Wednesday, May 02, 2018

Recent Writing: Trump's 'Fake News' Mantra Metastasizes; Iran Gets Ready; Macron in Washington; Syria Strikes; Cuba's New President

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

My 40 Years Covering War and Migration

As I prepare for this conference on April 13 and 14 in Princeton, N.J., I am looking back on 40 years covering war and migration ... 

I started my reporting career in the 1970s covering immigrant communities in the DC area for The Washington Post, from Vietnamese boat people to Salvadoran refugees, which is how I wound up as Central America bureau chief for the Post in 1980.

Then came my time of wars, in Central America during the first half of the 1980s, and in the Middle East from 1985 to 2005.

Along the way, there were certain fundamental issues that kept staring me in the face, and that I realized very few Americans understood, especially when it comes to the root causes of wars and migration.

One is the insidious nature of military occupation, an evil borne by both the occupied and the occupier. In 2011, as the 2012 presidential elections approached, Newsweek produced this brief film clip to explain:

A lot of Americans have trouble understanding, as well, the vital importance of extended families – what we call tribes, clans, even mafias – in most of the world's cultures. “Chain migration”? “Family reunification”? In "Summer of Deliverance: A Memoir of Father and Son," published 20 yrs ago, I reflected on Americans who “have” families, and people in the rest of the world who “belong” to them.

To break through those barriers of public obliviousness takes a huge amount of work, which is one reason I admire the new book on Syria, "No Turning Back" by Rania Abouzeid, which I reviewed for The New York Times.

But the frustrations for a reporter are enormous, as I found reviewing three novels by war correspondents in 2003. 

In 2015, after the world was moved to tears by photos of little Alan Kurdi washed up on a beach in Turkey, CNN asked me to reflect on the refugee crisis. It's a short clip, but I said about as much as I could then, or now.

Finally, I suspect some people who have seen the invitations to Salon on Stockton have been wondering what a book about the Civil War has to do with a discussion of modern wars and migrations. Quite a lot, in fact. Americans have forgotten most of their "little" wars and even some of the bigger ones. Who remembers that in the 1980s and 1990s we carried out military actions against one enemy or another, covertly or overtly, almost every year. I know, because I was on the ground during many of those operations watching people dying and bombs falling, and discovering when I was back in the States that people turned the page or changed the channel as soon as they were told "mission accomplished."

But there is one war that Americans never forget, and that is the Civil War, and it was the direct outgrowth of one of the most hideous forced migrations in history: the transport of slaves from West Africa to the Americas. By the late 1850s, many in the American South were anxious to reopen that trade, which had been recognized as a holocaust by most civilized nations and banned half a century before. In point of fact, profiteering American ships had never stopped carrying slaves—Old Glory dominated the market—even though by mid-century most of the African captives were destined for Cuba, where the economy was built on the principle that you could work a Negro to death, because he was easy to replace with cheap new imports.

Eventually under pressure from the British the U.S. Federal government tried to interdict some of that traffic, and some of the criminal ships were brought into Southern ports. But Southern grand juries refused to indict as, increasingly, they refused to acknowledge the authority of Washington. For economic and what they claimed were moral reasons, the secessionists were pushing to reopen the slave trade with Africa, and used it as a wedge issue to tear apart the country.

This is the description in "Our Man of Charleston" of one of those slave vessels at a moment when, for many who had talked about re-opening the trans-Atlantic slave trade as a theoretical possibility, its horrors suddenly were put in front of their faces:

"THERE, RIGHT IN CHARLESTON HARBOR , was the horror that the South did not want to imagine—a slave ship. Vomit and urine and feces and blood had seeped deep into the raw wood of the sunless, slapped-together slave decks in the hold, staining them indelibly with filth. Cockroaches by the millions seethed among the boards, and clouds of fleas and gnats rose up from them. The stench that came from this vessel wasn’t the smell of a ship full of cattle and horses, but that peculiar smell that surrounds humans, and only humans who are very afraid and very sick or dying or dead. And in late August 1858, when the water in Charleston Harbor was as still and flat and thick as oil, and the air was stifling hot and heavy, that hideous odor issued from the brig called the Echo captured off the coast of Cuba a few days before."

Of the 455 Africans taken on board the Echo near Kabinda on the African coast, more than 100 perished during the weeks at sea, and were thrown overboard. "The shark of the Atlantic is still, as he has ever been, the partner of the slaver trader," wrote a British editorialist. And even after the survivors were taken off the ship they continued to die every day. They were housed temporarily in what was then the still-unfinished Fort Sumter out in Charleston Harbor, and many were so weak they could not even step over the lintel. The U.S. marshal at Charleston, who previously had been vocal in his support for reopening the slave trade with Africa, felt differently after watching over some of its victims for three weeks at Sumter. "Thirty-five died while in my custody," he wrote to a friend, "and at one time I supposed that one hundred would have fallen a sacrifice to the cruelties to which the poor creatures had been subjected on board the slaver. I wish that everyone in South Carolina who is in favor of the re-opening of the slave trade could have sen what I have been compelled to witness ... It seems to me that I can never forget it."

Yet people see what they want to see, and the cynical report what they want to report.  The anti-Federal pro-slave trade secessionists insisted those captive Africans from the Echo were fat and happy while they stayed at Sumter. The "savages" appeared to be "in fine spirit and entertained their visitors with a display of their abilities in dancing and singing," wrote the ardently secessionist Charleston Mercury. 

You see, fake news is nothing new at all, and one of its accomplishments is to help people escape responsibilities for the horrors they inflict, while inspiring them with hysterical fears of those who are foreign, or simply of another race.

That was true on the road to Civil War. And, sadly, it is all too true today.

The top portion of this post is adapted from an earlier thread on Twitter.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Paris Floods then and now ... (with new videos from the police drones and Le Monde)

Drone footage shot by the police. A great tour of the heart of the city ...

Le Monde video of the Seine rising ...

As the Seine continues to rise, time to re-read Tracy McNicoll's piece in Newsweek eight years ago about the Great Flood of 1910:
The Île Saint Louis this week (Christopher Dickey photo)

... There is something patently eerie about commemorating the 100th anniversary of a so-called "centennial flood" ...

Greater Paris has been bracing itself for another big flood for a century—and it isn't safe yet....

In January 1910 the Seine rose some 26 feet above normal, spilling over cut-stone banks and washing through the city. Paris became a reluctant Venice, gondolas and all, virtually overnight. Hundreds of streets and a full quarter of Paris's buildings—20,000—were flooded. Only one person died in central Paris, a soldier brought in for the relief effort, carried away by a quayside current. But several more would perish outside Paris proper, in the hard-hit banlieues. The Seine didn't fully "go back to its bed," in the colorful French phrase, until mid-March. In Paris and the surrounding area—essentially a basin at the confluence of three rivers—the flood caused an estimated €1.6 billion in damage in today's euros. Token reminders of the high-water mark still remain today—"1910" is hand-painted, engraved, or plaqued into building facades and along the Seine's stone banks.

The flood was one of the first great visual stories of the last century and the first disaster of its kind to get the full media treatment. Press-agency photographers and eager amateurs sloshed or rowed through Paris to document the event for the world. Paris's Galerie des Bibliothèques is hosting an extraordinary archival trove telling the flood's story through March 28. The exhibit, "Paris Inondé 1910,"
The Seine this week (cmsd photo)
 is so haunting because the central Paris quarters where the floodwaters rose look much the same today as they do in the photographs. A sepia-toned Saint-Germain-des-Prés, the medieval warrens of the fifth arrondissement and the posh boulevards of the eighth, the Gare de Lyon train station's clock tower, even the iconic white tiles of the métro—all familiar, save the rowboats.

It may look like art, but it's more like a public-service announcement. There's no Nostradamus-style prophecy in the appellation "centennial flood"—it just means that, every year, there is a one in 100 chance that a flood of similar magnitude will happen again. Experts like Louis Hubert, the environment director for the Île-de-France region in which Paris is located, say it's a matter of when, not if. And Paris is not fully girded for the eventuality. 

Over the past century, greater Paris has found ways to protect itself from flooding of 1910 proportions, but not completely—a centennial flood would still spell disaster within (and, to a greater extent, around) Paris. Even the four man-made catchment lakes built to siphon off nearly 30 billion cubic feet of overflow would reduce water levels only by 70 centimeters in central Paris at best. Other fixes from the past 100 years—like rebuilt bridges and quays in central Paris—might buy 30 centimeters' more relief in the city center. 

But authorities can't say with certainty, until a day or two before the next great flood, the effect the massive urbanization of surrounding floodplains over the past century will have on the rising waters. Indeed, even if protection has improved, the greater Paris basin is in some ways more vulnerable today than it was a century ago: 10 times more people live in the flood zones, and underground infrastructure (power, trains, Internet, phones) built since the flood supports modern lifestyles...

Modern-day Parisians, contemplating the photographs before spilling into identical streets, might well wonder how they would cope. There is the nagging feeling those women rafting about Paris in prim dresses and men, invariably hatted and mustachioed, were plenty tougher than we are. Modern conveniences were still new, and Parisians of the time had done without them most of their lives. Telephones were still scarce gadgets. Electricity was a new luxury that only a few "subscribers" enjoyed. Households had stashes of coal for heat. 

As they would today, public transit networks suffered—the métro, only 10 years old, was lost for three months. But in 1910, there were still 75,000 horses in Paris. They were pressed into service, pulling outdated horse-drawn buses out of storage. Yet even then, as Le Figaro reporter Georges Cain observed in an eyewitness account : "Here we are, gone back in time 20 years. No electricity, no elevators, no telephones and it seems unbearable to us." Imagine going back in time 120 years. Here, 1910 isn't water under the bridge—it's a barometer for the future.

Looking back at the Dawn of a New Year

As the sun rises over the Seine in Paris this first day of 2018, here's wishing you a brilliant year to come, full of warmth, love, good sense and sweet reason. 
Chris and Carol

As ISIS Lost Territory, It Started to Disappear from Cyberspace, Too

Press Release -

Islamic State Propaganda Now Focused on Perpetual War, Not State-Building Aspirations, IHS Markit Says
Group’s official propaganda output declined in line with territorial loses in 2017.

LONDON (24 January 2018) – The quantity of propaganda materials released by the Islamic State’s official social media channels decreased by 62 percent across 2017, according to a report released today from Conflict Monitor by business information provider IHS Markit (Nasdaq: INFO).

The reduction in official Islamic State propaganda output coincides with the collapse of the group’s so-called ‘Caliphate’, which shrunk by 89 percent from 60,400 km2 in January 2017 to 6,500 km2 in January 2018.

According to data analyzed by Conflict Monitor*:

Propaganda material disseminated by the Islamic State declined by 62 percent from 1,316 original pieces of propaganda released in January to just 495 in December 2017.
The propaganda category that showed the greatest decline was pictures, with 922 pictures released in January, compared to 249 in December; an overall reduction of 73 percent.
The number of video releases fell by 62 percent in the same period, from 26 in January 2017 to only 10 in December 2017.

“The number of statements released by the Islamic State’s official Amaq News Agency claiming attacks dropped by 31 percent from 300 in January to 208 in December 2017,” said Ludovico Carlino, senior Middle East analyst at IHS Markit. “This reflects a reduction in the actual number of attacks carried out by the Islamic State during that time period as the group suffered major territorial losses.”

“The reduction in the Islamic State’s propaganda output, however, mainly affected other forms of propaganda, in particular pictures (down 74 percent in the same time period), which are probably considered to be of lesser strategic value than attack claims,” Carlino said.

Despite the collapse of the Caliphate, Islamic State media operations are still mainly coordinated out of Syria and Iraq

Most of the propaganda material released by the Islamic State in 2017 originated from the group’s core territories in Iraq and Syria. This was still the case in December, despite the Caliphate being reduced to a small number of villages in the Euphrates River Valley. In December 2017, out of 249 pictures released via official Islamic State channels, 216 (87 percent) were taken in Syria and Iraq, and 33 (13 percent) in other countries.

Each piece of propaganda is disseminated centrally by the Amaq News Agency and Nashir channels via media hubs in Iraq and Syria, with inputs from other countries being communicated to them through regional media centers.

“The Islamic State is probably finding it increasingly difficult to communicate with its other wilayat across the region, while they in turn are likely to have been forced to reduce their media interactions in order to preserve their operational security,” Carlino said.

Pictures promoting the virtues of life in the Caliphate have disappeared; 99 percent of imagery now focuses on military operations

The Islamic State’s narrative no longer features state building and now focuses almost exclusively on the concept of perpetual war against its enemies.

Propaganda imagery featuring daily life in the Caliphate, and the Islamic State’s efforts to distribute food and rebuild roads and buildings damaged in US-led coalition airstrikes, dropped from 93 pictures out of 922 (10 percent) in January 2017 to three pictures out of 249 (less than 1 percent) in December.

“The vast majority of the Islamic State’s official propaganda now shows the group in action, receiving training or planning operations, as well as punishing those it accuses of cooperating with its enemies,” Carlino said.

The message accompanying these images is the religious obligation to continue the fight against the Syrian and Iraqi governments, and their US, Russian and Iranian ‘sponsors’ as part of a never-ending effort to defend Islam and the Muslim community from ‘Crusader-Rafidhi’ (Western - Shia) aggression against the ‘true Islamic State’.

*Methodology behind the report

IHS Markit compiled a comprehensive list of propaganda material disseminated by two Islamic State official Telegram channels between October and December 2017. These two Telegram channels remained in continuous operation between 1 October and 31 December, and the data collated below only includes official material collected from these two sources during that time period. The channels monitored were the Amaq News Agency, which publishes claims of responsibility for attacks carried out by the Islamic State in all countries where it is active, and Nashir, which functions as a centralized aggregator for propaganda material produced by the Islamic State’s regional propaganda outlets.

The collection plan only included original and unique pieces of propaganda released by Islamic State official media agencies. Non-official material produced and disseminated by Islamic State supporters was not included. Other propaganda material that was re-posted by the two channels was also excluded. The data collected between October and December was compared with data collected in January 2017 from earlier iterations of the same sources on Telegram – the Amaq News Agency and the Nashir centralized propaganda aggregator feed – using the same methodology. We did not collect a comparable dataset of propaganda outputs between February and September 2017, due to the Telegram source channels being intermittently shut down during that period.

The individual propaganda outputs collected in January and between October and December were coded into the following categories:

Written pamphlets (including fatwas, or religious edicts, booklets and the al-Naba weekly newsletter)
Attack claims (official statements claiming responsibility for attacks worldwide)
Videos (including short video clips from the battlefield, as well as longer propaganda films)
Pictures (usually showing military activity or life under Islamic State rule)
Audio (including jihadi Nasheed songs and audio clips from the al-Bayan audio newsletter)
Infographics (often used to quantify casualties inflicted on the Islamic State’s enemies)