The Value of Being There

The Buzz

Following a New York Times Magazine article about the challenges of conducting diplomacy while under security threat, the Times’ Bill Keller has expanded the conversation to similar tensions faced by journalists.

The death toll for journalists in dangerous situations is high—the Committee to Protect Journalists counts 956 since 1992. Keller notes that the Times is “running out of [meeting] rooms” to name after its fallen correspondents. Just like in diplomacy, a risk-averse culture has developed at some media outlets, leading to lower-quality coverage by reporters unable to move about freely and independently. Combined with newspapers’ shrinking revenues and “a wrongheaded belief that Americans don’t care that much about foreign news,” Keller sees a major shift in the media’s presence abroad—as of 2010,

Eighteen American newspapers and two entire newspaper chains had closed every one of their overseas bureaus. Other news outlets, including most TV networks, have downsized or abandoned full-time bureaus in favor of reporters or anchors who parachute in when there’s a crisis. They give us spurts of coverage when an Arab Spring breaks out or Hamas fires rockets into Israel, but much less of the ongoing attention that would equip us to see crises coming and understand them when they erupt.

This, says Keller, leads to mistakes as stories are written by reporters who aren’t even in the same country. Journalists for major publications writing from Cairo, Washington, and New York reported (as the U.S. government would) that the Benghazi consulate attack was carried out by a mob angered by the Muhammad video, only to be corrected later by journalists who were actually there.

A similar phenomenon occurred during the 2009 Iranian presidential-election protests. Thanks to better Internet and English skills, America heard more from the opposition than from others. This was a product of Iran’s postfeudal society, where class and political views are often entwined—the urbane upper and middle classes that had always loathed Ahmadinejad were also the ones learning English and tweeting. The result was an incredible torrent of anti-government coverage; the media at the time were concerned with sorting through it all, checking facts, and making sure everybody knew what a whole lot of tweets were tweeted. They did not seem aware—as anyone familiar with Iranian society should be—that the tweets were never going to be a cross-section of Iranian opinion. The result was an impression that the regime was being fought by the overwhelming majority of its people. The truth was far more complex.

More journalists on the ground—especially journalists with a deep familiarity with Iranian society—could have led to a fuller picture. However, the regime was heavily restricting Western journalists' access, and those with Iranian citizenship (even if they were dual citizens of Western countries) faced arrest and torture. The media didn't turn to Twitter because it was lazy (well, not entirely because it was lazy) but because many other options had been eliminated.

Keller is quite right that journalism needs to be wary of choosing safety over access, and his call for journalists on the scene—not staffers half a world away—to make final decisions about risk is sensible. But a fundamental question still remains: how can governments too repressive or badlands too unstable for safe access be covered accurately and comprehensively?


Does the GOP Need A New William F. Buckley, Jr.?

Jacob Heilbrunn

William F. Buckley became despondent about the conservative movement in general, and the actions of the George W. Bush White House in particular, towards the end of his life. It was the influence of the neocons that he seemed to rue most as the Iraq war ground on and conservatism came into ill-repute. It's hard to avoid the feeling that Buckley, who played a pivotal role in creating modern conservatism, felt that it had morphed into something of a Frankenstein. His own son, Christopher Buckley, was effectively purged from National Review over his publicly voiced disaffection with the policies of the Bush administration and the direction of conservatism in the form of an endorsement of Barack Obama for president in 2008.

So would the conservative movement benefit from a return of a Buckley-like figure to rescue it from its current torpor? That's the argument of David Welch, a former researcher for the Republican National Committee, in the New York Times. As Welch depicts it, the lunatics have taken over the asylum in the GOP. Just as Buckley ran the John Birch Society out of the GOP in the early 1960s, so establishment conservatives must exorcise the spell of Tea Party members over the GOP. Here is Welch:

The modern-day Birchers are the Tea Party. By loudly espousing extreme rhetoric, yet holding untenable beliefs, they have run virtually unchallenged by the Republican leadership, aided by irresponsible radio talk-show hosts and right-wing pundits. While the Tea Party grew, respected moderate voices in the party were further pushed toward extinction. Republicans need a Buckley to bring us back.

Buckley often took issue with liberal-minded members of his party, like Nelson A. Rockefeller, and he gave some quarter to opponents of civil rights legislation. But he placed great faith in the Republican establishment and its brand of mainstream conservatism, which he called the “politics of reality.”

Does Welch's argument hold up?

One problem is that he is demonizing the Tea Party. It is true that the Tea Party contains members who are bonkers. But it's something of a stretch to liken it to the Birchers, who believed that Dwight Eisenhower was a dupe of the Kremlin and that there was an establishment cabal, headed by Jewish bankers and members of the Council on Foreign Relations, often one and the same, who were secretly running America, and not for the better. The Tea Party, by contrast, harkens back to older libertarian strains in American history—it's opposed to taxes and big government. If anything, it is a movement that has distinct Jeffersonian strains. The Birchers were fascists; to apply that label to the Tea Party adherents is unpersuasive.

Welch goes on to argue,

Replacing Buckley — an erudite and prolific force of nature — with one individual is next to impossible. But we don’t need to. We can face the extremists with credible, respected leaders who have offered conservative policies that led to Republican victories.

Dare I say it, or should I just whisper the word? We need “the Establishment.” We need officials like former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida and Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, operatives like Karl Rove and Republican Party institutions.

Yes, Christie and Bush could help pull the GOP back to more sensible positions. But invoking the example of Buckley is not the way to do it. The truth is that Buckley launched his own crusade against the Republican establishment, against the middle-of-the-road moderation espoused by Eisenhower. Buckley himself was a pal of Senator Joseph McCarthy's and on the right of the party. He set out to destroy the traditional Republican party with his own insurgency. He succeeded. That is the story of modern conservatism. But like many revolutionaries, Buckley saw his own movement lurch out of control. The Leninists took over in the form of the neocons—endless wars in the Middle East, blind support for Israel, bloated military budgets, extravagant budget deficits, the very policies driving America toward fiscal ruin. Now the right resembles, as Sam Tanenhaus has put it in The Death of Conservatism, "the exhumed figures of Pompeii, trapped in postures of frozen flight, clenched in the rigor mortis of a defunct ideology."

What Welch is really calling for is an anti-Buckley to reanimate the GOP. In my view the most intriguing thinking on the right, as David Brooks has noted, is taking place among the renegades at the plucky American Conservative, where libertarian propositions are freely aired, where American foreign policy is invigilated, and where, above all, few shibboleths are left unchallenged. It has the feel of what Buckley's magazine once represented, an insurgent movement with little to lose and much to gain. But whether that can translate into actual political influence is an open question. Welch urges a different tack: the emergence of an establishment figure from the ranks of the moderate establishment that Buckley originally set out to destroy. But as Geoffrey Kabaservice has chronicled in his new book Rule and Ruin, it would be a herculean task to reconstitute it. Will anyone rise to the challenge? And will anyone be listening?

TopicsThe Presidency RegionsUnited States

Going Over the Politicians' Heads

Paul Pillar

President Obama is currently taking starkly different approaches in dealing with two of his chief nemeses: Congressional Republicans and the Israeli government. The former, of course, are his principal antagonists in the tussle over the budget. With the fiscal cliff nearing, and despite some signs of cracks in the no-tax-increase orthodoxy, Republicans entered the post-election budget game with their hard-line game face still very much on. The Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu, in the latest chapter in a long history of Israel slapping its superpower patron in the face, has announced planning for still more colonizing of West Bank territory. This recent move, in the immediate wake of the United States having joined Israel in a lonely small minority opposing United Nations endorsement of the Palestinian statehood that everyone claims to seek, involves land whose colonization through the construction of Israeli settlements would be one of the most blatant blows yet against a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, given that it would appear to render physically impossible a contiguous Palestinian state on the West Bank.

In the battle over the budget, Mr. Obama evidently has concluded that he must appeal directly to citizens in addition to dealing directly with the Republicans in Congress. He has been taking his message campaign-style to the country. But he is taking no such approach toward the frustrations originating with Netanyahu's government. Instead the administration is maintaining the familiar old minimal-daylight, “we have your back” posture toward Israel. The United States, in contrast to sharp protests from several European governments, responded to the latest Israeli announcement on settlements with its usual timid “this is not helpful” slap on the wrist.

Why the difference? The president has had during his first term sufficient bitter and frustrating experience with the opposition party in Congress, whose declared top priority was to try to prevent his re-election, to know that a different approach was necessary if he was to get any result other than more goalpost-moving additional demands. His appeal over the heads of members of Congress is a recognition that the opposition party understands only the language of political force. But Mr. Obama also has had enough bitter and frustrating experience with Netanyahu to warrant reaching similar conclusions regarding dealing with Israel. So first-term experience does not justify the difference in strategies.

There is the obvious distinction that in one case an appeal is being made to an electorate in the United States while in the other case a foreign public is involved. But Israeli interference in U.S. politics has already made that distinction very blurred. The politics of policy on Israel have to do with the feared or expected reactions of some parts of the American electorate (or American financial donors). Israel is in effect just as much a domestic issue as the budget.

In short, there is no good reason the administration should not take an approach toward the Israeli government that is similar to the one it is taking toward Congressional Republicans. A just-released poll of Israeli public opinion conducted by Shibley Telhami provides additional basis for going over the heads of Israeli political leaders. Despite all we have heard about how suspect Barack Obama is in Israel, his current poll numbers there are pretty good. Among all Israelis it is 60 percent favorable to 32 percent unfavorable. Excluding Arabs and counting just Jewish Israelis, the numbers are 62 percent favorable and 30 percent unfavorable.

On the core issue of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, much Israeli public sentiment is very much at odds with the posture of the current Israeli government. A slight majority of Israelis even say they would accept, at least as the basis for negotiation, the Arab League peace proposal of 2002 based on 1967 borders. On the other big issue on which Netanyahu has been causing so much trouble—Iran—there also is some good public sense in Israel to which to appeal. Only one-fifth of those polled would favor a military attack on Iran without U.S. support.

Going over the heads of Israeli political leaders can look more positive than confrontational. Natan Sachs argues that Obama should take a page from the book of Bill Clinton, who helped gain some influence with Israel by charming the Israeli public. A charm offensive would be harder for Obama to do than it was for Clinton, but he should try. In some respects he will have a willing audience.

TopicsCongressDemocracyDomestic PoliticsForeign AidPublic OpinionNuclear ProliferationPost-Conflict RegionsIsraelUnited States

Constitutional Confrontation in Egypt

Paul Pillar

The stage in Egypt seems set for yet another surge of political tension and high drama over the coming fortnight, as President Mohamed Morsi has designated December 15 as the date for a referendum on the just-written constitution. The outcome of the referendum will no doubt be widely seen as a test of strength between Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood and its secular opponents, whether it ought to be seen that way or not. The document will be regarded as a Brotherhood product, given a boycott of the constitution-writing assembly by liberal secularists and Christians, and given also Morsi's claiming of special powers to prevent the judiciary from negating the work of the Brotherhood-dominated constituent assembly. The rush with which the drafting of the constitution was completed and with which it will now be put to a vote conveys to many Egyptians an impression of railroading something through. Morsi's recent Mubarak-like pronouncements about threats from “conspiracies” have added to the forbidding atmosphere.

The hastily written draft constitution has something for everyone to dislike, but democracy in Egypt will not live or die based on the result of the referendum. Nor will the balance of power between Islamists and secularists depend on it. Morsi's opponents might even be well advised to drop resistance to letting the new constitution come into effect. Doing so would in a sense be calling his bluff. The powers he claimed for himself at the expense of the judiciary would expire, and the president under the constitution will be a less powerful president than Morsi claims to be now. And as Morsi himself noted, the constitution can be amended.

Secularists might be comforted by noting that the Salafists are unhappy enough with the constitution that they have announced they will boycott the referendum. The Salafists complain that the document vests sovereignty in the people rather than in God.

Egypt needs some kind of constitutional structure if subsequent debates about the direction of the country are to be conducted within an orderly framework rather than being part of a game where all the rules are made up as the game proceeds. Any representative political system needs to start with someone making up rules and acting without having previously recognized authority, but it cannot stay that way indefinitely. Of course Morsi cannot point to any widely accepted authority to claim the power to issue the decree he did the other day, but the other actors in the Egyptian political game don't have much more of a legal basis for doing what they are doing either.

Any U.S. officials or other Americans who offer advice to the Egyptians during this politically interesting time might allude to the experience of the United States in establishing a constitutional order during its early days. The writers of the U.S. Constitution certainly exceeded their authority when instead of amending the Articles of Confederation they created an entirely new constitution and specified that it would come into effect with less than unanimous approval by the states. The participation in writing the constitution was incomplete. Rhode Island did not attend, the New Hampshire delegates arrived late, most of the New York delegates left early, and several who stayed for the whole meeting refused to sign the product. Significant opposition to the document persisted, and demands for amending it were strong enough for the first ten amendments to be a task of the very first Congress. The lesson is that the success of, and respect for, a constitution is a function of the political habits and attitudes toward it that develop over time. It does not depend on the legal basis on which it was initially written, and it does not depend on who was in power or who favored the constitution when it was first written.

TopicsDemocracyDomestic PoliticsHistoryPolitical Theory RegionsEgyptUnited States

Are Palestinians Winning the Long War?

The Buzz

Adam Shatz, writing in the London Review of Books, presents a convincing narrative suggesting that—to use a tired but apt cliché—Palestinians may have lost the last battle, but are winning the war:

[T]he price of war is higher for Israel than it was during Cast Lead [2008-09], and its room for manoeuvre more limited, because the Jewish state’s only real ally, the American government, has to maintain good relations with Egypt and other democratically elected Islamist governments. During the eight days of Pillar of Defence, Israel put on an impressive and deadly fireworks show, as it always does, lighting up the skies of Gaza and putting out menacing tweets straight from The Sopranos. But the killing of entire families and the destruction of government buildings and police stations, far from encouraging Palestinians to submit, will only fortify their resistance, something Israel might have learned by consulting the pages of recent Jewish history. The Palestinians understand that they are no longer facing Israel on their own: Israel, not Hamas, is the region’s pariah. The Arab world is changing, but Israel is not. Instead, it has retreated further behind Jabotinsky’s ‘iron wall’, deepening its hold on the Occupied Territories, thumbing its nose at a region that is at last acquiring a taste of its own power, exploding in spasms of high-tech violence that fail to conceal its lack of a political strategy to end the conflict. Iron Dome may shield Israel from Qassam rockets, but it won’t shield it from the future.

There is a danger in intimating that the Arab world is headed toward inexorable progress. But Shatz is right that the mainstreaming of Islamist politicians in places like Egypt brings new energy to Palestinian resistance.

TopicsGrand Strategy RegionsIsraelPalestinian territoriesMiddle East