Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.
--Daniel Patrick Moynihan

February 18, 2014

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

By David K. Shipler 

            The phone at Ed Walsh’s Jerusalem home rang during a small dinner party one evening in the early 1980s. He was the Washington Post’s bureau chief, but the call was for me. In those pre-cell phone days, I made it a practice to let the New York Times Foreign Desk know where I’d be and how to reach me.
            Ed said I could take it in his office, which was near enough to the dining room that the guests could hear my end of the conversation. An editor in New York wanted me to expand on a short piece I’d done on a small and insignificant event. They were considering it for the front page.
            No, I said, please don’t. It will send readers the wrong message. It will inflate the importance of a minor incident. I no longer remember exactly what it was: perhaps a cabinet minister threatening to resign from the governing coalition, which always got New York excited although it was the Israelis’ routine method of conducting politics. Or, it might have been the time when a couple of Palestinian would-be terrorists crossed the well-patrolled border from Jordan into the West Bank, prompting a manhunt by the Israeli army, which caught them before they launched an attack. In any case, it needed to be reported but certainly didn’t rise to the level of major news, and I managed to talk the editor down from the height of what would have been embarrassing hype.
            I returned to the table to see quizzical looks from a couple who were not journalists. Five minutes later, the phone rang again. This time it was for Ed, and we could hear him in the same conversation, working to dissuade his editor in Washington from overplaying the story. When he came back, one of the non-journalists laughed in amazement: I thought you guys were always pushing to get ONTO page one, and here you were trying to stay OFF!

January 9, 2014

On Obama: The Virtue of Doubt

By David K. Shipler

            President Obama deserves praise, not criticism, for the views on Afghanistan attributed to him in former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s memoir. In the book’s most quoted lines, Gates writes of a meeting in March 2011, “As I sat there, I thought: the president doesn’t trust his commander, can’t stand [Afghanistan President Hamid] Karzai, doesn’t believe in his own strategy, and doesn’t consider the war to be his. For him, it’s all about getting out.”
Gates doesn’t mean this as a compliment, but if it’s accurate, then two cheers for Obama. It’s just too bad his actions didn’t coincide with his doubts—a familiar pattern.
Let’s take Gates’s observations one at a time:
Obama was obviously right to distrust his commander, David Petraeus, who was felled the following year as CIA director by an extra-marital affair, and whose counterinsurgency brilliance was always overstated. Petraeus was a charming man of poor judgment.
Obama was justified about Karzai, who has proved to be a puppet without strings—a self-absorbed enabler of corruption who cannot govern his country or practice sensible diplomacy with his chief benefactor.
Obama was correct in not believing in “his own strategy” of beefing up troops in Afghanistan, articulated during his 2008 campaign.