Monday, August 25, 2008

Chaos Descending

The critical problem in American public diplomacy directed toward the Muslim world is not one of 'dissemination of information' or even one of crafting and delivering the 'right' message. Rather it is a fundamental problem of credibility. Simply, there is none -- the United States today is without a working channel of communication to the world of Muslims and of Islam. -- Report of the Defense Science Board Task Force on Strategic Communication

In this week's Sift:
  • Pakistan. You can't appreciate Musharraf's resignation without knowing the story so far. Ahmed Rashid's Descent Into Chaos tells it.
  • Don't Trust the Polls. Those margin-of-error estimates don't even begin to tell you how far off the polls might be -- in either direction.
  • McCain's House Problem. If this means that the media is going to start covering what McCain actually says, that's big news.
  • Short Notes. Humorous things I found to distract myself from the polls. The Post continues to spin for McCain. Food gets political. Gorbachev defends Putin. And more.

By some combination of luck and foresight, I finished reading Ahmed Rashid's Descent into Chaos just a few days before Pervez Musharraf resigned as president of Pakistan. Rashid is a Pakistani journalist, and he has written a Pakistan-centered version of what's been going on in central Asia (especially Afghanistan) for the past couple decades. It's a view that the American public hasn't been getting.

First, let's start with what Pakistan is and where it comes from. When Britain gave independence to its Indian colony in 1947, Muslims didn't want to be a minority in a unified India, so they formed Pakistan. Separation was bloody, and India/Pakistan has been a cold war ever since. They've also fought several hot wars: India helped East Pakistan become Bangladesh in 1971 and Pakistan has tried several times to acquire India's Muslim-majority province of Kashmir. (The most engaging way to get an understanding of Kashmir is to read Salman Rushdie's novel Shalimar the Clown.) They both have nukes, which undoubtedly are targeted at each other.

Like many countries, Pakistan makes no ethnic/cultural sense. (See the ethnic map.) The northwestern border is the Durand Line, drawn by the British in 1893 to separate Afghanistan from their India colony. The line cuts the Pashtun tribes in half. Pakistan's big cities (Lahore and Islamabad, in the eastern Punjab region, and the port of Karachi in the Sindhi region) are like a Muslim version of India's cities: They have a sizable class of educated professionals who know English and are steeped in the British legal tradition. They have an on-again/off-again tradition of democracy, but they've been cursed with corrupt politicians who keep giving the army excuses to take over. The professional-class families (one of the characters in Ron Suskind's The Way of the World comes from such a family) see the economic boom in India and know that they could be getting rich too if they could just establish a stable democratic government. They're Muslims, but in a Westernized way. They pray and go to the mosque, but don't see why they should launch jihads or blow themselves up. (A gross simplification, but not bad as gross simplifications go.)

The army has a different set of interests. They hate India; they want Kashmir; they want to stay in power. The army was originally formed on the secular British model, but Musharraf's predecessor as military dictator, General Zia-ul-Haq, saw the usefulness of Muslim extremism. Now the officer corps and the ISI (Pakistan's CIA) are divided between radical Muslims and secularists (like Musharraf) who think radical Muslims are useful.

When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the United States also saw the usefulness of radical Muslims like Bin Laden. We funneled money through the ISI, and they supported Afghan guerrillas fighting the Soviets. (They also siphoned off some money to arm Kashmiri guerrillas fighting India). This is where Al Qaeda comes from. After the Soviets left, the various guerrilla leaders set themselves up as warlords, and made Afghanistan such a hell that Afghans largely welcomed the ISI's next creation, the Taliban. The Taliban made Afghanistan an international training ground for Muslim terrorists, including Al Qaeda, Kashmiris, Chechans, and others.

Then 9/11 happened, and Musharraf worried that the U.S. would turn on him. So (in exchange for billions in aid, mostly for the military) he "helped" us in Afghanistan, but also turned a blind eye while the ISI helped the Taliban. After the U.S. established the Karzai government in Afghanistan, Musharraf continued playing a double game. He tracked down just enough non-Afghan Al Qaeda leaders to keep Dick Cheney happy, while helping the Taliban reform in the Pashtun tribal areas of Pakistan. Today it's an open secret that the Taliban's government-in-exile operates out of the Pakistani border town of Quetta. Bin Laden is thought to be hiding in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP), maybe near Peshawar.

As you (but apparently not Musharraf) would expect, the extreme Muslim groups have not been content to be pawns of the Islamabad government. Instead, Pakistan has its own Muslim insurgency now, which has attempted to assassinate Musharraf. The army is now fighting its own creation.

Another piece of Rashid's book is the story of the Bush administration's cynical relationship with democracy in central Asia. We invaded Afghanistan ostensibly to bring democracy. But outside of Kabul we re-established the power of the much-hated Afghan warlords, probably because they were easier to deal with than a democratic government. (That, along with Pakistan's aid, is why the Taliban is making a comeback -- many Afghans prefer them to the warlords.) In Pakistan we showed no interest in pushing Musharraf towards democracy until his government was starting to falter anyway, and then we cooked up a plan to co-opt a re-established Pakistani democracy by having Musharraf share power with the popular Benazir Bhutto.

The really unnecessary tragedy, though, is in the ex-Soviet Muslim countries: Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan. These countries had little previous relationship with America, and (at least as Rashid tells the story) people in this region had high hopes that an increased American presence in the region meant that democracy was coming. Instead, we supported whichever dictators would give us bases for our war in Afghanistan. As a result, the American brand in central Asia is ruined for generations, and one of these countries might well become the next Afghanistan.

Or maybe Pakistan will: After Bhutto was assassinated, the elections went ahead anyway. The new parliament set up to impeach Musharraf, and he resigned in hopes of staying out of prison. (Al Jazeera's English channel has a discussion of this that puts our news channels to shame. Part 2 is here.) There's a democracy of sorts now, but the army and the ISI still have considerable power and could take it all back in an instant. The new leaders might open up the potential of Pakistan's educated, English-speaking middle class, or they might follow the example of previous democratic leaders: loot a bunch of money, move it out of the country, and go into comfortable exile. If they do, it'll be the Taliban against the army, with a bunch of double-agents in the ISI and the officer corps. And the prize for the winner is Pakistan's nuclear arsenal.

If you'd rather take your medicine with a spoonful of sugar, check out the (slightly out of date) music video parody "Hooray for Pakistan".

Don't Trust the Polls
The Russia-Georgia conflict gave McCain a bump in the polls, and brought the race to a dead heat. I figured this was a blip, and then there was the combination of McCain's gaffe about his houses (see below) and the Biden announcement, so I figure Obama will bump back, at least until the Republican convention starts. Anyway, this is a good time to point out one of those under-covered stories: Nobody knows how to poll this election.

Pollsters have a bunch of simultaneous problems. The biggest: Nobody knows who's going to vote. That's true in all elections, but moreso in this one. Whenever a poll says that it represents "likely" voters, somebody has made assumptions about who's going to vote. But nobody knows what assumptions to make about these issues:

The Democrat/Republican/Independent mix has shifted in the Democrats' favor.
One of the ways you normalize the data in a poll is to adjust the party mix. If, say, 45% of your sample identify themselves as Democrats, but Democrats are usually only 35% of the electorate, you figure you've accidentally oversampled Democrats and adjust the data to compensate. But after you make that same adjustment for several polls in a row, you wonder if maybe the number of Democrats has just gone up. Different polls handle this situation differently. (That's why Obama consistently runs worse in Gallup.)

Young people voted in the primaries.
Ordinarily, pollsters discount the sample of young people, because they are less likely to vote. Back in January, I was skeptical of the Obama campaign's prediction that a record turnout of young people would give it a victory in Iowa. But the youth turned out, and Obama won. How many young people will vote in November? Nobody knows. 18-24-year-old participation was up in 2004, though still not as high as other age groups. And age is a major factor in this election: Young people go overwhelming for Obama, old people for McCain. (WaPo characteristically describes this as "Obama's age problem" rather than "McCain's youth problem".) The most interesting theory I've heard: Young-voter participation is up because social networks like Facebook increase the peer pressure that politically active young people can put on their apathetic friends. (Follow young liberal voters via the Future Majority blog.)

Nobody is polling the voters who register late.
The first question a pollster typically asks is "Are you registered to vote?" If you say "no" the interview is over. But there's still plenty of time to register in most states, and Obama is putting an unprecedented level of effort into registering new voters. That's why Obama and McCain have about the same number of commercials, even though Obama is raising and spending much more money. Obama is spending money on field organization, while McCain is relying on the usual Republican Party organization. (If there's a dispute about this election, it probably won't be about voting machines or hanging chads. It will be about who voted and who was prevented from voting.)

Nobody is polling the cell-phone-only households.
Most polls call people over land lines. But a significant number of people just have cell phones. Mostly these are young, single people who probably favor Obama, but nobody knows how to estimate their impact.

The Bradley Effect.
Polls tend to overestimate the vote of black candidates. Maybe if you're ashamed to admit why you're voting against a candidate -- like because he's black -- you tell a pollster that you're undecided. The Bradley effect is erratic, and even its existence is debated, because there's always some other plausible explanation for the unexpected result. Take the New Hampshire primary, for example. The polls had Obama winning by high single digits, but instead Clinton won. Was that a Bradley effect, or did female voters have a last-minute reaction against the media's attempt to bury Clinton after her Iowa loss?

Conclusion: A lot of factors make this election hard to poll, and they pull in different directions. So you should run hard for your candidate right up to the minute the polls close. Don't give up. Don't get complacent. Nobody knows what's going to happen.

McCain's House Problem
The McCain Houses Gaffe has been like watching your arch-rival's quarterback grab his knee at the end of a play. It's a shame these kinds of things are so influential, but isn't it nice to see it happen to them for once?

In case you missed it, here's the story: Politico asked McCain how many houses he and Cindy own, and he said he'd have his staff get back to them. That touched off a huge media frenzy, which the Obama campaign stoked with this ad and then this one. The McCain people started swinging wildly to make it stop, complaining that Obama is rich too, attacking Obama with a sleazy ad about Tony Rezko (like all the Rezko stuff, it's innuendo not backed up by an accusation -- what exactly are they claiming Obama did?), playing the POW card yet again, and generally flailing around in all directions.

Like all these things, from Mike Dukakis in a tank to Obama's "I have become a symbol" misquote, it's overblown in any literal sense. As I listen to the interview, it doesn't sound like McCain is having a senior moment or even that he's out of touch. He's just doing what he so often does: dodging a question he doesn't want to answer and relying on the media not to call him on it, because question-dodging doesn't fit his Straight Talk Legend.

The interesting thing is that it didn't work. The media didn't cover for McCain this time. And when the campaign tried once again to use his POW experience as an all-purpose get-out-of-jail-free card, this time everybody pointed out how irrelevant that response was. They even made the comparison to Giuliani's "a noun, a verb, and 9/11."

And that may be the true significance of the story. Up until now, McCain has been covered according to the Liberty Valance Principle: "Print the legend." If that's starting to change, it's a big deal. I wonder if the mainstream media will take the next step, and knock down the myth that it's the campaign's fault, and McCain himself only reluctantly talks about his POW experience. In fact, he's been trading on it since his first campaign in 1982 and seldom goes for long without bringing it up.

To follow up on last week: McCain produced a witness, fellow POW Orson Swindle, to verify that he told the cross-in-the-dirt story before 1999. FireDogLake is unimpressed, pointing out that Mr. Swindle is a pro-McCain lobbyist who specializes in the corporate fake-grass-roots campaigns known as astroturf. (Not a guy you want to take at his word, in other words.) Andrew Sullivan observes that Swindle was telling a different story in May. And No More Mister Nice Blog adds that McCain's memories of Christmas in Hanoi were covered extensively in a 1995 book -- with no cross-in-the-dirt. Finally, I am feeling smug for refusing to attribute the story to The Gulag Archipelago until somebody could give me a page number. Apparently, evangelical writers attributed the story to Solzhenitsyn's book even though it's not there. If McCain stole the story, he stole it from them, not from Solzhenitsyn.

One more thing: If the McCain campaign wants to continue claiming the Vietnamese tortured him, they should denounce the Bush administration policy on detainees. If you buy the Bush definition of torture, McCain wasn't tortured.

Short Notes
I don't think I need to tell you that the Democratic convention is starting today and Obama chose Joe Biden as his vice president. I am neither thrilled nor horrified by Biden, so I won't use up a lot of words. I'll just point out that if you say Obama-Biden really fast, it sounds like it ought to mean something in German. obamabiden would be the infinitive form of a verb, maybe meaning something like: to pray that the darkness ends soon.

While I was bumming about McCain's post-Georgia rise in the polls, I watched amusing political videos. 23/6 took Fox News' hour-long documentary on Obama and reduced it to 1 minute. I think I don't need to watch the original now. The Onion News Network pundits discuss the 430 key demographics that will decide the election, like "cordoroy-wearing homosexuals" and "people who eat artisanal sandwiches". I found several political music videos, like a parody of "Hey there, Delilah" by an Obama fan who wants to be VP. I think he's making fun of Obama and his supporters, but I like it anyway. And there's this adaptation of the "Shaft" theme to Obama. Finally, the Funny or Die team brings us a commercial selling the Republican Party as if it were an antidepressant drug. ("Warning: Excessive use of the Republican Party may lead to recessions and needless wars or quagmires.")

The funniest typo of the season: AP refered to Joe Lieberman as "the Democratic vice presidential prick in 2000 who now is an independent."

Mikhail Gorbachev defended Russia in a NYT op-ed about the Georgian situation. And Thomas Friedman's interpretation doesn't make anybody look good. Neither does the view from Human Rights News.

The latest WaPo/ABC poll has Obama up 49-43 among registered voters and 49-45 among "likely" voters (whoever the heck they are). So how does the Post spin it? Neither the headline ("Support for Each Candidate Holds Steady") nor the Faulknerian 55-word opening sentence says which candidate is ahead. Instead we hear how close the race is and that people continue to think McCain would be a better commander-in-chief. Only readers who persevere find out that Obama is winning. If the numbers were reversed, I'm sure we'd see a nice simple headline like "McCain Maintains Lead".

Other Sifts: This week I noticed another, more focused weekly sift of the news: This Week in Tyranny on the blog Pruning Shears ("Pruning back the power of the executive branch"). It appears every Sunday. RFK Jr. and Brendan DeMelle had been doing a weekly entry on Huffington Post called Unearthed: News of the Week the Mainstream Media Forgot to Cover. But I haven't seen one since August 1. Hope they haven't given up on the idea.

The safety and healthfulness of the food system is one of those under-the-radar issues. Candidates and pundits rarely mention it, but more and more people are seeking out locally grown food, organic food, unprocessed food, and so on. (The Nashua Farmer's Market is visible from my window on Sundays.) Books like The Omnivore's Dilemma and Deep Economy are finding an audience. Well, now there's an advocacy web site that keeps track of the politics of food: Recipe for America. Here's an interview with Jill Richardson, one of the founders.

The McCain ads just get worse. This one starts out with the usual Obama-fans-are-mindless meme, but gradually shifts to a lock-up-the-white-women implication. A guy at the end says "Hot chicks dig Obama." A swiftboad-type group not officially part of the McCain campaign is putting $2.8 million into an ad linking Obama to the ex-Weather Underground education professor William Ayers. The ad appears to violate McCain-Feingold. Fox News announced that it wouldn't run the ad, but then showed it twice anyway.

For what it's worth, I think of Ayers as the liberal equivalent of Oliver North. Both committed politically motivated crimes a long time ago. Both got off on technicalities. Both have gone straight since. Conservatives pay no price for North, and Obama shouldn't pay one for Ayers. If anyone objects to this comparison, make them defend selling weapons illegally to the Iranians, as North did.

1 comment:

danps said...

Thanks for the link to Pruning Shears, Doug! Dan.