Don’t Believe Everything You Read

The above is good advice not only because skepticism is an intellectual virtue, but also because, if you read widely enough, it’s impossible to believe everything you read without getting tangled in a web of contradictions.

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function,” F. Scott Fitzgerald reportedly said. That may be the case, but holding as true and valid two contradictory ideas at the same time is another matter.

To help you avoid this pitfall, we highlight two recent examples of contradiction in media coverage of international affairs.

Of course, the op-ed pages feature contradictory opinions on one subject or another all the time, so our first example is not so shocking. But it nonetheless caught our eye, due to both the baldness of the contradictions involved and the seemingly straightforward nature of the issue.

In the Wall Street Journal today (subscription required), Matthew Kaminski wrote that both candidates for president of France are “willing apostates” regarding the Gaullist foreign policy creed of “prickly defense of the Fifth Republic’s ‘grandeur’ and a knee-jerk anti-Americanism.”

“In a series of debates before November’s Socialist primary,” Kaminski writes, what Socialist Candidate Ségolène Royal “didn’t say said plenty. As the other candidates brought out the well-worn trope of France as counterweight to the evil hyperpower, Ms. Royal stayed mum. So far she refuses to play the anti-American card.”

Writing in the Guardian today, Simon Tisdall took pretty much the exact opposite view. He even cited Royal’s words in the same debates Kaminski referenced:

As with domestic policy, Ms Royal has so far largely avoided getting into specifics about France’s future role in the world. But it is clear that she is no Angela Merkel. The German chancellor moved quickly in 2005 to mend fences with Washington flattened by her predecessor, Gerhard Schröder. Ms Royal seems disinclined to distance herself from President Jacques Chirac’s anti-Americanism.

“Since General De Gaulle, France has always embodied a certain pride and independence vis-a-vis the United States,” she said in a television debate. “We absolutely cannot accept the concept of preventive war, nor the concept of good versus evil, nor disengagement in the Middle East, nor the Americans preaching economic liberalism abroad and practising protectionism at home. We cannot tolerate their refusal to ratify the Kyoto treaty when they are the world’s No 1 polluter.”

Of course, given our preferred illusions about just-the-facts reporting, it’s always more fun when two articles from the news pages contradict each other. Unfortunately, we don’t have an example of that rare species from this week.

But we do have the second best thing: a contradiction involving two heavyweights and rivals, the Washington Post and the New York Times, both of which are written by news reporters, even if one is not strictly a news piece. The first piece comes from the New York Times’ Sunday Week in Review section, and is the kind of news-opinion hybrid that the paper would label “news analysis” were it to appear in the weekday news section of the paper.

In “Gunboat Diplomacy: The Watch on the Gulf,” John Kifner conveys what seems to be the received wisdom about the recent appointment of Adm. William J. Fallon to head the U.S. military’s Central Command. Because Fallon is a Navy man and CENTCOM’s geography means an Army or Marine Corps general usually takes the lead, there has been much speculation about the appointment.

Here’s Kifner:

In both, the main fighting is counterinsurgency, largely the task of light infantry like the Marines and the Army’s 10th Mountain or 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions. CentCom, as it is known, has always been run by a four-star general from the Army or Marines.

So why name a sailor — Adm. William J. Fallon — as CentCom’s new commander, as President Bush did earlier this month?

One word: Iran.

Admiral Fallon’s appointment comes amid a series of indications that the Bush administration is increasingly focused on putting pressure on Iran and, perhaps, veering toward open confrontation. They include the dispatching of a second Navy carrier battle group to the Persian Gulf; a blunt singling out of Iran in Mr. Bush’s speech Wednesday night, warning that America will “seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq,” followed by a dawn raid Thursday on an Iranian office in the Kurdish city of Erbil in which five Iranians were seized along with files and computers.

The important thing is that Admiral Fallon is a naval aviator.

. . . The Iranians’ confidence and defiance have been bolstered by the knowledge that American ground forces are stretched near the breaking point in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But introducing more air and sea power, with their long reach, in the gulf could change the military balance and options.

It is classic gunboat diplomacy.

A news article by Ann Scott Tyson in the Washington Post on the same day took a very different view of the Fallon appointment.

Traditional jaw-jaw diplomacy, not gunboat diplomacy is the reason Fallon will head CENTCOM, Tyson reports:

. . . With [Defense Secretary Robert] Gates calling a U.S. military confrontation with Iran a “last resort,” analysts said that Fallon’s diplomatic skills are likely to be more important than his war-fighting experience when he assumes the Central Command post, his fourth as a four-star commander. “With Iran and the Middle East, you need to establish relations that will not lead to combat. Fallon will be the first to tell you that,” said Pietropaoli, who worked under Fallon when Fallon was vice chief of naval operations from 2000 to 2003.

“You are looking for an officer who can pull together the whole political, military and diplomatic mission. . . . He spent a lot of time working sensitive diplomatic issues,” said retired Adm. Thomas Fargo, a former chief of the Pacific Command. Fargo and others recalled Fallon’s high-profile apology to the families of Japanese who were killed when their vessel, Ehime Maru, was accidentally sunk by a Navy submarine in early 2001.

Confident but not imperious, Fallon combines a tough, unvarnished style with a light touch and a keen interest in other cultures, which makes him highly effective, current and former officials who know him say. “He doesn’t wear his rank the way some people do,” said Ambassador Derek Shearer, the former U.S. envoy to Finland who began working with Fallon in 1996 when Fallon commanded a battle group during NATO operations in Bosnia.

We like to believe it’s a sign of our intelligence that we’re having no problem holding all these contradictory ideas in our head at the same. Deciding which ones to believe is a somewhat more difficult matter . . .

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