A Rejoinder to Ignatius on Libya

Should the West start putting boots on the ground to establish law and order in Libya to help the teetering government of Ali Zeidan train a general purpose force that later could maintain security in the North African country?

That’s what David Ignatius seems to be suggesting in his opinion piece in today’s Washington Post, which concludes with a comment from Karim Mezran, a Libyan political scientist and senior fellow of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center, who says Libya is so fragile now that NATO may have to send in its own security forces to keep order until the long-delayed training program is ready.

Ignatius apportions blame between the Obama administration and congressional Republicans for the U.S. failing to take some simple steps that “might have limited the country’s descent toward anarchy. But Libya became so toxic after the Benghazi attack that the United States has been slow to provide help.”

But more germane are the simple steps that Libyans themselves have failed to take since the ousting of Col. Muammar Gaddafi — and no amount of U.S. or Western assistance can make up for them. The original source of the country’s instability and lawlessness rests with Libyan leaders themselves.

In the immediate weeks and months after the toppling of Gaddafi, the National Transitional Council blocked the enactment of security plans for the formation of a new national army through the demobilization of militias and re-training of rebel fighters. The various factions did so in order to retain their power and clout.  This was one of the reasons one of Libya’s most able politicians, Mahmoud Jibril, resigned from the NTC.

And ever since then whenever a serious security plan has been proposed the various political and militia factions have sabotaged it, reluctant to accede to a change that would diminish their influence. All too often the militias are seen by reporters as somehow disconnected from politics – but they aren’t: political faction and militias work often hand-in-glove, something I have written about for the Jamestown Foundation among others.

Second, militiamen have also been reluctant to integrate into fledgling armed forces, preferring instead to take a government salary and remain under command of their militia leaders and to have few demands placed on them. They have lacked discipline: in the summer of 2012 dozens of police trainees demanded to be returned to Libya from training in Jordan because they found what was being asked of them too onerous – they complained among other things that they had to get up early in the morning. Others rioted in Jordan because of delays in their return home two days after completing a three-month course.

Third, the Zeidan government and any replacement will remain weak for as long as ordinary Libyans fail to rally round. More than a year ago Jibril told me he feared for Libya for as long as ordinary Libyans fail to protest in the streets in large numbers in support of government efforts to introduce security. I heard an echo of that the other day from a former political exile and onetime rebel leader Abdul Rahman El Mansouri. He told me last week of his frustration at the failure of Libyans to get fed up with what is going on and make clear their anger with politicians and militias alike.

In the end the descent into anarchy is not a Washington responsibility but a Libyan one, and it isn’t American inattention that is a worry but Libyan inattention. There are – and have been for weeks – Western military training teams around. There is a 100-strong EU border enforcement advisory team in Tripoli, for example. None of them are doing much, unable to leave compounds and hotels. It is up to ordinary Libyans to seize the opportunities presented by the ousting of Gaddafi. The West can’t win the future for them.

And putting NATO troops on the ground in Libya isn’t going to help. The appearance of Western troops I suspect would inflame problems and prompt a violent reaction from militant Islamists and foreign jihadists.

The Price of Freedom

The media and civil libertarians have quite rightly been exercised over Edward Snowden’s disclosures about the extent, reach and range of the intelligence services snooping on Americans (and foreigners) – snooping that’s been done in the name of security and justified as important in the fight against terrorism.

But there’s a sad reflection in today’s Washington Post on how little Americans on the whole care about privacy rights and their own civil liberties.

Walter Pincus notes the scant public interest in an open session this week of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, a panel created by Congress on the recommendation of the 9/11 Commission. The panel examined the once-secret data collection programs but few people attended and Pincus observes: “I viewed the two-hour session Wednesday on C-SPAN, and it had generated only three Facebook recommendations and 52 tweets.”

 

 

Bush/Romney: Bring It On!

I would have thought Obama advisers would be saying, “bring it on” to the thought of George W. Bush campaigning actively for Mitt Romney. They should be so lucky.

As Karen Tumulty reports in the Washington Post this morning, Obama’s predecessor in the Oval Office has offered his endorsement of Romney but in as low a key way as possible. On Tuesday an ABC crew caught up with the former President as he was entering an elevator and elicited from Bush the comment, “I’m for Romney.”

He has no plans apparently to get out there on the campaign. His absence will be helpful to the GOP candidate. A presence on the hustings would certainly complicate things for Romney.

In a February poll by Quinnipiac University, 51 percent of respondents said Bush is more to blame for the horrible economy than Obama, while only 35 percent said Obama is.

 

Whipping Up Religious Frenzy

“History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government.” The words are Thomas Jefferson’s in a letter he wrote in 1813 to Baron Von Humboldt. The sentiments are not unusual for the Sage of Monticello.

Here’s another from our third President: “The preachers dread the advance of science as witches do the approach of daylight.” And he wasn’t alone, of course, among the Founding Fathers to disdain priests and churches. “Can a free government possibly exist with the Roman Catholic religion?” queried our second President, John Adams.

And yet, according to Glenn Beck in a Washington Post opinion piece we should all be Catholic now “because the state is telling the Catholic Church to violate its principles and teachings” by trying to force church-run institutions to pay for birth control and morning-after pills.

The compromise offered by the White House whereby insurance providers take on the employers’ cost for these services is dismissed as “sin by proxy” by Beck – and by Catholic bishops. “The state has no right to say how much religion any American can practice. It’s our right, and it is the first one our Founding Fathers protected,” Beck argues.

In their Salem-like efforts to whip up a revivalist frenzy against President Barack Obama, Beck and other religious conservatives make much of the First Amendment – “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” But they misread that amendment and abuse it.

The amendment doesn’t give the right of the church – any church – to create a parallel society that ignores general welfare; and the intent of the amendment was to protect thought and the expression of opinion – that is why the First Amendment deals not just with religion but with the press, too, and freedom of speech and assembly.

Notice that word Beck uses, “practice”. It isn’t there in the First Amendment and for good reason. Practice may well impact non-church members or involve behavior that offends or undermines the general welfare. It was the practice of Beck’s church, the Church of Latter-Day Saints, to engage in polygamous marriage. Does Beck believe that if the current Mormon president has a sudden revelation and reverses the church’s ban on polygamy, that Congress and law-enforcement agencies then should turn a blind eye and not enforce laws against bigamy against Mormons?

“This isn’t a fight over abortion or birth control,” writes Beck. “This is about whether the state can force someone to pay to have their religious beliefs violated.” The logical conclusion of that argument would mark the end of secular governance and would make hogwash of the Founding Father’s principle of separation of church and state. Suddenly we would have the anarchy of lots of parallel religious societies observing their own laws, following their own practices and claiming they don’t have to do anything, pay for anything that offends their religious beliefs.

It would be the end of the United States of America.

It is the kind of medieval argument mounted in Europe currently by Muslim fanatics who disdain pluralism, diversity and the whole basis of enlightened liberal governance and who want to impose Sharia law, if not for everyone at least for believers or within a defined geography.

In the UK last year residents of some London boroughs were horrified to be confronted with posters daubed on bus stops and street lamps declaring, “You are entering a Sharia-controlled zone – Islamic rules enforced,” and announcing a ban on gambling, music, alcohol, and smoking.

The preacher behind the campaign, Anjem Choudary,  said he wanted to “put the seeds down for an Islamic Emirate.” And here we have Beck wanting to turn the United States into an anarchy of theocracies.

Independents More Worried By Inequality than Over-Regulation

The Washington Post has a new poll out today that shows how evenly split America is between the parties and between Obama and Romney – no big surprise there. Obama’s job ratings are 48 percent approval and 48 percent disapproval.

But the most interesting thing in the poll is this: “One key theme of the campaign is breaking in Obama’s favor. By 55 percent to 38 percent, more Americans consider inequality the bigger economic issue than over-regulation of free enterprise. A majority of independents say inequality is the bigger issue.”

The GOP has invested a lot of rhetoric in claiming that free enterprise and America’s future economic growth is imperiled by “socialist” over-regulation from Washington – it is, of course, the Johnny-one-note theme of Fox News and has been a cudgel Republican lawmakers have been wielding to bash everything from Dodd-Frank on Wall Street reform to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

But the poll would suggest that voters are not buying it. This could be significant for Obama. Judging by the poll –- and other recent surveys – Independents are not in the Obama camp – of course they are not in the GOP camp either. For instance, today’s poll throws up this: “A record-high 20 percent of independents say they trust neither side when it comes to the interests of the middle class.”

It is the issue of inequality versus regulation that gives Obama some clear distance from the GOP when it comes to Independents.. So we will hear much more, I suspect, in the coming weeks on the Buffet Rule and Romney’s tax rate of 15 percent.

One other boost for the President from today’s opinion poll comes with signs that Democrat enthusiasm for him is growing. That’s crucial for his re-election prospects. Obama won last time because of his supporters’ enthusiasm and his ability to use that to increase the Democrat base – to sign up more young people and ethnic minorities.

“Most Democrats, 53 percent, say the country is heading in the right direction, a 21-point increase since September. Two in three say they see a rejuvenated economy, up 19 points from November.”

 

 

 

To Publish Or Not

Should newspapers publish photographs released by the White House of the dead Osama bin Laden, even if they are gruesome? The Washington Post has a thoughtful news report on the debate some newsrooms are having over whether to publish any photographs that are released.

White House aides are debating also what to do. According to the Post, President Obama’s spokesman, Jay Carney, says officials are worried about releasing such photos because: first, their disturbing nature per se, and, second, because of the danger they may inflame anti-American protest around the world and prompt a more violent Muslim backlash.

At the same time officials want to rebut skepticism among bin Laden’s supporters that his death is part of some American conspiracy.

But would publishing the pictures dissuade those who don’t want to believe: they could also maintain that the pictures are inaccurate and made up.

Surely, there is plenty of evidence around to prove the U.S. claim: for example, the testimony to Pakistani officials of bin Laden’s 12-year-old daughter, who witnessed her father’s death.

The traditional news media is confronting a similar question of sensitivity. As the Post points out, U.S. newspapers consider themselves family publications – the kids can see.

If the White House releases pictures, they are going to be all over the web and carried by traditional media in other countries: Latin America, for example, where the media have fewer qualms. If U.S. newspapers don’t publish, do they highlight the fact that their relevance is increasingly less in the digital age? If the do publish for that reason, do they debase themselves?

Surely news is news, though, and the pictures are the very definition of news. Publishing would not be in these circumstances gratuitous: there is real journalistic value.

Back in the mid-1980s when I was on the Sunday Telegraph an intense debate was prompted when an excellent reporter, Walter Ellis, managed to secure photographs of the bodies of two British soldiers who had been killed in Northern Ireland after blundering accidentally into a massive Irish Republican funeral.

The soldiers had been stripped to their underpants, slapped around and then shot. One of the bodies was left in the shape of a human cross.

After much soul-searching it was decided that however gruesome the pictures were, there was journalistic value to publishing. The photographs helped illustrate the hatred and violence of the Northern Ireland troubles and also showed how no one in the funeral crowd lifted a hand to help the soldiers or protested their ill-treatment.

The Lost Communicator

Not so sure Michael Gerson is right when he says in a Washington Post column today that “it is the agenda that undermined the idiom” and blames President Obama’s politics for the loss of his communication power. On the other side of the aisle, partisan divisions over the role of government have been sharpened in the UK by the Coalition’s cost-cutting agenda but Prime Minister Cameron and his deputy Nick Clegg are communicating far more effectively than Obama now and seem to be taking more people along with them.

Maybe we over-estimated Obama when we heard him out on the presidential campaign trail, mistaking rhetorical flash and dash for overall communication understanding and ability. Maybe we were overcome by the contrast between an eloquent Obama and a stumbling Bush — here was a man who could speak in grammatical, flowing sentences. Now Obama seems flat, professorial and ponderous.

And maybe Obama is losing confidence in speaking to the nation as a whole and is resorting to what most politicians do when under pressure — namely, speak just to their base, hence the narrow feel of his rhetoric now, the exclusivity as opposed to the inclusivity that was emphasized during the campaign. Gerson is surely right when he describes the President’s recent forays beyond Washington DC. “In Milwaukee, Obama was the feisty street fighter with a union card. But, without humor, his jabs seemed sour and mocking. In Cleveland, Obama personalized the economic argument by repeatedly attacking House Minority Leader John Boehner — as though Americans have any idea who this tanned and sinister figure might be.”

It isn’t just the President’s own performances that are off the mark. The communication strategy of he White House has been flawed from the start. Why not more about the economy from the moment Obama set foot in the White House, after all the polls consistently highlighted the economy and unemployment as the number one anxiety? Only now is Obama talking more about the economy and focusing on it. Neither of his two Oval Office addresses were on the economy. Has anyone over at the White House heard of FDR’s “fireside chats”?

Searching for the Model

“I’m not sure there’s any business out there that can credibly argue it’s figured out what it takes to support the journalistic ambitions of a magazine determined to take full advantage of the digital era,” writes the inestimable Susan Glasser, editor of Foreign Polcy magazine.

Her essay on what she and her colleagues have done over at the loss-making magazine and their morphing into a must-read international news online site makes for thought-provoking reading. As Glasser notes their funding relies on support not from readers or advertisers but from the backing of some deep-pocketed institutions – think tanks, universities and the Washington Post.  “Experiment is the key word. The Web certainly made it easy and inexpensive to find and grow our audience; it has also connected us to a network of new writers and readers in countries throughout the world. Advertising has grown, too.”

But no code-breaker. “Until then, an experiment it will remain.”

RIP Washington Times

The plot thickens. Or maybe it doesn’t. What is happening at the Washington Times seems a larger repeat of the demise a few years ago of the paper’s sister weekly publication, Insight magazine. With the latter, and without any outside industry advice or research, the management abruptly reduced publication frequency from weekly to fortnightly. There was no lead up to this switch, nor any marketing to accompany the change and to promote the new product. It was done in a rush and without planning.

There were two attempts by outside groups to buy the magazine but both sets of prospective buyers (one group wanted to purchase the paper also) found it impossible to kick start negotiations: they could find no one in authority to negotiate with. At the time one of the would-be negotiators told me that it was like “entering the twilight zone”. The biggest obstacle was to navigate through the old guard management Moonies (see previous post).

Even with the departure of that old guard, something similar would be seem to be happening again. Panic and family feuding has gripped the organization and no one seems ultimately in charge. The good news from the perspective of best practices is that an outside management group has been called in to assess the newspaper’s future.

The bad news is that at least one prospective buyer, I am told, can’t get into a position to have an actual conversation about buying the paper. Deja vu.

Should anyone think it worthwhile to buy it? The newspaper has a terrifyingly low daily circulation — under 70,000, and that includes some bulk sales. The web site is not doing badly under the editorship of Jeffrey Birnbaum and has a monthly audience of two million. The paper’s local sports coverage is good and DC local political coverage can sometimes see the Times pull out exclusives from right out under the noses of the rivals the Washington Post and Washington Examiner.

But any prospective buyer would have to take into account the following:

a) the paper’s advertising base has been hopeless from the start and has no serious classified section to fall back on at a time big advertisers are just not interested in buying ads in city newspapers;

b) the circulation base has now been virtually destroyed;

c) the primarily online Politico has moved into local DC city hall coverage and is doing well and securing a following, and, if smart (which the management there show all the signs of being), could now recruit almost an entire local sports team from the Times;

d) the paper has always been ill-positioned in a commercial sense — namely, being a conservative newspaper based in a heavily liberal city. It would have been better for the newspaper to focus on potential readers outside DC in Virginia and Maryland and to offer fully separate editions for both of those states. But it should have done that back in the 1990s and it is doubtful whether it would be worth doing now?

Again, from a commercial sense, there would be an opportunity for a Washington DC-based conservative publication to make a name for itself critiquing the Obama administration but the maths don’t seem to add up for a daily newspaper. And there is already a conservative opinion magazine based in DC. The only move that seems to make sense is to be exclusively online. But then who needs to buy the paper for that and to have to take on all the historical baggage of the name– it would be cheaper (and fresher) just to invent something new.

Solomon Out – Where Now for Washington Times?

Howard Kurtz over at the Washington Post interprets the executive shake-up at the Washington Times through the prism of the economic downturn, suggesting the “recession has proved so great as to apparently have touched even the Times.” And he quotes Don Meyer, the PR consultant the Times has brought in: “It’s safe to say that the conditions impacting a lot of publications have also impacted the Times, and perhaps more so.”

But I am not so sure the removal of Thomas P. McDevitt (president and publisher), Keith Cooperrider (chief financial officer), and Dong Moon Joo (chairman) should be seen through just the recession prism. As has so often been the case, the Washington Post is failing to appreciate the byzantine nature of the smaller across-town rival with all its cross-currents of old guard Moonies,  Moon family members, several different varieties of conservatives and some highly professional journalists struggling to win out and produce a newspaper.

For several years now the Washington Times board has been split between a group around Preston Moon, one of the founder’s sons, and old guard Moonies led by the Rev. Moon’s son-in-law, Dong Moon Joo. The Rev’s son at first wanted to sell the loss-making paper and to concentrate on video companies. Dong Moon Joo resisted but was out of favor with the Rev. as it became clearer that recent losses during his stewardship were much larger than had been revealed and that various commercial plans had no future.

The Rev., however, has a soft spot for the newspaper and wouldn’t endorse a sale, although he did agree to some negotiations: one involved Rupert Murdoch, who was asked to put in money, and another saw billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife make overtures, only to be told he would have to cough up all the historical losses made on the Times.

But the Rev. did agree to the downgrading of the son-in-law and an increase in control of his son, who was behind the replacement of long-time editor-in-chief Wes Pruden with John Solomon, an investigative journalist with the Washington Post.

Solomon has done a fine job with the Washington Times, bringing in some good journalists such as Jeffrey Birnbaum and Barbara Slavin to boost a staff that had seen the departures over the previous years of some talented writers and correspondents. The appointment of foreign editor David Jones to the managing editor slot was inspired: Jones is a highly professional journalists who was a news wire foreign correspondent for many years before joining the Times.

The paper under Solomon looked and read better: the opinion flood on to the news pages under Pruden was damned by Solomon. The web site was re-designed into an eye-catching product that had some useful interactive features and it quickly attracted a good monthly online audience of two million.

However, and here Kurtz is right, the recession and Internet conspired to wreck the daily newspaper’s circulation, down to under 70,000 daily. Something had to give, not so much because the subsidies would cease but because Hyun Jin Moon’s longer-term plan has been to improve the paper and its finances readying it for a sale the moment his 90-year-old father dies.

Solomon wasn’t a target in the shake-up — the old Moonie guard was. But Solomon maybe a victim. Hyun Jin Moon’s is bringing in management consultants, who, I am told, will have wide-ranging powers and the ability to undercut the authority of the editor-in-chief. It is this part of the shake-up that Solomon apparently, and understandably, objects to — hence his decision to think about his future.

Solomon’s departure would almost certainly see the resignations of several of the professionals he has recruited, leaving the paper in the editorial hands of some of the old guard conservatives and outside consultants. Not a pretty picture.