Monday, October 27, 2014

Lincoln manipulated the press ... masterfully

There's a new book on Abraham Lincoln that shows how, from his earliest days in public life to the bitterest days of the civil war, he seduced and used the newspaper reporters and editors of his day with great success.  Garry Wills has a fine review in the New York Review of Books.

Lincoln had an easier time than modern presidents, since there were few in the media, which itself consisted only of a few influential newspapers, and they were easily influenced by the carrots and sticks of a president. But that he did it so often and so well may help us to see Lincoln not as sitting for a marble statue but as a wily politician who succeeded precisely because of his political skills.

knives are out

Enterprising journalists are finding sources inside the Obama administration who are increasingly willing to criticize White House policies, albeit anonymously. Today, Michael Hirsh in Politico skewers National security Adviser Susan Rice as heading a "Team of Bumblers."  Last week, Joshua Green in Bloomberg Businessweek cited "administration veterans" criticizing Obama's "graduate seminar" style of governance with a headline, "Obama is Too Cool for Crisis Management."  Earlier, Karen DeYoung of the Washington Post chronicled the  "extended presidential dithering" over a policy for Syria and Iraq. And Mark Perry wrote in Politico that only pressure from Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman, General Martin Dempsey, in a rare one-on-one conversation with the president, forced the administration to get its act together to confront ISIL.

Not a pretty picture. While it's true that most Washington memoirs deserve a subtitle of "They Should have Listened to Me," the flurry of insider gripes reflects frustrations over White House efforts to control all aspects of foreign policy. That's normal on both sides: the White House wants consistency in policy and messaging; the rest of the government resents tight control without adequate consultation.

I am troubled by the insularity and defensiveness of the administration's defenders. They should have gotten their act together sooner on ISIL, and they certainly shouldn't have sent "arms and train" legislation relating to Syrian opposition forces without first advising the Pentagon.

On the other hand, they are trying to fashion a policy while juggling several inconsistent goals -- a fact of life, not mismanagement. I think the president is right to move very cautiously about military actions in Iraq and Syria, since many of the enemies of our enemies are also hostile to American interests.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

rallying 'round the flagpole

It looks as if American public opinion is strongly endorsing the military campaign against ISIL.  In fact, the president's approval rating for the issue has reached 50%, a big jump from his recent standing. Time will tell [as we analysts say when we don't want to risk predicting but do want to toss in a dollop of skepticism] whether public support remains strong as the costs rise and U.S. casualties are suffered.

Here's the latest from ABC News:
  • SEVEN IN 10 AMERICANS SUPPORT AIR STRIKES against Islamic State insurgents in Syria, but far fewer back sending U.S. forces to Iraq as advisers - evidence in a new ABC News-Washington Post poll of the political risks of returning U.S. soldiers to that volatile region, ABC NEWS POLLSTER GARY LANGER notes. Fifty-three percent support sending U.S. forces to train Iraqi government troops and coordinate air strikes against Islamic State positions. But that's comparatively modest in terms of support for military action, and 17 percentage points behind the public's endorsement of air strikes. The Obama administration's campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria includes placing U.S. advisers in Iraq to coordinate air strikes, and training of Iraqi forces may occur. The president - perhaps cognizant of broad public dismay with the U.S. intervention in Iraq under his predecessor, George W. Bush - has pledged not to engage U.S. forces in a combat role.
  • OBAMA HAS A 50 PERCENT APPROVAL RATING FOR HANDLING THE CONFLICT WITH ISIS in this poll, LANGER writes - far from stellar - but exceeding the 44 percent who disapprove. It's also more than the 42 percent approval of his handling of the situation in Iraq in June and August, before U.S.-led air strikes were extended to ISIS positions in Syria. Notably, Obama receives approval from 30 percent of Republicans and 38 percent of conservatives for his handling of the situation - well short of majorities, but also far above his overall job approval ratings from those groups, 10 and 19 percent, respectively, in an ABC/Post poll in early September. He also gets 45 percent approval from political independents for handling the confrontation with ISIS, 8 points better than his overall job rating from this group.

linguistic creativity

My linguistic skills beyond English are pretty limited, though I believe I can go to the bathroom in seven languages. And order a meal and take public transportation in almost as many. But not discuss current affairs or explain American foreign policy.

I was charmed by an article in the Economist reporting what some technology companies are doing to translate operating instructions into less widely spoken languages.

Here's what Mozilla has been doing:
Mozilla has 230 localisation teams, says Jeff Beatty, who co-ordinates some from his office in Utah. Their work takes both time and ingenuity. Firefox for a computer uses about 40,000 words; for the phone OS, 16,000. Translators must express technological terms in languages shaped by livestock, farming and fishing, and choose alternatives for culture-specific words such as “cookie”, “file” and “mouse”.

Ibrahima Sarr, a Senegalese coder, led the translation of Firefox into Fulah, which is spoken by 20m people from Senegal to Nigeria. “Crash” became hookii (a cow falling over but not dying); “timeout” became a honaama (your fish has got away). “Aspect ratio” became jeendondiral, a rebuke from elders when a fishing net is wrongly woven. In Malawi’s Chichewa language, which has 10m speakers, “cached pages” became mfutso wa tsamba, or bits of leftover food. The windowless houses of the 440,000 speakers of Zapotec, a family of indigenous languages in Mexico, meant that computer “windows” became “eyes”.