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

Aardvarks are solitary, industrious, sarcastic, eat termites, graduated from Duke, and watch Buffy obsessively - Encyclopedia Brittanica

My vacation totally sucked, until I met the cutest aardvark. Man, I wish I knew who that aardvark really was! - Eliza Dushku

Nobody likes a wise-guy aardvark. Why do you have to be such an annoying, objectively pro-statue, aardvark? - anonymous reader who sounds a lot like Dave Sim

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Saturday, October 04, 2003
A reader writes that I don't deal with Sullivan's enthusiasm about the Kay report with the seriousness it deserves. Here's the Aardvark's response, after he got over the giggling at the thought that anyone might actually take Sullivan seriously:

"The problem is that both the President and Sullivan are engaging in classic misdirection. The Iraq hawks such as Sullivan made a lot of claims with great confidence, and repeated them often, and rather viciously smeared and belittled everyone who disagreed. Those claims have now been proven false. Sullivan does not want to confront that. Hence, not much of a serious debate to have. What is worth discussing is that the war was based on clear claims, which if true could command support for a preventive war: that Iraq had a WMD program that threatened the US, that inspectors had failed to meet that threat, and thus war was necessary - if not now, then after the mushroom cloud. Kay's report is clear. There was no WMD program which posed such a threat, and the inspectors had successfully contained the threat. Lowering the bar retroactively is fine politically (dishonest, but to be expected), but it's important to not forget the claims made at the time."

Andrew Sullivan on the Kay Report: "Having read the report carefully, I'd say that the administration is vindicated in every single respect of that argument. This war wasn't just moral; it wasn't just prudent; it was justified on the very terms the administration laid out. And we don't know the half of it yet."

In other news, Brewers win World Series! Brewers win! No, don't bother clicking on the link - that's what the story says, I tell you. Okay, well, who are you going to believe, me or the liberal media? Of course the newspaper says that the Brewers didnt' even make the playoffs, but what would you expect from a liberal media deeply committed to the Brewers failure? They won't be able to hide truth for long, though. Once the Milwaukee fans come pouring into the streets, drinking beer and throwing bratwurst, even the liberal media will have to admit the truth. For now, you and I and all true Americans know the truth. Brewers, we salute you.

I suppose that this is one approach to the Kay report, what I guess we now have to call the Fox News Approach - simply lie, distort, or remain willfully self-deluded, confident in the fact that others will happily share your delusion. Reality is nothing but opinion, a report that says "we found no WMD" becomes one that says "we found WMD," and as long as you keep saying so then it must be true. So there you go, FoxBloggers - there's the talking points!

Friday, October 03, 2003
Sick as a sick dog that's sick, today. Blech. But in the dog bites man category entry today, we have this, via everybody. People for whom Fox News is the main source of information are alarmingly ignorant; they are by far the most likely to believe untrue things about the Iraq war (that the US has discovered clear evidence of ties between Saddam and al-Qaeda, that the US has found significant amounts of Iraqi WMD, and that the rest of the world largely supported the war). I actually suspect there are some cause and effect issues here, or selection biases - ignorant people, or else people who already believe these things, may have chosen to watch Fox rather than Fox necessarily making them ignorant. Whatever.

UPDATE: Gosh darn it, here I am sick and Blogger goes and eats half my post. Let's try again.

I'm sure the wingnuts are all set to blast this survey as an example of liberal bias. But before they go there, they should be careful. The survey did not ask about political leaning, only about viewing habits. And the survey didn't ask about opinions, only about facts - this is a knowledge survey, with right or wrong answers. Saddam may really have links with al-Qaeda, and Iraq may really have WMD, but that isn't what the survey asked. It asked whether the US had found proof, and the answer to that is, with no qualifications, no. Full stop.

In other words, the Fox viewers who answered yes to those questions are not saying they prefer George Bush to Ted Kennedy, they are saying that the Brewers won the World Series last year and that they really enjoyed the season premiere of Buffy last week. (As if.)

One other thought. I remember quite a bit of conservative (and, to be fair non-conservative) teeth-knashing and pious pontificating over surveys revealing that large numbers of Arabs and Muslims continued to doubt bin Laden's responsibility for 9/11 long after Americans (other than Laurie Mylorie) had been convinced. This was taken as evidence of Muslim backwardness, irrationality, stupidity, ignorance, failure to adapt to modernity, and much else. Would the pundits who made those arguments now care to interpret the findings of this survey?

Thursday, October 02, 2003
David Kay makes it official: no WMD in Iraq. This has been coming for so long that a lot of people will shrug this off as no big deal. But some of us remember listening to (and being lectured by) conservative critics of first UNSCOM then UNMOVIC for years about how we knew, we absolutely knew, that Saddam had WMD and the failure to find them was simply evidence of the inspectors' collective incompetence. And more of us remember the Bush administration's rhetoric in the runup to the war, which was overwhelmingly about the threat posed by Iraq's WMD and the inability of the UN to meet that threat.

Let's cut the conservative blather and smokescreens on this, okay? They were wrong. David Kay was their guy, he had every chance to find the WMD, he couldn't, and they have nobody to shift the blame onto anymore. The professional arms control community and the academics and analysts who put their confidence in the UN teams were right. That's the significance of the Kay report, full stop.

This matters, and matters a lot, not only for arguments about the war, but also for the future of national security policy, and international security arrangements. So before rushing into the next round of political warfare, let's all take a deep breath and give this the serious recognition that it deserves.

Don't miss this long overdue takedown of Laurie Mylroie's old collaborator, Judith Miller.

Among its main points:
"But Miller is not a neutral, nor an objective journalist. This can be acceptable, if you're a great reporter, "but she ain't, and that's why she's a propagandist," stated one old Times hand to me. Never mind that what Miller has done over time seriously violates several Times' policies under their code of conduct for news and editorial departments. One has only to read the long editors' note on the Wen Ho Lee case, whose principal author was Bill Keller (now the executive editor). Keller cautioned against over-reliance on partisan sources; and laid out what further measures could have been taken, and were not."

The article points out Miller's close neocon ties and her speeches in support of the war - where was the conservative outrage over a New York Times reporter taking openly political stands on the very issue that she's covering? - but that's not the main point of the criticism. More importantly for a journalist, "Times' editors have maintained that Miller has given the paper many "exclusives," and still deny that many of them were seriously flawed. But when her work is examined systematically, it is frequently found to be simply wrong on the facts. " And the piece gives a couple of examples to that effect - but any one of you faithful readers could no doubt provide your own.

And, for those Raines-bashers out there, here's the coup de grace: "There is a widespread perception among staff that her work has brought dishonor on the newspaper. The perception that she's protected at the top is widespread, and the reluctance of editors to penalize her adds to that, one of my sources said. ... One of the deans of political writers at the Times tells me: "It makes no sense [but] the only thing I can think of for that clap-trap going into the paper without adequate reporting safeguards -- maybe sniffing the Raines?" Once reporter Steve Engelberg (he is said to have spent a good portion of his time keeping Miller honest) left the three-dimensional investigative team of Engelberg, William Broad, and Miller, "she had a free ride under Howell and Boyd to do what she wanted. They protected her...."

C'mon Sullivan, c'mon Kaus - where's the outrage?

Al-Quds al-Arabi, the flagship paper of the more radical end of the new Arabism, responds to the Djerejian task force's report, or at least the New York Times story on the report, in its lead editorial today. As you might expect, the paper takes a dim view of the arguments for more "American propaganda" in the region - and expresses its surprise at the amount which the US already spends on "propaganda" in the Arab and Islamic world.

Here's the key grafs of the editorial: "This recognition [of the weakness of US public diplomacy] is the weakest point in the report, because it ignores the basis of the [Arab and Islamic] hostility and the real reasons that lead to it, which are reasons that can not be dealth with through propaganda or media campaigns, but which require fundamental strategic changes in American political and economic policies towards Arabs and Muslims and their issues. Arabs and Muslims do not hate the American people, it is American foreign policy which arouses their outrage... and which imposes repressive and corrupt and dictatorial regimes upon them. No matter how much money the US spends on .... public relations... or newspapers or media... it won't succeed in convincing Arabs and Muslims to support Israeli aggression or that American occupation of Iraq is the best model for the Iraqi people or for the region. The problem is with policies, not with the style of the propaganda, and a successful media requires credibility. The American policies in the region do not have credibility, and indeed are accused of hypocrisy."

Much of this editorial response is predictable, of course, but what's interesting is that the actual text of the report - contrary to expectations - actually says many of the same things. The report does recognize the centrality of policies to the problem, and explicitly calls for integrating policy and public diplomacy. The report does argue that public relations won't be enough, and it does argue that the problem is not one of American culture or the American people.

So here's a suggestion: make sure that Abd al-Bari Atwan and the editorial board of al-Quds al-Arabi receives a full, Arabic language version of the report (they could read it in English, no doubt, but don't you think that the translation would be respectful?), and that someone (the committee? someone from the State Department?) offers to meet with them to discuss it. How could this hurt? It might even help.

Some of you might recall that one of the reasons given by the Iraqi Governing Council for temporarily banning al-Jazeera and al-Arabiyya was their alleged ethnic incitement, which one member explained was because of their use of the term 'Sunni Triangle.' Well, time to ban the New York Times - an oped today contains the following sentence: "American infantry platoons in the Sunni Triangle should incorporate the growing Iraqi police force into foot patrols operating interdependently."

Oh, and yesterday, the LA Times published this inflammatory sentence: "There are daily attacks on U.S. soldiers in the Sunni Triangle, and supporters of Hussein are believed to be operating in the region."

On September 24, the Christian Science Monitor published an entire article under this headline: "Iraq's restive 'Sunni Triangle'"

It isn't just the print media, either. On September 18, CNN reported: "There was another attack on American soldiers in Iraq today. A convoy came under fire in a fierce gun battle in the Sunni Triangle area."

Maybe it's a liberal media thing? Whoops... on September 25, Fox News gave this report: "It is part of the Sunni triangle where the resistance has been the most intense."

Better ban them all.

Wednesday, October 01, 2003
Don't miss this interesting piece in TAP about the struggles of the Iraqi media and the perennial tension between promoting freedom and pursuing self-interest. No time to say much more about this now, just that it's interesting.

Well, I have to admit being pleasantly surprised by the Advisory Task Force's report. It almost looks like this was a committee which could not live up to what they were expected to deliver - that the reality they confronted forced them to write a very different report from the one which must have been anticipated. The whole thing, in fact, sounds very much like this Foreign Affairs article to which I've linked several times. Maybe those guys read it too?

Arab participants in the dialogues, you'll recall, complained bitterly at not being allowed to discuss concrete policy issues, a criticism which I've reported here and echoed. The task force itself clearly chafed against the mandate of not discussing policy, and the report states several times that policy can't be severed from the communications effort. The report acknowledges that "surveys show much of the resentment toward America comes from our policies," especially with regard to Israel (p.13). While respecting its mandate - public diplomacy, not foreign policy - the report states bluntly that policies have to be seen as part of the problem. The report clearly and effectively rejects the argument that the anti-American sentiment is rooted in culture - which surveys find to be quite popular. Indeed, it points out that American policies and values are not always in agreement, that US support for repressive regimes might be necessary on policy grounds but badly undermines American credibility.

The report sketches quite bluntly the collapse of international support for the United States, and links this both to American security and to American policy interests more broadly defined. It points out that "often we are simply not present to explain the context and content of national policies and values" - a point that I've made a number of times. The report warns that "Arab and Muslim public opinion can not be cavalierly dismissed," and - even more importantly, that "spin and manipulated public relations and propaganda are not the answer... Sugar coating and fast talking are no solutions, nor is absenting ourselves (from public debates)." For all the difficulties, the report argues, "America can achieve dramatic results with a consistent, strategic, well-managed, and properly funded approach to public diplomacy, one that credibly reflects US values, promotes the positive thrust of US policies, and takes seriously the needs and aspirations of Arabs and Muslims." It goes on: "we have failed to listen and failed to persuade. We have not taken the time to understand our audience, and we have not bothered to help them understand us."

The report emphasizes that television - satellite television - is the most important media right now for addressing the Arab and Muslim world, and that the absence of American perspectives from stations like Al Jazeera has badly hurt the US ability to explain its policies. The report desribes "one of our worst nightmares in the bodonvilles of Casablanca, where homes lacked plumbing but had hand wired satellite-TV dishes." They also recognize that Arabs are already bombarded with American sitcoms and TV shows, and American culture more generally; that isn't the problem.

The report also details the glaring inadequacy of the funding and personnel assigned to public diplomacy. The LA Times story on the task force gives a shocking detail, sourced to one member of the committee (Chris Ross, no doubt, since he said the same thing to Congress last year) - in the whole State Department, there are only 54 fluent Arabic speakers and only 5 fluent enough to go on TV - which believe me requires a whole different level of fluency. It calls for much, much more funding, but also for integrating the public diplomacy operation into the center of the foreign policy process, which really would be a radical change.

The report savages (by committee report standards) both Radio Sawa and the new proposed satellite television station. Radio Sawa, it points out, has never offered any evidence that it has any effect on political attitudes, despite a budget nearly half as large as that of the entire State Department Public Diplomacy International Information Programs. On the proposed Middle East Television Network, they report great skepticism from the Arab interlocutors, both with an American station and with any government-funded station. At a cost of $100 million - 40% more than the entire public diplomacy budget currently, the report suggests the need to carefully consider whether the low probability of a high payoff is really worth it.

There's a lot more in there, and I highly recommend it. What a pity - here I was all set to write a devastating takedown, and instead I find myself pretty pleased with it. But now the question shifts - how will the report be received? Will its recommendations be taken seriously? Will they be implemented? Will its authors be smeared as anti-American, or as naive liberal academics?

The Task Force headed by Ed Djerejian with the mandate of coming up with solutions to the problems of America's unpopularity in the Muslim world - basically, to fix US public diplomacy - is issuing its report today. Press conference in about 15 minutes, after which the report should be available. I'll comment on it - time allowing - at some length, I would imagine. For now, you can read about it in the New York Times or the LA Times.

I've had some unkind things to say about this task force over the last few months, but - as I wrote a few days ago - this is in large part born out of frustration at a missed opportunity, not out of a dismissal of the idea or the composition of the task force itself. I want the task force to come up with good ideas, which can be implemented and can make a difference. Given the current awareness of the problem in Congress, the media, the Pentagon, and elsewhere, this is really the best, if not the only, chance there will be to make meaningful changes. So I'll reserve judgement until I actually read the report, in the hope that the criticisms they were receiving as they went along actually made a difference in the final product.

UPDATE: the report, "Changing Minds, Winning Peace" is now up on the State Department site.

Tuesday, September 30, 2003
Totally useless plug of the day...but it's my blog so I can do it if I want to. Eric Alterman does it all the time, right?

Scott Miller's late lamented Loud Family, the greatest band that you've never heard, has a new DVD coming out in a few weeks, a rock documentary of the band's last tour. It is only available online at 125 Records. While you're there, you can pick up any of the Loud Family's extraordinary albums - I recommend, well, all of them, except maybe The Tape of Only Linda. But trust me: if you haven't heard Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things, then your life is just not complete (click here for Aeordeliria, my personal favorite song); same goes for the first four tracks on Interbabe Concern (here's a long version of Don't Respond) and Such Little Nonbelievers and Screwed Over By Stylish Introverts from that album. Check out Why We Don't Live in Mauritania from Days to Days, too.

I was just walking, minding my own business, when the cover of the current issue of The National Review jumped out and assaulted me. And what's the cover story? Jokester Jonah Goldberg informs us of his recent trip to "Hell" - Howard Dean's Vermont.

Now, regardless of the merits or lack thereof of Vermont (I've been there, it's quite nice. Lots of trees. Very pretty. Nice people. Good coffee, nice cheese and maple syrup, the occasional moose.), or of Howard Dean, it struck me as quite astonishing, to the point that I started laughing out loud, which can be quite embarrassing for an aardvark.

To wit, the same magazine that routinely describes today's Baghdad as just dandy, doing fine, really quite lovely this time of year, sees Vermont as Hell.

I'm sure this offers some kind of insight into the conservative mind. I'm not sure what, but it just must.

Check out this fascinating lecture by German-Egyptian scholar Amr Hamzawy on current debates among Arab intellectuals. Hamzawy argues that the main lines of argument which dominated the 1990s have broken down, and a reform-minded majority now confronts a more conservative position along a wide range of issues. The article traces these changes by looking at the debates about Colin Powell's Middle East Partnership Initiative, and more broadly about the question of whether American help should be accepted in the pursuit of desired reforms. The translation from German is a bit sketchy, but it's well worth reading for insight into some of these debates.

Monday, September 29, 2003
Kuwait, determined enemy of Saddam Hussein but friend to the Iraqi people, has responded appropriately and with a sense of shared sacrifice to the struggles of the new Iraq. Yes, Kuwait has stepped forward and offered to forgive the new Iraq the war reparations which used to be deducted from the oil for food program. What a wonderful spirit of Arab solidarity - nay, human solidarity - and a testament to a true friend of the United States.

Oh wait, my bad. Kuwait's Parliament actually responded furiously to an American request to forgive the Iraqi reparations. Well, I guess that's a victory for the relentless pursuit of selfish self-interest, or something.

I don't subscribe to Gallup. Anyone want to send the aardvark a copy of the Gallup poll from Baghdad?

UPDATE: thanks, helpful reader! I'll look forward to seeing it. By the way, isn't it just like William Safire to berate people for their non-reactions to a poll whose results have not yet been made public? Gee, Bill, I'm really sorry that I didn't comment on something that I haven't been allowed to see!

UPDATED UPDATE: Doesn't stop Juan Cole from offering his typically useful perspective: "Two recent opinion polls, one done by the Zogby group looking at 600 residents from four Iraqi cities, and another done of 1200 residents of Baghdad, have been trumpeted by Bush administration officials and by Rightwing rags like the National Review as containing good news for the US. The officials and rightwing journalists' use of these polls, however, has been sloppy and inaccurate, and a glance at the actual results does not suggest a rosy picture, according to Walter Pincus of the Washington Post. Pincus notes, "countrywide, only 33 percent thought they were better off than they were before the invasion and 47 percent said they were worse off. And 94 percent said that Baghdad was a more dangerous place for them to live, a finding the administration officials did not discuss. The poll also found that 29 percent of Baghdad residents had a favorable view of the United States, while 44 percent had a negative view. By comparison, 55 percent had a favorable view of France." The situation is even worse than Pincus suggests. For instance, on Sept. 14 on Meet the Press, US Vice President Dick Cheney alleged that Iraqis "including the Shia population" reject an Islamic government by a two-to-one margin. This finding was based on the four-city poll. But only one of the four cities was largely Shiite (Basra), which in my view skewed the results. (Basra has a relatively secular political tradition). The 2 or 3 million poor, relatively theocratic Shiites of East Baghdad were left out of the picture altogether, along with pious Shiites in Najaf and Karbala. If you add them in, the support for an Islamic Republic would go way up. And, it is not clear if the pollsters made the distinction between implementing Islamic law and rule by Muslim clerics. Probably only a third of Iraqis would want the latter. But a lot more probably want Islamic law. Pincus notes that 50% of Iraqis think US-style democracy would not work very well. The US administration shouldn't become convinced by this kind of shaky data that Iraqis are happy with the US occupation or want the kind of government that the US intends to impose."

The Times reports today that: "An internal assessment by the Defense Intelligence Agency has concluded that most of the information provided by Iraqi defectors who were made available by the Iraqi National Congress was of little or no value. In addition, several Iraqi defectors introduced to American intelligence agents by the exile organization and its leader, Ahmad Chalabi, invented or exaggerated their credentials as people with direct knowledge of the Iraqi government and its suspected unconventional weapons program, the officials said."

This isn't news, per se, as everyone involved in this issue over the last five years (or as any regular reader of the aardvark) already knew this. The defectors produced by the INC were well-coached to advance the neocon storyline, but rarely had anything to offer the weapons inspectors. Some never knew anything, but knew how to please their prospective patrons in the West. Some did have useful information, but once debriefed, they then began to embellish, to exaggerate their roles, to tell sexier stories (Khidir Hamza is the poster child of this pattern). And some were flat out political players, liars in the pursuit of the cause.

The uselessness of the defectors on which Cheney and Rumsfeld's teams rested their case is not news. This is why the CIA and DIA and the professionals in the Pentagon never were willing to sign on to the neocon propaganda. What's news is that finally, increasingly, fingers are pointing where they should be pointing: at Ahmad Chalabi and his neocon enablers.

The Joe Wilson affair is bad enough, though I have nothing to add on that front. But the real scandal has been this willingness to distort intelligence and lie to the American people and the world - to do absolutely anything, ethics or morals be damned - in order to get what they wanted. The two episodes seem like two sides of the same coin.

Sunday, September 28, 2003
This report on how Rumsfeld knee-capped the CPA would be unbelievable (from AFP, on Newsweek, on Yahoo, via Atrios)... if I hadn't already heard stories to this effect from people involved:

""So there they are, sitting in their palace: 800 people, 17 of whom speak Arabic. One is an expert on Iraq." What happened to the Iraq experts? According to Newsweek, Rumsfeld ordered 16 of the 20 Pentagon staffers picked to go to Baghdad be cut because they were "Arab apologists," had positive opinions of the United Nations or other opinions not acceptable to the neo-conservatives running the US government."

Thanks, neo-cons.

UPDATE: I just had to add this amazingly apt Buffy reference - from the Season 3 finale, from Xander after commenting on Angel's behavior - "Well, it's good to know that when the chips are down and things look grim, you'll feed off the girl you love to save your own ass" - says this: "Gosh, I'm really going to miss him when he leaves town." Let that be the epitaph of the neocons.