Thursday, May 22, 2008

The MSM Misses the Bout Part III

The press coverage on the arrest of Viktor Bout has been sporadic. It is a sad commentary on the MSM that one of the best reports I’ve been able to find is from Mother Jones. Given Bout’s importance, a fourth estate that is actually fulfilling its part of the social contract should be blasting the story of Bout’s arrest from every headline.

Reading through this mound of background material for these posts, I still have some very nagging questions that cry out for some decent investigative reporting, the most prominent of which are:

1. Why Thailand? Despite the massive amounts of US funneled to Bangkok over the years since the Vietnam War (in some quarters earning Bangkok the moniker “Langley, East), why did Bout feel safe to travel there? With all the insurgencies in that part of the world, including one in Thailand itself, just how incompetent are the Thais as allies anyway? There’s a huge failure of US foreign policy angle for a story here, from the Philippines to Thailand to Pakistan.

2. Related to the previous question, just what game is Thailand playing, anyway? Why did they drop charges against Bout? Would the Thai charges take precedence and prevent his extradition to the US? It would seem to me that, if the Russians successfully block extradition to the US, having a backup set of charges to detain Bout with in Thailand would be a good idea. Who’s running the show in this prosecution? Given Bout’s connections, if this chance slips though the fingers of the Justice Department, it is unlikely there will ever be another chance to catch the man.

3. How deeply are US intelligence agencies involved with Bout, and were they protecting him or actively discouraging his prosecution? This should be classic MSM “US as the bad guy” material. Where is the expose?

4. Why did the Bush Administration allow the momentum that had built up against Bout at the end of the Clinton Administration to dissipate? This is clear failure of vision, of leadership, and evidence of a lack of ability to identify clearly the weak points in the OODA loop of the enemy we face. Once again, this ought to be red meat to the MSM.

5. To what degree is Bout a tool of Russian foreign policy? I’ve often said that I like Russians, but don’t think too much of Russia. One of the reasons is the serf-like tendency of Russian society to view life as a zero-sum game. The classic Russian attitude is that if someone has more than someone else, that wealth must have been stolen. The concept of creating wealth is foreign to Russia, understandably so. But this means that in Russia mobsters such as Mogilevich and Bout style themselves as “businessmen” with a straight face. There is a clear angle for a story on Russian internal politics their influence on foreign policy. Certainly, Bout is seen as a hero within certain ultra-nationalists:

«Виктор Бут по сути является идеальным образцом российского бизнесмена» -считает эксперт портала «Евразия» Владимир Никитин – «Зарабатывая приличные деньги, он умудряется поддерживать антиамериканские режимы оружием, работая таким образом на интересы российской геополитики. Если российское посольство не сможет вытащить Бута из этой передряги, то его сотрудников следует уволить с позором. Речь идет не о каком-то заблудшем туристе, а о стратегическом вопросе, от которого зависит в дальнейшем судьба России. А держится она именно на таких людях, как Виктор Бут. Все обвинения, представленные американской стороной для России абсолютно нелегитимны».

As a matter of fact, Viktor Bout is the ideal Russian businessman, in the opinion of Eurasia portal’s expert Vladimir Nikitin: “He gets wealthy, he manages to supply anti-American regimes with weapons, at the same time working in the interest of Russian geopolitics. If the Russian embassy staff can not extricate Bout from this situation, then they need to be dismissed in disgrace. This is not about some stray tourist, but a strategic question, on which depends the future fate of Russia. That fate is in the hands of precisely such people as Viktor Bout. All the charges that the Americans have brought forward are, from the Russian point of view, totally illegitimate. [translation mine]

6. Why is the US not concentrating on shoring up the rule of law in semi-failed states such as Romania that allow terrorists to run free on their territory? As I stated in the beginning, excess capacity leads to people finding new uses for items that were once scarce or expensive. This leads to innovation, and is one reason why a rising economic tide floats all boats. The internet is a positive example of this dynamic. Fourth generation warfare is a negative one. But fortunately, not every Podunk country can manufacture sophisticated weapons. The US is doing a horrible job of cutting of the known supply points, and this is probably the biggest news story of the decade. Where IS the MSM?

Finally, as a philosophical musing on the ability of the fourth estate to fulfill the function that it so vociferously claims for itself. I am reminded of L’Engele’s criticism of the Harry Potter books: there is nothing underneath. All great literature and journalism has to have a motivating ethos and philosophy. In order to have this, journalists must be well educated. From what I observed as a TA and in my subsequent interactions with the press in my professional life, journalism students don’t learn much of anything substantive in their college curricula, and their lack of knowledge shows in the stories they cover and the ones they don’t.

Heinlein was fond of saying that:

The three-legged stool of understanding is held up by history, languages, and mathematics. Equipped with these three you can learn anything you want to learn. But if you lack any one of them you are just another ignorant peasant with dung on your boots.

I tend to agree. I’ve complained about journalistic innumeracy before. Obviously, I used multiple language sources to write these posts, and I have my doubts that many American journalists could do the same. I realize I’m a unique case in being highly educated in both language and math, so before I venture too far off into Mary Sue-ism, I’ll cover the third area that journalists have no excuse for being ill-educated in: history.

There is a direct historical allegory to contractors such as Blackwater and Bout's airlines serving national interests. The use of semi-piratical (or outright piratical) naval squadrons by Elizabeth I to combat the Spanish (due to the relatively weak temporal and financial power of the Crown) continued until the British Crown accrued enough power and taxation authority to secure a national military. The deprivations of the free captains on the high seas are a stark example of the danger of recruiting men of violence and giving them state sanction without placing them under strict military controls

If the MSM truly fulfilled its claimed function, that connection should have been made in a major expose long ago. Why has there not been a MSM story pasting Bout’s picture atop the Golden Hind? Where is the historical curiosity and ability to spot trends and fashion stories from such knowledge? Enquiring minds want to know.


Ilya said...

"I’ve often said that I like Russians, but don’t think too much of Russia. One of the reasons is the serf-like tendency of Russian society to view life as a zero-sum game."

I always struggle to explain with any sort of eloquence why I so dislike the country of my birth - you captured the reason very neatly.

CW said...

John I've left several comments on your V. Bout posts (they're outstanding), but my comments have disappeared. Did you see any of them before the MIBs absconded with them?

John the Scientist said...

CW - I've been traveling like a madman, so I did not see your comments, but I did get your email. I'm not quite happy with these posts, as I need to add some more info that will answer at least some of the questions in Part III, and raise one question a bit more intelligently. I plan to do that before I post on the Chicago Boyz.

Cory said...

I'm considering living in maison nagai... I'd like to privately e-mail you. Can you contact me at (left this under the "your tokyo entry," but I'm not sure you get notified of posts to older entries in unmoderated mode).