Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Bad reporting from NPR, good news from Iraq (no, really)

Listening to NPR recently I heard two stories that are evidence 1) that media outlets such as NPR can be careless in their reporting, seemingly too eager these days to report the latest example of misconduct and malfeasance by the US in Iraq; and 2) that US forces are accomplishing some good things in Iraq.

Yesterday NPR featured a story by Tom Bowman with the headline (on their website): "Thousands of U.S.-Bought Weapons Lost in Iraq." The lede seems to confirm that at least 300,000 weapons purchased with US money have gone missing: "The U.S. military can't account for hundreds of thousands of weapons purchased to arm some 325,500 Iraqi security forces..." The written version of the report is somewhat more alarming than the original audio, however. Bowman's report was introduced by Melissa Block who told listeners that a new report indicates "...only a small percentage of the Iraqi weapons paid for by US taxpayers are registered by their serial numbers. That means, they could easily end up in the hands of insurgents." That's still pretty alarming, but not being registered by serial number is a far cry from being missing.

In fact, it doesn't appear they're missing at all. As quickly made clear in Robert Siegel's interview with Stuart Bowen, the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, the agency that performed the audit of the weapons procurement program, the audit found that although only 2.7% of the 370,000 weapons purchased were properly registered by serial number in a DOD database, the vast majority of those weapons were accounted for as issued to Iraqi units or in warehouse. Property books did show a discrepancy of 14,000 weapons, almost all 9mm pistols, that were purchased but not in warehouse or with Iraqi units. 14,000 missing pistols is bad, but it's less than 4% of the total number of weapons purchased, and not 300,000 as the lede claims. The fact that most of the weapons, missing or not, were not registered by serial number also seems like a mistake, but it's unclear from either NPR's reporting or the SIGIR report how having a serial number in a database would prevent a weapon from, as Melissa Block said, "easily end[ing] up in the hands of insurgents." NPR's reporting in this case was very sloppy, and painted a dire picture of a program that in fact doesn't seem to be working that bad at all, all things considered (no pun intended).

(NPR is also guilty in this case of sloppy webmastering: the link they give on their site to the SIGIR report takes you to a quarterly report, which contains only a short summary of the weapons procurement program audit. If you want to read the entire audit report--where you will find all the information in the NPR piece--you need to go here, and download report SIGIR-06-033.)

Second, there's this NPR report by Jamie Tarabay on the Iraqi town of Saab al-Bur. US forces moved out of the town last month and handed security operations there over to the Iraqi police. A wave of sectarian violence broke over the town in a matter of days, and 90% of the town's residents packed up and left. This month US troops are back in the town, and the violence appears to have settled down. I'm a staunch opponent of the war, and believe that the presence of US troops in Iraq is doing more harm than good. I have no idea of the larger context of the events described in the report, or how the reporter found the story, but assuming the facts are as presented in the report, here's an example of Iraqis better able to live normal lives because US troops are there to keep order. Proponents of a US withdrawal from Iraq need to keep such stories in mind. The US has a moral obligation to the people of Iraq to help them out of the mess we've played such a large role in creating. A moral policy toward Iraq cannot begin and end with bringing US troops home.

Let me end this over-long post by bringing up one more NPR story--one that I found very informative. Guy Raz is doing a series of reports on rhetoric of the Global War on Terror (Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism [GSAVE], World Conflict Against Islamo-Fascism [WCAIF], Clash of Civilizations [CoC], Armageddon [OhCrap]). His first report was on the word 'jihad,' and how its use to describe terrorists almost automatically puts the US at a disadvantage in convincing Muslims that the war on terror is not a war on Islam. A political scientist at Johns Hopkins, Mary Habeck, has been urging politicians to use the term 'jihadists' to describe Islamic terrorists, arguing that today the term means only one thing: "Violence and violence alone to attain their ends." It will not surprise anyone familiar with the background of most Bush administration foreign policy types that Prof. Habeck's background is in studies of Russian and the former Soviet Union, not the Middle East or Islamic studies. Other experts, such as Douglas Streusand, Islamic historian and professor of military history at American Military University, UCLA law professor Khaled Abu El Fadl, and NPR's own commentator Anisa Mehdi (way back in January, 2005) disagree. They propose a different word--'hirabis,' which translates as 'brigands' or 'sinful warriors'--instead of 'jihadists' to refer to terrorists. It's a good idea, I think. Raz's report is quite interesting, and deserves a listen (or a read).

After doing some Googling of her name, Habek seems to me like another in a long line of 'experts' on the Middle East who have the ear of American policy makers, but who do not have sufficient training in Islamic history and languages to warrant their status as experts. And my cynical thought is that focus groups have told the Bush administration that 'jihadists' works best at scaring the American public, and that they'd much rather do that than use a word more likely to make the interests of the country clearer to Muslims. I would go a step further and say that there's something about the conservative Republican ideology that revels in the gratuitous insult, even if its counterproductive to the policies they claim to support, but that's another post.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Peace-niks must fight on

This article from the New York Times this morning, ''Antiwar' and Other Fighting Words,' repeats a theme common in media coverage these days: that Democrats are haunted by ghosts of their 1970s anti-war activism:
Democrats are torn between two visions of their history. Some potential candidates in the 2008 Democratic primary and many liberal activists argue that the Republican responsibility for the Iraq war has, in effect, freed the Democrats from Mr. McGovern’s legacy. They say the 2006 elections will provide a mandate for a new antiwar argument: that troops can be pulled from Iraq in order to shore up American security elsewhere in the world.

Other strategists and political scientists argue that the Iraq war has given the Democrats a different opportunity to lay to rest their McGovernite image, in part by rejecting calls for a quick withdrawal in Iraq.
There are two things wrong with this. The first is idea that the Democrats actually have a peace-nik hippie legacy. While it's true that modern-day peace-niks, if they choose to endorse one of the major parties, generally choose the Democrats over the Republicans, the major conflicts of the 20th century all began under Democratic administrations: Wilson in WWI, FDR in WWII, Truman in Korea, Kennedy and LBJ in Vietnam. Republicans for most of the twentieth century were the party of isolationism--leaving to the Old World to fight on its own the conflicts that were the product of its own moral turpitude. Indeed, as the article notes, peace-loving pre-Reagan Republicans tried to win votes by disparaging all those "Democrat wars." The McGovernite ghosts the party struggles with today are not the product of its actual history. Rather they were conjured up by years--a couple decades--worth of Republican rhetoric and media activism, at first carried on mostly under the radar of major media outlets, but eventually seeping into the national political consciousness to such an extent that their existence can be taken for granted by, for example, political writers from that paragon of the liberal media, the New York Times.

We might all be better off today if the Democratic party actually had a McGovernite policy legacy, as opposed to the faux-history created by the conservative backlash movement. American wars since WWII have all been fiascos on various scales: the failure to take seriously the threat of Chinese intervention in Korea; the quagmire of Vietnam; the various deployments against leftish governments in Central America that combined brief and poorly executed (yet ridiculously triumphed) uses of US troops with decades of 'low intensity' tragedy for citizens of the regimes we supported or sought to undermine; the invasion of Iraq in 1991 that left Saddam in power, the oil wells burning, and the shiites in the south, who we had urged to rebel, to die unaided.

The fiasco of the current Iraq war has been bad enough long enough that it has allowed Democrats an opportunity to get out from under the stereotype of effete hippiedom the conservative backlash has saddled them with. But the equation 'Democrat = Hollywood liberal, Taxachusetts, latte-drinking snob, flower child not serious about national security' is an irrational collection of cultural talismans, and it cannot be countered through rational argument and carefully calibrated policy positions. Only a movement similar in duration and sophistication to the one that created that equation, and plastered it all over the nation's public sphere, can do that. We may be seeing the beginning of such a movement recently, but it will probably take a long time--or a major national crisis--to reform the nation's political consciousness. If the Dem's win control of one or both houses of Congress in the upcoming election, even if they win the White House in 2008, their media campaign has to continue well beyond those points.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

"Dominant Capital" and Mid-Eastern Conflict

While browsing a recent issue of Fernand Braudel Center's quarterly REVIEW, I came across an intriguing article by scholars Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler, which led me to the extensive website of their writings: www.bnarchives.net. They write a lot about global capitalism, arguing that far from endangering the profits of large capitalists, the Iraq War and other Mid-Eastern conflicts have been engineered to raise oil prices and generate economic stagflation. In their view, the interests of "dominant capital" (i.e. the most powerful capitalists at any given time) can sometimes be directed towards "breadth" (expanding production or mergers/acquisitions) and at other times towards "depth" (squeezing the economy to gain differential power by losing less while everyone else loses even more, especially through oil price spikes). They identify a "petrodollar-weapondollar" coalition, which they have been writing about for a few decades now, while today this might seem quite a bit more plausible given world events. Anyway, I do recommend their writings, especially if you like lots of charts and graphs (cue ambivalent_maybe?) and enjoy following a fairly dense analysis that is quite insightful and original. I haven't made up my mind yet about their point of view, but it is making me think a lot, and I would be interested to know how others react to their work. On their website, they have a wide variety of writings, some brief articles from widely-read periodicals (see this Tikkun article for a brief overview of their perspective) to lengthier outlines of their theory of capitalism and power, as well as its application to real-world cases (including an entire book on the Global Political Economy of Israel), and even an angry reaction to what they see as the plagiarism of their work by the left-wing Retort collective. For those readers who are interested in theorizing capitalism--or just want to understand the crazy world we live in--I highly recommend the work of Bichler and Nitzan as food for thought.