I've read and blogged a bit on conspiracy theories, and the basic conclusion I've come to is that they are like weeds in a garden. Without careful tending and ample sunlight in the public sphere, they are all too easy to sprout up -- and next to impossible to eliminate once rooted in the soil.
They're really hard to eliminate if they turn out to contain a nugget of truth, however:
For more on how this particular scandal is not limited to an Internal Revenue Service field office, click here.
Nor does it address the fact that the same IRS office that inquired into Tea Party organizations also apparently investigated groups with ties to Israel:
The same Internal Revenue Service office that singled out Tea Party groups for extra scrutiny also challenged Israel-related organizations, at least one of which filed suit over the agency’s handling of its application for tax-exempt status.
The trouble for the Israel-focused groups seems to have had different origins than that experienced by conservative groups, but at times the effort seems to have been equally ham-handed.
Look, there's no easy way to say this: The U.S. government has just given intellectual cover for every paranoid group in the country to articulate why their conspiracy theory has been validated. The thing is, now everyone else must give some patina of plausibility to those beliefs, no matter how bats**t crazy they sound at first glance.
As Politico reports, the Obama administration's political levers at the IRS are near infinitesimal. That really doesn't matter, however. This is now a political problem. Unless the White House finds a way to indicate that it's taking these scandals seriously and fixing the problems, this will be the defining meme for Barack Obama's second term.
Your humble blogger has returned from Shanghai, and would like to apologize profusely for the lack of blogging this past week. Conspiracy theorists might be wondering if it was because of The Great Firewall or rising anti-foreigner sentiment in China (which, based on personal experience and media reportage, appears to be vastly exaggerated) or whether I was some top-secret emissary of the U.S. governmment. The truth is much more banal: my laptop's power cord died during this trip, so my computer had no juice for blogging.
I will post something about Sino-American relations in due course, but in the meanwhile I see that over the past week, my departing zombie joke became... a big enough zombie story to require a CDC public response. The Huffington Post's Andy Campbell reports:
Here's a fun little exercise. Let's say that the vice-president of a political consulting firm went on MSNBC or Fox News with the argument that no matter what the U.S. government said, Osama bin Laden wasn't actually buried at sea. No, this wouldn't be a claim that Osama had returned as a zombie. The VP would simply argue that based on past standard operating procedures and the desire of some agencies in the USG to gather forensic evidence, it would seem likely that they would want the body. In all likelihood the cable anchor would then ask if there was any direct evidence to back up this assertion. The VP would either say no, dodge the question, or imply some third-hand knowledge, and that would be that.
Here's my question: would this cable news hit generate anything in the way of news headlines?
I ask this because the Drudge Report has headlined: "WIKILEAKED: BIN LADEN BODY NOT BURIED AT SEA" This sounds pretty definitive. But if you look at the actual Stratfor emails that Wikileaks provides on the matter, you get little but speculations and assertions from Stratfor CEO George Friedman and VP Fred Burton. From Friedman:
Eichmann was seen alive for many months on trial before being sentenced to death and executed. No one wanted a monument to him so they cremated him. But i dont know anyone who claimed he wasnt eicjhman (sic). No comparison with suddenly burying him at sea without any chance to view him which i doubt happened.
And from Burton:
We would want to photograph, DNA, fingerprint, etc.
His body is a crime scene and I don't see the FBI nor DOJ letting that happen....
Body is Dover bound, should be here by now.
That's it. No sourcing, nothing else. Friedman is speculating, while Burton makes a somewhat stronger assertion without much empirical foundation. The only reason this is on the front page of Drudge -- and the only reason reporters are running with it -- is that the Stratfor e-mails were private and not intended for public consumption. And if it's private, then it must be pretty good!
Or not. Look, reporters and analysts should pore over these email contents and see if there is anything of value. But they also need to follow up with outside experts in their reporting to distinguish between what's said in the emails and what's actually true. Because, to repeat a point I made a few years ago: "just because someone says something in a Wikileaks memo doesn't make it so." Indeed, it is precisely this sort of BS pseudo-analysis that makes me distrust the quality of Stratfor's analysis in the first place.
WikiLeaks had been kind of quiet as of late, but yesterday they enigmatically tweeted that there would be "extraordinary news sometime in the next 96 hours." Soon after, they released the following announcement:
WikiLeaks began publishing The Global Intelligence Files – more than five million emails from the Texas-headquartered "global intelligence" company Stratfor. The emails date from between July 2004 and late December 2011. They reveal the inner workings of a company that fronts as an intelligence publisher, but provides confidential intelligence services to large corporations, such as Bhopal’s Dow Chemical Co., Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon and government agencies, including the US Department of Homeland Security, the US Marines and the US Defense Intelligence Agency. The emails show Stratfor’s web of informers, pay-off structure, payment-laundering techniques and psychological methods....
Like WikiLeaks’ diplomatic cables, much of the significance of the emails will be revealed over the coming weeks, as our coalition and the public search through them and discover connections. Readers will find that whereas large numbers of Stratfor’s subscribers and clients work in the US military and intelligence agencies, Stratfor gave a complimentary membership to the controversial Pakistan general Hamid Gul, former head of Pakistan’s ISI intelligence service, who, according to US diplomatic cables, planned an IED attack on international forces in Afghanistan in 2006. Readers will discover Stratfor’s internal email classification system that codes correspondence according to categories such as ’alpha’, ’tactical’ and ’secure’. The correspondence also contains code names for people of particular interest such as ’Izzies’ (members of Hezbollah), or ’Adogg’ (Mahmoud Ahmedinejad).
Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz............... huh? Oh, I'm sorry I must have dozed off there for a second. Man, I sure can't wait for that extraordinary news to be relea-- wait, that's it?
OK, seriously? Wikileaks thinks this is a big reveal? Seriously? I mean, I'm not gonna lie, I'm personally quite excited. The market for political consulting kinda fascinates me, and this kind of e-mail treasure trove should be a gold mine for research into how Stratfor does what it does -- provided one can separate the fake e-mails from the real thing. Furthermore, IR students the world over who are in desperate need of a thesis idea should be on these emails like fake ash on Ryan Seacrest.
On the whole, however, this ain't that big of a deal. I might be biased here because I've looked into the brain of Stratfor founder George Friedman and come away unimpressed. It could be that a lot of WikiLeaks rhetoric on this issue smacks of massive hypocrisy. It's more than a bit rich, for example, that someone like Julian Assange complains that "the private intelligence industry lacks control placed on government organizations." I hate to break it to Assange, but based on his own actions it seems like the nonprofit intelligence sector is just as unregulated.
This kind of docu-dump says more about Wikileaks and Anonymous than it does about anything else. Wikileaks thinks it's groundbreaking that Stratfor CEO George Friedman had contact with Bush administration power-broker Karl Rove in the fall of 2011. I read the e-mail exchange, and if you think that's groundbreaking, you need to read more interesting things on the interwebs.
Seriously, am I missing anything? Is there anything being revealed that's anything close to revelatory?
*A hat tip to @laurenist for the very clever title to this less-than-clever post)
One of the complaints I commonly hear about the study of global political economy is that it's sooooooo boring. Security studies has guns and bombs!! IPE/GPE has.... capital adequacy standards.
Well, I think it's safe to say that events over the weekend have made both global political economy and global governance more interesting:
Talks on the Greek sovereign debt crisis and French presidential politics were both thrown into disarray after Dominique Strauss-Kahn, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, was escorted off an aircraft in New York over the weekend to face sex charges.
Mr Strauss-Kahn was expected on Sunday to appear before a New York court and plead not guilty to charges of committing a criminal sexual act, attempted rape and unlawful imprisonment, according to his lawyers.
The charges resulted from an alleged incident at the Sofitel Hotel in Manhattan on Saturday afternoon involving a 32-year-old maid who said that she had been sexually assaulted in a $3,000 per night suite in which police found the IMF managing director’s mobile phone. Police said on Sunday night that the maid had picked Mr Strauss-Kahn out of a line-up. Sofitel said the maid had worked for them for three years.
Both the Financial Times and The New Yorker have been all over this since the arrest on Saturday night, and I won't try to replicate their coverage here. Let's try to parse out a few of the implications:
1) The IMF issued a terse statement that boils down to "The IMF remains fully functioning and operational." This has the whiff of this scene from Animal House -- except that I suspect acting Managing Director John Lipsky and his awesome moustache will do a much better job of keeping everyone calm than Kevin Bacon ever did. The real tangle would come is Strauss-Kahn -- or "DSK" as he's known in France -- fights this in court and refuses to step aside gracefully. It already appears, however, that the IMF won't invoke diplomatic immunity -- and based on past behavior, DSK would likely resign first.
2) One does wonder if this scandal will finally upend a decades-long convention that dictates the head of the IMF being a European and the head of the World Bank being an American. On the one hand, this same kind of talk occurred after Paul Wolfowitz had to resign as World Bank president in 2007, and Robert Zoellick replaced him. On the other hand, that was a whole financial crisis ago.
3) So, in the past five years, two heads of international financial institutions have been implicated in scandal. I'd recommend Swiss authorities take a good, hard look at Bank of International Settlements General Manager Jaime Caruana. These jobs clearly seem to attract bad seeds. At this rate, these institutions will make the IOC or FIFA start to look ethical.
4) The French reaction to DSK's arrest might cure many Westeners of the schadenfreude they felt in response to Pakistani conspiracy theories surrounding the death of bin Laden. As Philip Gourevitch blogs:
This being France, within minutes of the first news of D.S.K.’s arrest, there were rumors that he was the victim of a plot. Christine Boutin, the leader of the Christian Democrats in France, declared that D.S.K. had been entrapped, although she did not specify by whom, or how—but there was no shortage of possibilities floating in the French ether today: Sarkozy, of course, or Socialist rivals, or else, I heard someone say, the Russians who are unhappy with how he has dealt with them at the I.M.F., or maybe the Greeks, whose economy has self-destructed almost as thoroughly as he now has. You could even find D.S.K. being called the new Dreyfus. In conversations with writers, and reporters, and intellectuals around Paris today, I found that nobody quite believed these fancies, but nobody could resist speculating about them either. D.S.K.’s behavior, in and of itself, was just too suicidal to make sense entirely by itself.
See also Adam Gopnik on these points.
The real problem with the arrest is that it appears that the only French politician to offer the right response is ultranationalist Marine Le Pen, who correctly observed that given DSK's past indiscretions with women, this was a long time coming. This will onky boost Le Pen's chances of advancing to the second round of the presidential election. Richard Brody explains why that's a problem:
The world of French politics is haunted by the 2002 elections: then, backers of the eliminated moderate-left candidate, Lionel Jospin, a Socialist, joined forces with the moderate right to give Chirac an overwhelming victory in the runoff, in a repudiation of the F.N. One of the leading factors in Jospin’s first-round elimination was the fragmentation of the left among candidates from a variety of parties. Now, it’s the unpopular Sarkozy whose party is falling apart, and who is doing his best not to offend the F.N. (as in recent regional elections, in which he expressed no second-round preference between that party and the Socialists), in the hope of siphoning away enough of its voters to slip into the second round instead of Marine Le Pen.
In effect, Marine Le Pen is the spoiler: any candidate she faces in the second round is sure to win (because voters and parties will unify to keep the far-right out of power); she will either eliminate the moderate right or the moderate left.
Elections in which one of the two choices is simply unelectable are unhealthy for democracy -- they lead to malaise and alienation from the democratic process. Unfortunately, it looks like France is headed in that direction.
5) I hereby issue a challenge to the readers to come up with their best joke about IMF conditionality and DSK in the comments.
Today was a big American foreign policy news day. Hamas and Fatah seem to have kissed and made up under the aegis of the Egyptian caretaker government; there's a national defense reshuffle as Leon Panetta is moving from CIA to SecDef and David Petraeus is moving from CENTCOM to the CIA; the FEderal Reserve's Ben Bernanke held the Fed's first-ever press conference.
These are all big stories, and yet the lead of the day is the fact that Barack Obama showed everyone his long-form birth certificate. There's something really sad about the fact that this needed to be done, but there it is.
Today's spectacle prompted Slate's David Weigel, who has followed the varieties of birtherism with an eagle eye, to ask honestly when enough is enough:
Here's the thing. I've spent a lot of time writing about conspiracy theories. I think they're darkly amusing....And if we're being perfectly honest, conspiracy stories do gangbusters traffic. If I were an advertiser, I wouldn't tell a writer to knock off writing about conspiracy theories.
But this is an honest question: How far can people take this stuff? Is there absolutely no downside to using your celebrity to make the wildest accusation you can and watch reporters fight like the monkeys at the start of 2001: A Space Odyssey for the right to cover them first? In the past, rabbit hole chases for stuff that would blow the lid off some conspiracy or another have backfired, wildly. (Google "Dan Rather" and "National Guard documents.") And in the past, things that have caused a lot of amusement for a lot of people have gotten predictable and boring, pointless. This has to happen at some point. Tell me this happens at some point.
I'm fascinated by conspiracy theories too, and I'm afraid I have some bad news for Weigel. The truly scary thing is that conspiracy theories do even better gangbuster business outside of the United States. Hear the one about the Mossad being behind the 9/11 attacks? How the United States caused the earthquake in Haiti? It's quick, cheap and easy to create a conspiracy, especially when the truth is usually banal and/or mundane.
As I wrote in The Spectator last year:
What is clear is that, thanks to the technological and globalising revolutions of the last two decades, modern life has become infinitely more complex. The world has become far less easy to understand in terms of its economic and social organisation. Yet humans remain hard-wired to look for patterns in a chaotic universe. As David Aaronovitch recently observed in Voodoo Histories, conspiracy theories offer the comfort of a narrative, no matter how crazy it sounds....
Will anger and distrust be a permanent fixture in the politics of affluent countries? A global economic rebound should lead to increased trust in both business and political elites. Beyond trying to revive their economies, however, there must be something that governments can do to earn back the trust of some of their people. The most obvious first response would be to offer more information to persuade angry and distrustful people that their worst fears will not be realised. Unfortunately, such a policy might backfire. Political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler conducted experiments to see whether correct information could erase misperceptions. They discovered that ‘corrections actually strengthened misperceptions among the most strongly committed subjects’. The very attempt to correct erroneous beliefs simply causes the most extreme adherents to put themselves into a cognitive crouch. This might explain why, even though an image of Barack Obama’s Hawaiian birth certificate can be accessed on the web, many ‘birthers’ still believe the President was not born in the USA.
This has nothing to do with intelligence, either -- a few weeks ago I
wasted spent 15 minutes explaining to a Fletcher student that, in fact, Julian Assange was not a CIA agent. This sounds laughable, except that at least one head of government said the same thing.
As long as trafficking in these questions draws eyeballs, the media will continue to act as an amplifier for these kinds of crazed worldviews.
There is a downside for those who care about their reputation -- ask Pierre Salinger. For heads of stare and almost everyone else, however, these costs likely seem negligible compared to the political and psychological gain that comes from belief.
Think of conspiracy theories like internaional institutions -- they don't actually explain much, but they never go away either. Even global governance structures that have longed outlived their usefulness do not disappear -- they just persist with fewer adherents. Popular conspiracy theories work the same way, because there will always be a hard core of believers who can sustain their belief regardless of things like "facts" and evidence." Indeed, scorn from the mainstream just fuels their conviction that they must be onto something.
I have an essay in the latest issue of The Spectator (U.K.) that starts from a basic premise: politicians in one country are utterly hopeless in comprehending the domestic politics of other countries. The opening paragraph:
Ever since the United States rose to great power status, it has displayed bouts of appalling ignorance about the politics and cultures of the rest of the world. Pick a region, any region, and one can find quotations and policies that demonstrate a breathtaking ability to think that other countries were just like the United States. During the Cold War, US policymakers continually misread the Pacific Rim. In the 1940s, Senator Kenneth Wherry of Nebraska vowed that ‘with God’s help, we will lift Shanghai up until it is just like Kansas City’. It turned out that the communists were more successful in that endeavour than Chiang Kai-Shek.
This isn't merely an American phenomenon, however.
Why is all political understanding local? You'll have to read the whole thing to find out.
The whole beauty pageant brouhaha reminds me that I have an article in the U.K. Spectator about the rise of political paranoia and discontent in the West. The opening paragraph:
Polio vaccines in Nigeria are part of a Western plot to make African women infertile. Foreign zombies are replacing indigenous labourers in South Africa. Barack Obama was born in Kenya and is a secret Muslim who hates the United States and wants to institute ‘death panels’ to govern the healthcare system. The United States triggered the earthquake in Haiti to expand America’s imperial reach.
Go read the whole thing and see if I'm onto something.... or whether the powers that be have gotten to me already.
[I'm noticing a trend of zombie references pervading your work. What's up with that?--ed. Oh, you're just being paranoid.]
I, for one, am glad that the foreign press is brave enough to cover what America's mainstream media is not -- the U.S. government's complicity in causing the Haitian earthquake. Never mind that the foreign media echo chamber aparentluy started with a false rumor -- with luck, our MSM will now start asking the tough questions.
Why, you might ask? What is America's motivations to trigger Haiti's earthquake and then intervene with massive aid in the hemisphere's poorest country? Well, there are different theories bandied about.
Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez suggests that this was a practice "drill," designed to test the earthquake weapon before targeting Iran (though see the update below). Very clever!! It is unclear whether Chavez believes that this is a test of the "demonstration effect" variety or not. It is also unclear just how such an earthquake would actually destroy Iran's nuclear program -- the 2003 Bam earthquake certainly didn't.
This Canadian-based Centre for Research on Globalization's Ken Hildebrandt offers the following ingenious explanation:
You've likely guessed my suspicions about recent events. I'm not saying this is what occurred, though it's sure a possibility to be considered in my view.
This could hardly have happened at a more convenient time. The president's ratings are plummeting, and his bill to subsidize the insurance industry has essentially divided the nation in two.
What better way to lead the people into believing we're one big happy family than to reunite former Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush along with Obama in a joint humanitarian effort?
This is so convenient... and brilliant!! It makes perfect sense that the Obama administation would try to kill upwards of 200,000 Haitians in order to bring the country together as one! Because, clearly, in recent years, natural disasters have bolstered the standing of U.S. presidents!! Certainly, a calamity in Haiti would work even better! If only Rush Limbaugh had played ball....
What I love about conspiracies like these is the careful balancing of smart and stupid that the key actors have to possess in order for the plan to work as described.
Question to readers: how far and how wide will this meme travel?
UPDATE: I just received the following from a atrategic communications advisor to the Venezuelan Embassy in the United states:
In response to your recent post on Foreign Policy’s website, I just wanted to clarify that President Hugo Chavez never associated himself with the theory that a
U.S.weapon had caused the earthquake in . Haiti
The claim was made by a blogger on the website of a state-run yet independent television station. At some point thereafter, someone jumped to the conclusion that President Chavez had agreed or repeated the claim, which is absolutely not true. President Chavez did argue against an increased
U.S.military presence in , but at no point did he question what had caused the earthquake or aligned himself with any conspiracy theories to that effect. Haiti
I have a confession to make -- last week this blog was not manufactured in the U.S. of A. No, your humble blogger outsourced his blogging to... well, himself, overseas.
In an example of real hardship duty, I was teaching U.S. Foreign Policy at the Barcelona Institute for International Studies to a truly international collection of students -- Spaniards, Germans, Brits, Americans, Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, Ghanaian, Kenyan, Turkish, Belgian, Mexican, Nicaraguan... you get the idea.
One mildly surprising finding from surveying my stidents was the extent to which many of them believed that the United States government was consciously manipulating every single event in world politics. Ironically, at the moment when many Americans are questioning the future of U.S. hegemony, many non-Americans continue to believe that the U.S. government is diabolically manipulating events behind the scenes (For example, the Ghanaians in the crowd wanted to know why Obama visited their country last week. The standard "promotion of good democratic governance" answer did not satisfy them, They were convinced that there had to be some deeper, potentially sinister motive to the whole enterprise).
As a result, I spent much of the week trying to point out the possibility of fundamental attribution error and the like. But I don't think I did a terribly good job. Trying to prove people convinced that conspiracies exist -- with some justification, to be fair -- that sometimes what you see is what you get is not an easy enterprise.
Going forward, the persistence of anti-Americanism in the age of Obama might have nothing to do with the president, or his rhetoric, or even U.S. government actions. It might, instead, have to do with the congealed habits of thought that place the United States at the epicenter of all global movings and shakings. The tragedy is that such an exaggerated perception of American power and purpose is occurring at precisely the moment when the United States will need to scale back its global ambitions.
Question to readers: how can the United States defalate exaggerated perceptions of U.S. power?
P.S. Just to be clear, I'm not saying that this kind of conspiracy theorizing in world affairs is only the product of non-Americans. For a good example of ludicrous American conspiracy-mongering about other countries, click here.
Rob Reich is upset that the New York Times and Center for American Progress are taking the question about rising levels of U.S. debt seriously. He is so upset that he goes back into 1990s memoir mode and starts rolling out the conspiracy theories:
Odd that it would return right now, when the economy is still mired in the worst depression since the Great one. After all, consumers are still deep in debt and incapable of buying. Unemployment continues to soar. Businesses still are not purchasing or investing, for lack of customers. Exports are still dead, because much of the global economy continues to shrink. So the purchaser of last resort -- the government -- has to create larger deficits if the economy is to get anywhere near full capacity, and start to grow again.
Odder still that the Debt Scare returns at the precise moment that bills are emerging from Congress on universal health care, which, by almost everyone’s reckoning, will not increase the long-term debt one bit because universal health care has to be paid for in the budget. In fact, universal health care will reduce the deficit and cumulative debt -- especially if it includes a public option capable of negotiating lower costs from drug makers, doctors, and insurers, and thereby reducing the future costs of Medicare and Medicaid....
Why are the ostensibly liberal Center for American Progress and New York Times participating in the Debt Scare right now? Is it possible that among the President’s top economic advisors and top ranking members the Fed are people who agree more with conservative Republicans and Wall Streeters on this issue than with the President? Is it conceivable that they are quietly encouraging the Debt Scare even in traditionally liberal precincts, in order to reduce support in the Democratic base for what Obama wants to accomplish? Hmmm.
I actually think Reich has half a point -- if you read either Tim Geithner or Paul Volcker's speeches over the past few years, they've been sounding the debt alarm for some time.
That said, the notion that this is a non-issue being pushed by conservatives and conservative lackeys borders on the absurd. Daniel Gross is pretty sympathetic to Reich's substantive view on the U.S. debt issue, but in this Slate essay he's also pretty clear about why the debate has moved to the forefront:
The interest rate of the 10-year Treasury bond has spiked from 2.07 percent in December 2008, when the world was falling apart, to a recent high of 3.715 percent on June 1—a 79 percent increase. The 30-year bond has risen from 2.5 percent last December to about 4.5 percent today.
You can debate about why this is happening (Gross is worth reading). A simple dismissal of the issue, however, seems kinda loopy.
[So you think Reich is wrong on policy?--ed.] Right now, no -- jumpstarting the economy has priority over mounting levels of U.S. government debt.
I suspect, however, that my concerns about rising U.S. debt levels will start rising before his. Anyone who can write this sentence scares me:
Hey, we're not as indebted now as we were after a decade of depression and four years of World War II!! Yippee!! We can all breathe easy now!
True, [the debt/GDP] ratio is heading in the wrong direction right now. It may reach 70 percent by the end of 2010. That’s high, but it’s not high compared to the 120 percent it was in 1946, after the ravages of Depression and war.
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.