Wednesday, April 1, 2015

How Journalists See The World Example #34712

Over at the normally really good Vox, Amanda Taub wrote an epic rant about why she thinks Obama is the worst person in the world really doesn't like the president's foreign policy.

I thought it was a good example of what goes wrong with a lot of foreign policy writing these days. That is to say she denies the existence of other groups' agency while massively overestimating our own agency and power to turn Yemen into some type of wonderful place. It's written in a sort of hysterical tone where making fun of people is seen as being the height of serious discussion. Furthermore she follows the foreign policy writing convention of treating current events in the Middle East as happening only in the context of what the current American president as done or not done as of late, while ignoring everything that came before. As Adam Curtis once observed, "What I find so fascinating about the reporting of the War on Terror is the way almost all of it ignores history - as if it is a conflict happening outside time."

And don't get me started on how she uses "foreign policy" as short hand for, "what's happened in the Arab world outside of Tunisia in the last few years."

In response I'd say something like this: yes Yemen is a giant mess, but it's been a chaotic and violent place for decades now, and that has to do with things like a lack of viable state institutions, poverty, ecological catastrophes, and a long running ethnic conflict that's been going on for over 20 years. All of which Taub ignores or glosses over in her piece.

Meaning the president has made mistakes, all presidents do, but it's not clear at all that the situation today is relatively worse than other potential outcomes. Indeed since American's aren't dying in Yemen I'd argue the outcome isn't that bad.

Furthermore it's not clear that any magical "policy" would have made anything better at all. Indeed she basically admits that she has no earthly idea what to do in her second to last paragraph where she lays out her alternative vision which consists of:
Obama seems to assume the only two options are either short-term thinking or hubristic, Bush-style attempts to remake the region in America's interests. But surely there is some middle ground available that takes underlying political problems into account, and accepts short-term costs in exchange for pursuit of long-term gains.
When it comes to these sorts of analysis I really still believe something that one of my professors on national security said when I was in college. It was something along the lines of, "if you have an analysis and no policy prescriptions, you don't really have an analysis." And this makes a lot of sense, after all it's easy to be critical and pessimistic when analyzing a messed up world, but that doesn't mean that you are actually analyzing anything, in many ways you are just complaining. And that's exactly what Taub has done here. She demands some other policy that gets "long-term gains" without having any earthly clue about what those policies or even those gains would be.

In other words Taub's analysis and a case of beer, will get you a case of beer.

But that's not why I'm writing this post. Rather it's this little gem she sticks in there while pointing out that Yemen is a mess (as it has been for a long time):
And that led to the bizarre spectacle, last Wednesday, of White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest flailing haplessly in response to questions about how Yemen could be considered a success. He lamely contended, "We have not seen that kind of — of — of progress in terms of strengthening the central government. I think you could make a pretty strong case that we've seen the opposite of that. But we do, you know, we do continue to enjoy the benefits of a sustained counterterrorism security relationship with the security infrastructure that remains in Yemen."
This is a classic example of how journalists see the world. That is the big problem here is Washington press optics. I know it's weird to think about, but jouranlists really do obsess over this stuff, and really seem to think that a press secretary not answering a question perfectly is the root of the problem. 

If I can get all  meta I would say this: journalists like Taub are trapped in the prison of their own experiences. Since they spend all day obsessing over press conferences, they then of course cite these press conferences as some sort of example of a failed foreign policy, while then later admitting they no earthly idea about what could be done better. 

Everyone is like that to some degree. Historians tend to be pessimistic because they have to show how the past of relevant today and thus how it repeats itself. Meanwhile politicians tend to be optimistic in their rhetoric because they want to mobilize support.

But this sort of obsession is fairly perverse in journalism, because they are the folks with the biggest bullhorns. Meaning they get to force their obsession with some press person not doing their job "the right way" on the rest of us as some sort of analysis. To paraphrase True Detective, this obsession and detachment from reality is the secret fate of all jouranlists.

Update: Vox just published a funny group piece about arguing about politics with your relatives over the weekend, one of it's authors is Amanda Taub. Here's the chunk about why Obama is terrible:

It's true that Obama has not gotten the US bogged down in any Iraq- or Afghanistan-style wars. And of course Obama has also had a more recent success with the new framework for the Iran nuclear deal. The terms of that agreement look very good, and preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon would make the US and its allies safer for years to come. 
So if your criteria for success are "no new wars that require boots on the ground" and "keep Iran from getting a bomb," then Obama is looking pretty good right now. He campaigned on those goals and has stuck with them in office, and that makes a lot of people happy.
But there have been a lot of changes in the Middle East since Obama took office — and he has struggled to respond well to them. 
Conflicts have exploded in Syria, Libya, and now Yemen. But Obama has stuck with the same policy of limited engagement each time, even though it doesn't seem to be working very well. He has partnered with local proxies, including dictators, and sent drones and small numbers of special forces troops to back them up, but those countries are still in chaos, and groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda are reaping the benefits. It's pretty hard to look at all of that and feel thrilled at how things are going.

I don't know about you but I can't read that any other way than being a massive refutation of Taub's own piece. Basically she now agrees that Obama is doing stuff around the whole "long-term gains" thing (something about Iran maybe?) and that from a hard nosed realist perspective the fact that Americans aren't dying in these terrible wars is the right choice. Sounds like a good foreign policy to me!

As for the last two paragraphs, well, I don't know what to say. Other than yes, war and revolutions are often chaotic and terrible events, and they are really hard for America to control. Every president since Washington has struggled with this reality and thus by Taub's logic they should all be characterized as failures.

Anyway I know this sounds petty and vindictive (area writer is wrong about something on the internet!) but so much of Vox's (and Taub's) other writing on foreign affairs is so good, it's really annoying to encounter this sort of stuff.

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