New administration, fewer reporters

Another day, another bout of bad news for the journalism industry. The New York Times has a story today about how newspapers are cutting back on Washington coverage at a time when a new administration is coming in, two wars are still going on and the economy is teetering on the brink of collapse.

“From an informed public standpoint, it’s alarming,” said Representative Kevin Brady, a Republican from the Houston area, who has seen The Houston Chronicle’s team in Washington drop to three people, from nine, in two years. “They’re letting go those with the most institutional knowledge, which helps reporters hold elected officials accountable.”

The papers are focusing on local news rather than on events “far away” in … Washington, D.C.

Look, I can almost understand the desire to cut back on foreign news. I don’t agree with it, but I can understand the thinking. But Washington? On a recent trip to Louisiana, family members were discussing Congressional legislation that might affect them and their mortgages. That was direct paycheck stuff and they definitely wanted to know about it. So for newspapers to cut back on Washington coverage at such a time… Well, it just shows the desperate straits the industry is in.

I’m here at Stanford giving some thought to how the industry can be triaged and transitioned to the new media future, but for the moment, we need to save what we can. Do your part. I know you’re mad at “the media” but letting newspapers go under won’t help. It will be much, much worse.

So here’s a radical thought: if you want to hold the government accountable, buy a newspaper — an actual, printed copy. Subscribe to a paper, read it. Take some time and actually peruse the paper. Think of these small steps as a democracy bond purchase in a time of crisis. As Joseph Pulitzer once said, “Our Republic and its press will rise or fall together.”

Remember that Arab-Kurdish Feud?

It’s hard to say whether things are heating up in Mosul between the Kurds and the Iraqi government or whether it’s the latest outbreak of a festering sore, but either way, it doesn’t look good:

The Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki is squeezing out Kurdish units of the Iraqi Army from Mosul, sending the national police and army from Baghdad and trying to forge alliances with Sunni Arab hard-liners in the province, who have deep-seated feuds with the Kurdistan Regional Government led by Massoud Barzani.

The Kurds are resisting, underscoring yet again the depth of ethnic and sectarian divisions here and the difficulty of creating a united Iraq even when overall violence is down. Tension has risen to the point that last week American commanders held a series of emergency meetings with the Iraqi government and Kurdish officials, seeking to head off violence essentially between factions of the Iraqi government.

“It’s the perfect storm against the old festering background,” warned Brig. Gen. Raymond A. Thomas III, who oversees Nineveh and Kirkuk Provinces and the Kurdish region.

Worry is so high that the American military has already settled on a policy that may set a precedent, as the United States slowly withdraws to allow Iraqis to settle their own problems. If the Kurds and Iraqi government forces fight, the American military will “step aside,” General Thomas said, rather than “have United States servicemen get killed trying to play peacemaker.”

Many observers have assumed the flashpoint for an Arab-Kurdish war over Iraq’s northern regions would be sparked by unrest in Kirkurk. But perhaps Mosul is the real problem.

Actually, it seems the entire border zone of the Kurdish region is a problem, with intense personal animosity between Barzani and Maliki. There have been armed stand-offs between the Kurdish pesh merga and Iraqi Army units in Diyala, and Barzani has referred to the Iraqi prime minister as a new Saddam Hussein. It doesn’t help that Maliki is allying himself with Arabs from Mosul who have deep ties to the former regime, including the former general who led the invasion of Kuwait. He’s also been trying to purge the Army up there of its Kurdish leadership causing some officers to announce that their loyalty is to Kurdistan and not Iraq.

If tensions do erupt up north, things could get worse all over. First of all, it would renew questions of why the Americans are in Iraq if they’re not going to stop their two biggest allies from going at each other. Secondly, it could create a security vacuum that foreign fighters could exploit to start entering Iraq in larger numbers again. The exodus of Christians could worsen. And of course, the price of oil could start to creep up.

All in all, not a good sign and a reminder that Iraq ain’t over yet.

Back to Iraq is back

Huzzah. After weeks of wrangling, I was able to recreate the old style sheets that made B2I readable. Which is a good thing, as I plan to pick up the keyboard again.

To bring you guys up to date, I’m currently at Stanford University for the John S. Knight Fellowship for Professional Journalists. Back-to-Iraq was, of course, a major selling point for the selection committee, as the program is really reaching out to non-traditional media people. (You can see my essays, including the plan of study here.)

My colleagues in the program are exceptionally talented and smart and it’s an honor to get to spend a year palling around with such folks. My project here is to look at a way to scale the Back-to-Iraq model up to an institutional level. Perhaps it won’t work; perhaps what’s needed is a networked system of correspondents in conflict zones around the world supported by subscriptions, donations, licensing fees and advertising. Whatever. I’m here for a year to try to figure it out. Being close to Silicon Valley and all those venture capitalists probably doesn’t hurt. Oh, and I’m going to learn how to play the guitar.

But that doesn’t mean I’m abandoning commentary and analysis of Iraq. I’m still deeply attached to the place and, yes, hope one day to go back. Even as Western media organizations are dialing back their coverage. (Mind you, I think this is a trough in the staffing and coverage, coming as it does in the closing weeks of the presidential campaign. While the economy will continue to dominate the news, by spring of next year I suspect Iraq will once again be on America’s radar as military pullouts commence.) So I will endeavor to share some of the interesting things here at Stanford — many of my coursework and research is directly tied to the Middle East, terrorism, the usual areas of interest — and also look at developments in the war. It’s not over yet, folks. And neither is B2I.

Georgia operations cease?

As of 0855 GMT Tuesday, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has ordered a halt to Russian operations in Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. This is according to the Russian press agency Interfax. [Hurriyet reports that French President Nicolas Sarkozy will attempt to cement a cease-fire.](http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/english/home/9640090.asp?scr=1)

“On the basis of your report, I have taken the decision to bring to an end the operation to force the Georgian authorities to peace,” Medvedev told Russian Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, according to a Kremlin spokesman.

The ceasefire proposal is apparently the one drawn up by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which was signed yesterday by Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili.

Not that this will return the region to normal. NATO’s eastward expansion has now finished, and American promises of friendship are not worth the paper they’re written on. As the Georgians have complained, why did the help the U.S. in Iraq if Washington turns its back on them when they come under attack? (That it appears that Saakashvili walked into a trap set by Russia is almost beside the point.) And could President Bush have appeared less concerned as he yukked it up with volleyball players in Beijing?

The world has entered a both a new period, but one that looks very familiar to those of us who remember the Cold War.

Sorry for the site problems

Greetings all… Sorry for the site problems. I upgraded MovableType and the site went all sideways. I’m thinking of switching over to WordPress, but I’m worried that the old content would then be unavailable (as happened with a WP experiment I’m running right now.)
Does anyone have any suggestions?

Not so fast, Wall Street Journal…

A Journal editorial picks up on Gina Chon’s non-scoop front-page story yesterday to crow that “Moqtada packs it in.” Well, as I pointed out yesterday, there was little in that story that was new, as Moqtada al-Sadr seemed to be more clarifying earlier instructions to his people than issuing new ones. He will still maintain secret cells to attack U.S. troops, for instance.

And does the Journal really want a kinder, gentler al-Sadr? Paradoxically, keeping him an angry, violent outsider will go a lot further toward advancing the Journal‘s goals in Iraq than having him as a peaceful political player. Because if he’s on the outside, his unruly Mahdi Army will continue to act like thugs, causing Iraqis to resent them and cling to the Maliki government (which the neo-cons at the Journal like.)

Having him inside the process, while decreasing the violence, gives him a chance to win at Maliki’s own game of politics, however. And if al-Sadr wins, does the Journal think an Iraq dominated by Shi’ite nationalists will be very friendly to U.S. interests? Perhaps it does, but I certainly don’t.

Like most Journal editorials, this is a grunt from the reptilian cortex, in line with the triumphalist bullying so common to that page.

‘So, three Sumerians walk into a bar…’

This is great, and a welcome respite from politics. [Researchers have found the world's oldest joke.](http://afp.google.com/article/ALeqM5h_OczNQMGiWXoiyi7apguhKSQXWw)
“Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap,” goes the joke, which dates from 1900 B.C. and which originated in what is now southern Iraq.

Now, I like a good fart joke as much as the next guy, but WTF? Does anyone actually get that?

No matter. Iraqi humor even today doesn’t quite translate into English, a fact that often left me feeling damn confused over gruesome tales that my Iraqi friends found hilarious.

Many of modern day Iraqi jokes deal with the Dulaimi tribe from Anbar and tend to focus on their perceived backwardness and sheer yokelry. One I remembered went something like, “A Dulaimi drove his cousin to Baghdad. His cousin sat behind the driver so he could take over the wheel after he killed the first guy.” Much laughter would then ensue, and no, I still don’t get it.

But the real genius of Iraqi humor was poking fun at Saddam and making word plays. (Too bad puns don’t translate well.) ‘Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, the sickly vice chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council who today may or may not be part of the neo-Ba’athist insurgency (what’s left of it) often came in for humiliating jokes. The craven yes-man was often pictured impersonating a woman, for some reason.

Ancient humor was no different, and megalomaniacal rulers have always been good for a laugh. Some of the ancient jokes the researchers found poked fun at Egyptian pharaohs.

“How do you entertain a bored pharaoh?” goes one. “Sail a boatload of young women dressed only in fishing nets down the Nile — and urge the pharaoh to go fishing.”
Put your favorite Iraqi joke — not jokes *about* Iraqis, mind you — in the comments.