Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Times in Their Labyrinth

Clearly, we can and will lose many of our local newspapers in coming years. We will regret the loss of jobs, but surely not the reduction of trees so we can read about more car crashes, cops-and-robbers, and human interest/disaster stories. Besides which, all those ugly non-news items will still be out there on YouTube or something.

We can envision a future where there will be five national printed newspapers: some kind of Washington Post/Politico amalgam for the policy wonks; The Wall Street Journal for the wealthy and wannabe-rich Republicans; some kind of L.A.Times/Variety/Billboard amalgam for the entertainment elite and wannabe-famous; the USA Today for ordinary folks, and the Times for the intelligentsia. The Times' problem is that it will remain something of an ivory tower, under frequent attack, isolated...

...But still indispensable. We'd like to review three recent cases in which the Times proved its value once again as the serious paper of record:

Case 1--Barack Obama's op-ed on the health care debate Sunday: It is not that he said anything new or original in it; it was basically the stump speech he has been delivering in recent weeks. He was entirely silent on the key topic of the moment, the "public option" (see my previous post). But there is his argument, undoctored and without commentary, for those too busy to have paid attention previously. Best of all, especially for those folks, there is the cute label at the bottom, in italics: "Barack Obama is the President of the United States." OK for putting that on record!

Case 2--Also in Sunday's paper, a long study--entitled "Can Game Theory Predict When Iran Will Get the Bomb?"--of a brilliant man and his method of predicting future outcomes of complex human coalitions with dynamic, quantitative game-theory methods.

Although clearly he would dismiss me as a practitioner of rank speculation and whimsy (see our post), even worse as an insignificant, non-commercial practitioner, I claim Bueno de Mesquita as a kindred spirit. He has immaculately dressed up what I often try to do on this blog--carefully examining the key players, their desired outcomes, and their ability to effect the same, and then coming up with a most likely scenario--and he has sold it for big money to the CIA and other big-time clients, and he claims the track record to back it up. At the least, he's a role model.

By the way, his prediction is that Iran will move all the way to be fully ready to explode a bomb--then stop. I would endorse that prediction: the best result for Iran is not having the bomb--which will backfire against them, which violates everything its leaders have repeatedly stated--but showing they can do it, on brief notice, if they decide they do need it.

Case 3--In the next 48 hours (as we write on August 19), Afghanistan is having a Presidential election. The outcome, at one level, seems fairly certain--the incumbent, Hamid Karzai, should win, either with 50%+ of the votes in the first round, or in a runoff against his top opponent, Abdullah Abdullah. The Times has used this event, though--which we can only hope will come off with a minimum of violence, and with a maximum of integrity as compared with the similar, recent event in Iran--as the occasion to educate us all about this complex, hopeless country in which we are investing so much while knowing so little.

A lengthy article in last Sunday's Times Magazine, "President Karzai in his Labyrinth", is an indictment of Karzai's administration as being ineffective, hopelessly compromised with its tolerance of warlordism, corrupted by the opium trade, and Karzai personally as being oblivious, complacent, and far too isolated.

I went on record a long time ago about President Karzai: I felt that we (the US, and the anti-Taliban world in general) were extremely fortunate in finding Karzai and arranging for him to be put into his position. I still feel that way. Karzai is personally uncorrupted, incredibly courageous, sincerely concerned for his people, and determined to see his government victorious and surviving this long battle against the Taliban in order to preserve its legitimacy and as much of his people's freedoms as possible. He will win because he is clearly the symbol of the Pashtun majority's desire for a unified Afghan state, and the Afghanis will be unhappy with him because their state is such a mess.

Of course, Karzai is trapped in a difficult security situation: how many assassination attempts has he survived? (answer: plenty) When he leaves his capital, his life depends on these warlords he has to tolerate, first because he doesn't have the power to supplant them (the current ferocious battle for Helmand Province seems clearly the result of trying to do so there) and secondly because he's been told to tolerate them by his American military/economic backers.

A second Times article published more recently featured the third-most prominent of the many candidates in the election, Ashraf Ghani, former finance minister in Karzai's government but now a severe critic. It just showed that there are other prominent, educated Pashtun candidates, ones we might prefer except for the fact that they have even less of a power base or popular support, and just how difficult it would be for anyone else to do Karzai's job. Ghani's support is estimated at about 5%, so he's unlikely even to be close to making it into a runoff election if there were to be one.

The bottom line is that Karzai will win but, in the best case, it will not help much. Afghanistan clearly shows the limitations of what one person--even with sterling qualities, unlimited energy, and the best intentions--can do without adequate support (Barack Obama may end up also showing that, but that will be for another day's argument). Karzai will be empowered to stay in office for a couple more years (assuming he can dodge the future assassination attempts), then he can start negotiating, a la al-Maliki in Iraq, for the foreigners to go under the best terms possible.

Do I need to spell out the similarities between Hamid Karzai and the New York Times?

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