Monday, February 27, 2006

Iraq: Declaring Victory ...

I'll be visiting the University of South Alabama (USA) soon, and was interviewed by John Sledge at The Mobile Register:

... JS : This is an unfair question, but I'm going to ask it anyway. We hear lots of talk about "victory" in Iraq, but the definition varies or is vague. How do you see our involvement there playing out?

CD : There's nothing unfair about the question; it's fundamental. After 9/11 there were several occasions when we might have declared victory in the war on terror, if that's what we really wanted. Al Qaeda's safe haven in Afghanistan had been obliterated, Osama bin Laden's protectors among the Taliban deposed, and virtually all of the key planners of the 9/11 atrocity captured or killed by March 2003 -- before the invasion of Iraq. Victory could have been declared then, and other strategies pursued to isolate and weaken Saddam. That would have been the wisest course, as I wrote in 2002 and early 2003, but the war machine was already rolling toward Baghdad.

By May 2003, when President Bush stood on the deck of an aircraft carrier and declared mission accomplished, he was right, if the mission had been defined solely as the elimination of Saddam Hussein. Washington could have declared victory and announced a timetable for a pullout then. But the Bush administration did not want to do that. It resisted even the creation of a token interim government, any transfer of sovereignty, and calls for immediate elections by Ayatollah Sistani, among others. The American design for the Iraqi military was limited to about 40,000 troops with no air force, thus remaining completely dependent on the United States not only for logistical support and aerial reconnaissance, but for close air support in combat. It was not until the insurgency began to show its gruesome power and the American death toll rose dramatically in November 2003 that Washington reversed course, set a date for the transfer of nominal sovereignty and agreed to a timetable for elections. The effort to build an Iraqi military has progressed since then, but the institution is essentially still dependent on U.S. backup, and that appears to be the American intent. The electoral process has favored groups with long historical ties to ... Iran.

How will this play out? I think there will be some good news over the next few months. I expect, for instance, that the Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi will be killed or captured as some Sunni leaders decide to work more closely with the Americans and the government that Washington is trying to broker after the latest elections. But most of the power in Iraq's parliament is in the hands of Shiite groups with very long, close and complex ties to the mullahs in Qum and Tehran. They are not puppets but they are realists, and they see reconciliation and cooperation with Iran as a strategic necessity. At the end of the day, with prodding from Tehran, I think the Iraqi government will probably demand that the United States military leave the country. We will have spent many hundreds of billions of dollars (we're burning money in Iraq now at a rate of more than $1.5 billion a week), with thousands of Americans killed and tens of thousands wounded. At that point, whoever is in Washington will declare victory, but it will be very hard to know what they mean. ...

Dubai: Movies and Mail

Yesterday I appeared on MSNBC talking about Dubai, then went to the movies to watch "Syriana," at last -- and saw, somewhat to my surprise, the grittiest side of Dubai. It's a reflection of the emirate's confidence, I think, that it would let Hollywood make such a tough film on its soil or, as it were, sand. On the other hand, since the basic target of the film is a fictionalized Saudi Arabia and what retired CIA vet Bob Baer sees as its unholy alliance with Big Oil -- and there's not a lot of love lost between the Emiratis and the Saudis, that may account for it. Certainly Matt Damon's description of women dressed in black and walking five paces behind their men has nothing to do with the scene on the street, or the beach, in the glitziest of the Gulf's principalities.

In the meantime, the letters keep pouring into the Shadowland mailbox from Colorado to Florida, from Guatemala to New Zealand. This is a recent random sampling from several hundred received so far. Thye are unedited:

Name: Laurence Cahill
Comments: Americans might not know too much about the UAE but they do know they don't trust George W. Bush. Everything he says is just another load of crap off a hot shovel. When you consider the fact that the Bushes are profiteers that care nothing for justice, the environment, fairness to workers or economic rationality we are rightly worried. The Bush family ties to the UAE include Neil "Silverado" Bush and Bush senior through the Carlyle Group. Not to mention the questionable involvement of Treasury Secretary Snow and the new port administrator David Sanborn. We will believe this is another insider deal to benefit cronies until proven otherwise. There is absolutely no reason to trust this administration.

Name: Steven Roenfeldt
Hometown: Aurora, CO
Comments: I am astonished at how xenophobic and racist the vast majority of Americans are. I wonder if they could find the United Arab Emirates on a map? I'm positive they know nothing of Dubai. When I think of Dubai I equate it more to Las Vegas, NV than a city of US hating terrorists with AK-47s. It is sad to think the U.S. is so xenophobic and cluesless about the Middle East. Being Arab does not make one a terrorist. The United States should be ashamed for equating the two. I do not support this adminstration often, but I hope the Bush administration wins this fight and doesn't back down. We need allies in the Middle East, and we can not afford to alienate a capitalistic country that supports us.

Name: N Williams
Hometown: Alexandria, VA
Comments: So you are telling me is this is their reward? Poppy Cock!! This country is being sold out from under all Americans left and right and I am sick and tired of it and will not support it. I am a Disabled American Veteran and this country continues to cut my benefits and give carte blanche to non Americans to attain their benefits. I am sure that there are many Americans who are willing to manage our ports and would be excrllent in doing so. Since when have there come a time that we can not protect and manage "our" shores and ports. Do not give me the story about the Kuwaitees managing a New Jersey port, this, for a lack of a better word, a sellout!

Name: Richard Juday
Hometown: Longmont CO
Comments: Port operations are too sensitive to be contracted out to foreign companies of *any* national persuasion. This comment applies to all port operations, not just the ones contracted by devolvement to Dubai. There must be several US companies that can do the job, and even Halliburton would be preferable.

Name: Mike Parker
Hometown: Fort Lauderdale, Florida
Comments: Turning over our ports to a country that has supposedly cleaned up its' act after having ties to the 9/11 hijackers is sort of like letting your daughter date Jeffrey Dalhmer a few months after he swears he's become a vegetarian.

Name: Richard R. Justice
Hometown: homosassa fl
Comments: This is just a stupid idea that will never get passed thru until dubai sells all there airports to the u.s. govt.

Name: Peter
Hometown: Boca Raton
Comment: Mr. Dickey, Your response does not make sense. The port workers "Maine" where the terrorists came in, we have the power to hire and fire. We do not if this deal goes through. We have responsibility to create internal controls, and since we are creators of I/C, we know where they can be circumvented. This deal, we do not create the I/AC. They do. They know how to get them around. Port personal in Maine are not sympathizers of Al Qaeda. They are. Maine or the US Gov was not a facilitator to fund Al Qaeda terrorists of 9/11. They did. It is not an Arab issue. Do not confuse of spin things like the Republicans do. It is a security issue. If it was a Canadian company, it would be different. It is protecting your butt Mr. Dickey. Something that Mr. Bush has not done and made our world more dangerous.

Comment [anonymous]: We need the UAE far more than the UAE needs us. Could be that we will flush away our best and last hope for the mid east world.

Name: Jorge Dardón
Hometown: Guatemala, Guatemala
Comments: Arabophobia and proteccionists are the forces behind Dems and Reps worrying about "security" risks. If the company were French, Spanish or Canadian, they would try another trick.

Name: Jeff Larsen
Hometown: Chch NZ
Comments: It simply amazes me about this fixation that someone is going to smuggle anything into the US via a container port. P & O are (or were) a highly professional company and most of it's management only excepting top management will remain running the show until they retire or resign. The new management are not going to replace them overnight with people able to do their job. There is nothing to stop (unrecognised) criminals from entering the workforce of a major US owned terminal and doing exactly what these paranoid legislators are worried about Alqaeda doing! Is it OK for the "Mob" to own these facilities? Actually they probably already do, otherwise how could you get as much cocaine in? The reality is any vessel entering the port of a major city is already a threat. A large LNG carrier that explodes in a port area is going to do as much damage as a small nuke albeit without the immediate and residual radiation. The easiest way for anyone to smuggle anything is simply to motor into a port or marina in a large pleasure launch or small converted fishing boat flying the US flag with the "Star spangled Banner" blasting from the 8 track stereo. They would be completely above suspicion!. Any fifty foot launch can in good weather using Marisat and GPS cross any ocean in relative safety the only proviso being arranging fuel. I could probably do it myself if someone gave me the launch.... Anyway you can stay safe by hiding under the mat and not go hunting quail with Cheney.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Dubai in the Old Days (pre-1990)

In this week's Shadowland column, I talk about the high living in Dubai dating back to the 1980s. If you want to know more about how the Emirates came to be what they are -- and how they are -- the best place to start is with my 1990 book Expats: Travels from Tripoli to Tehran, which is still available in paperback on You can even read the first chapter online.

NPR: 45 minutes of 'Fresh Air' with Terry Gross

In case you missed the broadcast on Thursday, Feb. 23, I talked Terry Gross and I did a tour d'horizon of the Middle East and Muslim anger. NPR has put together a very useful site presenting not only that interview, but earlier sessions with Terry and some other useful pages.

Italy: Berlusconi, Up Close and Personal

"They said I compared myself to Napoleon ..."

Do you think Berlusconi will win the Italian elections on April 9? He does. Watch for much, much more from our 90 minute exclusive interview and a whole new take on Italian politics in coming issues of Newsweek.

"...They said I compared myself to Napoleon. In fact, I was on television reading the ten legal codes we’ve reformed, and when I got to the seventh, the host tried to stop me. I was laughing and smiling, but I said let me read them because only Napoleon did more than we did. So I didn’t say, 'I’m like Napoleon.'"

"Winston Churchill?"
I was in a region where there are many communists, in a big soccer stadium. Some young people got on stage with a big banner that read ‘Churchill saved us from the Nazis, Silvio will save us from communism.’ They [the press] made it up that I was comparing myself to Churchill. In any case, [unlike Churchill] I don’t drink, I don’t smoke."

"Jesus Christ? ..."

Newsweek: Sex, Religion & Politics 26 Feb 2006
Ahead of his visit to the White House, Italy's prime minister explains some nutty rumors to NEWSWEEK. (This was a brief through-written profile of Berlusconi for American readers.)

Newsweek International: Italy's 'Povero Cristo' 26 Feb 2006
Embattled yet still flamboyant, Silvio Berlusconi gleefully takes on his critics, real and imaginary. (A more complete text of the interview for International audiences.)

Recent Articles

Shadowland: What Price Xenophobia? 24 Feb 2006
Bush has won a reprieve in the U.S. port uproar. But the naysayers must accept that Dubai really has helped in the fight against Al Qaeda.

Shadowland: Dead Man Waiting? 14 Feb 2006
On the first anniversary of Rafik Hariri’s assassination, the troubled chronicles of Lebanon seem to foretell the killing of yet another political figure.

Newsweek International: Pointing the Finger 13 Feb 2006
Europe has apologized. But attitudes are hardening toward radical groups and governments in the Middle East.

Cover Story: Devoted and Defiant 5 Feb 2006
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says he doesn't want nuclear weapons. The world is suspicious. How dangerous is he?

For more, visit the archive at .

Iraq: Willful Ignorance Exposed in Depth

The article in the current Foreign Affairs by Paul Pillar, who was National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia from 2000 to 2005, will not surprise anyone who has followed the Bush administration’s pathological disregard for facts, and the consequences of that willful ignorance. But it’s direct testimony from an authoritative source, and must be read. Following is a brief excerpt:

… Official intelligence on Iraqi weapons programs was flawed, but even with its flaws, it was not what led to the war. On the issue that mattered most, the intelligence community judged that Iraq probably was several years away from developing a nuclear weapon. The October 2002 NIE also judged that Saddam was unlikely to use WMD against the United States unless his regime was placed in mortal danger.

Before the war, on its own initiative, the intelligence community considered the principal challenges that any postinvasion authority in Iraq would be likely to face. It presented a picture of a political culture that would not provide fertile ground for democracy and foretold a long, difficult, and turbulent transition. It projected that a Marshall Plan-type effort would be required to restore the Iraqi economy, despite Iraq's abundant oil resources. It forecast that in a deeply divided Iraqi society, with Sunnis resentful over the loss of their dominant position and Shiites seeking power commensurate with their majority status, there was a significant chance that the groups would engage in violent conflict unless an occupying power prevented it. And it anticipated that a foreign occupying force would itself be the target of resentment and attacks -- including by guerrilla warfare -- unless it established security and put Iraq on the road to prosperity in the first few weeks or months after the fall of Saddam.

In addition, the intelligence community offered its assessment of the likely regional repercussions of ousting Saddam. It argued that any value Iraq might have as a democratic exemplar would be minimal and would depend on the stability of a new Iraqi government and the extent to which democracy in Iraq was seen as developing from within rather than being imposed by an outside power. More likely, war and occupation would boost political Islam and increase sympathy for terrorists' objectives -- and Iraq would become a magnet for extremists from elsewhere in the Middle East. …

Iran: Opportunities and Dangers

I recently came across this very lucid analysis of recent events in Tehran by Nasrin Alavi on

Headlines scream of a global crisis and a new era where cold-war rivalry is replaced by the clash of civilisations. Protests against the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed rage across the Muslim world. News items link speculations about Iran’s attempts to build a nuclear arsenal with pictures of vicious demonstrators throwing petrol-bombs and stones at the Danish embassy.

Ordinary Iranian Muslims may well be dismayed by images they view as racist. But the 12 million citizens of their capital, Tehran, are far from alight with rage. Most do not support violent attacks on European diplomatic missions and have stayed away from the demonstrations. Iranians in any case have no real freedom of assembly; only a week earlier, hundreds of Tehran bus workers were imprisoned in an effort to crush their strike. So an attack by a 400-strong crowd whose members injure police officers and burn a car at the embassy compound cannot be seen as a spontaneous protest, but is rather a foreign-policy directive from a faction trying to isolate Iran internationally for its own ends. ...

Iraq: Between the Insurgents

The International Crisis Group, based in Brussels and Amman, has issued a fascinating analysis of the Iraqi insurgency, based on the various groups own propaganda. Much of the report runs against the commonplace commentary on the Iraqi rebellion that you hear out of Washington, and of course it is based to some extent on the insurgents’ wishful thinking. But it is very revealing. The full report can be found at In Their Own Words: Reading the Iraqi Insurgency. Middle East Report N°50, 15 February 2006.

But, good as it is, the report’s recommendation tend to underscore a problem which is not addressed: the extent to which the American presence itself has become the problem in Iraq. U.S. troops are in the unvenviable position of a cop who shows up at a domestic dispute. The husband and wife might be murdering each other, but they both see the police as the enemy, frustrating their impassioned desire for retribution and revenge. Now imagine if the cop doesn’t even speak the same language …

Bill Buckley, who is not usually cited by, made its mailing list this week by making precisely that point: “Our mission has failed because Iraqi animosities have proved uncontainable by an invading army of 130,000 Americans. The great human reserves that call for civil life haven't proved strong enough. No doubt they are latently there, but they have not been able to contend against the ice men who move about in the shadows with bombs and grenades and pistols.”

What follows is part of the executive summary of the ICG report:

The insurgency increasingly is dominated by a few large groups with sophisticated communications. It no longer is a scattered, erratic, chaotic phenomenon. Groups are well organised, produce regular publications, react rapidly to political developments and appear surprisingly centralised.

There has been gradual convergence around more unified practices and discourse, and predominantly Sunni Arab identity. A year ago groups appeared divided over practices and ideology but most debates have been settled through convergence around Sunni Islamic jurisprudence and Sunni Arab grievances. For now virtually all adhere publicly to a blend of Salafism and patriotism, diluting distinctions between foreign jihadis and Iraqi combatants – though that unity is unlikely to outlast the occupation.

Despite recurring contrary reports, there is little sign of willingness by any significant insurgent element to join the political process or negotiate with the U.S. While covert talks cannot be excluded, the publicly accessible discourse remains uniformly and relentlessly hostile to the occupation and its “collaborators”.

The groups appear acutely aware of public opinion and increasingly mindful of their image. Fearful of a backlash, they systematically and promptly respond to accusations of moral corruption or blind violence, reject accusations of a sectarian campaign and publicise efforts to protect civilians or compensate their losses. Some gruesome and locally controversial practices – beheading hostages, attacking people going to the polls – have been abandoned. The groups underscore the enemy’s brutality and paint the U.S. and its Iraqi allies in the worst possible light: waging dirty war in coordination with sectarian militias, engaging in torture, fostering the country’s division and being impervious to civilian losses.

The insurgents have yet to put forward a clear political program or long-term vision for Iraq. Focused on operations, they acknowledge this would be premature and potentially divisive. That said, developments have compelled the largest groups to articulate a more coherent position on elections, and the prospect of an earlier U.S. withdrawal than anticipated is gradually leading them to address other political issues.
The insurgency is increasingly optimistic about victory. Such self-confidence was not there when the war was conceived as an open-ended jihad against an occupier they believed was determined to stay. Optimism stems from a conviction the legitimacy of jihad is now beyond doubt, institutions established under the occupation are fragile and irreparably illegitimate, and the war of attrition against U.S. forces is succeeding.
The emergence of a more confident, better organised, coordinated, information-savvy insurgency, increasingly susceptible to Sunni Arab opinion, carries profound implications for policy-makers. That it has survived, even thrived, despite being vastly outnumbered and outgunned, suggests the limitations of the current counter-insurgency campaign. Its discourse may be dismissed as rhetoric, but, notwithstanding credible reports of internal tensions, it appears to have been effective at maintaining agreement on core operational matters, generating new recruits, and mobilising a measure of popular sympathy among its target audience.

Countering the insurgency requires taking its discourse seriously, reducing its legitimacy and increasing that of the Iraqi government. The harm from excessive use of force, torture, tactics that inflict widespread civilian injury and reliance on sectarian militias outweighs any military gain. It is essential for the U.S. to hold the new government accountable and make clear that long-term relations, economic aid and military cooperation depend on disbanding militias, halting political killings and respecting human rights. U.S. Ambassador Khalilzad has recently struck a candid tone, which should be followed with proactive measures. The U.S. and its allies are unable to establish a monopoly over the use of force but they can and should do so over the legitimate use of force, which means establishing the legitimacy both of the means being deployed and of the state on whose behalf force is being exercised.


To the United States and its Coalition and Iraqi Allies:

1. Closely monitor, control and, if necessary, punish the behaviour of security forces.

2. Halt recourse to the most questionable types of practices, including torture and extraordinary methods of interrogation and confinement, collective punishment and extrajudicial killings.

3. End the use of sectarian militias as a complement to, or substitute for, regular armed forces and begin a serious process of disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) of militia fighters.

To the United States:

4. Hold the new government accountable and make clear that longer-term relations, economic assistance and future military cooperation will depend on the steps it takes to rein in and ultimately disband militias, halt politically motivated killings, and respect human rights and the rule of law.

5. Make clear its willingness, while it remains in Iraq, to negotiate openly the terms of its presence and its rules of engagement.

6. Make clear repeatedly and at the highest level that it accepts that the oil resources of the country belong to the Iraqi people and no one else, and will withdraw from Iraq as soon as the newly elected government so requests.

Rummy: Insurgent Insights?

Back on Valentine's Day, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was touring North Africa and decided to hold up Algeria's experience in the 1990s as an example of what it takes to defeat an insurgency. Referring to his talks with Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, Rummy said, as if this were a revelation, insurgency is "economic and it's political and it's cultural and I was musing as he talked, that ... it's instructive for us to recognize that the struggle we're in is not unlike the struggle that the people of Algeria went through and that it takes time -- a long time -- and it takes patience."

In Algeria in the 1990s it also took government death squads, fake guerrilla units that were as dangerous as the real ones, years of terror when no one could be sure of the real sources. (Bouteflika is a front for the mysterious military establishment generally known as "Le Pouvoir.") But most importantly, the Algerian experience has to be seen as a model for how badly democracy can go wrong, or, rather, be made to go wrong. It was dictator Chadli Benjadid's decision to hold popular elections -- then the military's horror as Islamists swept the polls, and their panicked cancellation. France, Europe and the United States stood by while the generals ousted Benjedid and annulled the elections, much as the West and Israel would like to do with the Hamas victory in the Palestinian territories. The direct result: armed insurrection and the growth of a group called the GIA and its spinoffs, which were much more radical than the Islamists who had nearly won a victory at the polls, and which eventually became key elements in the loose-knit Al Qaeda networks of Europe. The Algerian war, which cost hundreds of thousands of lives, was the direct result of botched demorcay.

Not the kind of model I would cite, but maybe Rummy has in mind some unknown unknowns...

Friday, February 10, 2006

Media: "If his breed is not to die ..."

My friend and colleague Mort Rosenblum recently wrote an open letter to his former employers at the Associated Press. It is worth reading as a commentary not only on the way the wire service is run, but on more general trends in the industry:

                                                                                       January 31, 2006
Mr. Burl Osborne, Chairman
The Associated Press
450 W. 33rd Street
New York, New York 10001
            You may remember my last open letter to the AP Board and to my colleagues, in November 1990, a tribute to Mike Goldsmith, who died on the job at 68, the victim of a Liberian soldier’s gun butt and a malarial mosquito.   
“If his breed is not to die,” I wrote, “we must understand what fed the fires of a man who spent 45 years working himself to death in AP service.  He knew that all of the AP’s fancy machines and systems are so much useless junk without the one thing at the heart of our being: the reporter’s link to news.”
That letter praised AP directors for supporting reporters like Mike.  The message is different this time.  Without hyperbole, Burl, I believe that AP’s present course represents a grave danger to a world that badly needs it.
Inexperienced managers of a “new AP” must understand that however they rearrange the furniture, the wire’s integrity depends on the reporters who actually gather the news upon which billions of people shape their reality.
Since 2002, AP has fired, retired or otherwise squandered many centuries of hard-won experience and contacts.  Valuable old hands live in fear of the ax.  With so much busywork heaped on those left and constant second-guessing from New York, many young people who planned an AP career now look elsewhere.  
AP still has plenty of superb correspondents and locally hired reporters, courageous, committed people of skill and energy.  I know most, and I urge you to sit down with any, with no one else listening, to discuss this letter.  Do a blind survey.  As one ex-colleague told me, “Morale hasn’t been this low in 30 years.”
I’ve resisted writing this because I am among those your new executive editor fired.  Living in France, I don’t like sour grapes.   But I didn’t spend a lifetime at AP because I had no other offers.  Now I teach students and young reporters eager to cover the world.  AP badly needs this sort of fresh talent.  But, given the present course, what do I tell them?
When told in 2004 that I had chosen to retire, I was asked to agree not to “disparage” AP.   I refused on principle:  that defensiveness shows what’s going wrong.   How could someone disparage AP after defending it for 40 years?
The point is:  what is the AP?   I worked for six executive editors, four head guys, and a zillion Board members.   In a non-profit cooperative, these jobs amount to temporary public trusts.   AP is that network of people out where it counts, the bylines you know; the young hopefuls; and all those invaluable “locals” you’ve never heard of who are your strongest link to reality.  “AP” stands for reliable news, however difficult it may be to gather and whomever it may irritate.  After air, water and food, it is the most basic of human needs. 
Recently in Buenos Aires where I was bureau chief from 1973 to 1976, I reread your new editors’ statement of principles.  It stresses what won’t go on the wire, with emphasis on anonymous sources.   But any reporter knows that what is not said is often far more important than what is.   Sources who risk dismissal or death for telling the truth depend on anonymity.
AP broke the news of how the Argentine military was “disappearing” many thousands because a troubled U.S. embassy spook told me about it on very deep background.  We defied death squads to take the story to the wire, step by step, with our editors’ support in a way that would be impossible today.
Back then, a bureau chief, a news editor, and three English-language writers worked with a sizeable Argentine staff.  This allowed us to go find news, not merely react to it in case it wandered across our desk. 
This time, the only English-language writer – the bureau chief – was on a well-earned vacation.   His backup had been let go.   I know him to be a good hand, eager to get out more.  But like all bureau chiefs, he is tied down with daily planning schedules and time-wasting process generated by distant bureaucrats.
There are fewer dramatic kidnappings.   But during that week, a French water company left Argentina in disgust, dimming global hopes that private-public waterworks could meet a major world need.  And a huge chunk of melting iceberg floated past Mar del Plata.  That, Burl, is big news.
             Is this about economy?   The bureau then earned a large surplus because I had time to nurture subscribers.  We could afford to take embassy spooks to lunch.  We traveled the provinces in search of real news.  Is the new way better?  When I called on the long-time editor of AP’s biggest Argentine client, he snorted at the idea of faceless executives a continent away selling him a news agency as if it were a newsprint supplier.   Our profession doesn’t work like that.
             The new buzzword is profitability.  But AP is a .org, not a .com, with a nobler purpose.  The “essential global news” whatever, your new branders’ slogan, has been reality since 1848, when editors formed a cooperative to cover stories beyond their own reach.  The more newspapers and broadcasters – AP’s collective owners -- slash staffs and have to guess at the news from a distance, the more AP is vital to sane, safe life on earth. 
God knows the old AP had its failings.  But when you boast of Mark Twain’s and Gandhi’s encomiums, you mean AP’s endangered spirit.   The historic role is to report the world, not to enrich shareholders.   With technology and security, the price of foreign news is rising fast.  Publishers who seek 25 to 30 percent profits can fill their papers with AP copy at a fraction of what staff writers cost.   But can they then insist that AP dues increase at less than inflation?
Another new direction troubles me deeply.  Reporters’ performance is measured now in output, words per shift, rather than by what matters.   Tiers of editors, some with no foreign experience, shape the report from a distance.  They rewrite copy, and impose guidance that is often based on misperceptions.  Arbitrary word limits leave out context.   Stories are spiked without explanation.
The effect is devastating, especially to those in remote places.  News agencies need alternating current; reporters’ energies must help power the process.  AP now works on DC – a one-way flow from top.  Even Duracell bunnies can soldier on for only so long.
Your best people work their hearts out because of inner motivations that are lost on managers who don’t get it.  Their goal is not a paycheck but rather the satisfaction of getting a story right.  Instead, too many are like tiny cameras on a colonoscopy probe.  They penetrate the world’s least attractive places only to send back raw data to “specialists” in clean clothes who decide what it means.
In Frankfurt, we recently honored Steve Miller, a quintessential AP bureau chief.  Steve rushed off all too often to help his Balkan reporters escape trouble or, in extremis, to comfort families.   He died of cancer but fought to the last to preserve AP values he defended for 30 years.  Steve knew that if AP did not inspire new hires, meeting their expectations, it faced a harrowing future.
I saw old pals, “locals” who routinely put their lives on the line.  Some earn less in a year than it takes to feed a board member at an annual meeting.   One had an amusing twist on the corporate viewpoint of the hand that feeds you:  A Bosnian cameraman once lost his patience with an AP boss on a rare visit:  “You eat from my camera.  Your wife eats from my camera.  Your children eat from my camera.  To me, you are para-zeet.”
          A hopeful presence in Frankfurt was a foreign editor, respected by all.  Debbie Seward spent decades abroad, learning flawless Russian, French, German and Polish, seeing up close how peoples interact.   She cared at a human level but understood tectonic shifts of global power.   We knew her dilemma, bolstering morale while her bosses rattled a heavy chain of command.   She was delegated to “retire” me, and I know she felt bad about it.  Now she is gone.  Ask her why.
You avoided buy-outs because U.S.-based AP correspondents work abroad without contract or union.   Cost-of-living differentials were just slashed.  Many AP people get no adjustment at all because reporters sent from New York have been replaced with lower-paid locals.   If editors disrespect reporters’ copy while managers trash their family budgets, what do you expect for the future?
This cri de coeur should not veer into the dismissal of one dispensable ex-reporter, now happily doing other things.  But few of AP’s “disappeared” are free to speak, and my own case is a useful example of squandered AP resource.
I first went abroad for AP in 1967.  When I left after two years as editor of the International Herald Tribune in 1981, AP designed a job for me.  I was to make wide contacts and take time with stories that mattered in order, as your new people would say, to brand my byline.  I had a generous budget and reported to the executive editor.   I was treated well, and I worked hard.  We had solid play, major beats and awards.   For 21 years, AP paid for a baseball bat, and I hit hard with it.   Your new executive editor whittled that down to a toothpick.
A 1981 refugee series made three points: Israel would have to give Gaza to Palestinians after much grief (think Hamas): Somalia would split into warlord fiefdoms; two million neglected Afghans in Pakistan were embracing Islamic fanatics.  A 1984 African hunger series foretold Ethiopia.  We predicted the Soviet breakup, with Central Asia embracing Islam.  We saw AIDS spread out of Africa and the globe overheat.  A biological weapons series showed how stalled inspections in Iraq risked war and noted America’s vulnerability to terror.  And so on.  In 1989, a big year for foreign news, I won the Overseas Press Club award and was short-listed for a Pulitzer.  I shared AP’s top award in 2000 and won it in 2001, with the Harry Chapin, for the water series.  After 9/11, in Afghanistan, Lou Boccardi, Tom Curley and Jon Wolman were generous about my work.
But new editors seemed to favor foreign coverage shaped in Washington and New York.  My copy on Europe’s reluctance to invade Iraq without evidence was spiked.  And so on.  I produced major beats in the first Gulf War, with experience predating Vietnam, but was kept out of Baghdad in 2003.   I was unable to report clear unanimous warnings by Middle East allies not to invade under U.S. colors.               I was assigned to stay in Paris, reporting to the London desk, to write features to be translated for the European wires.  While doing this, I prepared for the Olympics.  I’d written the opening in Sydney and a column; Terry Taylor asked me to do Athens.  It was clear the games risked outdoing Munich.  I knew Greece well and was an old hand at covering terrorism.  The night before I was to leave, after my nonrefundable flight was paid and I’d found free lodging, I was told to stay home for economy reasons.  Instead, a young New York writer went to cover parties, including that much-discussed ouzo event.  And then in November, on a personal trip home, I was told I was retiring.
Here is why my case is instructive.  Firing old hands at AP wages doesn’t save much money.  Good reporters, in fact, cost less.  Under the old one-riot-one-ranger approach, a single Mike Goldsmith can do more with a telephone than a handful of tyros can do in days on the ground.   But whatever it may save AP members, what is the greater cost to a news report dependent on living memory?  Who is to take over when smart young people see what might happen to them?
            My email was cut before I could pass along contacts and files.   Even before I left New York, the stories came in a rush. Arafat, whom I’d known since 1967, flew to Paris to die.  The Pope died in Rome; I’d trailed him since Poland, to Sarajevo, to Africa, to the Holy Land, covering reality behind the ceremony.  The tsunami struck Southeast Asia where I’d spent three years.   Ivory Coast blew up; I’d just returned from a fresh visit.   The edges of Paris caught fire, with impact across Europe.   I’d covered that tension since the 1980s.  Then, Sharon; I was the first reporter into south Lebanon when he invaded.  And now there is Hamas. 
And I’m just one example among far too many.  Apart from those fired, others have decided to leave, disgusted by writing they see on the wall.   Among those who stay, edges have been chipped off essential enthusiasm.  You know the names and the circumstances.  If you don’t, you should find out.
No school can shape a seasoned correspondent.  Young people must work with veterans.   Background, vital to any story that matters, depends on long memories.  Any eager neophyte can hop into a hairy situation.  Then what?  Danger is one thing.  Experience saves more lives than flak vests or Centurion courses.   But even in placid situations, it takes practice to find the program, let alone the players.  Fresh reporters who prove themselves quickly must feel they have a solid future when they cost more and talk back.
You may respond with numbers and logs, but professional consumers know how to judge an agency’s worth.   It is not the occasional scoop or faster bulletin but rather depth and breadth over time.  They are not fooled by promotional flimflam.  Real beats are measured in months and years, not minutes.  Serious coverage is mostly about “why” and “what next.”
This lack of depth is critical.   Much was made over how AP ignored the London Sunday Times’ Downing Street scoop, a smoking gun that revealed how evidence was faked to start a war.  AP London did not relay the story, credited to the Times, the simplest of routine tasks.  Then editorial inaction in New York let it slip away.  In a different AP, a diplomatic reporter like Art Gavshon, or a Mike Goldsmith, or a Steve Miller, would have broken the story first.
Walker Lundy, who edited the Philadelphia Inquirer, put it wisely:  newspapers are eating their seed corn.   Foreign bureaus are shutting down.  This puts pressure on AP to cherish its best old hands.  We are seeing the opposite, and it seems to be as much about management style as it is about money.
An AP editor abroad, whose professional health depends upon anonymity, summed up his bosses’ new approach with bitterness:  “They’ve taken an organic thing and tried to make it into a machine.  It doesn’t work.”
 A lot of very good people want to stay with AP, to do what they love and do well.   They are your strength.   In a world where naked emperors define their own reality to credulous citizens who look for truth from Web logs and pundits, we need them desperately.  They are the source of your “essential global news.”
            If it is about money, why fund such luxuries as a service for “young” readers in their 30’s?  Alexander the Great died at 33, and he didn’t need remedial news.   Updated screen crawls for news packagers might have their place.  But shouldn’t you first focus on that basic mission to cover real news?
            If it is about management style, I urge you to look at cause and effect.  It may take time, at a cost to the world, but stories that are not reported when they are still stories come out as history.  Someone pays a price for missing them.
            You haven’t asked, of course, but here are some suggestions from someone who has worked abroad for AP for a quarter of its nearly 160 years. 
--Don’t let AP be a voice of America.  Many non-U.S. subscribers, I know, are already distressed.  Yes, AP does some excellent critical U.S. reporting, with stalwarts like Terry Hunt.  But I mean focus.  Compare the coverage of Katrina to Kashmir.  Or 9/11 to Madrid; proportionally, the death toll was similar.
--AP should set the agenda and define news rather than follow trends.  Play may suffer if you’re ahead of the pack, but the long run counts.  Obsessing over Hermes not opening up late for Oprah Winfrey in Paris was not your finest hour.  By one recent poll, American readers clicked most on a newspaper’s story about some guy’s sex act with his horse.  The world needs your leadership.
--A top editorial title carries authority but not necessarily prescience.  New York desk training confers status, but street smarts come only with time.   Stars like, say, Kathy Gannon or Aida Cerkez must earn respect the hard way, far from New York, and that can take far more time than it should. 
--While some reporters are gentle, lovable souls, many others are cutting tools, with hard edges.  This is what enables them to break down doors and get at reality.  Allow them to talk back, to argue, to insist on reporting what they see.
--Do not dumb down the report.  People who care about news want real background.  Just before the Iraq war, the top editor roasted me for mentioning Nasser, saying no one knew who he was.  That was the point.  You can’t explain this conflict without tracing how, or why, Muslims and Arabs grew radicalized.
--Don’t bury news with false balance.  That was why Serbs got away with mass murder for so long ago.  For examples, look at Israel v. Palestine.
--Don’t let unnamed sources keep real news off the wire.  Arab reporters obtain crucial interviews with Iraqi insurgents who can’t be identified.  The copy seldom reaches the wire, which carries a flood of stuff about brave U.S. troops.
The Iraq War is rich in distressing example, starting from Charlie Hanley’s brilliant but spiked reporting that Americans were unlikely to find WMD – or his wasted expose of Powell at the U.N.  Coverage was shaped in Washington and micromanaged from New York.  Compare AP to others on U.S. troop interaction with civilians, for starters.  Hamza Hendawi, Denis Gray and others did a lot of excellent work, true enough.  But news organizations are judged in their entirety.
I’ve been long and harsh because so much is at stake.  This is not to question anyone’s best intentions or professional commitment.   But AP is still a calling, a family, as well as a business.  The old policy of promoting only from within had its obvious drawbacks.  Yet everyone understood their purpose.
When I wrote in 1990, directors were listed proudly in the AP directory.  This time, it took me days to find them under the money in an annual report.  I can’t believe that pride is gone.  Burl, as an editor you helped build AP.   Defend it now.   Think of the future.  Correspondents and “locals” have the time, the tools, and the editorial respect they need.   There is no new AP.   Those old letters still stand for reliable news in a tumultuous world.   And we all need that badly.

Mail: State of Disunion

From Newsweek's Online Mail Call:

Feb. 3, 2006 - In his Feb. 1 Web-exclusive commentary, “Battleground of Ideas,” Shadowland columnist Christopher Dickey says President George W. Bush has come to be seen in the Mideast as a caricature who talks about "strength and determination [while] projecting an image of stubbornness and confusion." The State of the Union speech defines the way an administration wants to see its world, Dickey says. “But its narrative is so foreign to the thinking of most people in the Arab world that they've come to hear Bush's language as a kind of code: ‘liberation’ means occupation, ‘freedom’ means war, ‘victory’ means victims, ‘reconstruction’ means chaos, ‘democracy’ means following directives from Washington.” Readers respond:

Linda from Aurora, Colo., writes: “Those in the Arab world are not alone in seeing Bush as stubborn and confusing. I think more and more Americans are also seeing him as such, in addition to being dishonest. His story is ever-changing, and that has eroded his credibility here and abroad. It has also eroded the credibility of the United States across the globe.”

Yolande, writing from Port of Spain, Trinidad, agrees: “It is painful to see the country losing credibility at an alarming rate, worldwide, in countries rich and poor, developed and developing. America under Bush is seen as ruthless, bullying and dictatorial, not really interested in true democracy but in other nations following its decrees. Truly, there is no longer a superpower to whom the world could rely in times of crisis. America has lost it.”

Mike from Cleveland presents a different view: “I wonder about your assertion that anything the U.S.A. supports becomes unpopular in the Middle East. By extension, are you suggesting the U.S.A. not voice support for anything it wants, or even to support the opposite of its desires? I sympathize with your viewpoint that the world is far more complex than the worldview our present administration projects, but I don't clearly see what you are recommending our country do.”

But in Denver, T.J., who says he is a veteran of Iraq, disagrees. “I have noticed an implied rhetoric from the current administration that shows an ignorance of Arab culture and a disregard for their views,” he writes. “I learned a lot about the culture and our societal differences while in Iraq, and I hope that somehow our government will recognize these and make decisions that are grounded in acceptance and humility. The arrogant, imperialistic approach has done nothing but fuel anti-American sentiment and certainly has not made America a safer place, nor the world a better place.”

George, a Vietnam-era veteran from Anchorage, Alaska, poses a similar view. “This is very hard for me to express,” he writes. “I [have] always had a great deal of pride in being an American. I am, as of right now, still proud. I was also a Republican until 1999 … Mr. Bush and his cronies, I feel, are an embarrassment to the ideals and makeup of our great nation. Americans are not just deceived but boldly lied to. Before we can get respect from the world, we have got to clean up our own mess. I think the president means to do the right thing, he is just caught up in his own image of glory and power. Bill Clinton was impeached for lying about staining a young lady’s dress. Mr. Bush, however, is killing a lot of people with his spin. Can't we as a nation take our place among the proud who walked before all of this mess?”

William from San Diego is on Bush’s side. “It isn't about the Arab people. It is about the American people,” he writes. “Our president looks out for the United States, our allies and our best interest.”

Dalthon from Austin, Texas, agrees. He says he “didn't see Mr. Bush's confusion.” He continues: “I believe we will leave Iraq in a better place soon.”

Update: Travels, Travails, 'Toons

I've been traveling in Italy, where the Winter Olympics are about to begin, terror alerts are high, CIA kidnappers (or perhaps we should call them "renditioners") are about to go on trial in absentia, and several other stories are taking shape. I've also been following nuclear developments in Iran and the cartoon controversy, of course. On that last question, a couple of thoughts from my notebook last Tuesday, before Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice decided to point the finger at Iran and Syria:

An Arab colleague of mine who went to the Egyptian port of Safaga to cover the disappearance and drowning of 1,000 people in a ferry boat disaster over weekend sent me a pained text message from the scene: “Chris, To distract people from news of the Red Sea tragedy, Egyptian TV focuses more on the demonstrations of Muslims against Danish insults to Prophet Mohammed. What’s shocking is that even families here in Safaga Harbor awaiting the bodies are interested to know about the reaction to the insults!!”

I’ve been thinking about that message as I watch the concocted rage over a few lame cartoons published in a Danish newspaper last September escalate into a caricature of the long-dreaded clash of civilizations. Can this really be “a growing global crisis,” as Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen declared at a press conference this afternoon?

Sadly, yes. And people are dying because of it. But there are important lessons to be learned from the early stages of this debacle that may yet help bring it under control and, perhaps, prevent eruptions of similar madness in the future.

For starters, however depressing this prospect may be, it’s important to understand that global communications are becoming a constraint on individual and journalistic freedom of expression. Most Americans are familiar with the notion, articulated in an opinion by Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. back in 1919, that the protection of free speech ought not apply to someone “falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic.” The test is whether the speech, or art, or cartoon, if you will, creates “a clear and present danger.” And if it does, Holmes wrote, it should not be allowed. Well, today the whole world is a theater, and a bad joke in Denmark, the equivalent of shouting fire for the hell of it, can create catastrophe half way around the world.

I hate the notion we should be second-guessing what we say and do because some mad mullah who keeps his wives in purdah might get ticked off – and we’ll come back to that issue – but let’s not imagine that’s the whole problem. Do we have an inherent right to insult someone else’s faith? Their ethnicity? Their race? No. You can kid about yourself, but it’s a whole different matter when someone else is doing it, and looking down on you.

Think about it. Americans have gotten used to the idea that black people can use just about any term they want for each other, but white people can’t use the same words – especially one word – without causing great offense. It is inconceivable, I think, that a non-Jewish comedian in the United States would take it on himself to parody Jewish beliefs. That being the case, should we defend the right of non-Muslims to insult Muslims as a matter of good old All-American free speech? I don’t think so.

Okay. But whatever sensitivities were trampled by those crazy Danes, isn’t the reaction in the Muslim world over the top? You bet it is, and on that score we shouldn’t have any illusions, either. Outrage has always been a favorite tool of tyrants, as long as they thought they could keep it turned away from them. It’s a useful distraction, for instance, when 1.000 lives are lost at sea and families of the victims are starting to talk about government negligence.

But the most cynical exploitation of the caricature controversy must surely be the work of the regime in Damascus. President Bashar al-Assad and his most important cronies are part of a splinter sect of Islam, the Alawites, traditionally regarded as outright heretics by the mainstream Sunni faithful who make up the majority of Syria’s population. Defenseless Denmark is an ideal distraction for the Assad. In his police state, demonstrations are never spontaneous, never out of control. So it’s not surprising that some European politicians suggested the regime itself was complicit in ransacking the Danish embassy in Damascus over the weekend. A day later, members of a Muslim group with close ties to Syrian intelligence were among the Islamic flagwavers attacking the Danish embassy in Beirut, where Assad is still trying to prove that the only alternative to Syrian domination is sectarian chaos.

Assad was not only shouting “fire,” he was stoking the flames, and the tactic worked. Thanks to global 24/7 news coverage, the columns of smoke filling the skies over Damascus and Beirut heightened the sense of crisis everywhere – and anywhere that dictators, demagogues and thugs felt a grievance against Europe. As French scholar Olivier Roy points out in the current edition of Newsweek Internatonal, the cartoon controversy was used as an excuse to attack.

In London a minuscule group of wannabe jihadists sympathetic to the infamous Abu Hamza al-Masri, who was just convicted of preaching hate on Monday and sentenced to seven years in prison, held aloft signs with blatant incitements to terror – and blamed the cartoons for their anger. In Iran, where the government is under pressure because it looks like it’s lying about its “peaceful” nuclear research program, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad exulted in the Danish distraction. As protesters tried to storm the Danish embassy, a leading Tehran newspaper announced it would run a competition for Holocaust cartoons.

In Turkey, a 16-year-old boy shot a Catholic priest, Don Andrea Santoro, as he was celebrating mass. According to Italian press reports, the alleged killer shouted “Allahu Akbar,” God is great, and later confessed to the crime, claiming he was driven crazy by the Mohammed cartoons. But the Italian papers also report from the scene that the boy had been hanging out with local gangsters who’ve made a big business trafficking girls from Russia and elsewhere into Turkey. Father Santoro had worked to rescue many of these women, and might well have been targeted for his good works, not Denmark’s bad jokes.

Each case is complicated, and each needs to be isolated, reported out, demystified, and disconnected from overarching theories of global confrontation. The more we focus on the motives of the Assads, the Abu Hamzas, the Ahmadinejads, the more we expose their tactics, the more we can defuse the “global crisis.” The role of the free press in these times is not to shout fire, and certainly not to play with matches. It’s to identify the arsonists who incite violence to promote fanaticism and protect their own fragile hold on power.

Recent articles:

Cover Story: Devoted and Defiant 5 February 2006
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says he doesn't want nuclear weapons. The world is suspicious. How dangerous is he?

Shadowland: Battleground of Ideas 1 Feb 2006
Bush's State of the Union Message confirmed the Arab world's view of the U.S. president as a caricature who talks about strength and determination while projecting an image of stubbornness and confusion.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Media: Jazeera, The Guardian, Drudge Work

I sat on a pretty tedious panel at an Al Jazeera conference in Doha last week, listening to the usual attacks from fellow Americans on the "mainstream media" and predictable rants from regional journalists, on stage and off. Such is the price of participation. What surprised -- stunned me, in fact -- was a little item about the panel written by one Julia Day as part of The Guardian's online media coverage. Not only are the quotes taken out of context, they are inaccurate. One example: 20 years ago Newsweek had five permanent correspondents in Paris, which is what I said. She quoted me telling the audience there were 25. More importantly, I did not say the US media were uninterested in covering foreign news, as Day suggests, I said the American public was not interested in reading it, which makes our job a hell of a lot harder. At a conference such as this, the audience (and some panelists) labor under the impression that Americans are anxious to know what's happening in, say, Doha, and it's the mainstream media that are thwarting this great public desire for word of Qatar. One hates to disappoint, but ...

I also got a little testy listening to Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! talking about coverage of Iraq and other wars around the world as if those of us who've spent our lives reporting on conflicts would prefer to be trapped on one side of the fight "embedded" with the U.S. military. Clearly Amy has little or no experience actually trying to deliver the kind of on the ground coverage she says she wants. In a rant about the dangers posed to the press by American troops, dangers which are real enough, to be sure, she failed utterly to mention the dangers posed by the Zarqawi group and freelance kidnappers. Until I called her on it, she hadn't even mentioned the case of Jill Carroll.

I have to say I'm disappointed in The Guardian, and not surprised that its particularly crappy reporting was picked up by Drudge and others who, normally, ignore the wiser articles printed by the paper.

Fortunately, blogger Ethan Zuckerman was onstage as one of the panelists -- and blogging all the while. His coverage of the panel was considerably more fair and accurate than the mainstream Guardian:

'Christopher Dickey, the Middle East editor for Newsweek, uses his time to talk about the way the rest of the world sees the United States. Based on his experience as a foreign correspondent for 25 years, Dickey knows what the US wants from the rest of the world: “What the US wants from the rest of the world is to forget about it. Americans want to think about their future in their country and pay as little attention as possible to the rest of the world.” As a result, it’s an uphill battle for foreign correspondents. People are automatically unintererested in the stories foreign correspondents are telling. Correspondents have to seduce people into reading what people ought to be reading. Dickey reminds us that the perception that American media controls the world is pretty far from the truth - actually, American media is dying. Newsweek used to have several foreign bureaus and dozens of foreign correspondents - now Dickey is one of the very few dedicated foreign correspondents for the paper. ...

'Chris Dickey reacted somewhat sharply to Goodman’s remarks, noting “It’s damned hard to cover from ground zero.” Kidnappings and security concerns mean that American media covers the American side, while Arab media covers the Arab side. We want to cover both sides… which was what Jill Carrol was trying to do when she got kidnapped. “More journalists are being killed that ever before because they’re more expendable than ever before.”'...