Archives For: Keepers

Live-Blogging The Case For War

Sep 10 2014 @ 9:32pm

9.51 pm. Here’s the best rationale I can think of for what the president has just announced. If we simply left ISIS alone, there’s a real danger that it could begin to organize in such a way as to threaten the US. That in itself reveals the craven dependency that the regional powers still have with respect to this kind of Salafist fanaticism – but it remains a fact. We can do a few things from the air to make ISIS’s life a lot harder, and hope to God that yet more American bombs in Iraq won’t go astray or provoke an even more intense reaction. Maybe the non-Salafist Syrian opposition can get its act together, but maybe it can’t. At best, the strategy is simply to try to contain ISIS with airpower. And that’s basically it. Another Sunni Awakening? That’s the hope. But at this point it’s surely just a hope.

So this is really a police action which does not end crime, cannot apprehend the criminals but can keep the criminals from getting a firmer footing for a while. As long as we are cognizant of that, we can judge its relative success or failure. But it contains no inkling of what the unintended consequences will be, leaves Obama open to even more pressure to send ground troops in if things go South, and allows the Congress to shirk any responsibility to declare war. Apart from all that, it’s brilliant.

9.42 pm. Notice a few salient things: the utter vagueness of the end-game; the refusal to go to Congress for a new war; not even a gesture toward telling us how we actually pay for this amorphous thing (with the Republicans suddenly losing any interest in the debt); no real sense of whether the Iraqi and Syrian forces can really fight ISIS, with or without US air support; and the grand coalition of Sunni Arab states … well, it looks like the Saudis may be rattled enough to help – but you don’t hear a peep from the Gulf states or Jordan.

This is an almost text-book case for not starting a war. I have come to the conclusion that the administration saw a kind of tipping point on the ground with ISIS, has no real solution, and improvised this strategy on the fly. And as far as the model in Yemen and Somalia, well …


And the beat goes on …

9.37 pm. Hard to disagree:

Now, Obama has never denied he is prepared to wage a long war of attrition against Islamist terrorism. So it is not exactly a U-turn to target ISIS the way we targeted al Qaeda in Af-Pak. But if you do not buy the idea that mere force works against Islamist terror – because in a terror war, force can actually embitter and create as much terrorism as it prevents – then this is a grueling conclusion. It means a state of permanent warfare. It sets a precedent that the US can be baited into this kind of action by any two-bit Jihadist with a social media account and a few scary videos.

Do we think American bombs raining down on Iraq again will win us friends? Apparently we do.

9.36 pm. Tweet of the night:

9.30 pm. So here we are. The strategy is not to defeat a direct threat to the United States, because there is no such threat at present. The strategy is to contain ISIS through US airpower, the Kurds, the Iraqi “Army”, and by trying to get the Saudis to work the tribes to turn a critical mass of Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis against the Salafists and toward Baghdad. I presume air-strikes in Syria will be designed to cut off ISIS’ supply lines across the now non-existent border. I don’t doubt there will be special forces on the ground.

There will also be old-school American service-members on the ground in Iraq to help train the Kurds and the central government forces. Somehow, along (one presumes) with massive bribes as during the first “Awakening”, this will turn the tide.

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The great and wonderful thing about being a neoconservative is not just that you never have to come to terms with your mistakes – because you are never, ever wrong – but you can also write the same column again and again across decades and Washington will still find you a deep and meaningful thinker. You know the two-step by now: plug in any foreign crisis, call it the 1930s, campaign for war, and pick up your welfare check from a think tank.

Here’s Bob Kagan, as noted by Peter Beinart, on the rise of ISIS among the Sunnis in Iraq after the war Kagan championed and has never apologized for:

The Obama Administration’s current policy invites Islamist adventurism abroad and repression at home. At the beginning of this bloody century, we all should have learned that appeasement, even when disguised as engagement, doesn’t work.

Actually, those sentences were slightly adapted from a column Kagan wrote in 1998, when he and Bill Kristol were itching for a fight with China (which was as good as they could get at the time, before al Qaeda came along). They didn’t get their Cold War then, but after 9/11, they sure hit the jackpot. Their conclusion from those futile, costly catastrophes? Let’s have another one – to deal with the fateful consequences of the first.

But really: Chamberlain again? 1931? Are they that lazy? Yes they are! But how does someone in 2014 actually write the following?

Until recent events, at least, a majority of Americans (and of the American political and intellectual classes) seem to have come close to concluding not only that war is horrible but also that it is ineffective in our modern, globalized world.

Gee, Bob, why on earth would any American conclude that war is ineffective these days? Maybe it’s because we tried it for a decade in Iraq and made things far worse than they were in the first place. Maybe it’s because the longest ever American war in Afghanistan seems destined for the exact same conclusion. Maybe because we’ve seen its horrors in the memories of so many whom we have lost and the faces of so many more trying to overcome the trauma – physical and emotional – of the horror in Iraq he and I urged upon the country so eagerly.

Beinart sketches the extraordinary number of wars, air-strikes, drone-strikes and the like that have already gone on under this administration:

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And so ISIS’ medieval brutality and horrifying videos have worked like a charm:

Support for military action has risen dramatically in just the past few weeks, coinciding with the beheadings of two American Daily News Front Page James Foleyjournalists, James Foley and Steven Sotloff, which were recorded on video and released to the world by Islamic State terrorists. Today, 71 percent of all Americans say they support airstrikes in Iraq — up from 54 percent three weeks ago and from 45 percent in June. Among those who say Obama has been too cautious, 82 percent support the strikes; among those who think his handling of international affairs has been about right, 66 percent support them.

Nearly as many Americans — 65 percent — say they support the potentially more controversial action of launching airstrikes in Syria, which Obama has not done. That is more than double the level of support a year ago for launching airstrikes to punish the Syrian regime for using chemical weapons … Nine in 10 Americans now see the militants as a serious threat to vital U.S. interests, and roughly 6 in 10 say they are a very serious threat.

But I have yet to see or be shown any solid intelligence that suggests that these fanatics are aiming at the US. We may well have a problem of home-grown Jihadists returning and wreaking havoc – but that is a manageable threat. And direct military intervention by the West could easily increase these losers’ incentives to strike us here at home. So, in that narrow sense, this return to fighting other people’s civil wars in the Middle East may actually increase the risks to us. That’s what I mean by “taking the bait“.

More worryingly, the president appears to be choosing September 11 to make the case for a war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The fear factor is thereby evoked all the more powerfully – and any return to normality, or restraint, or prudence that we have slowly achieved since then will be wiped away. I just ask you: did that fear and terror help us make wise decisions about foreign policy back then? Do we really want to recreate that atmosphere – with no solid evidence of a tangible threat to the US?

I await the president’s proof of ISIS’ threat to America and the West. And not the kind of intelligence that gave us the Iraq War. I await the proof of an eager coalition of every Iraqi sect to destroy ISIS – and a broad regional coalition united to prevent its consolidation of gains. Then, it seems to me, there must be a declaration of war by the Senate if this open-ended, unknowable military intervention is to be embarked upon. Every Senator and House member should be on record, ahead of the November elections, on this question. If they want war, they must take full responsibility for it, and not play partisan games to score points off it.

Maybe it’s because I was not exposed to the news cycle of the last few weeks that I still see things this way. Maybe I’m wrong and ISIS really does have the means and the will to attack the US or the West.

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Are We Being Baited?

Sep 8 2014 @ 1:28pm

Here’s another thing I missed last month: the horrific beheadings of James Foley and Steve Sotloff. Jonah made, I thought, a key point:

Foley and Sotloff are but two among nearly 70 journalists killed while covering the conflict in Syria, hundreds who have been brutally murdered by ISIS jihadists in similarly gruesome fashion, and nearly 200,000 casualties of a civil war gone hopelessly off the rails.

And yet the two beheadings seem to have turned public and elite opinion in ways that none of this previous horror has. In a month, the Daily News Front Page James Foleydiscourse has shifted from whether to counter ISIS to how to do so. In a month, everyone has agreed, it appears, that ISIS is a menace and that there has to be a US-led coalition to degrade and defeat it. The slippery slope toward the logic of war – which would be, by any estimation, a mere continuation of the war begun in 2003 – has been so greased there seems barely any friction.

This is the striking new fact of America this fall: re-starting the war in Iraq is now something that does not elicit immediate and horrified rejection by the president or the Congress. The GOP is daring Obama to go all-in as GWB, Round Two.

We should be wary of this! David Carr has a typically rich assessment of the production values and staging of the two beheading videos by ISIS, and it seems quite clear why they were made:

The executioner is cocky and ruthless, seemingly eager to get to the task at hand. When he does attack his bound victim, only the beginning is shown and then there is a fade to black. Once the picture returns, the head of the victim is carefully arranged on the body, all the violence of the act displayed in a bloody tableau. There is another cutaway, and the next potential victim is shown with a warning that he may be next.

“It is an interesting aesthetic choice not to show the actual beheading,” Alex Gibney, a documentary filmmaker, said. “I can’t be sure, but they seemed to dial it back just enough so that it would get passed around. In a way, it makes it all the more chilling, that it was so carefully stage-managed and edited to achieve the maximum impact.”

Like the horrifying images of 9/11, these images scramble our minds. And they are designed to. They are designed to awake the primordial instincts and the existential fear that Salafist fundamentalists thrive on. The direct spoken message to Obama puts this unbalanced British loser on a par with the president of a super-power – and, by reacting so comprehensively to it – the president has unwittingly given these poseurs a much bigger platform. More to the point, by already committing the United States to ultimately destroying ISIS, the president has committed this country to a war he was elected to avoid. Don’t tell me about “no ground troops”. If your mission is destroying something, and ground troops become at some point essential to that mission, the mission will creep – or they will claim victory.

I will wait and give the president a chance to make his best case Wednesday night. But let me say upfront: I deeply distrust wars that are prompted by this kind of emotion, however justified the emotion may be.

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The World From Off-Grid

Sep 8 2014 @ 12:37pm


When I first started blogging fourteen years ago, I always gave myself a month off in August. I’d never worked as hard as a journalist before, and the absorption of so much information together with the expenditure of so much energy and attention made me long for the empty days of late summer. And, of course, when I look now at the kind of blog I produced back then, it seems like a luxurious well of indolence. In a regular month, I’d write 70 posts; now the number is around a thousand – made possible by the team that now edits, creates and curates this blog. If the ratio of time off to blog-posts were calculated, even a month off now is really a week off back then. The exhaustion is more extreme; the recovery longer; the pace ever-faster.

It is fashionable to speak of the end of blogs these days, but in fact, almost everyone now has a blog, it seems to me. Everyone’s Facebook page is a blog of sorts; Twitter is a more efficient way of showering the world with little links and ideas (aka blogging like Glenn Reynolds, who was, in retrospect, a tweeter as a blogger); Instagram makes everyone a photo-blogger and aggregator. And so the month off becomes, in fact, much more necessary – and yet far more elusive. I get to take a month off because I own this thing – but it is not lost on me that, these days, that is almost a fathomless luxury. And to go not simply off-grid, but off-off-grid (in a place where no Internet signal can be found) suggests the desperation for rest and peace that we now all routinely experience.

So what do I see from off-off- the grid? I don’t see our virtual lives as chimerae, or imposters, or fakes. Like David Roberts, I see them as often rich aspects of our social lives, more accessible to the introvert (ahem), and opening up new avenues of communication and understanding. Roberts channels Montaigne here:

I don’t have any illusions about the inherent moral/spiritual superiority of meatspace friends and interactions. I don’t view my online life as some kind of inauthentic performance in contrast to a meatspace life lived as the Real Me. I can trace a great deal of the richness in my life back to digital roots.

The fact is, all our interactions are performances, even those interactions we experience as purely internal (that internal monologue). They are all shaped by larger cultural and economic forces. That’s because human beings are social creatures, not contingently but inherently. We are always ourselves in relation to someone or something; interacting with others is how children form their sense of being separate, autonomous agents. There is no homunculus, no true, authentic, indivisible self or soul underneath all the layers of social intercourse. It’s social all the way down.

I don’t think I’d go that far – there are things called genes, after all – but I do share his rejection of the notion that virtual life is inherently worth less than real life.

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Back From The Desert

Sep 7 2014 @ 9:38pm

It’s particularly impressive, it seems to me, that Grover Norquist went to Burning Man and wrote this about it to be published on the Tuesday after. I can barely type even now, and it’s been almost a week since I left. I guess we had somewhat different experiences.

Which is the point, no? I loved this post on the Burning Man blog defending Grover from all the haters (which kinda channeled Freddie’s great post):

While you may disagree with [Grover] about aspects of Burning Man, and while his experiences of 2014′s Burning Man may not be your experiences, there’s absolutely no doubt that he did, in fact, experience Burning Man: that he got out of it what the rest of us get out of it, and that he wants more the same way we all do.

Good for him. Good for us. Not only because if “radical self-expression” means anything at all it means having your own opinions about important issues, and if “radical inclusion” means anything at all it means not imposing a party line if we can possibly avoid it. More than that: why would we want to belong to a movement so precious that you already have to agree with a set of pre-fabricated conclusions just to get your foot in the door?

Screw that. If that’s what you want, there are already plenty of places you can go where people will sit around agreeing with each other in total smugness, thoroughly convinced that if there were to somehow be another opinion in the world it would be wrong because it would be different.

Screw that.

Yeah, screw that.

At this point, I suppose, I am expected to give my version of my week in the desert, in the bowels of a throbbing, mobile homosexual sheep (for that was my camp). But as I got more and more used to what was, to all intents and purposes, another world for a week, I realized I 10671349_756474594394418_1653192549247640600_ndidn’t want to share much of it with the outside. It was a wondrous experience, one hard to convey in words, in which a merry band of brothers made new friendships and deepened old ones. I need a special space for where words don’t matter and I would only befoul it with more words. So if you want to understand it – and I can’t say I fully do yet – go there. No one can experience it for you.

For me, part of its allure was that I was with an old dear friend, and part was its utter separation from my normal life. I had no phone service, let alone an Internet connection. I put my wallet away as soon as I got there. From then on, I had total freedom to explore a place which total freedom had created. My friend took almost poignant care of me – while occasionally (okay, often) bursting into laughter at something I had said or done. I guess it’s good to get laughed at in the desert once in a while. And we laughed a hell of a lot.

Two moments stick in my mind.

One night as we were traversing the darkest playa, the colored lights on our bikes serving as some kind of guide, we came across one of the countless art cars. This was a relatively simple one: it looked like an iron house perched on wheels, with a spiral staircase inside which you ascended to reach the second floor … which had nothing but a balcony. So we went out there and looked at the stars – you can actually see them there – and a tall dude in a white floor-length fur coat, covered with fairy lights, arrived with a ukelele. He proceeded, quite simply and quietly, to sing “Across The Universe” and we joined in.

And then, one morning, having stayed up all night (again), I was biking homeward in the gathering heat when I saw a man emerge from the dust ahead of me like an Old Testament prophet, holding a paper plate up high as if he were offering something to the gods. Then, in one of several Burning Man moments, I realized he was offering something to me. “Would you like some bacon?” he asked me, lowering the plate so I could see and deliriously smell the still-sizzling little things. “Yes, please,” I said, which was, at that point the extent of my conversational skills. I had nothing to offer him back, but by that time, I had gotten used to the random acts of kindness and generosity that peppered my time there. So I simply said thank you and went on my way.

A giant THANK YOU to the Dish team and the guest-bloggers who made my real vacation from everything possible: to the Dish staff who proved this blog can thrive independently of me, and who already edit and write most of the Dish with such flair, and passion and imagination – Chris and Patrick, Jessie and Chas, Matt, Jonah and Tracy, Alice and Phoebe; and to guest-bloggers Elizabeth Nolan-Brown, Bill McKibben, Sue Halpern, Freddie DeBoer and Alex Pareene. A thank you too to the reader who wrote her account of her own rape. It’s open tenderness like that that makes this such a vital, raw and real space.

And thanks to you for showing up in such large numbers – August was a huge traffic month without me – and sustaining the conversation about the world while I was in another one. So much happened while I was away that I am still grappling with all of it and will have much more to say tomorrow. But it was lovely for a while to be in something of a utopia, which like all utopias, cannot really exist, except as a mirage, and will always end in ashes and dust.

It stays with you, that sense of that place. And, with luck and grace, changes you.

See you in the morning.

(Photo of the BAAAHS sheep by Louisa Corbett.)

by Jonah Shepp

At one point or another in my short life so far, I think I have held every position on Israel that it is possible to hold, from militant support to equally militant opposition. But this summer, I briefly reverted to the right-wing Zionism of my teenage years, at least for the purposes of Facebook. Amid the Gaza war, my feed was suddenly inundated with denunciations of the racist, fascist, Zionazi terrorist state. There wasn’t much to love in the rants about the ZOG or conspiratorial nonsense about ISIS being an Israeli-American plot, but what really got my goat were comments like this one:

Settlers can go back to anti-semitic Europe where they came from! … Every last zionist shall be kicked out and notice the emphasis on the word zionist. Jews however are welcome to stay and woreship like they have among us for the past 1500 years. (sic)

This oft-expressed distinction between Zionists and Jews betrays a total misunderstanding of what Zionism is and what Israel means to most Jews. Palestinians who say that “the Zionists” must go but “the Jews” can stay need to come to grips with the fact that Zionism, at its core, is about creating a space where Jews do not need someone else’s permission to live. Diaspora Jews of my generation may be much less attached to Israel than our parents and grandparents, but when push comes to shove, we’d rather it exist than not, because we know that our permission to live freely and safely in any other country can be withdrawn at any moment. In our history as a people, we have seen it happen time and time again with devastating consequences. With a well-armed territorial state to our name, we no longer have to fear those consequences.

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by Alex Pareene


WARNING: This is a post, by a media professional, about the media. If you are a normal human being, you will not and definitely should not care, except inasmuch as it’s part of a debate about whether or not we, the media, are failing you, the normal human being. If you are looking for something a little more general-interest, may I recommend, I dunno, a 10,000-word Grantland post about a prestige cable show. Or make some fantasy football trades. Or read a book, I don’t know!

On Wednesday, I wrote about Takes. My piece was a blog post, written on the fly, based on ideas that have been rattling around in my head for a while. If I’d taken the time – say a week, or a month – to organize those thoughts better, and clarify my argument, I would’ve written a very different – and almost certainly better – piece. But I didn’t do that (I am only guesting here at The Dish for one short week, after all), so I now cheerfully admit that, as my (friendly) critics contend, I conflated a few different Internet tropes. Specifically, in the words of Jack Dickey, I conflated “aggregated picayune garbage with the Take.”

So let’s get into this a bit more. Here are the primary types of garbage content that lots of money – money that could be spent on making good things – is currently being spent on producing:

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The Taking Of The Media

Sep 3 2014 @ 1:37pm
by Alex Pareene

The Awl’s John Herrman brings us his take on Takes, the online media phenomenon wherein nearly every single outlet that produces “content” finds itself compelled to produce some sort of content related to some sort of news (or pseudo-news), despite having no original reporting or intelligent analysis to add. The problem is that generating actual news is difficult, time-consuming and expensive. Writing incisive analysis requires time to process, reflect, and refine one’s arguments. But the Internet needs those Takes now, while the topic is trending:

Take creators might have caught themselves saying things like “that, my friends, is why you never take nude photos of yourself,” or “just a reminder that, actually, sex is natural.” There were Takes on privacy and gender and consent and free speech issued with and without conviction. Everyone with an outlet—or, really, everyone, since the great democratization of Take distribution tools coaxed previously private Takes out from bars and dining rooms and into the harsh sunlight—found themselves under the spell of that horrible force that newspaper columnists feel every week, the one that eventually ruins every last one: the dreadful pull of a guaranteed audience.

The “we need to have something on this” impulse leads to the worst (professional) writing on the web. We all learn this anew each time some poor 20-something content producer writes some exceptionally dumb take, and everyone spends a few hours piling on the outlet that published it. But the attention-grabbing Offensive Takes only obscure the fact that all the inoffensive takes – the ephemeral, aggregated, feather-light blog posts telling people who already know that something happened that something happened, produced solely in the hopes that the post will, through luck and a bit of dark magic, win the Facebook algorithm lottery – are the most depressing pieces of writing on the web, for the reader and the writer.

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by Alex Pareene

SLUG: ME-Ammo DATE: August 23, 2007 CREDIT: James M. Threshe

Let’s talk about “officer-involved shootings.” That is the formal term, used by seemingly all American local news broadcasts, for when a cop shoots someone. Instead of saying “‘Cops’ crew member killed by police officer,” the headline is, “‘Cops’ crew-member killed after officer-involved shooting.” (It just sort of happened, after that shooting.) There is also “police involved shooting,” a term I first noticed being used by the local New York evening news team last May.

These terms are terrible and journalists should not use them. They are cop-speak. Local news reporters love nothing more than adopting cop-speak, because local news is built on manufacturing fear of crime and venerating of police officers, but both of these terms fail the crucial test of actually being coherent explanations of what happened. Of course police would invent an obfuscatory euphemism for when they shoot people – they would be fools not to try to come up with a nice way of saying “we killed someone” – but the press’ job is supposed to be to translate those euphemisms into plain English.

“Officer-involved shooting” absolves the person who actually pulled the trigger of responsibility, turning the shooting into an apparently inevitable act. The officer was just involved! As Natasha Lennard at Vice News puts it:

The phrase “police-involved shooting” is a careful construction, which, like the criminal justice system more broadly, tends to point blame away from cops. It is code for “the cops shot someone.”

To a reporter, “officer-involved shooting” should sound as grating to the ear as “bear-involved large mammal attack.”

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