More Ouch! [hilzoy]

A few points in response to Jamie's last post, which I will put below the fold so as not to distract from more substantive posts.

First, I don't know how Jamie is using the term 'totalitarian', but I meant it in its usual sense: "Of, relating to, being, or imposing a form of government in which the political authority exercises absolute and centralized control over all aspects of life, the individual is subordinated to the state, and opposing political and cultural expression is suppressed." We can debate how closely al Qaeda's goals fit this definition: whether, for instance, an organization that rejects all man-made political structures could be described as one in which a political authority exercises absolute control over all aspects of life; whether the Sunni Islamic authorities who would presumably have a fair amount of power in al Qaeda's dream caliphate are normally unified enough to exercise totalitarian control, and so forth.

But al Qaeda does not pose a threat to us because its dream caliphate is a realistic possibility. It threatens us because it is a terrorist group. Moreover, its nearer-term political goals -- e.g., eliminating any American presence from Saudi Arabia, toppling various governments in the Muslim world -- are much more developed than its positive vision of the caliphate with which it wants to replace them. The caliphate would clearly be a theocracy of some kind; whether or not it would be a totalitarian government is, I think, not at all clear. But to emphasize this goal, given both the unlikelihood that it will ever be achieved and its underdeveloped character relative to the rest of al Qaeda's goals is like describing Lenin's Communist Party as an anarchist rather than a totalitarian organization on the grounds that it held that the state would eventually wither away.

Second, I do not deny that Iran and Syria support terror, or that they, especially Iran, have helped factions within Iran. I do deny that they have "effectively declared war on us", which was Jamie's original claim. There is a difference.

Third, Jamie objects to my claim that al Qaeda's natural allies are failed states. (Though I don't know what he means when he says that "claiming that al Qaeda is "allied" with them is a bit like saying it's "allied" with the equator." Even leaving aside the fact that I did not say that al Qaeda was allied with "failed states" in general, but that failed states were its natural allies, the analogy escapes me.) The two states with which al Qaeda has been most closely allied were Somalia and Afghanistan. Both were failed or failing states. I do not believe that this is a coincidence: a stronger state would be likely to resist allying itself with an organization as destructive, unpredictable, and likely to cause problems as al Qaeda.

Fourth, because I used the phrase "the risk of further destabilization in the Middle East and Pakistan", Jamie writes that "For Hilzoy, as for many on the left, there's no agency, no ideology, no actor behind this destabilization, except, of course, America, George W. Bush, and the criminal neocon cabal." Jamie is free to entertain this fantasy vision of what the left thinks, but if he wants to attribute this view to me, he should provide some evidence other than the construction of a single sentence. For the record, I have neither said nor thought that no one other than Bush is responsible for the destabilization of the Middle East, nor have I been particularly shy about criticizing other agents.

Fifth, Jamie seems to think that when I asked him what his conception of journalism was, I was bothered by the fact that I disagree with him. This is not true. I was bothered, as I said, by the fact that he made a serious accusation, and then wrote, the next day, that he wasn't sure whether what he wrote was true or not, but was simply trying to be provocative. I would have been just as baffled had he written something I thought was true but that he himself did not believe, just to be provocative, especially if, in writing it, he had apparently not bothered to check and see whether it was true or not.

I was trying to understand how someone could write an article defining and describing "The Obama Doctrine", and then go on to write: "I'm not really sure if there is an Obama Doctrine, but was hoping to be provocative and stir some debate. That is why I asked:

"Jamie, how do you conceive of your role as a journalist and blogger? What responsibilities do you think it involves? And how has your view of those responsibilities informed the posts I've mentioned above?"

In asking that question, I was not impugning Jamie's motives, but questioning his conception of what being a journalist or a blogger involves. There is a difference. I supposed that Jamie was trying to do what a journalist or a blogger is supposed to do, and I wondered what he took that to involve. I might instead have impugned his motives: for instance, I might have said that he intentionally misrepresented the truth for some purpose of his own, or, perhaps, that he tried to provoke rather than inform in order to subvert the norms of journalism from within. I might have impugned his journalistic competence: for instance, by supposing that he was trying to state the truth accurately, but did not understand that to state the truth about a candidate's views, one normally needs to consider more than one snippet of one interview. Or I might have impugned his linguistic competence: for instance, by supposing that he did not understand that "I'm not really sure whether X is true" is inconsistent with "I believe X for good reasons."

Any of these options would, I thought, have been less charitable than the one I chose. Moreover, while I do not know Jamie, and thus am in no position to judge, I do not suppose that any of them is true. That is why I did not impugn either his motives or his competence, but asked what his conception of journalism and blogging was, and how it was consistent with what he wrote. Likewise, it would have been less charitable to leap to conclusions about what that conception was. That is why I asked him, rather than assuming that I knew the answer. If there is a good answer to that question, I am eager to hear it. If there isn't, then it is that fact, not any statement of mine, that Jamie should worry about.