Fiddling While It Burns

Afghanistan: respecting expertise, seeking knowledge

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Photo: Department of Defence

I’ve got a piece published on Crikey. An extract:

Part of the problem is that military expertise is simply not accepted as real expertise. Current and former military personnel are treated as biased and unreliable. Consider Senator Bob Brown’s admission on The 7:30 Report last night to having never sought a Defence briefing on Afghanistan to confirm his strongly held position; similarly, an academic recently told me that Lateline was irresponsible for interviewing David Kilcullen on Afghanistan, because his position makes him biased. To some, the only time soldiers can be telling the truth is when they’re criticising the war or their superiors.


Celebrating Cronkite while ignoring what he did


Sometimes I forget just how beautifully Glenn Greenwald can describe the problems with mainstream journalism. From

“Media stars will spend ample time flamboyantly commemorating Cronkite’s death as though he reflects well on what they do…. In fact, within Cronkite’s actual moments of real journalism one finds the essence of journalism that today’s modern media stars not only fail to exhibit, but explicitly disclaim as their responsibility.”

It’s a pretty narrative story so I recommend reading the whole thing.

In the post-Bush world, many have been just a little too keen to move on, without reflection or reform. The fact is, everything that happened in the last 8 years was due to the failure of those who should have done something about it, from Congress to the courts to the electorate.

Since when do we argue over whether torture is wrong?

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Note: this was originally posted as “Just Briefly…”, before being expanded.

I know I’m hitting the Tom Tomorrow comics pretty hard lately, but as I said to my sponsor, just one more and then I’ll give it up for real.


On a separate but related note, never, ever Google “comic” and “torture” together. Even with SafeSearch on.

From Salon editor-in-chief Joan Walsh:

Friday April 24, 2009 13:05 EDT

I can’t believe it’s not torture, redux!

I was tempted to write to Clark Hoyt, the admired public editor for the New York Times, after reading Friday morning’s convoluted piece, “Obama Resisting Push for Interrogation Panel.” It contains this remarkable weasel-wording:

“Although a full-scale independent inquiry now appears unlikely anytime soon, the Bush administration’s use of waterboarding and other techniques that critics say crossed the line into torture could still be examined by a variety of Congressional panels in addition to the Senate Intelligence Committee.”

Why was the issue framed that way, as though the question of whether waterboarding is torture, and torture is illegal, is still a matter of debate? And will it ever be New York Times style to flat-out say that?

I want to strongly recommend Salon’s coverage of the Bush administration’s torture programs. Salon made history by pushing the Abu Ghraib story when the New York Times wasn’t too fussed about it; they continued to be strongly critical of the Bush administration while other news sources stuck to the spurious model of objectivity where journalists repeat uncritically whatever the government says; they give a home to the angry but rigorous writing of Glenn Greenwald; and they’ve pioneered a new journalism where the audience are treated with respect and offered the chance to view primary sources.

Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld introduced systematic torture to the CIA and American military. They did it despite strong evidence that it was ineffective, and they did it in such a way that many innocent men were caught up in their net, and killed. In 1974 the New York Times and the Washington Post were willing to go hard on Nixon, but only Salon truly held Bush to account.

For ANZAC day, here’s something to think about: torture gave us bad intelligence, increased the risk to our troops, and made us the villains. And if the mainstream media and the political elite they have allowed to co-opt them get their way, the perpetrators will get away with it. Lest we forget.


Here is a little review of how this debate continues to fail to evolve in conservative circles.

The end of the road for the Tamil Tigers?

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Well, no, probably not.

From the ABC:


Sri Lanka has ruled out an amnesty for the Tamil Tiger leader as troops press a final offensive against the cornered rebels despite a global outcry over the plight of civilians trapped in the war zone.

President Mahinda Rajapakse said Velupillai Prabhakaran, whose Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) are fighting to prevent complete defeat after being pushed into a narrow stretch of coastal jungle in the north-east of the island, would not be pardoned.

“The LTTE leader has spurned the possibility of pardon by us,” the president’s office quoted him as saying. “He must now face the consequences of his acts.”

However, two senior Tiger officials surrendered on Wednesday as the military reported that more than 100,000 civilians had escaped from rebel-held territory and sought shelter with troops since Monday.

The LTTE, or the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eeelam, has been around since the ’70s, and is one of the pioneers of terrorism as we know it today. They invented the suicide belt, and are the world’s most prolific suicide bombers. They’re old-school terrorists, based on ethnic nationalist aspirations rather than the militant Islamism we’ve come to associate with terrorism in recent years.

The case of the LTTE is instructive in the way terrorism is covered by the Western media. Although attacks are dutifully reported, they are not accorded the kind of profile Islamic terrorism is. Because of this, terrorism has become associated with Islam, which in itself makes the media feel like Islamic terrorism is more worthy of attention. Combined with the average Westerner’s ignorance of the nationalist origins of Islamic terrorism, a large proportion of the electorate now thinks that terrorism is primarily religious in nature, providing a nice cover for nationalism to go on stirring up trouble.

In the case of the LTTE, in the case of Palestinian terrorist groups (and Israeli recalcitrance), the Kurds, the Basque in Spain and France, of course the IRA, and any number of other cases, it is the idea that a separate identity requires a separate state that causes bloody, fruitless conflicts.

News media consider themselves objective, but this slow reframing over decades demonstrates the perils of just reporting “the facts” based on “news value”: there is no objectivity in such reporting, because journalists report based on their interpretation of news values, and when this is done without the willingness to actively interpret and think about the context of the events they are witnessing, they deceive as much as they inform.

The objective truth is that nationalism must end to prevent these conflicts; how can a doctrine claim to be “objectivity” when it stops reporters from saying this?

As for the Tigers themselves, it’s doubtful whether any purely military defeat can end the tenacious Tamil separatist movement. The tragedy of rebel groups is that they never die, just go on and on destroying lives while never getting closer to their goals.

A cartoon


This cartoon does more to explain how an “objective” press can be complicit in deceit than I could in ten thousand words.


And here’s another…


The Media and the Politics of Diplomacy

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Moments after the handshake, the President began to wonder if he might have caught diplomacy. Photo: HO/AFP/Getty Images, via TimesOnline.

Moments after the handshake, the President began to wonder if he might have caught diplomacy. Photo: HO/AFP/Getty Images, via TimesOnline.

From the CNN blog politicalticker:

April 20, 2009
Posted: 11:20 AM ET

(CNN) – President Obama’s friendly encounter with Hugo Chavez at the Summit of the Americas will be used as propaganda by enemies of the United States, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said Monday.

Gingrich, the second high-profile Republican to criticize the president’s now-famous exchange with the Venezuelan leader in as many days, said countries hostile toward America will view the cordial moment as evidence the United States accepts Chavez as an acceptable leader.

“Everywhere in Latin America, enemies of America are going to use the picture of Chavez smiling and being with the president as proof that Chavez is now legitimate that he is acceptable,” Gingrich said in an interview on NBC’s The Today Show.

When Barack Obama won by a massive margin, after having so publicly declared his intention to open dialogues with countries that had been frozen out as America’s “enemies”, I guess I kind of assumed that would just happen, and it wouldn’t be such a big deal.

Manichean media narratives have made diplomacy incredibly difficult since World War II. Since Reagan, it’s been a paradigm of US politics that presidents can’t talk to anyone who’s been designated as a bad guy. Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Syria, Libya, the Cold War, Latin American socialists – all these foreign policy challenges have at some point been massively complicated by the US just flat-out refusing to talk to the other party. Ironically, Reagan, whose overblown rhetoric cemented this tendency, was the ultimate hypocrite on the matter – think Iran-Contra.

Foreign policy makers aren’t idiots. They know that no matter how bad the other side are, it’s always more productive to keep talking. The reason they don’t is all about posturing – the thought is that it will play well in the media to be a strongman, whereas no one wants to be a Jimmy Carter. However, over time the American habit of acting against perceived enemies before talking to them has had many very negative results, most notably turning Castro Communist.

Chávez is the ultimate example of the United States making its own enemies. Prior to 2002, he was a populist, yes, and a socialist, but it’s not the Cold War, and Venezuela is no USSR. The chronic problem of South America is the control of massive proportions of resources by tiny elites. The people of Venezuela, 43% of whom were then living in poverty, chose redistributive socialism, in the form of Hugo Chávez. The Bush administraion, however, was run by Cold War stalwarts, and they weren’t about to allow socialism to take root in America’s backyard (wow, that’s some backyard, isn’t it?)

Immediately efforts began to undermine Chávez. In 2002, the Bush administration had at least advance knowledge of, if not involvement in, the attempted coup against Chávez. Afterwards, Chávez was radicalised, leading to a lot of inflammatory statements and an attempt to create a political axis in opposition to Washington.

The change of presidents is a blessing in this case; this is now an enmity which can be undone by simply being reasonable. However, the ballistic conservative reaction to this one small overture shows that the idea of moral absolutism in diplomatic negotiations is not dead yet, and reshaping the way America deals with the world will be  a rocky road.

Australians Not Racist; just don’t like people of different ethnicities

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Cartoon: The Age.

Cartoon: The Age.

From The Australian:

Rising tide of boatpeople: another vessel lands as Indonesia says it is powerless to help

Paul Maley and Stephen Fitzpatrick | April 16, 2009
YET another group of asylum seekers has reached Australian waters – the fourth in a fortnight – as Indonesian police yesterday admitted they were powerless to stop a rising tide of boatpeople heading for our shores.
Navy patrol boat HMAS Albany intercepted 49 suspected asylum seekers – thought to be mostly Afghan men – two nautical miles off Ashmore Reef, 610km north of Broome at about midday yesterday.
It was the sixth boat to arrive this year, and the 13th since September, when the Rudd Government announced measures aimed at softening Australia’s treatment of refugees from the hardline approach adopted by the Howard government.

This story was followed in a matter of hours by news that the boat had exploded, killing at least 5 refugees, and West Australian Premier Colin Barnett accused the refugees of deliberately pouring petrol over the deck of the boat. It is unknown at this stage whether he did this specifically to give me a sickening sense of déjà vu.

Note the tone of the article. A “rising tide”; “boatpeople”; arriving because of the “softening” of policies. See here for photos from the website with some very loaded captioning. The Australian has decided it’s time to bring White Australia back, despite its only having been gone eighteen months. The Coalition agrees; they’ve already launched an attack on the government which is prefigured on their own policies in government not being evil.

The smuggling of refugees to first-world nations is habitually framed as a national security issue. That, however, is complete and utter rubbish. There have been no terrorist attacks by refugees. If a terrorist organisation wants to get someone into a Western nation, putting them in the hands of people smugglers is about the least efficient and least reliable way to do it. It’s not worthy of discussion. It is to racists what the Jack Bauer argument is to authoritarians – a pathetic smokescreen.

Racism in Australian society is a reality, and a powerful social force. For years racism has been a driving force in Sydney whites fleeing to Brisbane and Perth. We had race riots in Cronulla, and every Australia Day vibrates with ugly undertones.

The king tide of Australian racial fear, however, was in November 2001. A string of rapes by Lebanese attackers had been spun into a siege mentality by extreme right-wing talkback radio host Alan Jones the previous year, never mind the vast numbers of rapes committed by white offenders. Refugees arriving by boat, always a fact of life for a wealthy nation at the end of a long, impoverished island chain, suddenly seemed like a vast, terrifying threat. The Tampa election went to John Howard in appreciation of his barbaric and outlandlishly expensive anti-refugee policies, while Australia’s international prestige sank to new lows.

Things have calmed down since then, and refugee stories are now usually covered within a humanitarian frame rather than an ugly xenophobic one. Before the 2007 election, the vile policies of Phillip Ruddock’s Department of Immigration, Multiculturalism and Indigenous Affairs (John Howard thought all brown people should come under the same minister) had been quietly neutered, and the ridiculous Pacific Solution abandoned.

Hopefully, we won’t have to fight the whole stupid thing out again.


Photo: Helena Janson

Somalia: Quixotic defiance by those the world betrayed

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Very lucky Somali pirates are taken alive by French Commandos. Photo: ECPAD / French Ministry of Defence / AP by way of Time

I have to admit, a big part of me is vulnerable to super-awesome SF gun-slinging. This inner ten-year-old is thrilled when French Commandos storm a yacht and release the prisoners, or Navy SEALS use simultaneous sniper shots to take out three pirates at once.

There’s a lot of people around who let this sort of thinking colour their adult perspectives. They buy into cruise missile diplomacy, where all problems can be solved with an air strike or some gunmen in the right place. It doesn’t work, of course, but it can give politicians a poll bump, or dominate a news cycle just long enough – and it made for some of the best episodes of The West Wing.

Forces deployed to assist in hunting pirates. Not pictured: the Team America theme playing endlessly in everyone's heads. Photo: Reuters / Time.

Forces deployed to assist in hunting pirates. Not pictured: the Team America theme playing endlessly in everyone's heads. Photo: Reuters / Time.

This sort of thinking can easily get out of hand when it comes something like the piracy in the Gulf of Aden. Take them out! Let’s roll! And so far, the “solutions” have been along those lines, send more ships to patrol, use hostage rescue tactics. The problem is, however dangerous you make piracy, it will never get as dangerous as… being from Somalia.

The whole thing almost bears a Marxist interpretation. The impoverished people of Africa, living next to a shipping route through which flows much of the world’s wealth, rise up to seize the means of production. And then ransom it back, but no application of Marx to the real world has actually worked since Marx himself.

Somalia is a disaster of Clinton’s cowardice. After the events chronicled in the film Black Hawk Down (every inner ten-year-old’s favourite), Clinton took the most politically expedient route and quit immediately. For over a decade, no further serious attempts were made to fix the place, until Ethiopian troops advised by US Special Forces invaded to “aid” the Somali “government”.

The wrong lesson was learnt from September 11. The real lesson is that the world is a single interdependent organism in which the nation-state is an entirely unsuitable model for governing. If you allow Afghanistan to become hell on earth because you’re not Afghani, eventually hell boils out and affects rich white people. Sadly, the lesson world governments learned is that they should use violence against potential threats to rich white people, wherever they can be found.

Still, in the remarkable lack of triumphalism in the Obama administration, I see real hope. From Time:

The celebrating over Sunday’s daring rescue of Richard Phillips, the ship captain held hostage by Somali pirates, didn’t last too long at the Pentagon.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates acknowledged on Monday that rescuing hostages — in this case, Navy snipers took out Phillips’ three captors — is only a stopgap way of dealing with the pirates now sailing the Gulf of Aden. “There is no purely military solution to it,” Gates told an audience of the Marine Corps War College in Quantico, Va. “It is a serious international problem, and it’s probably going to get worse.”
Gates made it clear that the real solution isn’t on the high seas. Instead, it’s back along the Somali coast in the impoverished villages and towns that the pirates call home. “As long as you’ve got this incredible number of poor people and the risks are relatively small,” he said, “there’s really no way in my view to control it unless you get something on land that begins to change the equation for these kids.”

Is he suggesting that there is some sort of context outside of right-and-wrong to the pirates’ actions??? Sometimes it seems like an Obama presidency is barely better than a Bush presidency. But that is really, really untrue.

Thief of a Nation

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Thief of a nation. Photo: SMH.

No doubt the word Fiji, invoked in the offices of the Department of Foreign Affairs, draws sighs of distress and sharp breaths of horror. A relatively peaceful nation of less than a million should not be keeping anyone awake at night, but two Australian Prime Ministers in a row with designs on global significance mean that a nation oscillating between democracy and military dictatorship on our doorstep is not going to be ignored.

From the Sydney Morning Herald:

Australia leads sanction call as Fiji sacks judiciary
Jonathan Pearlman Foreign Affairs Correspondent

April 14, 2009
AUSTRALIA is leading a regional push to oust Fiji from the Commonwealth and the Pacific Islands Forum after the military regime dissolved the constitution and sacked the judiciary.
The regime has intensified its media crackdown since declaring a state of emergency on the weekend. Yesterday it moved to deport an ABC reporter, Sean Dorney, and two New Zealand television journalists over objections to their coverage. A Fijian television journalist was last night arrested after interviewing Mr Dorney.
Fijian police and government officials have been previewing and censoring the local media, which led to the Fiji Times leaving holes in its Sunday edition and Fiji One cancelling its Sunday night news broadcast.
The Foreign Affairs Minister, Stephen Smith, yesterday branded the regime, in effect, a “military dictatorship” and called for further measures to pressure the military ruler, Frank Bainimarama, to restore democracy. “We have been pushing Fiji to come back into the democratic group of Pacific nations,” he said. “If that require sanctions, so be it.”

By inclination, I am pro-intervention when it comes to human rights. As a young bloke I was so impressed by the Australian Army’s achievements in East Timor, I actually joined the damn thing. However, I am not a believer in the power of sanctions.

Sanctions work well in a media context. They create the appearance of firm action in defence of a people, while costing the sanctioning nation little. For that reason, editorial writers love them – it is very Serious and Responsible to call for governments to Maintain Pressure, and just as Serious to say that military force should not be used. Politicians love them, because they seem resolute and it takes a lot longer than the news cycle will pay attention to realise they don’t work. Sanctions are a lovely halfway point where you can feel like you’re doing something without actually doing anything, like buying a Lance Armstrong bracelet so everyone knows you disapprove of cancer.

Economic sanctions are very nearly within the sphere of consensus. I, however, propose a different standard solution.

One becomes a dictator because one loves power, but one stays a dictator because the Sword of Damocles demands it. Or, if you prefer, once you’re riding the tiger you pretty much have to stay on it. Sanctions lay waste to nations but only make dictators more paranoid, and what’s the only place to be when thousands of people want to kill you? Why, ruling a nation with an army to protect you, of course. We’ve seen from Iraq that war is a worse option than the dictator himself. As much as it outrages anyone’s sense of justice, the best way to get rid of a dictator is to let him get away and enjoy a nice quarter-century of retirement.

Dictators are thieves who steal nations, but as a world-class museum might tell you, some things are so precious that when they get stolen you just have to buy them back.

Cartoon: SMH.

Cartoon: SMH.

Regular readers, were there such a thing, would notice I’ve been delinquent in my posting lately – assignments due. A half-finished post on the Pakistani terror cell is passed out on the floor of my drafts folder, perhaps never to awaken, because rather than conveniently publishing racist stories on the matter, the English tabloids took the interesting route of not even mentioning this quite important story. An hour or so trawling through their websites was interesting, in a horrifying way – it’s kind of like if instead of The Daily Telegraph being Australia’s number one selling newspaper, Picture Magazine was. PHWOARR!!1

Anyway, I’m writing several posts in the evening while I spend a week working. I can’t post from my work computer, so I’ll put them all up at once. Ahhh, science!

Getting rid of Gitmo

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IntLawGrrls has a great post with some really in-depth policy thought about the imminent closure of the Guantánamo Bay. It’s a report from a recent panel entitled “Closing Guantánamo: Legal and Policy Issues”. This is what the blogosphere really brings to the mediasphere that traditional news media is incapable of: real experts, writing like experts, and giving any citizen the chance to gain real knowledge about a subject, the contribution to the health of democracies that the inverted pyramid, news values and the need to “excite” readers made newspapers incapable of.

He acknowledged that some subset of detainees cannot be tried (because any evidence against them was obtained by torture or mistreatment, any crime for which they might be tried was enacted after they acted, or because there is simply no or inadequate evidence available against them) but remain dangerous. For this group, the U.S. should establish a preventive detention regime that is based on the law of war (to which GTMO doesn’t come close to complying). This paradigm must reflect the model of a communal camp setting with access to the outside world, etc.

Can you see the difference between this and the rest of what you’ve likely read about Guantánamo Bay. Bay? Pragmatism, relatively free of ideology, and free of the partisan gamesmanship that so characterises debates about the GWOT. As I said in my previous post on the subject, Guantánamo tends to either be vehemently supported, dismissing any criticism as treacherous, or opposed just as vehemently without offering any considered alternatives. It’s the nature of these early years of a new form of political interaction, but it’s certainly nice to see some clarity of thought.

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