Sunday, April 22, 2012

"What Did The President Know and When Did He Know It?" Part : Asking The Right QuestionI

Neal Conan's after lunch talk at the Alaska Press Club was about asking the right question.  He gave two well known examples:
  • Follow the money
  • What did the president know and when did he know it?
I know.  The first isn't a question, but it directs you to ask questions. 

[Do I need to say that Neal Conan is NPR's Talk of the Nation host?]

But his point was that the question depends on the story. And a critical question at one point, may not be relevant to a new story and asking what the president knew about Iraq was the wrong question.   [I'm afraid that somewhere in his talk I got distracted.  Looking at my notes I think I have this,  but I'm not totally sure.  My apologies to Neal if I've misstated this.  The overall point is solid, but take my details with a grain of salt.]

He went on to say his biggest mistake and best story both came from asking the wrong question about Iraq.  As I understood, he was pursuing the story of weapons of mass destruction and whether Iraq had them [his answer was 'no' but Saddam didn't want to say this publicly because he wanted Iran to think he did].  Conan's big story was about a defecting Iraqi scientist who claimed there were secret weapons and had sought asylum with the American military in northern Iraq where Conan was reporting.

The question he said they should have been asking [I think] was, "What was the real reason Bush wanted to go into Iraq?  Conan said he missed this completely, and said it wasn't WMD or even oil. 

[These are my rough notes, cleaned up to make complete words and sentences. I think they capture what he said, but not his exact words.]

What was the real reason?  Why did they want to go to Iraq?  Oil wasn’t the reason.  As long as oil is pumping and getting into the market, it’s ok.  We can get it from somewhere else if ample supply. 

The Bush administration was honest when saying they wanted to establish an honest democracy and drain the swamp. They believed that Al Qaeda recruits from the poor.  If you change the political structures of the Middle East that we were so aligned with for so long, you could dry up Al Qaeda's supply of poor soldiers.  This was a hugely dangerous option.   Why did they think Iraq would change to become like the Netherlands instead of, say, Yugoslavia?  It took Tito to hold the ethnic divisions together.  Afghanistan is similar.  Forces had been unleashed by the Russian war and wouldn’t go back. . . Pashtun people upset all the other groups.  Why did we think Iraq’s ethnic groups held together by Saddam wouldn’t do the same?
. . .  I contributed to problems by not asking the right questions.  Why do we think this place after being held together by Saddam Hussein's . . . rings of spies [wouldn't fall apart into ethnic divisions like Yugoslavia or Afghanistan.]  We think of armies to win wars, but no, [many in the world] are there to hold the regime in power. 

There's a lot to digest after three days of the Alaska Press Club conference and the many thought-provoking speakers and I'm still processing what I heard and how it can help me improve my blogging.  There is no way I can do a full report on the conference.  The best I can do is pick up threads - like this one - and follow them a short way.  This helps me figure things out and lets readers have a peek into what went on.

So last night, reading Doris Kearns Goodwin's No Ordinary Time in bed after hearing Neal Conan,  I got to Franklin Roosevelt's Atlantic 'fishing trip' which turned into a secret meeting at sea with Winston Churchill in August 1941.  Part of the discussion at the "Atlantic Conference" was about the negotiations between the US and Japan.  Which brought to mind, Conan's mention of "What did the president know   . . .?" and the debate WW II buffs have had over whether President Roosevelt knew in advance about the Pearl Harbor attack.

I was going to include that here, but I think this is enough for one post and I'll follow up with another post on that topic. 

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