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"It is better to be drunk with loss and to beat the ground, than to let the deeper things gradually escape."

- I. Compton-Burnett, letter to Francis King (1969)

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- Aldous Huxley, "Time Must Have a Stop"







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Friday, 7 April 2006
Decisions: All the News That Fits, and Doesn't
Topic: The Media

Decisions: All the News That Fits, and Doesn't

At the end of the week, Friday, April 7th, the news was buzzing with the "big stories" that, in effect, sucked all the air out of the room, or distracted people from all else. For those who follow national affairs there were two big issues that were more than enough to consider. And it's too bad that these two items crowded out some other things that perhaps deserve attention. But there's only so much space available in the media, and you just cannot pay attention to everything. So the two big items were "it."

So first those two, and then some other matters.

The first, obviously, was the news that broke the day before. Had the president actually been involved in some political scheme to trash the reputation of a critic, a scheme that involved his approving selective release of carefully chosen classified information to one influential reporter on the condition she tell no one where she got the scoop? Was he authorizing a secret press operation to counter someone who exposed that the administration had been, at best, a bit misleading about the reason we needed to go to war immediately, to preempt what was clearly going to happen if we didn't? Did he know this "what might happen" was unlikely, that the information he was getting about Iraq working on a nuclear weapon or two was somewhere between ambiguous and just bogus? It more and more looks like this was the case.

The detail of his legal authority to instantly and impulsively have one of his people show a reporter key paragraphs from a classified document probably isn't the issue. He can almost certainly do that. He has the authority.

And no one is saying he authorized his minion to reveal that the pesky critic's wife was a covert CIA agent and set up the whole junket that uncovered the weakness in his evidence for war. That's not being considered, although it's possible. But that would require that you believe the president, to impugn the character of a critic, would expose a secret agent, blow her operation to trace traffic in nuclear material on the black market, and put her informants at risk for their lives. That did happen, and really, no one is suggesting the president would stoop to that to trash someone who noted what the president was saying wasn't exactly so. Some believe the vice president would, as he's the man who told the senator from Maine, on the floor of the senate, to go fuck himself, and who shot his elderly hunting partner in the face. You get a reputation for being a bit blunt and a tad careless and people assume the worst.

No, the issue is whether the president was jerking the nation around, authorizing "special information" be slipped to their plant, the ace reporter at the New York Times. The press is all over this. They don't like to be jerked around. And they assume the American people don't much like it either, save for those who see the president as a clever rascal who knows how to get what he wants and admire him for fooling all the people who think they're so damned smart. Friday's polling shows that group, those who think the president is handling everything just fine, thank you, is now smaller than its ever been. And the polling was done before it came out that the president had authorized this press gambit with their ally at the Times.

In short, the sixty-four percent who now don't exactly think the president can be trusted, the seventy percent who think the country is going in the wrong direction on most everything, see this "show a few secret paragraphs to Judy" plan to "get" Joe Wilson as pretty crappy.

And Friday there was the inevitable press briefing. The president's spokesman, Scott McClelland, took the heat - "The White House tried today to quell the furor over the leaking of sensitive prewar intelligence on Iraq, as President Bush's spokesman insisted that the president had the authority to declassify and release information."

No denial that the president and vice president did tell their man to show a few key paragraphs of a classified document to Judy Miller of the Times. They did. But they were allowed to. And it was for the good of the country. They wanted the truth made public. And of course the questions were why they decided to do it this way instead of just declassifying stuff, as they did ten days later. Why go after this one critic in such a secret way? The response? Can't discuss it. Ongoing investigation. Wouldn't be prudent. But it was legal.

Of course that wasn't the question, but everyone knows the drill, how to handle a difficult question if you're a politician or represent one. You acknowledge the question - "That's a good question, Fred" - and then you answer the question Fred should have asked. That usually works. But this time it was losing its charm.

Trouble. As Andrew Sullivan puts it here - "The bottom line is that the president clearly used his prerogative to classify and declassify intelligence data to leak selectively to the press to give a misleading notion of what his own government believed about Saddam's WMDs before the war. He was personally involved; and he tasked his veep to coordinate it. The most plausible explanation is that the president believes grave national security prerogatives can be used for political purposes and/or that he had something embarrassing to hide. Bottom bottom line: we can't trust him to be fully honest with us on one of the bases on which he led us to war. That matters, doesn't it?"

Maybe. Many don't seem to care. What does it matter now?

But more folks in the middle of the road are sensing they've been jerked around, and we're in a war that cost the lives of a lot of our guys, and maimed ten times as many, and has the world against us, and has cost nearly a half a trillion now, and is going badly, and the deficits are a mile wide and ten deep. Even if they think we must slog on and make the best we can out of it, this sort of dicking around with classified information to "get" a guy who pointed out some problems just seems to stink. It's the kind of thing junior high school girls do, spread rumors the cute new girl is "loose." Those of us who have family who have served in Iraq expect better. It rankles to have spiteful children in charge of things. One expects that those in charge are, at times, straightforward, thoughtful and serious. Oh, and competent too. This sort of things doesn't help.

The second big story was this - "A carefully constructed compromise on immigration reform apparently fell apart in the Senate today after Democrats fended off conservative Republican efforts to amend the agreement and an effort to cut off debate failed by a lopsided vote."

As discussed elsewhere, this was dead in the water Wednesday night, Thursday morning there was a miraculous bipartisan compromise and lots of backslapping, and then it fell apart. The compromise was pretty strange - immediately departing those who had been here less than two year, those who been here more than two years and less than five have to play fines, learn English and pay back taxes, and those who have been here longer get to apply for citizenship, and pay back taxes if any. And there's no way to tell who's who. But the compromise didn't fail because it was wacky. The senators with angry constituents held that it wasn't punitive enough, and really amounted to amnesty, and these folks had to be punished and sent away, all of them. If they want to come back in, follow the damned rules. The argument that we need these folks for the economy to work - no one wants lettuce to cost three hundred dollars a head - didn't survive the righteous.

This is going nowhere, and it was other big story at the end of the week, probably for two reasons. The first is that congress Friday stared their two week Easter recess, and this confirms that congress is useless. The second is there will be more demonstrations now, with everyone angry. Nothing was resolved. Thus this story is a classic "big trouble because nothing happened" story. What didn't happen is the story, not what did.

What items were pushed for the main pages by all this sneaky stuff and discord?

Well, there was this -
A U.S. Marine was shot and killed allegedly by an Iraqi soldier at a base near the Syrian border, the U.S. said Friday. The Iraqi soldier was then wounded by another American Marine.

... "An Iraqi army soldier allegedly shot and killed the U.S. Marine on a coalition base" near Qaim, the statement said. "The Iraqi soldier was shot by another U.S. Marine."

The incident is under investigation and no further details were released, the statement said.

"Just as we as American military men and women trust one another with our lives, we also trust our Iraqi counterparts, and that trust has not wavered," the statement added. "We will not let this isolated incident deter us in our mission to train and mentor the Iraqi security forces as they progress toward independent operations to ensure the security of their nation."

The U.S. command also reported three other deaths among American troops.
That puts us at 2,349 members of our military dead, and this one is not a good sign, particularly since the president the day before said this, again -
On the security side, our goal, our mission is to let the Iraqis take the fight. And as I - I've always been saying, they stand up, we stand down. That means, we train the Iraqis to take the fight to those who want to disrupt their country.
It seems in this case one of them did. Perhaps it was just one crazy guy. Let's hope it's not a trend.

But this didn't get much play, save here on the web.

Nor did this on the State Department falling apart. "The US is sending diplomats into Iraq, but refusing to give them military protection. No wonder Foreign Service morale is collapsing." This is an investigative piece that's pretty amazing. We'll win hearts and mind if we pull troops out of really hot spots and send in low-level guys from State - the experts and career folks just won't do it - unarmed and unprotected. They'll make nice and everything will be cool. One more theory. And those who don't quit at the State Department may burn Condoleezza Rice in effigy. But it's not in the news. Makes you kind of miss Colin Powell, as much as he messed up. But the crew in charge is full of theories about how things should work and what will happen if you just try. They're optimists.

Theoretical idealism, assuming the best, is fine. It's fine for bull sessions in the college dorm. In the real world, if you're young and new to the State Department, it's a bit scary.

What about the older, more experienced diplomats?

Well, Friday there was this in a minor Associated Press story -
U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad warned in an interview broadcast Friday that Iraq faces the possibility of sectarian civil war if efforts to build a national unity government do not succeed. He said such a conflict could affect the entire Middle East.

Khalilzad told the British Broadcasting Corp. that political contacts among Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish leaders were improving, but that within the general population, "polarization along sectarian lines" was intensifying - in part due to the role of armed militias.

Khalilzad warned that "a sectarian war in Iraq" could draw in neighboring countries, "affecting the entire region."
Will Condoleezza Rice call him on the carpet and rip him a new one for being so negative?

Why would he be so negative?

Maybe it's things like this - "Three suicide bombers blew themselves up in a coordinated attack against worshippers at an influential Shiite mosque in the Iraqi capital Friday, killing at least 78 people and injuring 154."

This is the most deadly of such bombings so far, and the worst day in Iraq in a year. But then, there was the leak story. And the immigration issues. An incipient regional war in the Middle East, involving all the major nations in the area? That could be a bit of a problem. But then if you assume the "best case" really will happen, this ambassador is just undercutting the administration. Why does he still have his job? (Look hard at the daily commentary on the right and you see that question, his loyalty, has come up.)

And of course, with all this news there's no room for thinking about Iran.

As mentioned before in these pages, there was that thing in Foreign Policy, Joseph Cirincione, the nuclear expert at the Carnegie Endowment, saying this -
For months, I have told interviewers that no senior political or military official was seriously considering a military attack on Iran. In the last few weeks, I have changed my view. In part, this shift was triggered by colleagues with close ties to the Pentagon and the executive branch who have convinced me that some senior officials have already made up their minds: They want to hit Iran.
And Friday in the Financial Times of London we see this -
Iran has prepared a high-level delegation to hold wide-ranging talks with the US, but the Bush administration is resisting the agenda suggested by Tehran despite pressure from European allies to engage the Islamic republic, Iranian politicians have told the Financial Times.

A senior Iranian official, Mohammad Nahavandian, has flown to Washington to "lobby" over the issue, according to a top Iranian adviser outside the US. However, the Iranian mission to the United Nations insisted he was in Washington on private business.

Iran's willingness to engage the US on Iraq, regional security and the nuclear issue, is believed to have the approval of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. It represents the most serious attempt by the Islamic republic to reach out to the US since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

But the White House insisted on Thursday that its own offer of talks with Iran, extended several months ago by Zalmay Khalilzad, the US ambassador to Baghdad, was limited to the subject of Iraq.

... The Bush administration is resisting pressure from its European allies to engage Iran directly over its alleged nuclear weapons programme rather than leave negotiations to the EU3 of France, Germany and the UK. Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German foreign minister, raised this issue with Mr Hadley this week, and Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, is understood to have spoken about it with President George W. Bush.
We don't talk. We threaten. As in this -
... Nicholas Burns, under secretary of state, yesterday accused Iran of being "expansionist", "a central banker of terrorism" and directing attacks on US citizens.

Last week, the UN Security Council issued a mildly worded presidential statement calling on Iran to resume its suspension of fuel cycle development. Russia blocked tougher language. John Bolton, US ambassador to the UN, told reporters yesterday the next diplomatic step was to pass a legally binding "chapter seven" resolution requiring Iran to suspend its nuclear programme.
This is not looking good, but not exactly in the news, or at least not getting top billing. We've just talking nuclear war here.

Fred Kaplan here in Slate, in a detail analysis, calls it "A Global Game of Chicken."

The central idea -
The growling and brandishing have grown intense lately, in part because of the U.N. Security Council statement, passed by consensus on March 29, giving Iran 30 days to suspend its enrichment of uranium. Or else what? It's unclear. Sanctions would ordinarily be the sequel to such a declaration; but Russia and China have said, for now, that they won't support sanctions.

So, the Bush administration is sending signals - to the Iranians but also to the Russians, Chinese, and Europeans - that it might enforce the deadline in its own, more forceful manner if the Security Council goes wobbly. And the Iranians are sending signals back that they have their own array of options and therefore won't succumb to pressure.

That's the game of chicken. Two cars speed toward each other, head-on, late at night. There are three possible outcomes. One driver gets nervous and veers away at the last second; he loses. Both drivers veer away; the game's a draw. They both keep zooming straight ahead; everybody dies. Back in the early '60s, the flamboyant nuclear strategist Herman Kahn wrote that one way to win at chicken was to detach the steering wheel and wave it out of the window; the other driver, seeing you can't pull off the road, will be forced to do so himself. The dreadful thing about the current showdown between America and Iran is that both drivers seem to be unscrewing their steering wheels; they're girding themselves so firmly in their positions - the Americans saying Iran's enrichment is an intolerable threat to security, the Iranians saying it's an absolute ingredient of national integrity - that backing down is a course neither is willing to take.

There's another dangerous thing about chicken. One or both drivers might intend to veer off, but they know they don't have to until the last second. They might accelerate, to step up the pressure, as the cars approach each other; miscalculations - of time, distance, and intentions - could ensue; a collision could happen by accident.
That's about it.

Is there a way out of this?

Maybe -
Christopher Hitchens has suggested in these pages that Bush go to Tehran, with a full package of inducements to join the world, in the same spirit that Nixon went to China. In the long run, this may have a better chance than military strikes of turning the country in the right direction.

It's unpleasant, but is there any choice? It's worth emphasizing that Iran does not have a nuclear weapon now, nor is it likely to for at least three years. A U.S. military attack would unleash a wider war - which might be acceptable if it snuffed out Iran's nuclear program, but by most estimates it would merely set the program back a few years. Meanwhile, it would only stiffen popular support for Iran's fundamentalist leadership and alienate the vast majority of Iran's population, which for now holds a favorable view of America.

Would a diplomatic initiative be productive? Maybe not. But a military strike might be completely counterproductive: It would probably impede, but not halt, Iran's nuclear program; it would enflame anti-American terrorism; and it would strengthen Iran's regime.
A surprise "come join the world" Bush trip to Iran? Fat chance. He doesn't think that way. And it seems we don't want him to. That's why we reelected him.

So what else got short shrift in the news?

Well, as Kevin Drum over at the Washington Monthly reminds us, President Bush believes he has the right to eavesdrop on calls between the United States and foreign countries at his sole discretion - without a warrant, without probable cause, and regardless of the requirements of federal law.

Can he do the same for domestics calls? Drum reminds us the head of the NSA, General Michael Hayden, said yes they could, any calls at all, but they decided, themselves, "that's where we've decided to draw that balance between security and liberty." Nothing could stop them from listening to every call from everyone to anyone, no law, not the useless fourth amendment or any of that stuff, but being the good guys they are, the felt that would be wrong. (The discussion is here.)

But they seem to be rethinking that -
Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales left open the possibility yesterday that President Bush could order warrantless wiretaps on telephone calls occurring solely within the United States - a move that would dramatically expand the reach of a controversial National Security Agency surveillance program.

... "I'm not going to rule it out," Gonzales said.

... Gonzales previously testified in the Senate that Bush had considered including purely domestic communications in the NSA spying program, but he said the idea was rejected in part because of fears of a public outcry.
Now they feel things have changed? There'd be no outcry now if they admitted they have been listening to everyone's calls and reading their email and all the rest? Maybe so. There so much other news that the idea that they're be "no outcry" could be spot on. This became a minor story this week.

It's amazing what slips by when there's only so much room for the news, and only so many things one can deal with simultaneously. And there's a political advantage in that.

__

A Footnote on Editorial Decisions

Rick, the News Guy in Atlanta, wondered why this item was never mentioned in these pages, what he calls the story of "Miss American Horseface's reportedly being accused of voter fraud in Florida."

Yes, the acerbic banshee of the right, Ann Coulter, who calls liberals traitors, calls for the assassination of certain Supreme Court Justices, for the New York Times building in Manhattan to be blown up (her way of kidding around) allegedly faked her address and voted in the wrong precinct for some reason, and is in big trouble.

Rick asks - "Is this a case of me missing the item, or of you not knowing about it, or of you just taking the high road?"

The reply -
Is it taking the high road when you have been following the story since it first surfaced last week and just don't find it that interesting or important? March 27th she was out here and spoke in a two-way thing, sort of a debate, with Al Franken, up on Mulholland at that big Jewish University just east of the 405, and from everything I've read on that (didn't pop for the fifty bucks to drive up and watch) she was her usual appalling self, and no one much cared. She just doesn't matter anymore. The Time Magazine cover last year was when she peaked, and since then no one much cares about what she thinks, and she's slid from anyone's consideration. She's dropped to a third-string sub on the right side of things. Time Magazine helped her jump the shark? Something like that.

Discussing this would be like writing something on Pete Rose's current thoughts on off-track betting. So she screwed up - and is still a self-righteous voice for outrageous but silly crap. Yeah, yeah. Who cares? She's on Fox News less and less, actually almost never now. The right has moved on. And Al Franken now knows she's not a draw and cannot be used as a foil for pulling in a ticket-buying audience.

Fame is short in America. She had her run. This story is now a mere curiosity.

Harriet-the-Cat and I had an editorial meeting or two. This item got spiked. No room for it. Low priority.
Rick -
This is indeed good news! I've been so overwhelmed recently, I hadn't even noticed her fall, even as I was never quite sure what was propping her up in the first place. In fact, I only heard about her election problems early this week, I think on Franken's show when he held a lackluster contest that invited suggestions on what her community service should be.

In conclusion, I must commend you both on your sound editorial judgment - assuming, that is, that Harriet wasn't urging that the decision go the other way.
Nope. Harriet agreed. There's only room for so much news.

Posted by Alan at 23:05 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Saturday, 8 April 2006 06:42 PDT home

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