A couple of nights ago I went to a Jewish Community Center to listen to a talk by a respected scholar of Middle Eastern politics and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It was an enjoyable evening with pleasant enough talk. Actually, it was more like a prayer meeting than a community political lecture. The audience was composed of Israel supporters and there were prayers and the singing of Hatikvah.
But what struck me was the casual and confident ease with which people claim media bias. One presenter proudly and enthusiastically declared that she was going to cancel her subscription to the New York Times, as if that would do anything other than make her less informed. I know the media are an easy target and as an active specialist in these areas myself I encounter the charge of media bias regularly. Still, it is frustrating how little effect I have on people when I explain the multitude of perceptual distortions that go into their conclusions about bias, followed by an explanation of the difference between “bias” and “perspective”.
We can’t seem to explain to the public that people watch the news for a multitude of reasons, many of which have little or nothing to do with the acquisition of accurate information. We watch news for mood management, social rehearsals, and all sorts of cognitive needs. The more one watches the more they are bound to encounter bias or develop distrust.
You know that individual psychology and cognitive distortions are implicated when both sides of an issue claim bias. There are a dozen studies that show the same footage or text to two different groups, only to have that message interpreted completely differently by the two different groups depending on their entering perspective. No news story is completely free of values, and no story includes all potentially relevant information.
In one study available here the authors found that presentation variables such as agency in headlines and focal point of photographs all contributed to different (perhaps just “different” and not distorted) interpretations. And just as one would predict, according to the hostile media affect, the roomful of Israel supporters saw bias against Israel everywhere, noting the New York Times, when in fact the research cited above indicates that the New York Times is mostly pro-Israel. The hostile media affect is the tendency for highly involved individuals to see media coverage of their issue as biased against their own position. Their own ego involvement and engagement with the issues makes it impossible for them to process a new story objectively. In fact, coverage of the Israel Palestine conflict has traditionally been so supportive of Israel that the American public is uninformed about the Palestinian narrative and political position. Zelizer and colleagues in the reference cited above found that the New York Times, Washington Post, and Chicago Tribune had remarkably similar coverage of the intifada with the Times being more supportive of Israel.
But the difficulty people have with the distinction between “perspective” and “bias” is particularly disappointing. Not a single person at the lecture interpreted news stories as a perspective; they only saw bias everywhere they looked. A perspective is a defensible and explainable viewpoint from which one member of the group sees an issue; it is a point of view. The perspective can be impartial and defensible. To say it is defensible means that the holder of the perspective is fair-minded and has come to his or her opinion on the basis of acceptable reasons and evidence. This does not mean that other evidence is not available or different interpretations are not possible, just that the holder of the perspective has thoughtfully considered alternatives and sincerely tried to weigh competing evidence. Being a “liberal Democrat” or a “Zionist” is defensible and can be explained on the basis of acceptable reasons. But the same is true for being a “conservative Republican” or an “anti-Zionist.” It is the clash of these perspectives that results in reasonable disagreement. There is disagreement because the two perspectives support different positions and hold different values, but both perspectives are defensible from evidentiary, rational, and cultural standpoints.
A bias is holding an unfair and indefensible attitude or opinion. The holder of the bias is typically close minded and unwilling to consider additional evidence and alternatives because he or she pre-judges new information and alternative perspectives and refuses to engage in proper and sufficient information processing that might result in opinion change. Certainly, putting aside beliefs and working to form new conclusions is difficult. But it remains a communicative behavior that is central to problem-solving and part of the general communicative process that forms the foundation of democratic conflict resolution and the management of conflicting groups.
As if the propaganda and distortions that ooze out of Fox News isn’t enough to damage to the quality of public discourse, Fox has a younger sibling who is growing and gaining strength and influence. This is Sinclair news and “Media Matters” recently reported on their newfound influence. We are in the middle of an unprecedented war with the press prompted mostly by the President and his conscious attempts to manipulate the public impressions of what the press is trying to do. The Sinclair corporation has focused on local news and blatantly controls content so as to propagate conservative influences.
Sinclair is known for some particularly manipulative tactics: acquiring and consolidating local news stations and then deceitfully blending advertising with news, including cutting budgets and taking shortcuts with any production of content that meets journalistic standards.
Sinclair has been around for some time but it recently is gaining in strength and influence. It is increasingly—and blatantly—running a right wing message and has taken its cues from Roger Ailes and Fox when it comes to ensuring that its political perspective is foregrounded. Sinclair has hired a Trump aide (Boris Epshteyn) who is charged with ensuring that Sinclair’s right wing proclivities find their way properly into the content of the media.
What is even worse, according to Media Matters, is that the Trump presidency is assisting Sinclair with changing FCC regulations that currently limit its ownership so that Sinclair can grow. And, it should be noted, that Sinclair is trying to operate in markets deemed most useful to meeting the needs of national elections.
Boris Epshteyn is known for his strict adherence to his own policy of “must run.” That is, he forces the affiliates to run certain segments that meet the political preferences of the corporation. His policy at times has been so outrageous that it prompted John Oliver to make fun of it (video is 19 minutes long but should watch at least 10 minutes) which is yet another indication of its growing presence.
Sinclair has made a conscious choice to focus on “local” news for three reasons. First, data show that local news is more respected and considered more trustworthy than national news. Viewers simply think that organizations like CNN or CBS are more biased. Second, the policy of “must run” means that the prepared statements are from the hand of corporate headquarters but the words are spoken from the mouth of the local newscaster who is typically more trusted. The local newscaster, who is recognizable and congenial and even speaks in the local dialect, is forced to utter and account for the political message. And third, local markets are less saturated and developed and ripe for exploitation.
The key issue here is not necessarily that a station leans left or right since all media has at least some political leaning. But that is not what we are seeing in the contemporary discourse. Rather, it is the purposeful distortions and deliberate attempts to manipulate the discourse based not on argument or reason preference but on implications, conspiracies, and factoids. When “real” news is called “fake” news, and millions of people casually accept this distinction, the quality of the political culture is threatened, and Sinclair takes a step forward.
Go ahead, click on the video and enjoy the music before reading below. Sam Cooke predicted in 1960 an attitude that is gaining momentum.
A diminished expectation of ability or preparation is one under discussed consequence of Donald Trump’s election to the presidency; in short, we now believe anybody can do the job. But this is thoroughly consistent with the recent death of respect for ability or expertise. The February 2017 edition of Foreign Affairs has an article on the loss of respect for expertise and superior levels of knowledge in America. The basic argument, which was well defended, is that Americans have increasingly lost their respect for achievement and the sense that somebody actually knows something more than others and should be listened to. The article can be found here. Moreover, those confronted with their ignorance are fierce in defense of their own opinions.
The article reports an interesting, and depressing, experiment where subjects were asked if the United States should intervene militarily in the Ukraine. Only one in six of the respondents could actually identify the Ukraine on a map and most of them were off by about 1,800 miles. But the real news value of the study was the correlation between the strength of one’s intensity for intervention and how far off they were from being able to identify the location of the Ukraine. In other words, those who are most ignorant about the geographic location of the Ukraine and perhaps thought it was in South America were also the most enthusiastic about military force. In another study Democrats and Republicans were asked whether or not they would support the bombing of the country of Agrabah. About 1/3 of Republicans said they would and 36% of Democrats were opposed. There is no such country as Agrabah.
Again, the issue is not so much that people are ignorant of geography or foreign relations. That’s another issue. The bigger problem is that many people don’t respect established knowledge and are sometimes even proud of rejecting the advice of an actual expert. There is an increasing belief that all information is manipulated and perceptual (note “fake news” or the Trump campaign’s use of “alternative facts”). In this era of post-truth everyone figures that language is unstable so every person’s knowledge or meanings are as good as the next.
There are more than a few reasons for this loss of faith in expertise. The disrespect for experts is one of the more insidious. There is now a segment of the population that takes pleasure in challenging expertise not on the basis of superior knowledge or argument but because they see elites as evil and cannot tolerate being told anything. I grant you that sometimes elites can be insufferable and arrogant but that doesn’t detract from their better knowledge. Journalists, pundits, opinion writers, and professors have lost favor over the decades with the population and are now seen as antagonists rather than sources of reliable information.
It is also true that the world of information is complex and it is easy to feel insecure about one’s control of information. Nobody could be in command of everything and we are all relianton experts and those who know more than we do. One of the skills of the educated – and should be even more emphasized in schools – is the ability to identify reliable sources of information; the ability to judge and evaluate and make educated decisions about the quality of information.
It’s okay if Sam Cooke’s love struck friend “doesn’t know much about history, or biology” as long as somebody does and we as a society recognize that expertise.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is always here. It continues year after year as populations everywhere grow weary. The other issue that is always with us is the charge of biased news coverage. Large numbers of people will charge, for example, the New York Times with blatant bias and their fury seems to jump from the page. The next day another group will accuse the Times of being the mouthpiece for Israel. You can’t win and you don’t know who to believe. Margaret Sullivan of the New York Times recently expressed similar frustrations in an article called “The Conflict and the Coverage.”
Frustrating and futile as it seems to be, newspapers of quality such as the New York Times must continue to grapple with how they can do better. And they must continue to search for standards that ensure balance, context, and accuracy. Even though we have a tradition of aspiring to objective journalism the public remains ignorant about how journalists actually work, not to mention the difference between “bias” and “perspective.” Moreover it is impossible to write a story from a perspective that matches everyone. But let me suggest to you three good reads on the matter of covering Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The first one we mentioned above is Margaret Sullivan who is the public editor for the New York Times. Sullivan concludes that The Times does everything in its power to be fair and does have a basic worldview that Israel has a right to exist. This assumption puts them at odds with radical critics of Israel such that nothing The Times does will be satisfactory. She makes four suggestions: (1) provide more historical and geopolitical context, (2) improve the engagement between the newspaper and the public so that the public can ask questions and learn more about journalists, (3) improve the coverage of Palestinians, and (4) stop straining for equivalencies. In other words, take a stand when defensible and necessary.
If you want a perspective from a blogger strongly supportive of Israel who corrects biases and misunderstandings then go to “How Not to Report on Israel (and How It Can Be Done Correctly”). You will not find detailed data and argument on the site but you will find the perspective of a cultural native who is tapped into the consciousness of Israel. This is a useful perspective because many journalists covering the Middle East have a modest at best working knowledge of history, culture, language. This may not be true of journalists such as Thomas Friedman but he is an exception as well as an editorial writer which allows him to stay above the fray; that is, he is rarely if ever on the ground reporting facts.
A final reading is from Tablet magazine entitled “An Insider’s Guide to the Most Important Story on Earth.” In this essay a former AP correspondent explains how so much of the reporting fails to understand Israel. Yet the international media is consistent in its reporting and suggests a narrative or an understanding of Israel that is largely misdirected. First, so many media assumes that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is more important than others where more people die and the politics are more contentious. This “magnification” process often associated with the media is truly operational here. The conflict also garners attention because it takes place in the center of the three Abraham religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – and this infuses it with significance. Secondly, it is simply policy to favor stories that are about violence more than peace and reconciliation. When a political party is elected to government and it seeks a moderate path and contact with the Palestinians the story goes untold. This is true, according to Matti Friedman the author of the Tablet story, because of the pressure to maintain the consistent narrative that has the Palestinians as the underdog seeking a home and historical justice, but Israel as difficult and unmoving as it drifts rightward.
The coverage of Israel has moved from fair and supportive to unfair and critical. And no fair treatment of Israel can ignore either its strong Western democratic traditions or its moral failings. But it is also true that Israel is not a symbol for everything right or wrong, good or evil, solvable and not. The coverage of Israel requires some critical empathy on the part of all sides.
5 dumb moments when it comes to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. At the number 5 spot is Joan Rivers. She claims to know what is going on between Israel and the Palestinians because “she has been there.” I suppose if you can afford to fly to Israel then you will become knowledgeable. All of the nuances of the conflict become clear to you as you relax by the pool at the King David. Of course your credentials are never more evident than when you claim somebody else is not bright enough to understand the issues.
Howard Stern, coming in at number 4, uses the same approach to the discussion which is to claim everyone around him is stupid and doesn’t have the right to speak, attacks easy targets such as Rihanna, and spouts mostly macho stereotypes about Israel or the Palestinians.
Below is a video featuring conservative talk show host Dennis Prager (number 3) and he commits the sin of simple simplicity. Prager stares into the screen with an unemotional tone about how this problem is not so difficult, it all boils down to the fact that “they hate us.” Prager cites the line often attributed to Netanyahu that if the Arabs lay down their arms and announced peace there would be no more war, but if the Jews lay down their arms and announced peace, there would be no more Jews.
This is the “they hate us” theory. It is an emotional shorthand that distills every political disagreement and the entire history of the conflict including the clear political issues into a single emotional outburst. The “they hate us” theory trivializes politics, turns issues that truly demand attention into unsolvable simplicities, and promotes a defeatist sense that nothing will change.
I could not resist an example from Hamas which is just about laughable because it will say anything it needs to at any time regardless of the lie. Of course the segment is not “funny” but it is absurd which makes it funny. This fellow from Hamas actually invoked the blood libel’s from the primitive past. He did it in Arabic probably as a result of speaking different ways to different audiences. Still, to make reference to such silliness is so intellectually embarrassing that I just had to include it.
This Is Senator Gohmert from Texas and he fits the entire stereotype. This is the number 1 funniest and dumbest statement on the Israel Palestine conflict. The poor fellow has his politics, history, and religion confused and it is wrapped around his delightful Texas idiomatic speech.
The blogging community is growing, stretching its muscles and increasing its influence. Blogs are, according to a number of studies, providing more insight and more thoughtful analysis than traditional media. Clearly, there are amateurish and ineffectual blogs that contaminate the blogo sphere but these will always be with us as long as communication environments are unrestrained.
In a study by Johnson and Kaye (Media, War & Conflict, Vol 3, 2010) they discovered that the Iraqi war was a significant event with respect to blogs when people began to see them as more thoughtful and often more accurate than traditional media. Until then, blogs were mostly annoying sideshows dismissed by quality journalism as something not to be taken seriously. But soldiers in Iraq who began to write war blogs and report on what they were seeing, including a natural view of the military and the culture of military life, began to acquire support. These military blogs were popular and attracted the attention of traditionally trained journalists as well as the public.
But a strong majority of Americans who supported the war up until the toppling of Saddam Hussein began to fade away as the war effort shifted to state building in Iraq. Attention to blogs began to wane and it appeared that military blogs were consistently the most popular and blogs lost some of their appeal as things moved to routine politics. Still, the public recognizes that government sources control wartime news and these sources of course have their limitations and biases. The beginning of the Iraqi war and the hunt for Saddam Hussein produced more cheerleaders than journalists.
In time of war blogs written by soldiers are particularly popular for some rather straightforward reasons. They offer up more detail, insight, and perspective as well as assumed to be more authentic. Moreover blogs by soldiers, or more detached participants, can write in a subjective and breezy style that does not adhere to normal journalistic standards. And although this can have disadvantages it makes for more enjoyable reading. The interactive features of blogs are also very popular where readers can respond and initiate extended discussions.
Johnson and Kaye found that blogs were influential in establishing perceptions and had the power to influence opinions. Readers of blogs in their study reported increased influence and attributions of credibility about the blog as time went on. There are of course a number of political and foreign-policy explanations for this including the influence of changing popularity from traditional media.
Also of interest is the predominance of Republican and conservative ideology among blog readers and users. We would expect military blogs to be largely conservative but overall blog attention increases among Republicans and conservatives. In the same way that conservative radio and television is more popular or “works better” than liberal programming, conservative ideologies seem to seek out alternative media probably because of their general belief in liberal media bias.
Some years ago it seemed quite unlikely that citizens would drift away from CNN and traditional news and start partaking regularly of blogs for war news, a time when blogs were considered more hardscrabble upstarts then respected and reliable. But the blogosphere is growing and shaping itself into something significant as well as genuinely challenging traditional news. The blogs of war were unleashed during the Iraqi war just at the moment where technology and politics intersected.
The United States has a long tradition of “objective” journalism. At least we tell ourselves that objectivity is an ideal to strive for. In some other news cultures there is not even the pretense of objectivity. A newspaper, for example, will have a perspective and they will state it clearly and the reader is expected to know the perspective. So there is a communist newspaper, a socialist newspaper, a business capitalist newspaper, and so on. The reader understands the perspective and reads the news with the interpretive lens called for.
But whether there is objectivity or perspective the news is still a sort of “lecture.” The journalist is an authority and the reader is “learning” something. Given the distrust of journalistic institutions, sinking circulation, weak citizen engagement, and low credibility for news this monologic approach is clearly dying off.
But modern incarnations of journalism are more influenced by user generated possibilities as well as new technology. Fueled by the ideas of public journalism and a reinvigorated public sphere where ordinary citizens could communicate about ideas, contemporary thinking about journalism includes more interactive possibilities. (A good reading on these and related matters is by Marchionni in the journal Communication Theory volume 23, 2013) The reader can use various web tools to participate in journalism and this can include supplying content and forming a sort of collaborative journalist-citizen relationship.
These new trends are interesting and grounds for improved engagement between the public and journalism institutions. But I am less concerned with what journalism practices are called (public, participatory, interactive, or conversational) then I am with journalism’s quality and reliability. I prefer the term “knowledge-based journalism” as described by Patterson in his book Informing the News: The Need for Knowledge-Based Journalism. A thorough essay on knowledge-based reporting appears here.
Knowledge-based reporting tries to maintain the tradition of accuracy and truth but recognizes that most of the time the news report will simply do its best to get the best version possible. Still, knowledge-based journalism relies on its tradition of verification. Journalism is not fiction, or entertainment, or propaganda. Patterson, as described in the essay available in the link above, argues that journalism should adopt the thinking and processes of “science.” That is, the journalist formulates guesses and hypotheses, gathers facts, and knows how to apply other facts.
Walter Pincus wrote an article for Columbia Journalism Review accusing journalists of being narcissistic primarily because of journalism’s interest in larger long-term investigatory projects that are likely to bring Pulitzer prizes. The article makes a few counterarguments warning against the narcissism that prompts journalists to devote too much time to one story rather than making a variety of issues available to readers.
But deep knowledge and competence and specialization are at the core of knowledge-based reporting. Patterson reminds us that journalists who are uninformed and lack detailed knowledge are more subject to manipulation by sources, make more mistakes, and vulnerable to a few experts.
Finally, communication scholars have pointed out that journalists are just fine at providing the who, what, where, and when but fail miserably at the “why” question. I have asked journalists about this and they typically reply that they do not want to turn the press into a school text. But this hardly seems like an inevitability. And with new technology and graphics the possibilities for likely presentations and explanations seem ample. I will not repeat the cliché about democratic and free societies relying on quality information. But “democratic and free societies rely on quality information.”
The two photos below represent different captions designed to frame the story in a particular manner. The first photo is from AP and was reported by Elder of Ziyon.
A Palestinian rioter tries to grab a weapon from a plain clothes Israeli police officer, right, during clashes in Shuafat refugee camp in East Jerusalem. Palestinians scuffled with Israeli security forces, after an arrest operation triggered clashes in the camp the day before.
The second photo is from Reuters
An undercover Israeli police officer (R) scuffles with a Palestinian youth suspected of throwing stones while trying to detain him during clashes in the Shuafat refugee camp in the West Bank near Jerusalem. Clashes erupted between Palestinian stone throwers and Israeli police that entered the refugee camp, a Reuters witness said on Tuesday.
The caption for the two photographs is actually quite different. In one sense, the descriptions do not contradict each other. They both described the scene. But it is possible to conclude with some different interpretations on the basis of the caption alone. In the Reuters version the Israeli appears to be the aggressor because he is trying to “detain” the Palestinian. The readers conceptual background might easily identify the Palestinian as engaged in legitimate revolt and doing little more than throwing stones at the bigger more well armed soldier and his comrades. It is the classic David and Goliath image. Anyone writing a caption should have the typical reader in mind. But in the AP version the Palestinian is characterized as more aggressive because he is trying to grab the weapon and will probably use it on the policeman. The policeman’s aggressive behavior would of course be justified in this case.
In the Reuters version, the fighting “erupted” and apparently the Israeli police entered the refugee camp which was sufficient provocation. But in the AP version there was an arrest operation that provoked the violence. The websites “Elder of Zyion” and “Honest Reporting” claim that the Reuters organization used an Arab stringer for a description of the events.
This poses an interesting question with respect to the newsgathering process and how stories are framed. Some news outlets have websites and phone numbers that one can call in order to report a story. So anyone can fill out a form on the web and provide a description of some event or activity and perhaps attract the attention of a news organization. The person leaves phone numbers and email addresses where he or she can be reached and the news organization contacts them. This of course can be an excellent source of news and is the sort of contact that results in specified and situationally-based stories. But on the other hand, this process can be abused. It can result in stories that are biased as a result of the selection process or stories, even worse, that are staged or distorted in some significant way.
Actually, the description underneath the photographs is a cutline and not a caption. A caption is a little headline and a cutline describes the photograph in more detail. Reader psychology and tendencies are important because the photo sparks interest and then readers typically move underneath seeking explanations. It’s important for cutlines to perform their duties. Cutlines like stories answer the who, what, why, when, and how question of journalism. When cutlines are more on the objective side of the dimension they satisfy reader’s understanding of the picture but have not necessarily told the reader what to think. The more cutlines are politically motivated the more they draw the reader’s attention toward some specified reality on the part of the news outlet.
A picture may be worth a thousand words but each of those words is capable of altering the meaning of the picture. A skilled cutline writer knows these things and chooses his words carefully.
The data below show interesting trends with respect to media use and news. The data were reported in the Journalist Resource (journalistresource.org/studies/) and represent current trends in the sources of news. The conclusions from these data are not my primary concern here because they reinforce what we pretty much already know. That is, newspaper circulation is in decline, television viewership has dropped and more and more people get their news from social media – online and digital outlets in particular. These are the only two lines moving upward in the graph. But what is interesting is the theoretical possibilities of this trend for any international community. In other words, what are the potential consequences of this shift from traditional media to digital outlets. Below I speculate about a few possibilities with respect to groups in conflict and the Palestinians in particular. Again, the data in the graph do not pertain directly to any other international community, but they do represent a very common trend and one that either does or will influence allcommunities.
Historically, journalism and stories reported in media outlets provided a sense of coherence and at least a certain amount of consistency. Journalism was part of the power network in a culture with considerable respect and cultural capital. This was particularly true in less developed political systems such as many of those in the Middle East and of course the Palestinian Authority would qualify. There was typically one primary news outlet and everyone was exposed to the same information.
In the West Bank political communication was very limited by a combination of Israeli restrictions and undeveloped cultural traditions. From the 1980s into the 1990s penetration rates for news and media outlets were very low. This was because of poor communication infrastructure, economic development that was insufficient to improve access, lower literacy rates, and the general resistance of the culture to adopt new technology.
Things improved as a result of the Oslo Accords in 1993 where the Palestinians gained more control over their own technology. But the Internet became a revolutionary change. Because of the cross boundary capabilities of the Internet, and the fact that the Internet respected no borders, the Palestinians began to thrive with respect to information access and distribution. Internet penetration in the West Bank and Gaza is higher than in many other places such as Syria. New technology has energized Palestinian NGOs, human rights organizations, and made the formation of online communities possible. Also, during periods of violence and uprising when there is damage to buildings and Palestinian communication infrastructure, they are typically back on the air quickly because of availability of advanced technology.
But given that the PNA in the West Bank and Gaza has digital access and opportunity at least comparable to many political systems, it means that they also experienced the consequences of the digital age. One consequence is that Palestinians are now more involved in the media industry and thus more influential. Foreign news organizations use Palestinian talent and there are more young people involved in the news business with more ambition along with critical sensibilities.
There is still the problem of media control with no shortage of leaders who would like to use the media as a voice of propaganda. But multiple media outlets and the possibilities of user generated content make this more difficult. The ease and accessibility of digital forms of communication performs its democracy work in the West Bank and Gaza as well as any other place. Multiple voices and outlets are important and effective constraints on power. Where authoritarian media are governed by obedience and respect for political power, new digital media are more likely to broaden possibilities and make government monopolies difficult.
It is true enough that the Israeli-Palestinian problem is not easily addressed, but it remains the case that the rise in digital technology can structure in certain conflict resolution features that can contribute to a deliberative space responsible for helping to prepare the discourse of problem-solving. Some of the features of new digital technology that can enable the deliberative process are accessibility or availability of use to multiple citizens, equality or fairer access to media by a wider variety of people, along with the potential for more transparency and accountability. All in all, digital technology will benefit many aspects of West Bank and Gaza media. Even organizations that are more authoritarian such as Hamas cannot control digital technology sufficiently to manage the media environment. That is one reason why Hamas will maintain its reliance on violence as a form of control. Still, digital technology will facilitate the availability of mediated information that will one day at least find its way into the qualities of interaction necessary for progress toward mending political divides.
Here’s what Mitt Romney said the other day while speaking in Jerusalem:
“We have a solemn duty and a moral imperative to deny Iran’s leaders the means to follow through on their malevolent intentions. We must not delude ourselves into thinking that containment is an option.”
According to most analyses Romney took a rather aggressive stand supporting preemptive strikes and doing more than the diplomatic dance of the United States. Romney’s performance in Israel is a pretty good test of his foreign-policy chops and his diplomatic skills. He didn’t fail the test but his grade is fairly low. He embarrassed the English during their Olympic moment on the world stage, his characterization of the Palestinians as being culturally behind, and that’s why their gross national product is not as high as Israel’s, is pretty naïve and may even contain a tinge of racism. But he was not completely wrong about Iran and difficulties we face.
The Republic of Iran wants to be a nuclear power. They want a seat at the table with the grown-ups who have the biggest weapon and the most threat. The question of whether or not they deserve a seat at the table remains to be seen. I think you have to prove yourself. Just like you do not get to handle that big machine we call an automobile until you pass the test, you don’t get the responsibility of having nuclear weapons until you demonstrate you can handle the responsibility. Declaring that Allah is guiding your missiles and that some cultures need annihilation does not exactly represent the sort of maturity the world is looking for. But Iran does not seem to care much because they are defying international pressure and seemed to be unconcerned with any diplomatic efforts.
Iran turning its nose up at UN Security Council resolutions directing them to suspend enrichment, and refusing to explain fully their nuclear intentions do not add up to an acceptable definition of “maturity.” It is simply dangerous for Iran to enter the inner sanctum of the nuclear club: there are plenty of reasons for this danger not the least of which is the addition of more nuclear weapons capable of detonation, but the extent to which it would embolden the Iranians is one of the most dangerous. They already support terror in various places in the world and membership in the nuclear club would probably just encourage them to continue their terrorist ways against the United States and Israel. Even if there were some semblance of checks on their nuclear arsenal this sort of provocative activity could spur a conventional war. There is no doubt that tensions in the Middle East would escalate. Israel has a nervous finger on the trigger of nuclear weapons and the foreign-policy rooted in existential threat. Israel responds sharply to existential threat and the nuclear Iran would certainly qualify.
The geopolitical balance of power would be altered and the pickings would be ripe for additional nuclear proliferation. Allowing Iran to acquire nuclear weapons would undermine efforts to control weapons and how they are used. It would also be a defeat for the United States who has led the efforts to stop Iran and essentially organized the boycott. If the United States is perceived as failing to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons than the question of US power and influence will be unanswered.
There remains diplomacy to play out. Simply attacking Iran would be very provocative and causes many problems as it might solve. Some diplomatic process is the only alternative at this point. But the hell of it is that nothing much can be done during the political campaign because there are significant differences between the Democrats and the Republicans on this matter. The argument that Obama is weak on Iran does not hold much water. Obama is not weak on Iran, he is smart on Iran. It is simply reckless and dangerous to sound like a gunslinger on this issue. Obama is capable of convincing people that he is a tough guy – note the Osama bin Laden takedown – and I think he can be equally tough on Iran.
Even if we give Mitt Romney the benefit of the doubt he has plenty to learn. He was clumsy and somewhat ill-informed on this trip to Europe and the Middle East. His foreign-policy credentials are of course thin and we cannot wait too long for him to fatten them up.