Thursday, June 22, 2006

Kamm's Bamboozling

More news from the world of Kamm, with the latest phase in his obsessive anti-Chomsky campaign.

Long-term Kamm watchers will recall that well before he got space in the The Times, and even before his chief occupation was spewing entirely predictable “reviews” of Chomsky's books into Amazon's servers, he was trolling Usenet on the same subject.

Since 1998 he's been searching for new ways to repeat the same discredited charges against his great enemy, so it's no surprise that he joyously seized on Emma Brockes's “perceptive” interview with Chomsky last October. To complement his endlessly regurgitated Faurisson and Khmer Rouge smears, he now had a new one: Chomsky was an apologist for Serbian atrocities in former Yugoslavia.

Having precipitately grabbed at another dubious stick with which to beat Chomsky, Kamm was stuck defending a false and defamatory interview. As detailed previously, his superficial, long-winded complaint about the interview's withdrawal, co-signed with fellow Blair fans Aaronovitch and Wheen, did not even allege to support Kamm's gloss. It did not dispute that Brockes had misattributed a quotation to Chomsky. It quoted nothing on Bosnia by Chomsky. All they'd managed was a forlorn suggestion that Brockes was “entitled” to her “interpretation” of Diane Johnstone's work (which they ineptly attempted to suggest was indicative of Chomsky's own views).

But Kamm can't let it go. He continues to maintain that he was right to praise Brockes's interview. It was all down to inadequate appellate facilities at the newspaper, you see. The Guardian's refusal to look at more than procedure in its appeal process left him with the nebulous case that, had he not been denied a substantive appeal by a technicality, he would somehow have won out with his dull, pedantic list of half-accusations. He naturally took refuge in this haziness.

As part of the effort to cover for his error he continues to fling out whatever Bosnia-related slurs he can manage. The new allegation is that Chomsky misrepresented Phillip Knightley in a bid to “bamboozle on the Balkans”. Kamm quotes Chomsky in an earlier interview talking about how Knightley investigated a photograph at issue in the Living Marxism/ITN libel trial – a picture of an emaciated man, Fikret Alic, behind barbed wire at Trnopolje:

“He did a detailed analysis of it. And he determined that it was probably the reporters who were behind the barb-wire, and the place was ugly, but it was a refugee camp, I mean, people could leave if they wanted and, near the thin man was a fat man and so on, well and there was one tiny newspaper in England, probably three people, called LM which ran a critique of this, and the British (who haven't a slightest concept of freedom of speech, that is a total fraud)… a major corporation, ITN, a big media corporation had publicized this, so the corporation sued the tiny newspaper for [libel].”

This characterisation of Knightley's views is false, according to Kamm, because it isn't supported by a Guardian report Nick Cohen told him about – a report that he appears to think reveals “what Knightley really said about the case”. Its summary of Knightley's views refers more to the Spanish Civil War than Bosnia, and Kamm's precis is accurate: Knightley is seen only arguing that “it's dangerous for people to form their opinions about a war from a single image”.

On the strength of this, Kamm delivers a grave pronouncement:

“According to Chomsky's telling of this case for the defence, Knightley argued something rather different: that "it was probably the reporters who were behind the barb-wire", and not Fikret Alic and the other victims. From being a defence witness for LM in a libel case brought by ITN, Knightley has been miraculously transmuted into a supporter of precisely the revisionist case that LM mounted in accusing ITN of trickery.” (Kamm's emphasis)

The only problem is that the article he quotes was not “the case for the defence”. Kamm is promoting a minimal, partial, pretrial summary of Knightley's views as encompassing the entirety of what he said. Firstly, a pretrial newspaper report can hardly be credible evidence on which to found his accusations. Why would anybody believe Chomsky must have invented something just because it didn't appear in a single newspaper report?

As it is, Kamm is wrong. Knightley did not confine himself to the generalities that the Guardian reported. In response to Brockes's interview, Alexander Cockburn quoted Knightley's testimony at length, as Kamm would have found if he'd been capable of conducting a Google search. Among other things, Knightley said this:

The most likely explanation is that Trnopolje was both a refugee camp and a detention camp--there were at least two different groups of people there--and that this is what has confused the issue. Refugees had come there of their own free will and could leave at any time. But there were also Bosnian Muslims like Fikret Alic who had been transferred there from other camps, who were awaiting identification and processing, and who were not free to leave

But even this group was not confined by barbed wire. The out-takes show them in the main camp, outside the agricultural compound, and the main camp was not surrounded with barbed wire, as the War Crimes Tribunal agrees, but by a low chain-mail fence to keep schoolchildren off the road. As well, the barbed wire fence was no deterrent to anyone determined to escape because it was poorly constructed with wide gaps. What confined the Bosnians at Trnopolje, the War Crimes Tribunal says, was the presence of armed Serbian guards. So ITN was right in that the men in the film were detained in Trnopolje, but the image used to illustrate that was misleading because it implied that they were detained by the barbed wire. The barbed wire turns out to be only symbolic.

Were all the inmates starving? No. Fikret Alic was an exception. Even in Marshall's report other men, apparently well-fed, can be seen, and the out-takes reveal at least one man with a paunch hanging over his belt. Phil Davison, a highly-respected correspondent who covered the war from both sides for The Independent says, "Things had gone slightly quiet. Suddenly there were these death camps/concentration camps stories. They were an exaggeration. I'm not excusing the Serbs but don't forget that there was a blockade on Serbia at the time and there not a lot of food around for anyone, Serbs included.”

If we believe him, the “symbolic” barbed wire was not confining anybody, and Chomsky could indeed point to Knightley's opinion when suggesting “it was probably the reporters who were behind the barb-wire". Kamm did not examine what Knightley “really said” at all.

Of course, the feebleness of Kamm's evidence is never a restraint on his pomposity. He describes Chomsky's accusation of “tacit acquiescence to horrendous crimes” in these terms:

“Coming from a man who obfuscates and denies the crimes at Trnopolje, who believes the barbed wire enclosing the camp was a piece of Western media trickery, this type of accusation is quite some compliment”.

Yet according to the same Knightley whom Kamm recruits in his campaign against Chomsky, there was no wire “enclosing the camp”, and this was accepted by the War Crimes Tribunal. Kamm is leaning on a witness whose testimony demolishes his own case, and most particularly this final surge of bumptiousness. He accuses Chomsky of misrepresenting evidence based, not on facts, but at best his own ignorance. It is hard to believe he didn't know better, if he looked at all at what Knightley said – surely something worth doing in a posting claiming this was misrepresented.

He tells us “[i]t is a reasonable bet that viewers of Serbian television, still less readers of the 'Chomsky info' site, will not trouble to check Chomsky's empirical claims, which is why it's important that others do.”

This after demonstrating his total lack of ability, or honesty, or both, on this count.

All of which is why Kamm's words apply most appropriately to himself:

“Every claim he makes, every reference he cites, needs to be checked independently. The further you penetrate, the greater are the evasions, short cuts and falsehoods, which form an interlocking structure.”

Friday, June 09, 2006

Hitchens on the case

While it's sometimes depressing, it's also frequently amusing to watch Hitchens complete his transformation into a Bushite hack. The Slate columns have always provided rich amusement for those in the reality-based community, but his musings on the death of al Zarqawi are a particularly fine example.

We have the usual swipes at the anti-war movement (this time it's Nick Berg's father), designed to suggest that anyone opposing the Hitchens stance is a “defeatist” or “pacifist”. But alongside this he feels compelled to attack those suggesting al Zarqawi was a less important figure than Bush apologists, scraping around for good news, are keen to suggest. Prominent among these is Mary Weaver, whose article in the Atlantic Monthly Hitchens clearly drew on for the various affectations of deep knowledge sprinkled through his piece.

After a vague introductory paragraph congratulating the Americans on their putative “black propaganda”, and the obligatory sniping at MoveOn, we progress to something more substantive, if less truthful. He characterises Weaver's measured piece as suggesting al Zarqawi was “an American creation”, which is something she doesn't do. She makes plain, with detailed background, that he became a jihadist primarily under Jordanian and Afghan influences well before “Operation Enduring Freedom”. What she does say, the factual basis of which Hitchens doesn't trouble to dispute, is that once al Zarqawi was operating in Iraq the US quite probably did inflate his importance. In support of this she cites Jordanian, Israeli and Western intelligence assessments, alongside Washington Post reports of “Pentagon documents that detailed a U.S. military propaganda campaign to inflate al-Zarqawi’s importance”.

While not actually disputing any of this, Hitchens makes the at best feeble, at worst incoherent, point that the article “seems to undermine its own prominence by suggesting that, in addition to that, al Zarqawi wasn't all that important.” Thus, Hitchens's only argument that perhaps al Zarqawi was important was the judgment of the Atlantic Monthly's editor in his cover choice – a judgment that was, in any case, hardly independent of the US government's spin (and also, one might point out, possibly also not independent of Hitchens's own input as a contributing editor of the magazine).

Having erected this most rickety of platforms for criticism, we then segue onto a sequence of question begging generalities and unsubstantiated allegations regarding al Zarqawi's activities:
“Not so fast. Zarqawi contributed enormously to the wrecking of Iraq's experiment in democratic federalism.”
We can't assume this if, as has been suggested, Zarqawi was primarily a figurehead rather than a mastermind for Sunni insurgents. Nor is there any meaning in the revelation that he “was able to help ensure that the Iraqi people did not have one single day of respite between 35 years of war and fascism”. “[H]elp ensure”? So did every other suicide bomber and AK47 firer, not to mention Saddam Hussein and both George Bushes.

It does seem probable that he instigated the bombing of the U.N. headquarters and the assassination of Ayatollah Hakim. But Hitchens offers no reason why, given widespread doubt, anybody should take as necessarily genuine the allegedly intercepted communication declaring “a jihad against the Shiite population in general”. Even if it were genuine, it would hardly establish him as the pivotal figure Hitchens claims unless that declaration had widespread influence – a dubious proposition, given the split on that policy within al Qaida, and the serious possibility that he was betrayed precisely because there was disagreement among Sunni jihadists. (In the first paragraph Hitchens enthuses that he might have been betrayed by people “close to him”. If true, this would seem to cut against the idea that his death would necessarily lead to the diminution of the insurgency).

After gleefully describing al Zarqawi as a “semi-literate goon”, apparently forgetting that this background hardly bolsters his credentials as a terrorist mastermind, Hitchens goes on to mock as kneejerk purveyers of cliche the people discounting the alleged role of al Zarqawi as bin Laden's envoy to Saddam Hussein (they find the questions “easy”, as opposed to Hitchens, who is trying so much harder). Against the strong evidence in Weaver's article and elsewhere, he amasses... al Zarqawi's presence in Kurdish controlled Iraq – that is, the same nonsensical connection Colin Powell tried to make between al Ansar al-Islam in Kurdistan, and Saddam Hussein's regime further South. “I think that (for once) Colin Powell was on to something,” says Hitchens of Powell's U.N. speech, where among other things he mistakenly claimed al Zarqawi was Palestinian and had received medical treatment in Baghdad.

Bereft of actual evidence to establish the connection, Hitchens instead struts into the domain of pure speculation. The clincher is that al Zarqawi managed to enter the Sunni triangle while Hussein was still ruler:
“One might add that Iraq under Saddam was not an easy country to enter or to leave, and that no decision on who was allowed in would be taken by a junior officer.”
The aim is to imply that Hussein must himself have permitted al Zarqawi to enter Iraq and set up camp, even though through much of this period Hussein didn't believe there would be a war and was being pressured over allegations that he was a sponsor of terrorism (and, as Weaver says, al Zarqawi “based himself primarily in Iran”). In these personal border guard duties Hussein was allying himself not only with Sunni extremists who hated him, but with his historic Shiite enemy. How else to explain Weaver's selectively ignored statement that al Zarqawi's “links had been not to Iraq but to Iran”?

After these wild extrapolations we return to insinuation grounded in Powell's widely discredited U.N. speech. “Furthermore,” Detective Hitchens tells us, “the Zarqawi elements appear to have found it their duty to join with the Ansar al-Islam splinter group in Kurdistan, which for some reason thought it was the highest duty of jihad to murder Saddam Hussein's main enemies.” This is presumably a reference to their attacks on Kurds, but naturally Hitchens again forgets that Ansar al-Islam received artillery support not from Iraq, but Iran. “But perhaps I have a suspicious mind,” says Hitchens, invoking the wrong adjective for his sozzled meanderings.

What other circumstantial ambiguities and figments of wishful thinking can he round up? Well, there are the explosives used in the Canal Hotel Bombing. “That bomb at the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad, for example, was no improvised explosive device.” Clouseau pounces: “It was a huge charge of military-grade ordnance. Are we to believe that a newly arrived Bedouin Jordanian thug could so swiftly have scraped acquaintance with senior-level former Baathists?”

Well, we can believe a well-funded terrorist who'd been in and out of Iraq multiple times in the preceding year according to Weaver (and according to Hitchens, who was just moments ago documenting al Zarqawi's lengthy pre-war stay in Iraq), managed to collect together the old munitions necessary from an unpoliced country full of discarded weaponry. But “acquaintance with senior-level former Baathists”? That's just a Hitchens invention, unless one believes every Improvised Explosive Device made from an old shell was necessarily constructed by one of Saddam's friends.

Hitchens is right that the al Askari mosque bombing was conducted in military style, but that occurred in February 2006 – surely enough time, even if we swallowed the rest and ignored the lack of clear evidence linking al Zarqawi to the act, to accept that he could have forged an alliance with Baathists (not to mention that the military nature of the operation to which Hitchens excitedly points diminishes the likelihood of al Zarqawi's direct involvement).

Truly staggering is Hitchens's sudden lurch from emphasising al Zarqawi's Baathist connections to considering what's “[m]ost fascinating of all”: “the suggestion that Zarqawi was all along receiving help from the mullahs in Iran”. It's not fascinating because it almost certainly gives the lie, if true, to everything he's previously said. And it's not fascinating because the case is stronger for this link than the one he went to so much effort promoting.

It's only fascinating because Hitchens can use it to lay into Bush's next target: “we have the Shiite fundamentalists in Iran directly sponsoring the murderer of their co-religionists in Iraq”. Bizarre though the switch around is, it's needed to get two-for-one value from al Zarqawi's death: Bush's policy towards both Iraq and Iran can be justified because maybe both evil regimes were helping him, even though both of these occurring together is deeply unlikely.
“If we had withdrawn from Iraq already, as the "peace" movement has been demanding, then one of the most revolting criminals of all time would have been able to claim that he forced us to do it,” concludes Hitchens.
That's true, but it's also true that most of his revolting criminality – the beheadings, the U.N. bombing, and so on, would never have happened if America hadn't invaded Iraq. It's also entirely possible that, had the Americans withdrawn before now and removed their troops as a focus of resentment, al Zarqawi would have been dealt with by fellow Iraqis disgusted by his actions. But anyway, at least we got a new excuse to invade Iran.