. Rather than simply issue a verdict - governments will dominate the satellites, or the new media will inevitably break down state hegemony - Ghurayba portrays this as very much a battle which will continue for years.

Ghurayba quotes a typical Arab critic of the satellites, Mohammed Ma'awad of Kuwait University, to the effect that the satellites, despite their variety, incline towards the superficial and the sensationalistic, preferring angry exchanges over dialogue. But he then challenges the critics, asking whether they can deny that the satellites have lifted the lid on many formerly closed political files and revealed their truths to the masses, or that they have placed pressure on governments to change unpopular political positions. He credits the satellites for contributing to resisting the influence of Western media, and praises their coverage of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, and of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Once again, he leaves the impression of an emerging media which could be a powerful force for change, but which hasn't yet really delivered.

Overall, it is a sober assessment, both critical and enthusiastic, which does a nice job of sketching the emerging role of this new Arab media. Interesting stuff.

Monday, August 25, 2003
 
For an impartial referee on the debate from the last post, let's turn to the new report from the International Crisis Group. From the Executive Summary:

"The CPA until now has retained quasi-exclusive authority, with Washington’s approach translating into an unwillingness to involve seriously either the Iraqi people or the international community. Since its early missteps, the CPA appears to have engaged in some salutary self-correction and has registered some real successes. But fundamental problems remain. Policing troubles are mounting and they have not been addressed with policing solutions. Instead, coalition troops unsuited to the task have been called in, leading to inevitable mistakes at the cost of both innocent lives and Iraqi national pride. Basic infrastructure has not been rebuilt. Iraqis lack jobs and subsistence income. The CPA lives in virtual isolation, unable to communicate effectively with the Iraqi population. It has yet to correct some of its most counterproductive decrees such as the disbanding of the entire 400,000-man army and the large-scale de-Baathification. Meanwhile, the occupation’s U.S. face has heightened suspicion and anger in Iraq and parts of the Arab and Moslem worlds where many view it as part of Washington’s agenda to reshape the region.

"Opposition to the foreign occupation is becoming stronger and more violent. It comes in various shades: Baathist loyalists; nationalists; Islamists, who for the time being are predominantly Sunni; tribal members motivated by revenge or anger at the occupiers’ violation of basic cultural norms; criminal elements; Islamist and other militants from Arab and other countries. At present, the vast majority of Iraqis give no indication of supporting armed resistance; but, dissatisfied with current conditions and lacking loyalty to or trust in a central authority, many are not willing to oppose it either. Unless the situation rapidly is turned around, the distinctions between the different opposition groups could fade; resistance could become politically organised; radical Shiites could join the fray; and increasing numbers of Iraqis could relinquish their faith in institutional politics and look upon the resistance with greater – and more active – sympathy."

The Iraq described in the report comes from Marshall's planet, the one that the neocons like the guy from the last post don't live on.

Unlike some of the more hysterical critics, the ICG report actually has some concrete proposals for where to go next:
"The horrific bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad on 19 August 2003 has focused renewed attention on the question of who, if anyone, is capable of governing Iraq in the current highly volatile environment and, in particular, on what ought to be the respective roles, during the occupation period, of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), the Interim Governing Council and the United Nations. This report proposes a new distribution of authority between the three – potentially acceptable to the United States, the wider international community and the majority of Iraqis – which would enable Iraq’s transitional problems, including the critical issue of security, to be much more effectively addressed.

"The problem of who is to govern Iraq, and how, will persist until national, democratic elections are held and power is fully transferred to a sovereign government. But the conditions for such elections will not exist for some time, possibly as long as two years: the security situation has to stabilise, a democratic constitution has to be adopted, voters have to be registered, and – arguably – at least the beginnings of a pluralistic political culture have to visibly emerge. In the meantime it is not realistic, on all available evidence to date, to expect the CPA to be capable by itself of adequately caring for the population’s essential needs and successfully ruling Iraq. Nor is it realistic to imagine that Iraqis will view the present Interim Governing Council as a credible, legitimate and empowered institution.

"The most drastic solution to this dilemma is presently unimaginable: for the occupying powers simply to walk away at this stage, leaving a fully empowered Interim Governing Council the only player on the field during the transitional period. What is more realistic to contemplate is the rebalancing of the respective roles of the CPA and the Interim Governing Council, with steps being taken to improve the latter’s representativeness, vest it with more real power, and improve its executive capacity to deliver – and in this report we argue that this should be done. But more than that is needed: in particular some broader international legitimisation of the transition process, and that means a greater role for the UN in the governance process."

I haven't had time to really read all of their proposals carefully yet, so I'll refrain from comment for the time being. But what I've seen on first glance does sound like a realistic starting point, based - like all ICG reports - on solid reporting on the ground rather than on press reports and ideological preconceptions.

 
I don't usually pay attention to these intra-blog debates, but this one is amusing. One of the eager young neocons at Oxblog is picking a fight withJosh Marshall. David Akesnik tries to make the case that his optimism over Iraq has been vindicated against Marshall's pessimism: "In fact, the standard I chose -- that of hearts and minds -- reflected a continuation of my prior interest in the Arab world's reaction to the invasion of Iraq. Most experts predicted a widespread backlash against American imperialism throughout the Arab world. However, OxBlog insisted firmly and explicitly that the popular reaction in the Arab world would amount to nothing more than scattered and short-lived protests. ...OxBlog chose the hearts-and-minds standard because of my initial conclusion that the United States' reservoir of good will on the Arab street was far greater than most talking heads cared to believe. While critics mocked the phrase "liberation" during the opening weeks of the war, those who had faith in Iraq resentment of Saddam Hussein ultimately had the final say on the matter."

And then, incredibly, he concludes that on this standard, he wins the debate. And his evidence for this bold claim of victory? Well, um, I guess we have to take his word for it. He presents it as if this were self-evident. Which I suppose it is to him; I've noticed that in the hawkish blogs, an entirely different reality has been set in place which is different from the reality familiar to those outside the closed circle. In that world, the US really has established security throughout the country, the economy is up and running, Arab public opinion has embraced the "liberation" of Iraq, escalating violence is a sign of American success, and grateful Iraqis have embraced the Council of Bremer. It's a nice world, I suppose. People must be happier there.

Evidence? We don't need no stinking evidence.

I guess I'll have to award this one to Marshall on a TKO... without swinging a punch.

 
Oh, and speaking of things which the American occupation could do which undermine the values for which it claims to stand, could you really do worse than this? I mean, seriously: recruiting Saddam's secret police to help you out? As you sit in Saddam's palaces, setting up a state media, and use Saddam's prisons as holding pens? And this is supposed to help the United States win Friedman's big old war of ideas, showing how different America is? Gah. I understand pragmatic responses to difficult problems, but you've got to keep the big picture in view. Anyway, this ounds like one more of Ahmad Chalabi's bad ideas to me - I discussed Chalabi's connections to the old mukhabarat a few weeks ago, you might recall.

 
Tom Friedman is getting weirder. I'm sure everyone has already seen his Sunday column, but here are the key grafs again:

"We are attracting all these opponents to Iraq because they understand this war is The Big One. They don't believe their own propaganda. They know this is not a war for oil. They know this is a war over ideas and values and governance. They know this war is about Western powers, helped by the U.N., coming into the heart of their world to promote more decent, open, tolerant, women-friendly, pluralistic governments by starting with Iraq — a country that contains all the main strands of the region: Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds.

"You'd think from listening to America's European and Arab critics that we'd upset some bucolic native culture and natural harmony in Iraq, as if the Baath Party were some colorful local tribe out of National Geographic. Alas, our opponents in Iraq, and their fellow travelers, know otherwise. They know they represent various forms of clan and gang rule, and various forms of religious and secular totalitarianism — from Talibanism to Baathism. And they know that they need external enemies to thrive and justify imposing their demented visions."

So, two quick points, and then a caveat. First, who exactly are these critics who are so nostalgic for pre-war Iraq? Can you show me one? As far as I can see, pretty much everyone agrees that Saddam's regime was horrible, and disagreement proceeded from that point of consensus. But has there been some revival of Baathist nostalgia that I've missed out on? Or is Friedman doing one of his patented shifts again, setting up straw men so that he can claim the reasonable middle?

Second: is THAT what the war was "really" about? Funny, I remember somebody saying that it was about the threat posed by Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and the risk that said weapons might find their way into the hands of terrorists - that September 11 awakened the world to the reality of this new, urgent and existential threat against which extreme measures were justified. Oh, but that was just George Bush and Dick Cheney and Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice, not Tom Friedman and certain elements of the blogosphere... have to remember who really matters here. My mistake.

But a caveat: for all of his silliness, Friedman is right about certain elements of the big picture. For better or for worse - and irrespective of intent - Iraq has become the proving ground for competing ideologies and ideas and visions of the future (and tolerance for pain and willingness to inflict it, alas). And that's exactly why the American approach to Iraq is so frustrating, and why I agree with Friedman (believe it or not) on that particular critique. America needs to demonstrate the value of democracy and a free press? Okay, then don't set in place an illegitimate and powerless council of exiles, and don't censor the emerging Iraqi press. America needs to integrate the new Iraq into a global community? Okay, then, don't spitefully keep the UN out, reject a role for the International Criminal Court, and monopolize economic opportunities (which would give other countries a stake in the success of the venture). And so on.


 
The power of blogs, in a really, really insignificant way: a bunch of people have written in to tell me that Franken's book has not yet officially been released, but was rushed forward in some markets to take advantage of the publicity. My market obviously isn't one of them. Mystery solved! In my defense, though, I'll point out that the one piece of "research" that I did was to check Amazon to see if the book had been published, and according to Amazon it was available and shipping in 24 hours. Which, of course, is why I always shop from Amazon and not from my local B+N, which mainly has good coffee.

Sunday, August 24, 2003
 
Okay, this isn't really my area of expertise, but this was kind of weird. I was in Barnes and Noble on Saturday with Missus the Aardvark and the cub, and I was trying to explain to her about Fox's lawsuit against Al Franken's Lies and the Lying Liars That Tell Them. And I thought that showing her the book might help improve the quality of the story. Only... we couldn't find one. Not in New Releases, not in Current Affairs, not nowhere. As we were discussing this, some guy walking by pulled up short and said, "Al Franken? That's what I'm looking for - where is it?" And then another woman said, "oh, I was looking for Al Franken's book. Did you find a copy?" I shrugged, and we went and got coffee, and while we were eating our chocolate chunk cookie, I overheard yet another couple at the next table talking about the Franken book and how they couldn't find it. Now, if I were a real journalist like Josh Marshall or, um, Susan Madrak or someone, or I actually cared about this stuff, like Atrios, I might have gone and asked the B+N manager what was going on. But I didn't. So the question remains: did B+N sell out of the book, or did they for some bizarre reason not stock it? I dunno. Just funny.


Experiment!