The Long View 2004-07-22: Usage & Breaking News

The management and mis-management of classified information is a perennial topic. Sandy Berger's conviction is  probably typical of the genre.

However, these days, the joke would be Hail Hydra.

Here is a really bad prediction from John, since it is quantified:

Debacle? Custer's Last Stand was a debacle. The Battle of Corregidor was a debacle. In Iraq, the Coalition defeated and occupied a country about the size of California for what will probably turn out to be about a thousand military fatalities. That is, frankly, what one would expect for a campaign of this size. One can argue about the viability of the new political system in Iraq, or the long-term effect on diplomacy in the region. However, now it is clear to hostile regimes and organizations that open support for the Jihad can have lethal consequences. This state of things is not the end of the story, but it is a reasonably successful end of the beginning.

Dammit, John.


Usage & Breaking News

 

Everything you might reasonably want to know about the current state of the Joseph Wilson and Sandy Berger scandals can be found in Martin Peretz's updates, posted yesterday. His accounts are pointed, but easily verified from other sources. What a shame: about Peretz's New Republic, I mean. It still does good reporting sometimes, as it did in the 1980s. However, after its endorsement of the Goldhagen Libel, one can no longer trust the magazine.

As for the scandals themselves, the Berger case would be the more important of the two, if there is anything in it. Berger says that he removed documents from the National Security Archive by accident. Reports now say that there was nothing random about the documents he took; he walked off with documents that had handwritten comments by Clinton Administration officials on them. Some of these items now seem to be permanently lost.

A more partisan person than I might imagine all sorts of remarks scribbled in the margins, such as:

The only way to achieve border security is to turn the Customs Service over to the UN
Hail Satan! 
CC: Hillary, Clarke

I would not bet on it, though.

As for former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, I was always aware that his investigation in Niger had little to do with President Bush's claim that Baathist Iraq had been making inquiries about buying yellowcake. Since I always thought him too fishy to take seriously, I did not pay attention to everything he said. Only now do I realize just how deep a hole he had dug for himself. As has so often been the case during the Bush years, this affair is interesting not as a political scandal, but as a media scandal.

And in that connection, there is one point that has too often been overlooked:

Television and radio newsreaders must learn to distinguish the pronunciation of Nigerian from Nigerien. The first has to with Nigeria (Nigh-JEER-ee-ah), which exports oil and financial scams. The second has to do with Niger (Nee-ZHAIR), the country immediately to the north, which exports yellowcake (plus some other stuff that Iraq would not have been interested in). It is understandable that people mix these countries up, since the spellings are malicious.

* * *

A more substantive mistake in usage can be found in Andrew J. Bacevich's piece, A Time for Reckoning: Ten lessons to take away from Iraq, which appears in the current issue of American Conservative. Much of what the author has to say is unexceptionable. Point number two, for instance, wars leave loose ends, is true both in general and about Iraq in particular, though he does not address the thesis that the Iraq campaign is really part of a wider war. Also, few people would argue with point number six, the margin of U.S. military supremacy is thinner than advertised, though he might have noted that some of the people who said the United States is ominipotent did so to argue against the war, on the grounds that the US was so powerful that it could afford to lose a skyscraper every few years. However, the article is really interesting as an example of the "declare defeat and get out" school.

Consider the seventh item: the myth of American casualty aversion is just that. He tells us that the reputation the US developed in the 1990s for refusing to risk casualties did not reflect popular sentiment:

The onus for the pseudo-campaigns of the decade leading up to 9/11 -- the zenith coming in 1998 when U.S. Navy cruise missiles demolished an empty pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum -- lay not with the commander-in-chief but with foot-dragging generals and fainthearted citizens who lacked the stomach for serious military action.

That's interesting, and it's quite likely true. He concludes the point by saying this:

But as the Iraq debacle has made plain, competence remains, as it was in the 1990s, in precariously short supply.

Debacle? Custer's Last Stand was a debacle. The Battle of Corregidor was a debacle. In Iraq, the Coalition defeated and occupied a country about the size of California for what will probably turn out to be about a thousand military fatalities. That is, frankly, what one would expect for a campaign of this size. One can argue about the viability of the new political system in Iraq, or the long-term effect on diplomacy in the region. However, now it is clear to hostile regimes and organizations that open support for the Jihad can have lethal consequences. This state of things is not the end of the story, but it is a reasonably successful end of the beginning.

For Bacevich, however, as he tells us at the beginning of his article, "the war cannot be won." This is not an assessment of the situation on the ground: it's an axiom of the the orthodox wing of the national security establishment. (About this, Walter Russell Mead is on the right track.) Any outcome of the war would have been declared a debacle by these people. Their objection is not that the Bush Doctrine has made no progress; it's that the Doctrine progresses in what they believe to be an undesirable direction.

This is not the first time this has happened. There have always been people, not all of them cranks, who claim that the United States really lost the Second World War, because the advance of the Soviet Union into central Europe left America less secure than it was in 1939.

And of course, if Henry Wallace had been on the ticket with FDR in 1944, they would have been right.

* * *

On the subject of the use of words, bookmark Paul McFedries' Word Spy site. It collects and defines new terms as they appear on the Internet, and not all of them tec words, either. Now I know what "bling" means. I didn't before.

* * *

Yesterday, proper bloggers noted the rise and fall of the story from the Iraqi newspaper, Al-Sabaah, about the discovery of three nuclear missiles in the neighborhood of Tikrit. The story was just credible, if you took "missiles" to mean tactical missiles, and maybe "nuclear capable" rather than nuclear-armed. However, within two hours, the Iraqi Interior Ministry dismissed the report as "stupid." US sources soon confirmed this assessment more tactfully.

Today, Al-Sabaah was still reluctant to let the story go. They had, however, reached the point of saying that "officials who asked not to be identified had no comment." The New York Times could not have put it better.

* * *

Meanwhile, there was a more credible report from Holland:

Roberto the 2-year-old Continental Giant is almost 4 feet long and sleeps on a dog's bed because he can't fit into a normal-sized hutch. Roberto is larger than most 3-year-old children, according to the report.

Roberto is a rabbit. By happy symmetry, there was another report today of this sort, this time from America:

He lives in central Illinois, is two years old, weighs about three pounds and is the world's smallest cat. He's Mr. Peebles...The cat's small stature has been verified by the Guinness Book of World Records. It officially lists him as the smallest living domestic cat.

That last sentence is significant, because of something we learn from the rabbit story:

Guinness World Records said it has stopped listing "biggest animal" titles out of fear that it may lead to people deliberately overfeeding their pets to win the coveted title.

And isn't Guinness worried that people might starve their pets to stunt their growth, or maybe teach them to smoke?

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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