Howard Kurtz’ Lament

Howard Kurtz just penned a rather petulant article in the WaPo with the byline, “Modern journalism’s Googlian algorithm isn’t as simple as Gaga + Palin x Tiger = Page views.”  Howard laments the fact that he has to “appease the Google gods” with keywords that will grab the attention of the soulless computer minds that now hold the future of “serious journalism” in the balance.  No doubt entirely similar pieces were penned a century and more ago by the builders of horse drawn conveyances, regretting the irrational taste of their fellow citizens for those noisy, stinking horseless carriages. 

Yearning for those golden days of yesteryear when the legacy media controlled the “news” and the narrative to go with it, Howard writes,

Most people don’t read publications online, patiently turning from national news to Metro to Style to the sports section. They hunt for subjects, and people, in which they’re interested. Our mission – and we have no choice but to accept it – is to grab some of that traffic that could otherwise end up at hundreds of other places, even blogs riffing off the reporting that your own publication has done.

That’s right, Howard, we now have the right to sass back.  The Internet is a wonderful thing.  It’s the greatest amplifier of free speech since the invention of moveable type, and it has effectively nullified the power of the media gatekeepers.  All of us now have the power to “riff off,” meaning we can answer and even contradict the “objective reporting” of sanctimonious journalists from our own little bully pulpits. 

Howard is so convinced that the ideological narrative he and his pals have been flogging all these years is “news” that he becomes a caricature of himself:

Naturally, those who grew up as analog reporters wonder: Is journalism becoming a popularity contest? Does this mean pieces about celebrity sex tapes will take precedence over corruption in Afghanistan? Why pay for expensive foreign bureaus if they’re not generating enough clicks? Doesn’t all this amount to pandering?

It’s incredible, really.  He’s been living in an echo chamber for so long that he can actually write stuff like that with a perfectly straight fact, and, I don’t doubt, actually believe it himself.  So “corruption in Afghanistan” is “news,” is it?  Anyone who takes that line seriously is:

        a.  Suffering from a prolonged case of sleeping sickness

        b.  A university professor in the humanities

        c.  A “serious reader” of the WaPo, or

        d.  On drugs

Corruption in Afghanistan “news,” after we’ve been getting a steady diet of it on the dead tree media for years, in spite of the rampant corruption in every other country in the region, in spite of the abundant corruption in every major country in Europe, and, more to the point, the rampant corruption right here at home?  “News,” Howard?  I think not.  Put it in Category a (ideological narrative), Subcategory b (antiwar propaganda).  You and your pals have a right to an opinion, and we’ve been familiar with your opinion concerning wars you don’t consider “just” ever since the Vietnam era, but the days when you could fob that narrative off as “news” are over, and we’re all the better for it.

Howard concludes his piece with some lugubrious observations to the effect that Obama is more popular overseas than he is at home, no doubt because the many alternative sources of information we now have at our command interfere with WaPo’s ability to “accurately” inform us about him. 

It’s unfortunate you have to put up with the indignity of worrying what the search engines think about you, Howard.  It’s a competitive world, and if you can’t compete you’ll have to close up shop.  I suspect you’ll be surprised at how little you’ll be missed.

Of Iraq, the Left, and Clouded Crystal Balls

Whenever the nation goes on the warpath, hearts on the left fondly turn to thoughts of Vietnam.  Remember what they said about about the prospects of the Bush surge succeeding in Iraq?  The Volokh Conspiracy came up with a great list of reminders a while back.  I quote them here again to help keep the memory fresh.

The only real question about the planned “surge” in Iraq — which is better described as a Vietnam-style escalation — is whether its proponents are cynical or delusional. — Paul Krugman, NYT, 1/8/07

There is nothing ahead but even greater disaster in Iraq. — NYT Editorial, 1/11/07

What anyone in Congress with half a brain knows is that the surge was sabotaged before it began. — Frank Rich, NYT, 2/11/07

Keeping troops in Iraq has steadily increased the risk of a bloodbath. The best way to reduce that risk is, I think, to announce a timetable for withdrawal and to begin a different kind of surge: of diplomacy. — Nicholas Kristof, NYT, 2/13/07

W. could have applied that to Iraq, where he has always done only enough to fail, including with the Surge — Maureen Dowd, NYT, 2/17/07

The senator supported a war that didn’t need to be fought and is a cheerleader for a surge that won’t work. — Maureen Dowd, NYT, 2/24/07

Now the ”surge” that was supposed to show results by summer is creeping inexorably into an open-ended escalation, even as Moktada al-Sadr’s militia ominously melts away, just as Iraq’s army did after the invasion in 2003, lying in wait to spring a Tet-like surprise. — Frank Rich, NYT, 3/11/07

Victory is no longer an option in Iraq, if it ever was. The only rational objective left is to responsibly organize America’s inevitable exit. That is exactly what Mr. Bush is not doing and what the House and Senate bills try to do. — NYT Editorial, 3/29/07

There is no possible triumph in Iraq and very little hope left. — NYT Editorial, 4/12/07

… the empty hope of the “surge” … — Frank Rich, NYT, 4/22/07

Three months into Mr. Bush’s troop escalation, there is no real security in Baghdad and no measurable progress toward reconciliation, while American public support for this folly has all but run out. — NYT Editorial, 5/11/07

Now the Bush administration finds itself at that same hour of shame. It knows the surge is not working. — Maureen Down, NYT, 5/27/07

Mr. Bush does have a choice and a clear obligation to re-evaluate strategy when everything, but his own illusions, tells him that it is failing. — NYT Editorial, 7/25/07

The smart money, then, knows that the surge has failed, that the war is lost, and that Iraq is going the way of Yugoslavia. — Paul Krugman, NYT, 9/14/07

A nice collection, no?  Hope springs eternal, though.  With any luck we’ll be defeated in Afghanistan.

Bush? No, I Don’t Miss Him Yet

Oh, I agree, Obama seems inept, weak, and lacking in any detectable skills as a leader. But was Bush really all that much better? He certainly didn’t stop the cancerous growth of big government. He launched a completely unnecessary war of aggression in Iraq, freeing the country of a bloody dictator in the process. For that, most Iraqis are probably more or less as grateful as the journalist who threw his shoes at W. The war cost us and continues to cost us blood and treasure that we can ill afford. He got us into another war in Afghanistan that was certainly more justifiable, but failed to take the perfectly sound advice of Donald Rumsfeld to pack up and leave quickly when it was over. Instead, we embarked on a neocon’s wet dream of “nation building,” with the predictable result that we are still bogged down there, with the left and right in cordial agreement that we face almost inevitable defeat.

Other than that, as the recent “peace flotilla” stunt reminded us, he completely failed to understand the burgeoning threat of a resurgent and politicized Islam that has now become the main contender to fill the ideological vacuum left by the demise of Communism. The evidence is all still out there on the Internet. For example, he strongly backed Turkey’s entry into the EU, as can be seen in this story that appeared in the Washington Post back in October, 2006. Fortunately, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel had other ideas.  (Of course, the Turks, with one of the fastest growing economies in the world, are probably jumping for joy that they didn’t stumble into the EU’s economic black hole, but that’s another story.)  Read the article, and you’ll see how thoroughly Bush was bamboozled by Turkey’s Islamist prime minister Erdogan.  It was “in our interests” for the rapidly radicalizing Turks to become a part of Europe. The U.S. and its Turkish “strategic partner” were “focusing on ways to counter extremism.” Bush nodded sagely as Erdogan inveighed against the use of terms like “Islamic terrorism.”

In a word, I wouldn’t exactly put nostalgia for Bush in the U.S. in the same category as nostalgia for Stalin in Russia, but it still doesn’t make a lot of sense. The choice between Bush and Obama is basically the choice between being internationally hated or internationally despised.  Take your pick.

Mineral Wealth in Afghanistan: The Saudi Arabia of Lithium?

The Grey Lady seemed positively ecstatic about recent discoveries of mineral wealth in Afghanistan in an article that appeared yesterday. The finds include iron, copper, gold, and a host of other valuable materials valued at a cool $1 trillion. The most significant of them all may turn out to be lithium. Initial analysis indicates deposits at only one location as large as those of Bolivia, the country that now has the world’s largest known reserves.

Lithium has become increasingly important lately as a component of small but powerful batteries. It will become a lot more important if fusion energy ever becomes a reality. I don’t expect this to happen anytime soon. Even if the remaining scientific hurdles can be overcome, the engineering difficulties of maintaining the extreme conditions necessary for fusion reliably over the long periods necessary to extract useful electric power would be daunting. Fusion power would likely be too expensive to compete with alternative energy sources under the best of circumstances. However, that’s my opinion, and a good number of very intelligent scientists disagree with me. If they’re right, and the upcoming proof of principle experiments at the National Ignition Facility prove far more successful than I expect, or some scientific breakthrough enables us to tame fusion on much smaller and less costly machines, fusion power may yet become a reality.

In that case, lithium may play a far more substantial role in energy production than it ever could as a component of batteries. It could literally become the metallic “oil” of the future. The reason for that is the fact that the easiest fusion reaction to tame is that between two heavy isotopes of hydrogen; namely, deuterium and tritium.  The “cross section” for the fusion reaction between these two isotopes, meaning the probability that it will occur under given conditions, becomes significant at substantially lower temperatures and pressures than competing candidates.  The fly in the ointment is the availability of fuel material.  Deuterium is abundant in nature.  Tritium, however, is not.  It must be produced artificially.  The raw material is lithium.

It happens that the fusion reaction between deuterium and tritium results in the production of a helium nucleus and a very energetic neutron.  This neutron can cause reactions in either of the two most common naturally occurring isotopes of lithium, Li-6 and Li-7, that produce tritium.  Thus, the fusion reactions that may one day produce energy for electric power could also be leveraged to breed tritium if the reaction were made to take place in the vicinity of lithium, either in a surrounding blanket or one of several other more fanciful proposed arrangements.   

As noted above, I don’t think that day is coming anytime soon.  If it when it does, Afghanistan may well become the Saudi Arabia of a new technological era of energy production.

Hamid Karzai and the Media’s Self Caricature

As you may recall, I commented a week ago on the remarkably rapid spread of the “Afghan corruption” meme in the legacy media following Obama’s brief visit to the country, with the ostensible purpose of dressing down and publicly humiliating its president, Hamid Karzai. In the interim the Afghan President has let it be known that he was less than pleased at being treated like a lackey by, among other things, adducing a highly public irritation at excessive foreign interference in his country’s affairs, and mooting the intriguing possibility of jumping ship to the Taliban. Of course, all this was highly predictable assuming Karzai had more spine than a wet noodle, which he apparently does. Obama’s media poodles are certainly aware of this, making their “interpretation” of the Afghan president’s reaction all the more comical.

For example, CNN’s Jack Cafferty is “shocked, shocked” at Karzai’s recent behavior, opining, “with friends like this, who needs enemies.” One of his more clairvoyant commenters chimed in, “Get out of that country and Iraq. Bring our boys home and fight terrorism from within our own country by protecting it from outsiders and keeping a close eye on who we already have living here.” It must be great for Jack to have readers who pick up on the narrative that quickly.

Over at MSNBC, Mark Rosenball gives his readers a multiple choice quiz on what’s wrong with the Afghan president. Knowing how perceptive my readers are, I’ll bet you can guess the right answer without even seeing the rest. That’s right! The correct answer is: C. Karzai is on drugs.

Of course, in every business there’s always that 5% who just never get the word. In journalism it’s usually the guys who write the Op-Ed page. If memory serves, H.L. Mencken, the sage of Baltimore, referred to them as being one rung lower on the ladder than writers of obituaries. Sure enough, there was a piece entitled “The Karzai Problem” right at the top of the Wapo editorials on Tuesday that blurted out, “Hamid Karzai is proving, at least, that public acrimony between the U.S. and Afghan presidents will not be a one-way street… The question remains whether airing these differences in public helps or hurts the U.S. mission in Afghanistan… and it’s hard to see how public disparagement of Mr. Karzai helps.” How that got by all those layers of editors is beyond me, but the “Independent Newspaper” got back in step with alacrity. The very next day they rediscovered the essential truth that “Karzai is a bad partner,” and doubled down on the “corruption” meme.

Well, the national value added tax idea went over like a lead balloon, wars are expensive, and the Administration has to scare up some cash one way or another. So long, Hamid. It’s been nice knowin’ ya.


Afghan Corruption: New Memes and Old Ploys

Memes; it’s amazing how fast they spread these days.  Today’s meme du jour was “Afghan Corruption.”  You couldn’t miss it.  I happened to stroll past the newspaper stand at the local drugstore, and saw the headline, “In Afghan trip, Obama presses Karzai on graft” on the grey lady.  The Wapo chimed in with, “Obama presses Karzai for cooperation; U.S. wants government cleanup in Afghanistan.”  There was a picture of Obama wearing the stern face he likely uses to lecture his children accompanied by a chastened Karzai.  Beneath this some “news analysis” bearing the headline, “For the U.S., Afghan corruption is an elusive target,” was thrown in for good measure.  I almost swallowed my gum when I saw that Newsweek had an “Afghan Corruption” cover, in perfect harmony with the dailies.  Now that was fast!  Sure enough, when I got back to my computer I found “Obama calls on Karzai to push reforms” on the front page of the LA Times, and so on down the list of the usual suspects. 

I can only recommend that Karzai get over the humiliation of being treated like a schoolboy instead of the leader of an independent state.  He’ll have to get used to it.  It’s one of those “change” things that comes with the new dispensation.  Benjamin Netanyahu could have told him.  If the US happens to have a firm grip on your country’s balls, you’ll just need to deal with being humiliated and treated with contempt. 

Meanwhile, he might consider polishing up his resume.  As those governments of yesteryear sanguine enough to trust the United States as an ally have learned, charges of “corruption” are the traditional rationalization for throwing our “friends” under the bus as we, once again, skedaddle.  This time around, I’m sure Obama is in no mood to be trifled with.  He needs big dough to finance health care “reform” and “job creation.”  Where’s it to come from if we don’t extract ourselves from all these silly wars?  And, after all, he’s been conscientious, hasn’t he?  He already tried the surge thing.  The stage will soon be set for him to exit, stage left.

No Military Solution?

It’s a persistent meme, isn’t it? You can see recent examples of it here, here, here and here. If you care to see a few thousand more examples, Google is ready and waiting. The interesting thing about it is that it’s completely ridiculous on the face of it. If nigh unto 5000 years of recorded history are any guide, there have been military solutions to virtually any human conflict of interest you can imagine, including countless situations entirely analogous to that faced by the U.S. and its allies in Afghanistan today.  This particular meme hasn’t acquired legs because its true, but because people who live in any number of different ideological boxes want it to be true.  Of course, it lacks what mathematicians would call symmetry.  Military solutions may not be available to us, but, oddly enough, they are invariably available to our enemies.  Just ask them.  For that matter, just ask the people reciting the meme.

Springtime for the Defeatists

When generals in a democracy say “we are losing the war,” it tends to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Whether true or not, such pronouncements inevitably become powerful psychological weapons in the hands of our enemies, and are thus better left unsaid, at least in public. Our military caste somehow manages to remain ignorant of such elementary aspects of modern asymmetric warfare. At the highest levels, our system tends to produce military commanders who are highly competent in doing what they’ve been trained to do, but lack the imagination and originality necessary to deal with the unexpected. Occasionally, genius is indispensable, but one would search in vain for a Napoleon or an Alexander among our generals. Instead, we produce Westmorelands and McChrystals. As the comment above would seem to demonstrate, we also produce political imbeciles who have somehow concluded that we can turn the situation around by throwing gasoline on the smoldering fires of defeatism.

The result is as inevitable as it was predictable. One detects an increasing stench of defeatism in the media, not only from its usual sources on the left, but from the right as well. For example, today CNN treats us to the umpteen billionth “ghost of Vietnam” story to appear since our troops went into combat. No doubt they’re preening themselves on their originality. USA Today joins the crowd in reporting on the resignation of Matthew Hoh from the State Department, with the usual highlighting of such weepy remarks as “”I have lost understanding of and confidence in the strategic purposes of the United States’ presence in Afghanistan.” Great job, Matthew! That’s bound to get us back on the right track. ABC News chimes in with more judiciously chosen quotes from Hoh’s letter, such as, “To put simply, I fail to see the value or the worth in the continued U.S. casualties or expenditures of resources in support of the Afghan government in what is, truly, a 35-year-old civil war,” Ah, yes, the “civil war” meme. That old chestnut is sure to please traditionalists. Look at the web pages of the Wall Street Journal, Foxnews, the Washington Times, etc., and you’ll find the same stories spun in almost the same way. Apparently defeat in Afghanistan is as palatable to the right as it is to the left if only it discredits Obama.

Say what you will about George W. Bush, he was unmoved by the ebb and flow of defeatist propaganda during his administration. He really did “stay the course,” in spite of the derisive remarks of the usual know-it-alls. As a result, the Iraqi people have at least a fighting chance of avoiding a slide back into dictatorship or theocracy. He was no philosopher king, but at least he was made of sterner stuff than Obama. The President appears more inclined to apologize to our enemies than fight them, and he is likely casting about for some graceful way to skedaddle in Afghanistan even as we speak. The increasingly shrill tone of defeatist propaganda will make it easier for him.

Well, what of it? As noted above, these developments were abundantly predictable and, given the limitations of our military leadership, probably inevitable. Is there a lesson here? Not really, other than the one that we should have learned a long time ago; modern democracies are anything but steadfast in fighting determined insurgents, particularly if their populations are as fickle and spineless as the current citizens of the United States. If we send in the troops, we should do so only with a well considered plan to get them back out again, and that with alacrity, before the famously insubstantial national backbone once again turns to jelly. In retrospect, the remarks of our much abused former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, sound remarkably prescient. For example, from a speech delivered in February, 2003:

Afghanistan belongs to the Afghans. The objective is not to engage in what some call nation building. Rather it’s to try to help the Afghans so that they can build their own nation. This is an important distinction. In some nation building exercises well-intentioned foreigners arrive on the scene, look at the problems and say let’s fix it. This is well motivated to be sure, but it can really be a disservice in some instances because when foreigners come in with international solutions to local problems, if not very careful they can create a dependency.

A long-term foreign presence in a country can be unnatural. This has happened in several places with large foreign presence. The economies remained unreformed and distorted to some extent. Educated young people can make more money as drivers for foreign workers than as doctors and civil servants. Despite good intentions and the fine work of humanitarian workers individually, there can be unintended adverse side effects.

Our goal in Afghanistan is to try and not create a culture of dependence but rather to promote [inaudible]. Long-term stability comes not from the presence of foreign forces but from the development of functioning local institutions. That’s why in the area of security we have been helping to train for example the Afghan National Army. Our coalition partners have been training the police. And the goal is so that Afghans over time can take full responsibility for their own security and stability rather than having to depend on foreign forces versus for a sustained period.

When Rumsfeld was in office, an abundance of geniuses appeared who assured us they knew how to do his job much better than he did. In retrospect, we probably should have ignored the geniuses and paid more attention to him. The next time we feel the yen to embark on another military adventure, we should reflect on the fact that some of the biggest cheerleaders for such projects in the recent past became hand-wringing, hysterical defeatists a disconcertingly short time after the troops were actually on the ground. We will surely have an abundance of such heroes to “help” us the next time around as well. Before we commit our forces to another ill-considered war, we’d do well to recall that there are legions of Matthew Hohs in our midst, useful idiots who are adept at persuading themselves that collaboration with the enemy is both a noble moral good and a patriotic duty. They will always be with us, and they will always make the cost of victory higher the longer our troops are engaged.

UPDATE: I take it from John McCain’s cry in the dark that he has also noticed that the water is up to our chin and climbing. Of course, he’s right. We can win in Afghanistan. The enemy is much less formidable than he was in Vietnam. It’s a matter of national will. In fact, that’s just the problem.