US-Iran war–a close call: Mark on the radio

It sounds like “fake news.” It’s not. The US nearly provoked a war with Iran a month ago. I talked about this a few minutes ago with host Bruce Sakalik on KQV News Radio in Pittsburgh.

The new US Defense Secretary, James  Mattis, had a plan to have his navy intercept an Iranian ship on the high seas and search it for weapons heading for Yemen. That’s an act of war.

This story sounds so outlandish that people might think it’s fake news. So did I. So I checked it out and found it to be true. Bruce rightly questioned me about that, and I referred to this article about how the state of journalism today threatens democracy.

Some background: There’s a civil war in Yemen, and it has become a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. One of the side effects is that the chaos has given al-Qaida a freer hand to operate there, and that led to the Navy SEAL commando raid in January that killed an American serviceman and do civilians.

The US has been involved, directly and indirectly, in the Yemen war since its outset. Now it’s working to back its ally, Saudi Arabia.

Independent of that is the bedrock belief of the Trump administration that Iran is a serious threat to the rest of the world.

That sets up the scenario: Iran sends weapons to its side in the Yemen war, shipping them by sea to Oman and then overland to Yemen. That’s well known. So why not stop one of the ships and confiscate the weapons?

Why not, indeed. If it’s intended to make a difference in the Yemen war, then it would actually make about as much difference as urinating on a forest fire. If it’s intended to sent a signal of toughness to Iran, as in, “don’t mess with the Trump administration,” that’s more plausible–but the risks are much too great.

Stopping a ship on the high seas, even to search for weapons, is a recognized act of piracy. It can be excused if the arms are to be used against the party stopping the ship–Israel has intercepted several Iranian ships filled with weapons for Hamas and Hezbollah–but the US is not a party to the Yemen civil war.

So it’s piracy. And an act of war. Iran would be obligated to retaliate. And it would. Whether the retaliation would come in the form of an attack on a US military base in the Mideast, or a navy ship. or a civilian target, or something else–it would come. And the US would hit back. And we’d likely end up with a Mideast war on our hands.

There’s one other possibility. It’s unclear why the operation was called off. The White House indicates it’s because it was leaked. Perhaps the whole thing was an exercise to warn the Iranians about the tough new US policy toward them by leaking an outlandish operation, though there was no intention to carry it out.

That carries its own risks, and here’s the main one: It runs counter to the  reality that tough talk, military actions and sanctions against Iran have run their course. They brought Iran to the negotiating table, and they produced an agreement. Now is the time to implement the agreement and bring Iran back into civilization.

That’s the only way t0 solve the Iran crisis. No one says it will be easy or free of hitches. Iran is still involved in most of the conflicts in the region. That won’t change overnight. Economic benefits take time to bear fruit–and for now, the economic parts of the Iran accord are limping along, because companies and banks are afraid that if they do business in Iran, they’ll be hit by American sanctions.

We need to take care to avoid bringing about an “I told you so” situation in which we are the ones who scuttle the Iran accord, and then take credit for calling it a bad deal. The consequences of that are a hostile Iran, and worse, a nuclear Iran. I sincerely believe that no one wants that.

TV nets ban live interviews after Bowling Green

And here’s the other headline we need to see to fix journalism:

Newspapers rebuild wall between news, opinion

These are critical first steps toward winning back our credibility and restoring our influence with the public.

This defines the crisis: We’ve lost our purpose. We’ve started rooting for the side we choose as the “good guys” and boosting “our side” instead of communicating with everybody, as we are supposed to.

It shows how journalists have been sucked into the pattern of anti-social media—click bait, clicks, malicious Twitter gibberish, trending, and all the rest. This anti-social media is especially anti-journalism, yet our profession has embraced it, opting to play in a game it can’t possibly win. The other team, unconcerned with accuracy or truth, will always beat us.

Now we are tasked with covering an administration that considers us the enemy. So far we have failed. Among our errors—chasing the little lies and little stories fed to us by officials who benefit from distracting us from important developments, blathering on and on about how horrible the administration is, and dividing ourselves into camps in order to feed our selected audiences what they want.

That isn’t journalism. We must be communicators, analysts—not advocates, not cheering for our home team.

We saw a senior official invent a massacre on live television and get away with it. I imaginemaxresdefault that Chris Matthews is still kicking himself all over the room for not catching Kellyanne Conway’s reference to the “Bowling Green Massacre” that never happened. But it’s too much to ask. Even an anchor as skilled as Matthews can’t fact-check on the fly.

But here’s the real problem: It wouldn’t matter if he had. Fact-checking is a step too late. Once the lie is out there, it gets traction. And if the lie gets out there by way of a credible mainstream media outlet like MSNBC, it can’t be put back in the bottle. Too many people will believe it, some of them because  the news media debunked it. That’s today’s reality.

So our role must be to keep it from getting out there in the first place. That means recording interviews and fact-checking them before broadcast.

In response to this, I’ve already been told by a network TV news veteran that live interviews are the bread and butter of the industry. I understand that this won’t change overnight.

So how about if one network tries out the “no live interviews” format, applies it across the board, promotes it as a step toward responsible journalism, and checks what happens with its viewership? I’m assuming, maybe hoping, that a significant bloc of serious viewers would welcome it.

When it comes to defining our role, my jaw drops over the debate about whether journalists should be allowed or even encouraged to express their political views in public now. I’ve heard serious journalists say that they should do that, so that their audience can better assess their reporting.

Total nonsense. If journalists identify as progressive, then conservatives will never read another word they write. And vice versa. That’s the world we live in. If before it was a rule to leave your political views at your door whenever you go out, today it must be an ironclad, no-exceptions axiom. If you really feel you have to act out your role, whether right or left or black or brown or LGBTQ or whatever, then go be an activist and get out of journalism. The two don’t mix.

Our job was never to advocate for a political view, to take the side of the underdog, to speculate without foundation. It always was, and is, to present the facts and add impartial analysis, background, and context to allow citizens to make up their minds on vital issues.

As I’ve written before, I’m proud of the fact that a friend who has been reading my articles for years observed that he doesn’t know whether I’m on the right or the left.

That’s the template for regaining the trust of readers and viewers who believe, often correctly, that we are “liberals” (when did that become a curse word?) who are slanting the news toward our beliefs.

The trend is in the wrong direction. The newspaper that bragged, “All the news that’s fit to print,” now prints an opinion column on the front page of its international edition. The first one was typical Trump-bashing that broke no new ground but recast all the bitterness in pseudo-humorous form, aimed at the “true believers.” That appears to be the goal of the New York Times and others—carving out a niche instead of informing and explaining.

So here’s the story under the second headline: Not only must we restore the wall between the news pages and the editorial pages; but also, we must do away with editorials altogether. Op-ed pages are fine and necessary, but the time has passed when owners of newspapers, radio stations and TV stations get to expound on their political views just because they own the building.

That includes endorsing candidates. Today, nothing trashes credibility more than telling readers, listeners, and viewers where we stand politically. A century or two ago, perhaps voters needed the guidance of their local newspapers. Today they don’t need it, don’t want it, and draw damaging conclusions from it.

Unbelievable as this might sound in this new reality of instant news and constant deadlines—I actually made a successful career as a North American network radio reporter in the Mideast with the slogan, “I might not be first, but I’ll be right.” In the last century, my networks were willing to wait until I read the whole report, for example, instead of just the table of contents, before going on the air. That protected me, and my networks, from any number of gross reporting errors made by my competitors.

Working according to that slogan is impossible today. Even print reporters are required to tweet out their stories before they’re finished reporting them. There are two assumptions here. The important one in the eyes of the home office is that whoever gets out there first with the story “owns” it and will get the following, the clicks, as it develops.

The second is that even if the original tweet is wrong, well, we’ll fix it later, no harm, no foul. Anyone who has studied half an hour of psychology and knows the power of first impressions would recognize the absurdity of that reasoning. Likewise, that applies to lies in live interviews.

Here’s what’s at stake.

In past decades, voters agreed on the facts but disagreed over what to do with them. That’s a legitimate matter of ideological differences. Today we do not agree on the facts. Fake news, ideological reporting and tendentious editing have all contributed to this dangerous situation.

Make no mistake, as a certain former president liked to say. If we do not agree on the facts, we cannot have a meaningful debate over issues. If we do not have a meaningful debate over issues, we cannot have democracy. Instead, we get campaigns based on bogus charges, character assassination, and made-up “truths.”

This is the moment where journalism must be prepared to step in and provide the information and analysis that define its role in a democracy. Journalism must get off the field of that game it cannot win.

—  — —

Foreign correspondent Mark Lavie has been covering Israel and the Mideast since 1972. His book, “Broken Spring,” explains the failure of the Arab revolution.

Syria peace talks in Geneva–why?

You might be wondering why they keep going back to Geneva to talk about peace in Syria. It’s a good question–and Bruce Sakalik asked me on KQV News Radio a few minutes ago.

The best I could come up with is, it sets a framework for real talks whenever the sides decide they’ve had enough fighting and really want to settle this.

But I don’t think that time will come until one side or the other scores a complete military victory. That means along  time, a lot more casualties, and many more refugees. And there’s nothing the US or the West can do to speed that along.

There’s even evidence that the Russians are having second thoughts about the level of their involvement. In the end, the Middle East will be realigned with new de facto borders, and the region will have to do it by itself.

Reality is ugly sometimes.

Trump offers more of the same on ISIS

Here’s a report on the new administration’s plans for defeating ISIS–and to top Pentagon correspondent Nancy Youssef, it looks familiar: More bombing, more US troops. That follows the line of the Obama team, maybe stepping it up a bit.

Take a couple of minutes and read down to the part under the photo, where Nancy explains why all this is faulty. Here’s the first reason:

An increase in US troops could further inflame anti-American groups across the Middle East who have long accused Washington of seeking to dominate the region, sentiments already aggravated by Trump’s ban on visitors from seven predominantly Muslim countries and his repeated calls to seize Iraq’s oil as spoils of war.

If you’ve been following my comments on the ISIS-Syria-Iraq situation, then you’ve heard this before…but here goes:

For the reasons Nancy describes, Western (especially US) military action is counter-productive. The way to “win” this battle is to let the region realign itself without military interference, though that does mean many more casualties. Anyway, the US air campaign causes its own casualties.

Instead, put the billions spent on military actions into a concerted effort to help the refugees, setting them up in proper living conditions in the region, and putting aside a few billion to help rebuild their ravaged nations and towns when this is over, as one day it will be.

The US has burned all its political capital in the Mideast, largely because of the misguided Iraq war of 2004. The way to restore it is to aim for positive influence of the next generation. If the main effort becomes humanitarian assistance, not troops and bombs, there’s a chance that the US will regain the image of a benevolent power that can be trusted to help.

Meanwhile, military efforts should be concentrated on intelligence, to thwart planned attacks on the home front. Much more time and money needs to be spent in this area, which should be, after all, our first priority.

I’m disappointed that no one else seems to be picking up on what appears to me to be an obvious, correct policy.

‘Secret’ Syria peace talks: Mark on the radio

The talks are not exactly secret, but most people don’t know about them. I discussed this a few minutes ago with host P.J. Maloney on KQV News Radio in Pittsburgh.

The second round of the talks took place with absolutely no fanfare last week in Astana, Kazakhstan. The lack of fanfare was deserved. Taking part were Russia, Iran, Turkey and nine of the 14 rebel groups that attended the first round. The UN sent a low-ranking official, while the official UN envoy to Syria went to Moscow instead.

The US and the rest of the West didn’t even take part. That’s one reason there’s been so little news coverage.

The outcome? There wasn’t any, not even a pro-forma final communique. Turkey, Iran and Russia worked on implementing their December cease-fire that didn’t take hold, the rebels complained about the violations, and nothing was accomplished.

Yet the Russians are playing this as a success. There’s an old saying that talk-talk is better than fight-fight, but both at the same time?

I suspect that Russia is realizing that it can’t win in Syria and is looking for a way out. P.J. likened this to the “peace talks” that enabled the US to get out of Vietnam, and I agree–but Russia still needs to solidify its own interests in Syria, primarily its military bases.

So this process won’t bring about peace in Syria, but it should get interesting.

‘One state’ means opposite to Israelis, Palestinians

Of course–whatever the Israelis and Palestinians agree on, one state, two states, whatever. As I discussed a few minutes ago with host P.J. Maloney on KQV News Radio in Pittsburgh, President Trump’s formula sounds fine, despite the hysterical reaction of those who believe that the only viable solution to the conflict is two states living side by side in peace.

There are other problems here. “One state” with Israelis and Palestinians living together means the opposite to the two sides. To the Palestinians, one state means no Jewish state of Israel. To Israelis who favor it, it means no Palestinian entity. So that’s not going to work.

And Israel has already offered the Palestinians a state, twice–but they turned it down. Read about that here.

So what’s left? Stalemate–or a solution in the context of regional realignment. That’s not on the radar of either President Trump or Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu–or the Palestinian leadership–but as I’ve written, that’s the only way it is going to be resolved.

Iran, Trump blast each other–now what?

It’s being called a “war of words”–Trump blasts Iran, the Iranian leader blasts Trump–but as I discussed with host Bob Bartolomeo on KQV New Radio in Pittsburgh, the words matter less than the actions. I covered that in my article, referring to it in the broadcast.

Iran’s actions aren’t pleasant either, but its latest missile launch is likely a test of President Trump. He responded by imposing some sanctions. Now we’ll see whether the testing period is over.

It’s still in the interest of the US and the world to make the Iran nuclear deal work. Here’s another of my articles that explains that in depth. The bottom line now is, just as it was then, that the failure of the deal means Iran acquires a nuclear weapon, and that benefits no one.

This will be a main topic during the meeting between Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday. It’s their first meeting since Trump took office, but the two know each other well and agree on most issues, including Iran. Netanyahu will urge Trump to scrap the Iran deal, but though it’s tricky to predict anything Trump might do, it’s unlikely that he’ll tear it up–primarily because Europe won’t back him on that and will continue to do business with Iran, while the US would be on the sidelines this time.

I’m skeptical about the future of the Trump-Netanyahu bromance. Sooner or later, the interests of the US and Israel will diverge, and neither leader is flexible enough to bend with that.