Friday, October 21, 2005

Demolition man redux

Sometimes democracy can throw up some interesting stuff.
Note, for example, how the Afghans of Samangan province, like thoughtful voters around the world, mulled deeply over the best person to elect to parliament, and opted for Mawlawi Mohammed Islam Mohammadi. Mohammadi was the Taliban's regional governor of Bamiyan when the statues of Buddha there were blown up in 1991.
If in doubt, check this out.
I wonder if someone like T N Padmanabhan, who helped restore those statues before the Taliban came around, would have stood a chance if he was a candidate in the elections in Samangan - or even in Bamiyan.
But perhaps that is not a fair point to make, given the chaotic conditions that still prevail in Afghanistan...

Punchin' Judy

...That's the favored sport of the day, it seems. The woman who could do no wrong can do nothing right now.
The people who were sure, along with her, that Saddam's Iraq had WMDs and was just about to toss radioactive aluminum tubes at the US, now damn Judith Miller for being the terrible person she is, and for playing footsie with the truth.
But Judy has no more role to play. At least for the present, she appears done - unless Fox calls her over to do what Roger Ailes used to do so well. But perhaps there's a larger issue at hand, that of federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald, who was described as the vandal attacking the First Amendment for sending Miller to jail, now has fawning profiles written about him, in no less than what used to be Judith Miller's very fiefdom, New York Times.
Fitzgerald was the one who took on, among others, former Illinois governor George Ryan for cronyism and other charges corruption. (Ryan decided not to seek re-election, and, in going, gave gubernatorial pardons four men on death row, either in a spasm of conscience brought by evidence by a Northwest law professor David Protess and his class that cast doubt on the 'evidence,' or as expiation for a misspent life. But that's another story).
What is worth noting now is how Fitzergerald, in all his honest singlemindedness, has landed some serious blows on the First Amendment. And no, it does not help that it's unpleasant Judy who is reeling.
Goodness has this thing against it: its very rectitude can blind it to subtlety. So Fitzgerald may not see that battering away at the press will just weaken it further. In this case even a Judy may not be worth the price. Again, so I'd argue...

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Available: higher moral ground

The outing of CIA covert operative Valerie Plame gets curiouser every few months.

This, for those who did not know the sordid tale involving displaced honesty, ideological loyalty and convenient righteousness, began when Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who went to investigate if Nigeria was selling uranium to Iraq, concluded the story wasn’t true. But he said that at an inconvenient time, in the strident times that ended in the second Iraq war.

After Nicholas Kristof described Wilson’s findings in the New York Times in May 2003, Wilson rubbed the salt in by writing a column on the subject in the same paper two months later. On July 7, the day after Wilson wrote the piece, a red-faced White House withdrew the claim that President George Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and the British government had been making – that Iraq was trying to buy uranium from Nigeria.

Soon after, a number of reporters got tipped off that Wilson wouldn’t have ever gone to Nigeria if it hadn’t been for the influence of his wife, a CIA operative.

While a lot of them heard it, including Matt Cooper of Time, Walter Pincus of The Washington Post, and – here things get murky – perhaps Judith Miller of the New York Times.
Now Miller has served 85 days in prison and revealed her source, Irv Lewis Libby, the vice-president’s chief of staff, apparently because he had unconditionally waived her oath of secrecy. That his office says he had given such clearance a year ago makes the story even murkier.

At least six reporters were tipped off in the days immediately after Wilson wrote his column, but not one of them wrote a piece about it – revealing the identity of a CIA covert operative puts her – and her charges – in danger. It’s not something that journalists usually do.

It took columnist Robert Novak to tell everyone that Plame was a CIA operative and that she may have got her husband the coveted job of hunting uranium deals in Nigeria. Plame’s field career died, and we can but hope that some of her contacts didn’t follow suit.

When the furore grew loud and sustained, the Justice Department launched an investigation. And the people they threatened with arrest if they didn’t reveal to the grand jury the dastardly source of the inside information was –Novak?? No, the aforementioned Cooper from Time, and Miller from NYT, neither of who had written a piece on the subject. To quote Paul Krugman, a left-wing NYT columnist speaking in another context, the administration struck “with overwhelming force, at someone else.”

"There's just too many leaks, and if there is a leak out of my administration, I want to know who it is. If the person has violated law, the person will be taken care of," President Bush said, though it is still not clear if that was meant to be a threat.

Columnist Novak may not have taken it as one. So, in October 2004, he went on to reveal the CIA firm Plame used as a front, Brewster Jennings and Associates. Again, nothing happened to him. And Wilson went to town, showing his own partisan side, and demanding he wanted to see Bush’s senior adviser Karl Rove being frogmarched from the White House.

Meanwhile, the two reporters stuck it out, till Time did the dirty on Cooper, and said it would reveal his sources. And the media – so courageous in the run-up to the Iraq war, so balanced in its coverage of partisan politics, so full of gumshoes who would never let a rookie speak to the man on the street if they themselves could – gasped in dismay at the treachery.

! It was Time, and perhaps lily-livered Cooper, who had undermined the press.

And coming out, smelling as close to roses as she could, was Judith Miller, who preferred to go to jail, lips sealed, the upper one a bit stiff.

Now there heroines who take on the establishment everywhere– the rakish pirate Grace O’Malley, the spiritual Joan of Arc, the desperate Rani Laxmi of Jhansi, the doughty Bodicea of Britain… We’re perhaps overdoing it here. Anyway, Miller didn’t fit the mold.

Described as a streetsmart climber, her most memorable piece involved a reporter peeking from a distance as an Iraqi ostensibly showed American soldiers where weapons of mass destruction were buried. She was seen as a beater in the war against Iraq, her contacts including the neoconservatives in the Bush administration and those in the White House, including Irv Lewis Libby.

A journalist going to jail for four months for not revealing sources is bad enough. Worse is when she has to go to jail after the person who wrote the piece does not have to precede her. And if he had revealed his sources, would someone who had not cared enough to use the information, be able to add to it?

Miller had redeemed herself, veteran journalists said. Nothing mattered but that she had decided to stick to principle and go to jail rather than reveal her sources.

So, to repeat ourselves, a little over a month before she would be officially released, Miller told us she had just got a waiver from Libby to tell all, while Libby himself says he’d given it long before she bravely went to jail.

Meanwhile, Valerie Plame, after a Vanity Fair photoshoot and interview, has been reduced to the latest pet of the conspiracy theorists on the Internet slavering at the prospect of a real modern scandal. But no official who revealed the identity of covert CIA operative has been arrested. Robert Novak continues writing his political riffs. And Time officials reassure us that given what the magazine has written after its fall from grace – deathless journalism, no doubt – there’s life in the old mag yet.

With Miller suspect, Cooper weak, and Wilson biased, we fear there’s no one to make claim to higher ground. If there is, do let us know.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Protesting against protests

You can't seriously complain about peaceful protests - being free expression in most countries, and, in the US, an additional bill of rights thing. But they are unlikely to work with the current US government.

In 2003, at the outset of Iraq War II, the Bush administration managed to ignore the largest protests ever in the US, and across the world. This, when they knew that if the actual fighting with the Iraqi forces lasted till the next year, it could jeopardize the chances of a president seeking re-election.

Protests work when there's a viable replacement, a vibrant media, a thinking majority. Protests driven by mere indignation are, well, a little pathetic. And those driven by hostility alone, farce.

The protesters in Washington, DC, who badmouthed the girlfriend of the marine in Iraq (Sep 25, 2005) may have been indulging in a sub-protest - that parties with direct investments in the result of the protest should not participate. More likely, it was a variation of the you're-with-us-or-against-us argument (the kind Democrat Tom Lantos used against India for not immediately lining up, like Britain, behind the US against Iran). This asks: "If you're against the war, why is your boyfriend - to save whom you're protesting - fighting in Iraq?"

Given that truth is just one weapon in politics, it's unlikely that it alone can formulate policy. It does not matter where the politicians using it lie - to the right, the left or straddling them precariously in the center.

Also, protests are poor foils for a strategy that relies on love of God and fear/hate of the enemy. As Classical Realists, political experts and opportunists through time (Sun Tzu, Kautilya, Machiavelli, Goebbels) have recognized, there's nothing like hate and bigotry to motivate a population.

We define ourselves more by what we aren't than what we are. And if we can define how we are different from the Other - even if it polarizes us in the process - it gives us an identity we would otherwise lack. Socrates' "Know yourself" is thus transformed into the more emotional, if not as intuitive, "Know the Other to know yourself."

Times change, and, though, it may be hard to believe, one can also tire of hate. Sense may dawn, but it's usually too late. It's what excites you, not what you tire of, that drives you. So, politicians know, it's often okay not to worry about an allergic reaction to an old stimulant.

They know that, barring some cataclysmic event, it is unlikely that the Iraq war will figure in the 2008 elections. In the absence of colorful footage to rival the worst from Hollywood, the media (remember 2003: "America at war" from CBS; MSNBC's "Operation: Iraqi Freedom"; and NBC's "Target Iraq"?) may not be interested in coverage that, other than for the odd Cindy Sheehan, lacks strong subjects.

If the protesters indeed start making some headway, you can always claim that, like Lucifer, they walk on the left hand side of God.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Survival strategies

I'm told it's a great thing to be a survivor - coming out ahead at any cost.

Of course, I do wonder what the point in mud-wrestling through an alloted 80 years when my personal bunch of well-aligned atoms can, unlike most other sets before it, become aware of the properties of those outside it, some light years beyond it, and perhaps imagine up properties for them that aren't even true.

But then, I'm told I'm merely indulging some romantic doubts. I've also been told that trying to remove onself with dignity is just another survival strategy.

It may make a macho point - showing one is capable of merely surviving if necessary - but it also behoves one not to place a halo over the strategy: once the point is made, the field must be cleared to give the streetfighter and the conman their turn in the mud of their choosing.

Or so I'd argue...