Thursday, November 06, 2003

If I told you, I'd have to...

Over the past few weeks the British press has been heavily engaged in innuendo concerning a rumour about "a senior Royal", which they have carefully not revealed to their readership. However the potential scandal has been hyped up rather a lot - the Guardian, I think, saying that it would be the end of the monarchy if it were revealed. In that period, of course, gossip has taken the story far enough and wide enough that even people as insignificant as me know the details of (or at least a version of) the rumour; I have to say I'm not quite sure I agree with the Guardian about the constitutional implications nowadays, even if the rumour were true, but we will see.

Indeed it looks increasingly likely that we will see. Although the Mail on Sunday was hit by an injunction preventing it publishing a certain story last weekend, which may or may not have included the rumour itself, an injunction preventing the Guardian from naming the person who had sought the injunction against the Mail was lifted today, rather dramatically. The injunction had been brought by Michael Fawcett, who was formerly a senior servant of Prince Charles until resigning a year or so ago with various innuendoes floating around him then (I don't really follow this stuff all that closely), and the story is alleged to libel Fawcett.

Anyway, this evening St James' Palace, on behalf of Prince Charles, has issued a statement strongly denying the rumour (without saying what it is).

This strikes me as an astonishingly bad piece of media management. It gives the media full rein to report the existence of the rumour and hint - through picture placement and so forth - what the rumour actually is. It also, by the by, confirms to people like me who think that they have heard the rumour that the story they heard was about the right "senior Royal", and implicitly confirms some other elements of the rumour. If the rumour is actually untrue - and I think it's really very likely that it is - then the denial merely encourages further thought about it.

If the Guardian is right, then, I think we're counting down to a Republic. Unfortunately I think the Guardian is wrong.


From Rich Hall, "Things Snowball", p. 112:

Standing alongside special envoy Bono, Bush addressed a hastily assembled press corps. "This is not about oppression or human injustice", he snapped, exuding all the bluster of a chihuahua who thinks it's a terrier.

Unfortunately it's fiction, but isn't that chihuahua line good?


Pretty much everything I've read today has filled me with woe and sorrow, so before retiring to my bed with a bottle of Bowmore let me try to put it all into a single megapost.

First of all, there is this. A guy of Syrian origins, a Canadian citizen for 17 years, was arrested at a US airport en route to Canada; was detained with minimal access to the outside world; was deported to Syria, rather than Canada, where he was tortured for ten months, eventually being released because the US had downgraded its ties with Syria, and because of the campaigning of his wife. The evidence on which he was detained appears to be that he had worked with the brother of another terrorism suspect (on whom the evidence is also not revealed), and having met the other suspect on a few occasions had had a lease document witnessed by him in 1997.

Now, maybe - who knows - the guy is a real baddie, though frankly it doesn't seem all that likely - it sounds all too plausible that a search turned up this lease document and that was that, another success for the war on terrorism. But doesn't the complete absence of legal process from this story cause you to stand back and blink? At no point, before being "rendered" to the Syrians for torture which the US could not legally itself perform, does the guy seem to have been given any actual opportunity to present evidence for his innocence. That is absolutely terrifying for *anybody* who travels to the United States on any occasion. I mean - I have witnessed documents for all sorts of people - and various random people have witnessed documents for me. Having a document witnessed is just not a big deal, really, and it's just not something where one would consider one's degree of political support for the other before going ahead. Is it safe for me to travel to the United States? I probably wouldn't be deported to Syria (but how to tell if I would? what are the rules, if any?); could I be held incommunicado for days or weeks in the US itself? Apparently so. And of course this behaviour has the particularly marvellous consequence of making the war on terrorism that much less effective, by reducing its legitimacy and wasting its resources, so an actual attack is yet more likely. Double the badness. Ahar's actual press conference statement is here.

Secondly there is this story from New Scientist, key paragraphs:

This week, a respected biologist was led into a Texas courtroom. He faces no fewer than 68 charges and could end up in jail for the rest of his life. Has the FBI finally caught the anthrax attacker?

No. Thomas Butler merely reported that 30 vials of plague bacteria had gone missing from his laboratory at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. Many of Butler's colleagues believe the justice authorities are making an example of him as part of a wider effort to ensure that scientists take more care with material terrorists might exploit.

Again, this wonderful strategery merely results in less progress:

New Scientist has contacted more than 20 prominent figures in the US working in bioterror-related fields.

Some refused to talk, and most who did did not want to be named. Their comments paint a disturbing picture. Some scientists, for instance, are refusing to work on projects involving agents that could be exploited as bioweapons, even though the US government is providing massive funding to boost such research.

Others are considering abandoning existing work.

Those darned anti-Semitic Europeans

Ah, a lovely excuse to tell my Significant Anecdote (singular of data) about this.

Calpundit advises the questing blogreader to visit an interesting post by Dan Drezner on a parallel between the Boykin affair, and the Pentagon's lack of action, and the Guenzel affair, and the German government's immediate action... and Calpundits advice here is as good as ever.

But the first comment to Drezner's post makes a number of really rather obscene remarks about Islam which, if they were said about Judaism, would certainly be treated as the scandal they are. But never mind, because this is getting in the way of my anecdote. The post also says: "in a Europe where anti-Semitism is not just a theoretical problem". Now, I think this is more than just averagely smug and complacent, and here, at long last, comes in the anecdote.

Now, I've been around a lot of places, and in universities and elsewhere have met a lot of people - if I've not quite been everywhere, then enough to have at least some prior experience with people from pretty much everywhere. And in that whole time, and that whole breadth of experience, I have had precisely one experience in which someone non-Jewish has actually made an overtly anti-Semitic remark to me. It was in 1998 and was, of course, in the United States. Better than that, it was in a major government institution in Washington DC, and was made to me by a relatively senior person in that institution, a close relative of whom had worked in the Bush I White House at I think a pretty senior level.

The content of the conversation - at this distance in time, not quite verbatim, but I think pretty close, was like this. We were talking, idly and irrelevantly, about television - I was saying how much I liked US television, how much I preferred it to British television.

ME: Well, you can get most of the programmes on cable or on the Sky satellite nearly simultaneous with their American broadcasts, and eventually they get repeated on BBC2 or Channel 4 for impoverished students like me.


ME: Not so much the cop series, but most of the comedies - I love the Larry Sanders Show, the Simpsons, and Friends; the only odd thing is that I've never been able to fathom why people find Seinfeld funny.

PERSON MAKING A CLEARLY ANTI-SEMITIC REMARK: Well that's just Jew humor. All the Jews in New York, it's only broadcast for them. It just gets broadcast because the Jews from New York run the television industry.

ME: [Embarrassed silence]

So there you go. Of course the plural of anecdote is not really data, and there may be lots of Europeans and Palestinians and whatever who just constantly avoid making anti-Semitic remarks to me, but ... I began, even then, to think that the rather frequent accusations of systematic European anti-Semitism by some US commentators are just a little bit mote-and-beam.

Tuesday, November 04, 2003


David Adesnik of Oxblog appears to make the following argument:

1. Howard Dean said today that the recent attacks "weaken the position of the President" and Dean's opponents;
2. He also said "[t]here are now almost 400 people dead who wouldn't be dead if that resolution hadn't been passed and we hadn't gone to war"*
3. Regardless of Dean having been right about WMD, it follows that: (a direct quote from Adesnik's post)

this sort of statement implies that because we made a mistake by going in, we should pull out right now regardless of the consequences

To say this is to torture the word "implies" beyond civilised limits. Dean takes no position here about what to do next. That the President and Senators Kerry et al. made a mistake in the past --- which is the point Dean is making, since he wants to connect the Democrats who voted for the Iraq resolution to the consequences of their actions --- just does not imply anything at all about how best the consequences of that mistake might be resolved. That might run the gamut from everyone out now, to phased withdrawal, to Iraqization of the sort the Administration appears to be planning, to a handover to UN control, to continuing to live with the consequences of the mistake under coalition rule.

Adesnik concludes that, as a consequence of the "short-sighted thinking" demonstrated by something Dean has neither said nor implied, it is hard for him to even consider supporting Dean's presidential campaign. Which, y'know, if anyone wants to vote for Bush, just go ahead and bloody do it, don't sit around agonizing about how you'd love to vote for Democrats but are prevented from doing so on account of things you imagine them saying.

(It's also interesting that Oxford's bijou neocons appear to be agreeing the invasion was a mistake, which seems like a step forward.)

* Non-Americans will notice that delightfully American restrictive use of the word "people", which is rather more disgraceful than any of the many things he did not say or imply.)

The ineluctable maw of mediation

Today's apparent rocket attack on the coalition compound in Baghdad is being covered by CNN using exactly the same sort of night-vision feed from Al Jazeera that was used for the "Shock and Awe" campaign in Baghdad in late March. Death of irony, film at 11.

UPDATE: BBC TV is also reusing a rather swish rotating-3D-map of central Baghdad that they used to show bombing targets in March and the advance on central Baghdad in April. Lucky media corporations getting a higher RoI from Iraq than they expected!

Moral clarity

Juan Non-Volokh points out that blogger critics of the Bush administration over the Plame affair should be equally up in arms over the leaking of Linda Tripp's personnel file during the Clinton administration.

Because, of course, leaks of personal information about a woman who had surreptitiously taped someone who thought they were friends, in order to pursue the crucially important national mission of ensuring that no President must receive a blow job from a person not formally recognised as competent to do so by the state, is exactly the same thing as exposing the identity of a covert operative working for an irrelevant organisation like the CIA, working on an unimportant activity like WMD counter-proliferation, in order to try to win a minor point in an argument about the interpretation of events that had already happened. It's only the critics' hatred of America that makes them try constantly to obscure and misinterpret these things.

UPDATE: Wow. It turns out that the leak in the Tripp case was the Defense Department's public disclosure of its belief that Tripp had no criminal record: the other information was produced by a reporter relying on information from relatives. Clearly, this makes the Tripp case even more like the intentional release of the identity of a covert operative working on WMD counter-proliferation to multiple media sources. The volokh.com story has been rather weakly updated as a result.

Monday, November 03, 2003


The Mahablog has some good things on how deeply misguided are various attempts to portray a vote against the $87bn slush fund for Presidential contributors as a vote to run away from the responsibilities imposed by the invasion of Iraq.

That aside, however, it was tactically somewhat foolish for Kerry and Edwards to vote against this, I think; it has created an issue out of something that would otherwise be a non-issue, and the money was always going to get through Congress in the end. It's electorally important for the Democrats not to end up, as they did in 2002 over the Homeland Security bill, looking as if they are standing against national security - even if they are opposing something for the best of reasons.

Sunday, November 02, 2003


Stumbling Tongue points to some decision market results on the use of a nuclear weapon on the United States by Jan 1 2010. (via the Poor Man).

Now, given the whole gibbering-fear thing, I should probably be a bull on this particular coupon. Actually, though, I think it's some way overpriced at around 20% (and having fluctuated wildly since the beginning of 2002, between about 10% and about 50%). In any case, I doubt it's a meaningful indicator. As I think everyone came to realise when the Pentagon was talking about using terrorism decision markets, the value of markets as predictors is not a brand of magic; it comes out of the capacity of markets to reflect and weight information, including informal, habitual information that may be hard to express. Where decision markets have worked well - the Iowa presidential futures, the Hewlett-Packard internal sales projections, and in some cases on weather forecasts - they have been of precisely this sort. At least some people *do* have lots of information on presidential elections, sales figures, the weather; it's something experienced repeatedly, and for which one can imagine getting some kind of predictive skill. What the decision markets do is combine and weight people's own estimates of outcomes and of the likelihood of their predictions' accuracies into a nice, simple figure.

But the use of a nuclear device does not fall into these categories. While one may have specialist knowledge on how possible it is that a nuclear device could be detonated - how large it would have to be, how it could be transported, etc - the decision to use such a device is, I think, impossible to get information about. The only kind of information that would count is that held by those plotting to use the device, and presumably they will not be interested in minor decision market trading. This is otherwise not (yet) one of those repeated events where experience brings predictive skill.

Conversely, if one were to set up a market in (for example) places in Iraq where attacks on coalition troops will occur, that market could work: these attacks are repeated, they involve obvious strategic choices which others can see into and make predicitons from, and so on.


Matthew Yglesias has a great post up about North Korea which fundamentally reinforces my gibbering, uncontrollable fear of the subject. There is, he suggests, a needle which can be threaded, but it will require great precision and timing and enormous diplomatic skill; moreover, it needs to be threaded soon. This administration, of course, is not noted for great diplomatic skill, foresight, precision or timing; in fact its most notable foreign policy achievement is to render its own strategic doctrine of pre-emption much more difficult, both by committing the greater part of its military power to the "long hard slog" in Iraq, and by making clear that no-one can trust its use of intelligence to justify pre-emption in any future example. Moreover the use of "moral clarity" to pursue the Iraq agenda make it much harder to do anything realist or pragmatic in response to North Korea, given that the latter's outrages against human rights greatly outdo Saddam Hussein's.

If this doesn't work then we seem to face a choice between a state producing, perhaps selling, nuclear weapons on a significant scale, and a decision to end that state via a horrific war on a scale greatly beyond Kuwait, Kosovo or Iraq. There seems to be no Third Way here; unfortunately there also seems to be no way for the current administration to settle on any single policy for dealing with North Korea, and so the opportunity to do something about the situation short of war slips away. So, again with the gibbering and uncontrollability.


This CNN story suggests that the repeated attempts by the Iraqi opposition to bring down a US aircraft have succeeded. Of course these attacks are part of a much broader set of behaviours on their part. But, crucially, attacks on US aircraft appear to have more potential than any other strategy to shape domestic US responses to the fighting, because these attacks appear to be able to create many more casualties in a single strike. In the illogic of news values which dominates reporting in the US and elsewhere, the death of twenty-two US soldiers in the two weeks before today, Sunday, is essentially secondary news, easily outweighed by domestic events. But the death of just over half that number in a single incident is major news. If the opposition goal is to get the US to withdraw, rather than simply to kill as many US soldiers as possible more attacks on targets of this sort can be expected, and some of them will be successful.

Without getting all po-mo, events which get heavy reporting are just much *more* than events which are brief factual news items. Billmon's piece on the use of mortars by the opposition brings to mind an apt comparison. The jury-rigged rockets used last week for an attack on the al-Rashid hotel created a media event of very much the same sort as an event during the first Gulf War, when the IRA used home-made mortar bombs to attack No. 10 Downing Street, and apparently came reasonably close to wiping out the war cabinet. Again, these sorts of attack have news value which greatly magnify their consequences beyond the immediate practical ones.

I do not think the opposition will fail to note the effects of these recent attacks, and the possibility that they may be used to advance their cause much more significantly than a handful of smaller attacks. So I think we might see is something like the Warrenpoint attack (a massive bomb was hidden in some location along with a small bomb; the small bomb was used to attack a convoy; when the area was then flooded with troops the large bomb was detonated, causing horrendous casualties).

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