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A Belated Happy Birthday Blogs

I forgot to post this here when it was published last week, but David Eaves and I had the following op-ed in the Toronto Star:

Blogosphere at age 10 is improving journalism

Although hard to believe, this month marks the 10th anniversary of blogging, a method for regularly publishing content online.

And what a milestone it is. A recent census of “the blogosphere” counted more than 70 million blogs covering an unimaginable array of topics.

Moreover, every day an astounding 120,000 new blogs are created and 1.5 million new posts are published (about 17 posts per second). Never before have so many contributed so much to our media landscape.

Despite this exponential growth, blogging continues to be misunderstood by both technophiles and technophobes. For the past decade the former have maintained that blogs will replace traditional journalism, ushering in an era of citizen-run media. Conversely, the latter have argued that a wave of amateurs threatens the quality and integrity of journalism – and possibly even democracy.

Both are wrong.

Blogging is not a substitute for journalism. If anything, this past decade shows that blogging and journalism are symbiotic – to the benefit of everyone.

To its many ardent advocates, blogging is displacing traditional journalism. But journalism – unlike blogging – is a practice with a particular set of norms and structures that guide the creation of content. Blogging, despite its unique properties (virtually anyone can reach a potentially enormous audience at little cost), has few, if any norms.

Consider another, more established medium. Books enable various practices, such as fiction, poetry, science and sometimes journalism, to be disseminated. Do books pose a threat to journalism? Of course not. They do the opposite. Journalistic books, like blogs, increase interest in the subjects they tackle and so promote further media consumption.

The same market forces that apply to books and newspapers apply to blogs.

Readers will judge and elect to read based on the same standard: Does it inform, is it well researched and does it add value?

Because blogs are cheaper to maintain they will always be numerous, but this makes them neither unique nor more likely to be read regularly.

Ultimately blogs, like books, don’t replace journalism; they simply provide another medium for its dissemination and consumption.

If technophiles mistakenly claim that blogging competes with – and will ultimately replace – traditional journalism, then technophobes’ fear of being swept away by a tsunami of irrelevant and amateurish blogs is equally misplaced.

Traditionalists’ concern with blogging is rooted in the fact that the average blog is of questionable quality. Ask anyone who has looked, and cringed, at a friend’s blog.

But this conclusion is based on a flawed understanding of how people use the Internet. The Internet’s most powerful property is its capacity to connect users quickly to exactly what they are looking for, including high-quality writing on any subject.

This accounts for the tremendous amount of traffic high-quality blogs receive and explains why these bloggers are print journalists’ true competition. As technology expert Paul Graham argues: “Those in the print media who dismiss online writing because of its low average quality miss the point. No one reads the average blog.”

Once this capability of the Internet is taken into account, the significance of blogging shifts. Imagine that only 5 per cent – or 75,000 – of daily posts are journalistic in content, and that only 1 per cent of these are of high quality. That still leaves 750 high-quality posts published every day.

Even by this conservative assessment, the blogo- sphere still yields a quantity of content that can challenge the world’s best newspapers.

In addition, as a wider range of writers and citizens try blogging, the diversity and quantity of high-quality blogs will continue to increase. Currently, the number of blogs doubles every 300 days. Consequently, the situation is going to get much worse, or depending on your perspective, much better.

As bloggers continue to gain tangible influence in public debates, our understanding of this phenomenon will mature.

And this past decade should serve as a good guide. Contrary to the predictions of both champions and skeptics, blogging has neither displaced nor debased the practice of journalism. If anything, it has made journalism more accurate, democratic and widely read.

Let’s hope blogging’s next decade will be as positive and transformative as the first.

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Samatha Powers and the WoT

On a train from Rome to Venice, I just tucked into Samantha Power’s review essay on the future of War on Terror in this Sunday’s Times.  Again, she shows why she a leading driver of an emerging liberal foreign policy position that deviates at once from the utopian militarism of neoconservationism, the isolationism of realism, and the dangerous reliance on Bush-bashing that dominates much of the left.  Dare I say, she is working and thinking towards an emerging progressive foreign policy agenda.

The piece begins with a framing that is not always recognized.  In the days following the 9/11 attacks, Bush defined the War on Terror in srikingly broad terms.  He did not confine the war to defeating Al Qaeda, but that it would begin with Al Qaeda, and “not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.”

The greater paradigmatic change, and the object of Power’s ire, however, was not in this definition of the enemy, but rather in a redefinition of the mechanisms that should be used to defeat it.  This redefinition, ostensibly designed to adapt to a new security environment, had four parts: the criminal justice approach to counterterrorism was being replaced by a military one; States were either with the US or against them; international institutions were seen as constraining factors that needed to be circumvented; and that the executive, in such a time of emergency, should be given the balance of power over the congressional and legislative branches of government.

So how has this worked out?  By Power’s assessment, rather poorly.  Using Rumsfeld’s metric for sucess (“Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?”), her conclusion is damning:

Leaked intelligence reports have shown that the answer is negative. The administration’s tactical and strategic blunders have crippled American military readiness; exposed vulnerabilities in training, equipment and force structure; and accelerated terrorist recruitment. In short, although the United States has not been directly hit since 9/11, we are less safe as a result of the Bush administration’s rhetoric, conduct and strategy.

But in her words, “criticizing the calamities of the last six years of American foreign policy has become all too easy. And it does not itself improve our approach to combating terrorist threats that do in fact loom large — larger, in fact, because of Bush’s mistakes.”

I couldn’t agree more, and therefore welcome what lies at the core of this piece – a broad stroke review of three texts that each in their own way help us begin to define this new toolbox:

We must urgently set about reversing the harm done to the nation’s standing and security by simultaneously reasserting the moral difference between the United States and Islamic terrorists and by developing a 21st-century toolbox to minimize actual terrorist threats. Several new books take up this
challenge, each addressing a different piece of the national security predicament. Together, they allow one to begin to define a new approach to counterterrorism.

The first book is the US Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Manual, notably heavily influenced by David Patraeus.  The manual is a response to the near complete lack of counterinsurgency capability in the US military following 9/11.  What the manual suggests, is nothing short of revolutionary, and if implemented, I have no doubt would dramatically change the prospects for sucess certainly in Afghanistan, and possibly in Iraq.  Powers aptly describes just why this manual is so dramatic:

The fundamental premise of the manual is that the key to successful counterinsurgency is protecting civilians. The manual notes: “An operation that kills five insurgents is counterproductive if collateral
damage leads to the recruitment of 50 more insurgents.” It suggests that force size be calculated in relation not to the enemy, but to inhabitants (a minimum of 20 counterinsurgents per 1,000 residents). It emphasizes the necessity of coordination with beefed-up civilian agencies, which are needed to take on reconstruction and development tasks.

The most counterintuitive, as well as the most politically difficult, premise of the manual is that the American military must assume greater risk in order to gather much-needed intelligence and, in the end, achieve greater safety. The emphasis of the 1990s on force protection is overturned by the assertion of several breathtaking paradoxes: “Sometimes, the more you protect your force, the less secure you may be.” “Sometimes, the more force is used, the less effective it is.” “Sometimes doing nothing is the best reaction.”

Sarah Sewall, a former Pentagon official who teaches at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University (and a close colleague of mine), has contributed an introduction that should be required reading for anybody who wants to understand the huge demands effective counterinsurgency will place on the military and the voting public. “Those who fail to see the manual as radical probably don’t understand it,” she writes, “or at least what it’s up against.”…

Military actions that cause civilian deaths, she argues, are not simply morally questionable; they are self-defeating.

The second book reviewed is Ian Shapiro’s ‘Containment: Rebuilding a Strategy Against Global Terror’, which urges for for a return to legitimacy as a central tenant of US foreign policy.  Where as Patreaus sees local legitimacy as critical to mission success in counterinsurgency warfare, Shapiro sees international legitimacy as a required tool of the War on Terror.  Both argue that sucess is nearly impossible without it.

While Powers is sympathetic to his position on the diffuse, as opposed to unified nature of the threat, (which he sees as a good thing), she is quick to highlight the gulf between the ability to actualize a new containment doctrine, and the aggressive position of the Bush Administration:

For containment to work, Washington needs to be able to deliver credible threats. The irony of Bush’s flawed approach is that it has exposed the limits of American enforcement tools, stretching military and financial resources beyond recognition. This has a doubly negative effect: it emboldens those who need to be contained, and it deters those we once might have counted on for help in doing the containing.

She also seems concerned that he is far too quick to dismiss, or at least minimise the threat of nuclear proliferation: “In fact, after six years of dishonesty and alarmism, it seems especially important — if challenging — to retain a capacity for grave, calibrated concern about the proliferation of nuclear aspirant states and their proud ties to terrorist networks.”

If the new counterinsurgency doctrine strikes at the core of the identity, tactics and purpose of the US military, the third book reviewed, Talal Asad’s ‘On Suicide Bombing’ challenges the core belief that there is a difference between the ‘us’ and ‘them’ cleanly delineated in Bush’s post-9/11 world view. 

Here Powers seems sympathetic to the call for greater cultural awareness, but falls short of endorsing Asad’s moral equivalency.  While she notes that “if you continue to believe (as I do) that there is a moral difference between setting out to destroy as many civilians as possible and killing civilians unintentionally and reluctantly in pursuit of a military objective, you will indeed find “On Suicide Bombing” disturbing, if not always in the way he in
tends.”  Here, however, I don’t think that recognizing the moral distinction oneself, and seeing that others do not, are mutually exclusive.  The very fact that people who’s families are killed by cluster bombs see no difference between them and suicide attacks, is highly relevant to the discussion of our counterterrorism tactics, whether we agree with it or not.

Finally, Powers looks to the US disaster preparedness status post 9/11 through a review of Stephen Flynn’s ‘The Edge of Disaster: Rebuilding a Resilient Nation’.  Here, she has little critique and seems as horrified as Flynn that so little has been done on this front:

By defining American security objectives in military terms, the Bush administration has failed to set achievable goals that could vastly decrease the human and financial damage from a large-scale attack at
home. While the United States military has done its best to adjust to the inadequacies recent conflicts have exposed, almost no meaningful midcourse corrections have been made on the homefront…not in educating the public, training emergency responders, fortifying “soft targets,” securing hazardous materials or strengthening critical infrastructure.

In Powers’ somewhat schizophrenic assessment of these three works lies an encapsulation of the challenge facing liberals.  She endorses the radical new counterinsurgency doctrine, but worries that it is simply too difficult to implement on the fly as it requires a complete institutional overhaul (it is one thing for Patreas to tell his commanders to take far greater risks, it is quite another for them and their soldiers to do so given the decentralized command structure.)  She is sympathetic to Shapiro’s breakdown of the terrorist threat, but seems to worry that a containment strategy marks a return to an isolationism she is loath to endorse.  While she sees the relevance, and indeed necessity, of better cultural understanding, she is concerned with the end result of cultural relativism.  In short, she lies in the middle on most of these debates.  Her position is nuanced.

In these reviews, she is clearly articulating, if not explicitly, a moderate, and I would argue, progressive stance on US foreign policy.

Where she is undoubtedly correct, is that liberals and progressives cannot sit on the sidelines of these debates.  Out of the criticisms of the Bush administration’s counterterrorism record, a relatively large bulls-eye, MUST come a new strategy – both for Iraq and for the war on terror.  I for one, think she is right.

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Obama’s Iraq-Darfur Analogy

Yesterday, Obama caused bit of a blogospheric stir by drawing a link between US genocide prevention in Iraq and unilateral invasions of the DRC and Sudan. His attempt to explain this position in a 10 second sound bite, and the reaction to, and interpretation of, his statement marks a telling example of a position missing from much of the Iraq foreign policy debate – that of liberal internationalists, and supporters of international humanitarian interventions.

So here is what he said:

Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama said Thursday the United States cannot use its military to solve humanitarian problems and that preventing a potential genocide in Iraq isn’t a good enough reason to keep U.S. forces there.

“Well, look, if that’s the criteria by which we are making decisions on the deployment of U.S. forces, then by that argument you would have 300,000 troops in the Congo right now — where millions have been slaughtered as a consequence of ethnic strife — which we haven’t done,” Obama said in an interview with The Associated Press.

“We would be deploying unilaterally and occupying the Sudan, which we haven’t done. Those of us who care about Darfur don’t think it would be a good idea,” he said.

As I agree with the position he is espousing, let me try to both translate and elaborate.

First, the intro paragraph to the report is incorrect. I do not think that Obama believes that US force should never be used to stop a genocide (and since Samantha Power is one of his principle FP advisers, we can pretty much rule this position out), but rather, that it is often an ineffective tool for doing so. What’s more, using the military for humanitarian operations often does more harm than good. This is an equation, learned though decades of such operations, that has to be part of an assessment of the use of force – particularly unilateral force in a highly sensitive region.

Second, he was not arguing an amoral position on either Darfur or the DRC. Rather, he was saying that just because we want to stop a slaughter, does in mean that the only, or best, policy options available is invasion. In fact, humanitarian considerations are often a reason to look to other mechanisms. There are a wide range of considerations as to who should conduct humanitarian interventions and how. Ignoring these can OFTEN make matters worse. The most ardent advocates of strong international action on Darfur and the DRC, for example, are not pushing for a US invasion. They are, however, urging for a whole host of initiatives that are presently not being done.

Third, if we translate this line of reasoning to the situation in Iraq, just because we care about the humanitarian emergency in the country is not a de facto rationale for keeping forces in. The very real possibility that these forces are aggravating a significant percentage of the insurgency needs to be considered. As does the fact that a majority of Iraqi’s do not support the US troop presence, and that many endorse strikes against them, and are providing the insurgency with the tacit support it requires. On balance, this may still mean the draw down would have to be cautious, and probably dependant on the formation of a UN peacebuilding mission, as Obama advocates.

Indeed, with this in mind, here is his recommendation:

“Nobody is proposing we leave precipitously. There are still going to be U.S. forces in the region that could intercede, with an international force, on an emergency basis,” Obama said between stops on the first of two days scheduled on the New Hampshire campaign trail. “There’s no doubt there are risks of increased bloodshed in Iraq without a continuing U.S. presence there.

”The greater risk is staying in Iraq, Obama said.

“It is my assessment that those risks are even greater if we continue to occupy Iraq and serve as a magnet for not only terrorist activity but also irresponsible behavior by Iraqi factions,” he said.

Seen through the lens of the international experience with humanitarian interventions and peacebuilding, a tradition in which Obama’s foreign policy advisers have considerable experience, this makes sense. If we are in a peacebuilding scenario, what is going to be needed is a massive humanitarian relief operation (which has not been done), supported by a UN peacebuilding force. Of course this will not be easy, but my bet is a humble next president, after dovetailing significantly from many of the more controversial Bush administration positions, and clearly expressing a humanitarian plea to the international community, will be able to secure these forces. I believe that Obama is the best positioned candidate to advocate this position, which is why I am supporting him.

One more thing. As we move into debates about post-Bush foreign policy, there is going to, obviously, be a lot of debate about various schools of US foreign policy. One thing that I think really needs to part of this discussion is how to not throw the baby of an activists (and some would say morality-based) US foreign policy, out with the bathwater of the nonconservative experience of Iraq. There are many who believe that the US should be an active player in humanitarian crises, but have a very different view of the mechanisms that must be used to achieve these ends.

Desired humanitarian outcomes are great, but if the mechanisms used have little or no chance of achieving them, then we need to dramatically rethink the tool box of foreign policy.

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The Same but Different

The FT, on the new Harvard boss, and gender. Of course.

Ms Faust said that leadership experts contend that the female management style, thought to be more collegial and involve more consensus-building, is particularly suited to running an educational institution. Her predecessor, Lawrence Summers, the former US Treasury secretary, resigned as Harvard president amid tensions with faculty over his sometimes blunt style and accusations that he had made comments questioning whether there are innate differences in intelligence between men and women.

I was directed to this wondrous quote, by the uncannily apt-at-identifying-mind-alteringly-absurd-statements, Andrew Potter. Who concludes, as only one could:

In other words: Larry Summers wasn’t particularly suited to be president because he suggested that there were innate differences between men and women; Ms Faust is more suited to be president because… there are innate differences between men and women.

Amazing.

Indeed.

I should just add that I also believed Summers’ comment was, ahem, ill advised. Not because he questioned innate differences between the sexes. I would not be tremendously surprised if science reveals that there are. Rather, it was his insinuation that this may have something to do with there being fewer tenured female scientists that was ridiculous. A position that would require completely ignoring the far greater influence, in this case, of nurture over nature.

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poseur alert…

Oh Puhleeze:

Does this set things up for a Friday verdict? Or will we go into another week?

For now we wait.

For reporters outside the courtroom sitting on the floor, it’s painful for sure.

But we have all been on far worse stakeouts in places colder and wetter, and where five-star eateries are not steps away and cellphone coverage and Internet connections are not as steady and reliable.

Like him or not, at least Conrad Black is a decent writer…

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The Summit of Discontents

Paul Well’s, on the phenomenon that is the G8:

This is progress, international summiteering subjected to the doctrines of work process design, a seamless parallel system for doing whatever it is one does at a G8: the politicians decide nothing in one town; we cover nothing in another; and aging grad students in black masks get mad at nothing in still a third.

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Wanna buy a presidency?

This is pretty incredible:

New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg is prepared to spend an unprecedented $1 billion of his own $5.5 billion personal fortune for a third-party presidential campaign, personal friends of the mayor tell The Washington Times.

He has set aside $1 billion to go for it,” confided a long-time business adviser to the Republican mayor. “The thinking about where it will come from and do we have it is over, and the answer is yes, we can do it.”

“Bloomberg is H. Ross Perot on steroids”

Indeed.

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Hitch on Charlie Rose

The latter was smitten and the former said a myriad of wild and wonderful things, as per usual. A couple of big quotes:

“The consequence of the Iraq war for the Middle East will be that it will be more dangerous to be a friend of the US than an enemy.”

“The Taliban is another name for the Pakistani colonization of Afghanistan.” I think I’ll just leave that one out there…

OK, one more, paraphrasing: I think, by the way, that I have figured out the difference between writers of non-fiction and fiction. Novelists and poets understand music.

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Why now?

I certainly think that US-Syria-Iran talks are a positive development, but I wonder what changed the administration’s calculus on this? Either something has moved empirically, or this should have happened long ago. I’d be curious to know which it is. If the former, what changed? If the latter, why now and not far sooner?