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In sharp contrast

Edit: quick primer for the Den Beste readers, since Den Beste himself didn’t bother to read any of my other posts…

  1. I think Arnett deserved to be fired.
  2. I think it would be exceedingly difficult to try Arnett for treason; it’s not as easy as you think it is.
  3. Faulting someone for providing readily available information to Iraq is silly (that’d be this post).

Back to your regularly scheduled post…

Den Beste has his own commentary on the Arnett issue, and completely misses, and I think it’s a bad enough miss to be worth some discussion.

His issue is with the portion of the interview in which Arnett says “So our reports about civilian casualties here, about the resistance of the Iraqi forces, are going back to the United States. It helps those who oppose the war when you challenge the policy to develop their arguments.” Den Beste claims that Arnett’s interview — and specifically that interview — will encourage the Iraqi leadership to kill civilians in an attempt to turn public opinion against Bush.

I have to wonder how stupid Den Beste thinks Saddam is. Is he, perhaps, under the impression that Saddam has no idea what’s on CNN? What the front page of BBC News looks like? Saddam doesn’t need Peter Arnett to tell him or anyone that public opinion, particularly as it relates to civilian casualities, is an important factor in this war. Arnett’s error wasn’t giving Saddam information he already had. His error was using his position as a reporter to legitimize false information.

Den Beste’s condescending assumption that Arnett is telling Saddam something he doesn’t know smacks of the same arrogance that led our leaders to believe that the regime would collapse as soon as we invaded. They’re just Iraqis, after all. Treating an enemy as stupid, alas, is one of the quickest ways to wind up in more trouble than is necessary.

But there’s more than that here, because if you follow Den Beste’s logic a little further you’re forced to consider the possibility that anyone reporting on public opinion has the blood of dead Iraqi civilians on their hands. (“But if this does encourage the Iraqi government to start creating lots of death scenes to blame on us, then the people killed will actually be dead, and their blood will be on Arnett’s hands.”) This is the belief that by controlling the flow of information, you can control what people will do. It misses one very important point.

We don’t live in that era anymore. You cannot control information flow. Weblogs, smart mobs, embedded reporters — information (both true and false) will flow no matter what you do, and arguing about how best to control and contain it is a futile game.

People like talking to each other. Give the world a megaphone, and it will collectively use it.

18 Comments

  1. Doug Doug

    You are very wrong. There is a world of difference between reporting to an American audience and giving an interview on the enemy’s state controlled propoganda channel knowing it will be broadcast for the specific purpose of undermining the morale of the Iraqi resistence. What Arnett has done would have gotten him arrested and jailed in WWII.

  2. anonymous anonymous

    You are very wrong. There is a world of difference between reporting to an American audience and giving an interview on the enemy’s state controlled propoganda channel knowing it will be broadcast for the specific purpose of undermining the morale of the Iraqi resistence. What Arnett has done would have gotten him arrested and jailed in WWII.

  3. dan dan

    Um, your question about how dumb Saddam is seems to miss the point (especially if he is already dead, something his own ambassador was unwilling to confirm or deny).

    It’s not whether Saddam knew that information, it’s whether the members of the Baath party and fedayeen who are on the ground are emboldened by this report to continue to kill civilians and fake atrocities.

    At this point, anything that encourages them to continue fighting is going to do nothing but extend the amount of destruction to be endured by the Iraqi people. Arnett wasn’t speaking to Saddam, he was backing him up, and encouraging more events like the one in Basrah (fedayeen firing on fleeing civilians, et al.)

  4. Ewin Ewin

    The troops have been working hard thus far to defuse the idea that civilian casualty blackmail would make them change their MO. I’m sure it’s been extremely difficult to continue to accept possibly fake surrenders, to continue to shelter possibly fake civilians, etc…. but the only thing that will stop the perpetrators is the belief that it’s actually not working. The unending sight of those determined troups, so much more potent than a newsreel from across an ocean.

    We really don’t know at this point how well-informed Saddam or his ministers are. All we know is that when someone says almost literally in his ear what amounts to, “This is exactly how you will convince America to back down,” it dimishes (even possibly undoes) what the soldiers have been working so hard (and risking so much) for. It’s a setback.

    What’s worse is the fact that it’s an essentially empty gesture. We’re not going to back down. The only possible outcome of aiding and comforting the enemy at this point will be more civilian deaths. The only rationale he could have had for this act that leaves him clean of murder, would have been a personal conviction that the deaths were going to happen anyway and he was just stating the obvious.

    Of course, we’ll never know that now, will we?

  5. Mmm.

    Look, if y’all think that an interview on Iraqi TV is going to be more convincing to the Iraqi people than the same statement on CNN… I’m not sure what I can say. Still, I’ll give it a shot.

    It is utterly foolhardy to think that Saddam does not have access to the same media we do. This is the information age. If Raed can post from Baghdad, how could one imagine that Saddam doesn’t have Internet? About eight years ago, I arranged for a Usenet connection for a guy in Bolivia who found it was cheaper to dial long distance to California than to get network any other way. I suspect the state of the art hasn’t gotten any worse since then.

    And /plenty/ of people on CNN — right or wrong — are saying that civilian casualities will cause the US to back down. I think they’re wrong, but Peter Arnett is /far/ from alone in saying this.

    Now. Let’s say I’m an Iraqi soldier who’s well aware of Saddam. He’s been a plague on my country for years. What do I find more convincing, CNN or an Iraqi state television interview controlled by my insane ruler? Hm. Hard question. “Look, my troops. They’re even admitting it on the vile Western cable network.”

    I mean, come on. You’re making up these rules about what people take more seriously as you go. Two weeks ago, the right wing was telling us that nobody trusted Saddam, and his propaganda was gonna crumble at the first sight of US troops. Now you’re saying his television station is more trusted than CNN. Make up your minds, already.

    You will note, by the by — if you read back one entry — that I did fault Arnett for one statement in particular. That being the one thing you aren’t seeing in Western media. And yeah, I think he should have gotten fired. I just think Den Beste is a goofball for believing that public information can be controlled.

  6. The other point here is that Arnett’s comments undermind Iraqi confidence in a coalition victory. (There’s a reason the interview’s being replayed constantly on Iraqi TV.) The more the civilians doubt the outcome, the more it feeds into residual mistrust — which is down in no small part to the way the allies abandoned them in 1991 after saying they’d back an uprising. The less the Iraqi civilians believe allied success is not on the cards, the more likely they are to resist, and to not welcome the allies as liberators.

    All in all, it makes for a longer, more deadly war for all concerned.

  7. Ryan Waxx. Ryan Waxx.

    My complaint with your posting is essentially the same as yours is with Den Beste’s. You are noticeably off the mark, but do not totally miss.

    You say that Arnett was not telling him anything he doesn’t already know, or could not get from other sources.

    Which is true as far as it goes. But I could pull off the mass media a number of reports and editorials that hold any concievable position you might like, and so could Saddam. Its what reports you BELIEVE is what makes a difference.

    One of the reasons that Saddam gets himself into situations is because, even with his vaunted CNN links, he is insulated from reality. Consider the evidence: He misjudged Iran’s ability to fight back, the USA’s resolve to remove him from Kuwait, and now the determinination to disarm him. Three strikes.

    The advisors who are loyal, often fear to tell him blunt truth, and is he going to take Western media at its word if he doesn’t want to believe what it is saying? But having a “respected” American journalist giving you words of encouragement on your own TV… now THAT’s an ironclad sign of which way the wind is blowing, if that’s what you are predisposed to believe.

    So yes, Arnett most certainly did give aid and comfort to an enemy who may now redouble his atrocities because he finds them effective.

    And for all you blather about the evils of control… there is one control that can be virtuous, and one each of us use every day.

    Its called self-control. Saddam and Arnett show a distinct lack of it.

  8. Ryan: evils of control? Such rhetoric. No: rather, say the impossibility of controlling information flow, because that’s what I said.

    “is he going to take Western media at its word if he doesn’t want to believe what it is saying?” I don’t know, but my argument doesn’t rest on the assertion that he will. I’m saying that Western media is, with or without Arnett, saying exactly what he wants to believe frequently. Again: what’s more believable, someone who says what you want to hear when they’re under your thumb, or someone who says what you want to hear when they’re in another country?

    To show that Arnett’s comments about the casualties cause qualitatively greater harm than anything you can read on CNN, you have to argue that Saddam is more likely to listen to the guy under his thumb. That’s just silly.

  9. ziphius ziphius

    Re: Impossibility of controlling information flow

    But that is what totalitarian states do – control the flow of information. You don’t believe that the average Iraqi is allowed to watch CNN do you?

    The significance of Arnett’s interview is not that it will influence the Iraqi leadership, but that they will use it as a propaganda tool to encourage their underlings to fight to the bitter end, and to keep the average Iraqi paralyzed by fear.

    Doug, Dan and Jackie D. say much the same thing, and are correct IMHO.

    z

  10. IHNJH, IJLS “[Saddam] misjudged… the USA’s resolve to remove him from Kuwait…”

    I also like saying “we have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts like your border disagreement with Kuwait.”

  11. ziphius: do you realize that now you’re arguing that Den Beste was wrong? I quote from the original Den Beste post: “Arnett’s interview assures the Iraqi leadership that they’re doing well…” Den Beste at no point even mentions any possible effect the interview may have had on anyone other than Iraqi leadership, in fact.

    Regardless, though, you’re missing the point. The point is: Saddam can use any sources he wants to assemble his propaganda. If he wants to take CNN clips and rebroadcast them on Iraqi TV, he can. Arnett’s interview does not become more useful simply because it was given to Iraqi TV; if anything, it becomes less useful, because there is the clear possibility that it was given under pressure.

  12. Daniel Daniel

    A lot of the arguing here seems to be about access to information. But we’re assuming easy access to information, and I haven’t seen that backed up yet.

    Does Saddam have access to any news sources he wants? Almost certainly. (He also almost certainly ignores most of it, as Ryan pointed out.) But what about your average Iraqi, who has been conditioned for decades to believe only what Saddam tells him? Does HE watch CNN? (Can he?)

    The issue, as I see it, is not what Saddam might have thought of Arnett’s interview, but what average Iraqis thought of it. If Iraqi television is all that most Iraqis ever see (as I strongly suspect), then its broadcasts have authority to them, regardless of what is said. Iraqis are no doubt used to being told that the Americans are in deep trouble… but being told this BY AN AMERICAN JOURNALIST, ON THEIR OWN TELEVISION STATION, is very different from what has happened before.

    (Baseball players refer to this as the “your own man says so!” rule. If all Iraqis have seen is Iraqi spokesmen blowing their own horns, this can be discounted. But an American, speaking words perceived to be against America’s interests, carry greater weight… particularly if hearing an American at all is rare.)

    My reading of Den Beste’s argument was that INDIVIDUAL IRAQIS (including civilians) will now be more inclined to fight, and less inclined to surrender, than they would have been without Arnett’s interview. In fighting, they will almost certainly die, for they face overwhelming odds. These are the deaths Den Beste says Arnett is responsible for… and I’m inclined to agree with him.

    By the way, guys… is it truly necessary to have a running Bryant – Den Beste feud here? I don’t recall Den Beste engaging in the kind of implied name-calling that’s all over this post. (He simply says “Bryant defends Arnett”, and provides the link.)

    Yes, I know it’s your site, and you can put anything you want on it. But getting nasty doesn’t do you credit.

    djs

  13. Daniel:

    I may be addressing this point poorly, because I feel like I keep repeating the same thing and nobody’s addressing it. Let me try again.

    Den Beste says, and this is an exact quote, “Arnett’s interview assures the Iraqi leadership that they’re doing well…” I don’t know how it could be any more clear that he’s referring to the Iraqi leadership.

    His argument is that “Arnett told them it’s working, and that if they just keep it up, Bush will back off.” Them, in that sentence, refers to the Iraqi leadership who concocted this undeniably vile strategy in the first place.

    Again, further on: “But if this does encourage the Iraqi government to start creating lots of death scenes to blame on us, then the people killed will actually be dead, and their blood will be on Arnett’s hands.”

    Again: “this virtually guarantees that there will be some bomb blasts somewhere caused by the Iraqi government itself.”

    He’s not talking about Arnett encouraging the average Iraqi citizen here. He’s talking about Arnett encouraging the leadership. He’s talking about actions he thinks the leadership will take because of what Arnett said.

  14. About the “feud,” separately, because I really want to make the point I just made clearly and separately from distractions:

    I emailed Stephen and asked him if he’d read my earlier post on Arnett, in which I approved of NBC’s final decision. He said no. Since Den Beste was unaware of that particular nuance of my stance when linked (and since he hasn’t updated), I kinda wanna make sure people know there might be a little more nuance here than you’d expect from a simple “Bryant defends Arnett.”

    As far as I know, there’s no feud.

  15. Ryan Waxx Ryan Waxx

    Again: what’s more believable, someone who says what you want to hear when they’re under your thumb, or someone who says what you want to hear when they’re in another country?

    You can make that kind of comparison only if you strip every scrap of relevant context from the situation. Arnett did NOT simply say what Saddam wanted to hear… he BROADCASTED it to the world and especially to any Iraqi who was wondering weather now was the time to defect.

    Even Goebbels never had it that good, to have British reporters doing his job for him during WWII.

    To show that Arnett’s comments about the casualties cause qualitatively greater harm than anything you can read on CNN, you have to argue that Saddam is more likely to listen to the guy under his thumb. That’s just silly.

    In this paragraph, to dismiss out of hand the harm Arnett caused, you DO argue that Saddam is the only relevant person in Iraq, that Iraqi citizens have the same access to dissenting voices (including CNN) that Saddam does, and that having american repoters actively help you carries the same impact as forcing them to read a prepared statement under duress. That’s not silly, that’s willfully blind.

    So he doesn’t listen to people under his thumb? REALLY? So then he spent the last 20 years ensuring he could trust no one in a position of power in Iraq? That’s not just silly, that’s drooling, raving lunacy.

  16. ziphius ziphius

    “He’s not talking about Arnett encouraging the average Iraqi citizen here. He’s talking about Arnett encouraging the leadership. He’s talking about actions he thinks the leadership will take because of what Arnett said.”

    I see what you’re saying. Here’s an attempt to bridge the two positions:

    The leadership in Iraq, as I understand it, is thus:

    1)Saddam is the supreme ruler who decides all foreign & internal policy and makes all military grand strategy decisions.

    2)Serving Saddam, and carrying out his policies are many different layers of many different organizations including Ba’ath party officials, ministers, generals etc. They are what I would call leadership. This layer of leadership would include his immediate circle such as his sons, Chemical Ali, Tariq Aziz etc.

    Saddam himself won’t be influenced by a Peter Arnett interview because he has access to CNN and has the freedom to make up his own mind about what he sees. The leadership under him though are subject to propaganda just as much as the average Iraqi citizen is. They know Saddam’s policies and will be “inclined” (i.e. conditioned) to look for indicators of its’ success. They will thus be influenced by Arnett on TV because it provides independent verification of the sucess of Saddam’s strategies – independent because they will know whether or not Arnett was coerced (since they are the ones directly involved with Arnett) into making the statements favourable to the Iraqi strategy.

    They (the leadership) in turn will use the Arnett interview as broad propaganda to influence the mass of average Iraqi citizens. You are right about them being suspicious – they will have no way of knowing whether or not Arnett was coerced, and knowing the brutal nature of Saddam, may well assume that it was coerced. Still, though many who are inclined to back Saddam, will take comfort in the appearance of western confirmation of the success of Saddam’s strategy.

    So in summary:

    1) Saddam won’t be influenced
    2) the leadership under him will be influenced
    3) the average Iraqi may be influenced

    z

  17. John Lewis John Lewis

    I think Bryant is misjudging what Steven said.

    I came away from Steven’s post thinking he had criticized Arnett for basically encouraging the Iraqi regime to murder their own civilians. (E.g., “You’re doing great so far! Keep up the good work!”) Could you point out the part of Steven’s post where he says Saddam is ignorant of the effects of civilian deaths, and it was Arnett informing him?

    I don’t think you can. His article uses the word “assure,” and says that Arnett will affect a plan that is already implemented by the Iraqis. If it’s their plan, then clearly they know about it. Rereading Steven’s post, I see the word “encourage” as well. That makes it fairly obvious in my mind what he is criticizing.

    I don’t see any wording that says Arnett was informing the Iraqis of information, public or otherwise. [Except one tangetial issue, added below.] The criticism was about what Arnett said and who he said it to, and the deaths it might cause. [Rereading the post I see Steven says will cause, not might. Since Steven hasn’t yet perfected his time machine, I assume he meant to say it was a strong possibility, not a certainty. In any case I think it likely to have a bad effect on this war; nothing good will come of it. The best I can hope for is nothing happening because of what he said.] His action was encouragment of an enemy, not informing. The only information Steven notes is that American resolve is weak, and the encouragement itself. I think now maybe Bryant focused on an aside in the article and extrapolated it to the entire thing. (Maybe?) But the post was more about what Arnett said and hardly mentions American resolve, and certainly doesn’t claim it’s a public secret.

    Anyway, the first time I read the article I got the feeling it was written less to criticize Arnett and more to express [Steven’s] shock that NBC was supporting him (again for self-interest, explicitly stated). That now turned out to be false, since he’s been fired (as noted in an update).

    In short, I think you and Steven really agree. His post is just a little unclear apparently, and obviously Steven isn’t perfect. Yet. He is working on that cybernet–er, I’ve said too much…

  18. Lesse.

    Ryan, sorry, but I’m not gonna bother responding to you any more cause you appear to be reading what you want me to say rather than what I said. Example: You take my assertion that Saddam is less likely to believe someone under his thumb and warp that into “So he doesn’t listen to people under his thumb? REALLY?” Well, no, and that’s not what I said; I was making a point about independent confirmation. Enjoy your rants.

    ziph: heh. That pushes the question down one level… so sure. There might be a level of leadership which doesn’t get CNN but which will believe Arnett, and possibly — for some reason — Saddam hasn’t ever shown anyone at that level any footage from CNN which would support his view. So perhaps this is the first time they’ve ever seen an American saying “civilian casualties will make it harder for Bush.”

    But Saddam would have to be very bad at propaganda for that to be true, since I strongly suspect he has the ability to rebroadcast footage from CNN on his television.

    John: I think you’re more or less correct. It seems to me that Den Beste is saying that saying these things /in Baghdad/ is more damaging than saying them anywhere else. The problem is… I’m honestly not sure why. There are plenty of people saying the same thing in other places; why should it matter that it’s in Baghdad?

    It seems to me that there’s a leftover assumption that location matters. And, sure, it probably does. A little. But not as much as it did during WW II, when travel was difficult, and certainly not as much as it did during WW I, when travel was a fairly big deal.

    Den Beste influences thousands of people per day from a Weblog and it makes absolutely no difference where he’s located. Would you take him more seriously if he was in Baghdad? Do his statements about US government lose meaning because he’s not in DC? I’m pretty sure not.

    Opinions matter, and will always matter. Location… less so with time.

    The significant portion of Arnett’s actions is that he allowed himself to become the subject of the news rather than the reporter of the news. Same thing Aaron Brown on CNN is doing, in a lot of ways, speaking of people who should be fired.

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