... Same as the old boss

››› ››› ERIC ALTERMAN

I've got a new CAP piece here, "Think Again: What'd I Say?" about the coverage of the Baker Commish and the Gates hearings, and I wrote a short comment for the Guardian on the new Jimmy Carter book, which, alas, stinks, but that's not the point. It's here.

Meanwhile, the staff of Editor & Publisher makes the following point. Remember it:

For years now, the debate has raged: Does the press overstate the level of violence in Iraq and ignore the overall positive aspect of the U.S. involvement? The Iraq Study Group report today, in its main claim that the situation in Iraq is now "grave" and "deteriorating" would seem to offer a clue to the answer, but more specific details -- providing a "slam dunk" (if we may use that phrase) on the side of the press -- are found in the Intelligence section of the report. [...] There we learn, bluntly, that "there is significant underreporting of the violence in Iraq" by the U.S. military. "The standard for recording attacks acts as a filter to keep events out of reports and databases," the report continues. Looking at one day, the report found undercounting of violent attacks by more than 1000 percent.

And Russell Feingold adds, here: "The fact is this commission was composed apparently entirely of people who did not have the judgment to oppose this Iraq war in the first place, and did not have the judgment to realize it was not a wise move in the fight against terrorism. So that's who is doing this report. Then I looked at the list of who testified before them. There is virtually no one who opposed the war in the first place. Virtually no one who has been really calling for a different strategy that goes for a global approach to the war on terrorism. So this is really a Washington inside job." Spencer is good on the report, which is already a failure, alas. And this is smart, huh? And speaking of Friedman, Tom T. takes a hold of him here.

Reading Around: If you read this Hitchens piece, you might conclude that my old comrade thinks women are good for nothing. But of course, that's unfair. He admits they're good for something.

Russell Jacoby on Hannah Arendt, and an HNN interview with Gordon Wood.

McCain Suck-up Watch: NY Times' Kornblut: McCain "is nothing if not an independent-minded maverick": Commenting on Sen. John McCain's proposal to send more troops to Iraq, The New York Times' Anne Kornblut claimed that "McCain is proving that he is nothing if not an independent-minded maverick on this." In making that assertion, however, Kornblut ignored the fact that McCain's plan may be politically convenient, as others have alleged.

Quote of the Day, from Bill O'Reilly: "I don't care" if "the Sunnis and Shiites kill each other in Iraq." O'Reilly then stated: "Let's get our people out of there. Let them kill each other. Maybe they'll all kill each other, and then we can have a decent country in Iraq."

Altercation Book Club:

Excerpted from Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them by John Mueller. Reprinted by permission from Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

For all the attention it evokes, terrorism, in reasonable context, actually causes rather little damage, and the likelihood that any individual will become a victim in most places is microscopic. Those adept at hyperbole like to proclaim that we live in "the age of terror." However, the number of people worldwide who die as a result of international terrorism is generally a few hundred a year, tiny compared to the numbers who die in most civil wars or from automobile accidents. In fact, until 2001 far fewer Americans were killed in any grouping of years by all forms of international terrorism than were killed by lightning. And except for 2001, virtually none of these terrorist deaths occurred within the United States itself. Indeed, outside of 2001, fewer people have been killed in America by international terrorism than have drowned in toilets or have died from bee stings.

Even with the September 11 attacks included in the count, however, the number of Americans killed by international terrorism since the late 1960s (which is when the State Department began its accounting) is about the same as the number killed over the same period by lightning, or by accident-causing deer, or by severe allergic reactions to peanuts. In almost all years the total number of people worldwide who die at the hands of international terrorists is not much more than the number who drown in bathtubs in the United States.

Some of this is a matter of definition. When terrorism becomes really extensive we generally no longer call it terrorism, but war or insurgency, as has happened in Iraq. But Americans and others in the developed world are mainly concerned about random or sporadic acts of terrorism within their homeland, not sustained warfare. Moreover, even using an expansive definition of terrorism and including domestic terrorism in the mix, it is likely that far fewer people were killed by terrorists in the entire world over the past 100 years than died in any number of civil wars during that time.

However, those who fear terrorism essentially argue that this experience is irrelevant. Spurred by the dramatic destruction of 9/11, they insist that we have now entered a new era. Soon, they conclude, terrorists will be able to deploy "weapons of mass destruction." Moreover, the spectacular success of the 9/11 attacks is taken to suggest that international terrorists, al-Qaeda in particular, are diabolically clever and capable, and that the kind of destruction they visited on September 11, 2001, will soon come to be typical. The events of that day are taken as a harbinger. Are these two widely accepted arguments valid?

Terrorism and Weapons of Mass Destruction

Because no weapons more complicated than box cutters were employed on September 11, it would seem that the experience ought to be taken to suggest that the scenario most to be feared is not the acquisition by terrorists of devices of mass destructiveness, but one in which terrorists are once again able, through skill, careful planning, suicidal dedication, and great luck, to massively destroy with ordinary, extant devices. Some of the anxiety about WMD, perhaps, derives from the post-September 11 anthrax scare, even though that terrorist event killed only a few people.

Not only were the 9/11 bombings remarkably low-tech, but they were something that could have happened long ago: both skyscrapers and airplanes have been around for a century now. In addition, the potential for destruction on that magnitude is hardly new: a tiny band of fanatical, well-trained, and lucky terrorists could have sunk or scuttled the Titanic and killed thousands.

Nonetheless, terrorism analyses tend to focus on lurid worst-case scenarios, a great portion of them involving weapons of mass destruction, a concept that, especially after the cold war, has been expanded to embrace chemical and biological and sometimes radiological as well as nuclear weapons. Although chemical, radiological, and most biological weapons do not belong in the same category of destructiveness as nuclear weapons, all members of the WMD list are similar in that their acquisition and deployment present enormous difficulties, especially for terrorists.

Nuclear Weapons

Nuclear weapons can indeed inflict massive destruction, and an atomic bomb in the hands of a terrorist or rogue state could kill tens of thousands of people or even, in exceptional circumstances, more. But it is also essential to note that making such a bomb is an extraordinarily difficult task. As the Gilmore Commission, a special advisory panel to the president and Congress, stresses, building a nuclear device capable of producing mass destruction presents "Herculean challenges." The process requires obtaining enough fissile material, designing a weapon "that will bring that mass together in a tiny fraction of a second, before the heat from early fission blows the material apart," and figuring out some way to deliver the thing. And the Commission emphasizes that these merely constitute "the minimum requirements." If each is not fully met, the result is not simply a less powerful weapon, but one that can't produce any significant nuclear yield at all or can't be delivered.

Moreover, proliferation of these weapons has been remarkably slow. During the cold war there were many dire predictions about nuclear proliferation that proved to be greatly exaggerated. Among these was the nearly unanimous expectation in the 1950s and 1960s that dozens of countries would soon have nuclear weapons. For example, a report in 1958 predicted "a rapid rise" in the number of atomic powers by the mid-1960s, and a couple of years later, John Kennedy observed that there might be "ten, fifteen, twenty" countries with a nuclear capacity by 1964. In 1985 Time magazine devoted a cover story to the claim that "the nuclear threat is spreading" and worried that "the rate of proliferation could grow rapidly worse" thanks to what it ominously called "phantom proliferators." Yet, twenty years later, the only clear addition to the nuclear club is Pakistan. Similar alarms were issued in the early 1990s, in the aftermath of the cold war. Well over a decade ago, it was argued that Japan and Germany would, by natural impulse, soon come to yearn for nuclear weapons. The Japanese and the Germans themselves continue to seem viscerally uninterested, though problems with North Korea could alter that perspective for Japan.

It is also worth noting that, although nuclear weapons have been around now for well over half a century, no state has ever given another state -- even a close ally, much less a terrorist group -- a nuclear weapon (or chemical, biological, or radiological one either, for that matter) that the recipient could use independently. For example, during the cold war, North Korea tried to acquire nuclear weapons from its close ally, China, and was firmly refused. Donors understand that there is always the danger the weapon will be used in a manner the donor would not approve -- or even, potentially, on the donor itself. There could be some danger from private profiteers, like the network established by Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan. However, its activities were rather easily penetrated by intelligence agencies, and it was closed down abruptly after 9/11.

Warnings about the possibility that small groups, terrorists, and errant states could fabricate nuclear weapons have been repeatedly uttered at least since 1946, when A-bomb maker J. Robert Oppenheimer agreed that "three or four men" could smuggle atomic bomb units into New York and "blow up the whole city." Such assertions proliferated after the 1950s, when the "suitcase bomb" appeared to become a practical possibility. And it has now been over three decades since terrorism specialist Brian Jenkins published his warnings that the "widespread distribution of increasingly sophisticated and increasingly powerful man-portable weapons will greatly add to the terrorist's arsenal" and that "the world's increasing dependence on nuclear power may provide terrorists with weapons of mass destruction." We continue to wait.

For more, go here.

Correspondence Corner:

Name: Jim Whelan
Hometown: Mohegan Lake, NY

Eric,

Here's an idea I'd like to somehow see inserted into every Iraq discussion: Do the math. For example:

Obama/Baker/Biden/Friedman/etc says something to the effect that "We'll need to give Iraq another six months before we can begin to withdraw ..." or "We should start a phased withdrawal in six months ...", someone should then point out: "At the current burn rate of about 100 soldiers/month, that's 600 dead soldiers. What will we get for those lives six months from now?" You could also do this with amputees/month, $billions/month, and so on.

This should become a reflexive part of the discourse.

Love your work.

Name: Christopher Barnes
Hometown: Studio City, CA

I'm only through the Executive Summary of the Report and already I'm queasy and my head aches. I'm struck by the almost plaintive tone of the address: The President and Congress should work together, please; the Iraqi government needs to take more control, please, please, please; Americans need to unite behind a common goal, pretty please. I hate to curse the blind pig who finally found an acorn or two but the report leaves me asking a couple of fundamental questions: Just how is Congress supposed to be more cooperative with a President who thinks cooperation is a dirty word, who has already spat on the very clear message sent to him by the American people in the last election, who has already undermined and belittled the key recommendations in the report, and who considers himself anointed (or is that appointed) by God to lead the new American crusade? Just how does the Iraqi government "make" itself more legitimate and useful when it has no popular mandate, it has no resources to call on, and it has no incentives to offer its warring factions to cooperate? How do we "unite" Americans behind a common goal that will end polarization when we are led by the most polarizing figure in American politics in at least a generation, when the Mayberry Machiavellis in the Administration continue to run the country with an eye toward cutthroat politics rather than sober governance, and where the lapdogs and lickspittles of the MSM continue to cast every debate as a question of he said/she said rather than fact and analysis? And finally, just how do we split the difference between American troops positioned for force protection, rapid reaction and training and troops considered an occupying force embedded in major new military installations placed in a country where they are unwelcome and from which mothers and fathers in America can only expect more bad news about their children? I'll let you know whether my further reading uncovers answers to those questions but I wouldn't advise holding your breath. Heck, W will probably have this thing deep-sixed by a host of competing "analyses" and "studies" before I can finish reading it.

Name: John G
Hometown: Los Altos, CA

Surely this gem from John Hinderaker deserves consideration for stupidest comment ever about Bush:

"It must be very strange to be President Bush. A man of extraordinary vision and brilliance approaching to genius, he can't get anyone to notice. He is like a great painter or musician who is ahead of his time, and who unveils one masterpiece after another to a reception that, when not bored, is hostile."

Name: Tom
Hometown: Chicago

I read and re-read the speech Moyers made at the U.S.M.A. and feel it is as well said as anything this side of Dr. King. Indeed, it has a feel of being a sermon (not a surprise since Moyers is also an ordained minister.) It was truly profound and goes to the heart of the matter: what do you do when your honor is at stake? Bush, et al, made that choice long ago; in fact they may not even be conscious of what they turned their collective chickenhawk backs towards.

Name: Arthur C Hurwitz
Hometown: New York

The analogy between the Copperheads and those who opposed the war in Iraq is actually correct, but, from our point-of-view, for other reasons. The Republican Party of the Civil War era shares with its contemporary descendent a desire to mobilize the American people for some sort of metaphysical agenda and goal. During the Civil War it was the abstract and totally ephemeral concept of "keeping the Union together," and then, just prior to the war in Iraq, to defeat tyranny in the Arab and Muslim World and to install Democracy there. In each instance there was an opposition and in each instance the opposition was probably correct.

The reasons why those who opposed the Iraq war were correct are obvious now. Unfortunately, the depoliticized history of the United States that we are all exposed to treats the Civil War as some sort of inevitable flow of history, which is the inevitable result of some sort of Americanist ideology. There was no real reason to fight the Civil War at all. The Confederate States could have been allowed to secede, with no punitive consequence to the North. In fact, as we know now, the Civil War played a large role in the regressive state of U.S. politics up until today. Can one image our country without the South? Can one image the Congress without the South? Can one imagine Presidential elections without the South? Yes and for the better.

Name: Ryan McElroy
Hometown: Pittsburgh

So I picked up The Rascals Anthology the other week based on your YouTube shout-out to the band. This stuff is really freaking good. Being on the younger side of 30 I've gotten some ponderous looks for my purchase, but if they only knew ... So anyway, thanks for the heads-up. Are there any contemporary artists in the same vein that you know of and would recommend? Ray Lamontagne and Cat Power come to mind, but wasn't sure if there were others.

Eric replies: I tried both of those, but they did not work for me. I am too old for most new music, I fear. It happens. I do like the Raconteurs, but before that, I think the last new band I liked was the Strokes. I think you better go to Spencer Ackerman or Devin McKinney for someone to do justice to new music.

We've changed our commenting system to Disqus.
Instructions for signing up and claiming your comment history are located here.
Updated rules for commenting are here.