Wednesday, December 08, 2004

In Medias Res

Sullivan also linked today to an article by Robert D Kaplan, the Atlantic's veteran foreign correspondent. Formed by long and vast experience, deep reflection and expressive brilliance, he's probably my favourite among living journalists and writers and by now I have read all of his books, including the obscure ones like The Arabists, on America's community of orientalist scholars and diplomats and Surrender or Starve on Ethiopa, which teach a myriad of lessons.

He articulates some of the themes that I express with much less clarity, especially a dislike of our new lords and masters in the media, few of whom seem to have any claim to experience, knowledge or character that would make them worth listening to. It's a true mystery to me why someone should take the word of a George Monbiot, for example, over an academic economist, an official of the IMF, an emerging markets investment banker, a businessman from the developing countries, or anyone who learns by doing and being involved without abstraction or second-hand information into the
day-by-day building of history.

Politicians are weaker than ever; journalists, stronger. To be regularly mouthing opinions on television is to be, as they say, accomplished: To be an assistant or deputy assistant secretary of state, defense, agriculture, or commerce — jobs requiring much higher levels of expertise and stress management — means often to slip into oblivion, at a significantly lower salary. A journalist friend who had been a presidential speechwriter [I'll bet that's David Frum, of the National Review and author of a good Bush biography The Right Man]agreed that were a successful journalist to accept a typical assistant or deputy assistant secretary’s slot, it would be as though he had gone missing for four years.

The more I read about Paul Wolfowitz, such as this recent interview in the New Yorker, the more it brings home to me how central, original and important to modern history has been the experience of even this relatively junior official. What journalist can match that?

Like Richard Posner in Public Intellectuals, he highlights the general lack of reliable indicators of a commentator's foresight, accuracy and understanding - a problem Posner likens to that facing customers of doctors, dentists and lawyers.

Ultimately, the NGOs, the media and the UN have no very important role to play, Kaplan argues. In contrast to the powerful antiwar book by NYT writer Chris Hedges', he writes:

Celebrating military heroism is not glorifying killing. War is a sad fact of existence, but a fact nevertheless. To be heroic can be an indication of character rather than of bloodthirstiness. Moreover, the American military — active in dozens of countries each week, fighting terrorism away from the headlines — is providing the security armature for an emerging global civilization whose own institutions are still in their infancy. And while the U.S. military may employ a variety of methods, including humanitarian aid, in the fight against terrorism, the use of force is central to its enterprise. Al-Jazeera, a quasi-independent television organ, is itself a product of the creeping liberalization of Middle Eastern society for which the American military deserves partial credit.

Increasingly, the more I read about NGOs trying to prosecute NATO at the UN for war crimes committed DURING the Kosovo air war - and the UN opening the investigation, American environmentalists hysterical at the plight of Rwanda's gorillas at the of the genocide there, (both examples from Samantha Powers' The Problem from Hell) or now. Kofi Annan being caught with his hand in the Oil for Food poorbox, the more I'm inclined to agree with him. There is no such thing as global "civil society", except as leeches and mosquitos.