How to craft a narrative


There’s no Soviet Union anymore, but the principle is the same (from, via

If you’ve ever wondered how to go about creating a narrative to drive public perception about a story, I’m here to help. I’d like to start, if I may, with a couple of examples.

Back in January, NATO began major troop movements as part of Operation Atlantic Resolve, a mission begun in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, which in itself was a response–an overly aggressive and disruptive response–to a Western-supported overthrow of the elected president of Ukraine. Somewhere on the order of 4000 NATO troops have been deployed to Poland and the three Baltic states–each of which borders some part of Russia (Kaliningrad counts, dammit). Here’s how the deputy commander of US European Command, Lt. General Timothy Ray, described this deployment when it began:

Lt Gen Tim Ray, deputy commander of US European Command, said: “Let me be very clear, this is one part of our efforts to deter Russian aggression, ensure territorial integrity of our allies and maintain a Europe that is whole, free, prosperous and at peace.”

Putting thousands of NATO troops on Russia’s border is part of our efforts to deter Russian aggression. Or, if you prefer, it’s a “demonstration [of] solidarity,” according to the US Embassy in Poland:

NATO’s eFP is a clear demonstration solidarity and determination to defend Allied territory against possible aggression.  The deployment is defensive, proportionate, and conforms to the Article V commitment of the treaty to prevent conflict, protect our Allies, and preserve peace throughout the region.

Just this week, the US deployed a couple of F-35s to the Baltic nation of Estonia, again right on Russia’s border. Why? Two words–commitment and unity:

Two of the U.S. Air Force’s newest and most advanced jets landed in the Baltic state of Estonia for the first time on Tuesday, a symbolic gesture meant to reinforce the United States’ commitment to the defence of NATO allies that border Russia.

The visit of the F-35 stealth fighters, which flew from Britain and spent several hours in Estonia, is part of broader U.S. jet pilot training across Europe as the NATO alliance seeks to deter Moscow from any possible incursion in the Baltics.

Russia denies having any such intention.

“This is a very clear message,” Estonia’s Defence Minister Margus Tsahkna told Reuters. “The United States is taking the show of unity very seriously,” he said of the jets that are designed to avoid detection by conventional radar.

All of this is fine, really. Poland and the Baltic states all joined NATO voluntarily and have welcomed these deployments. Russia might have some concerns about a potentially hostile military force primarily made of up US, Canadian, and Western European soldiers being deployed in countries it borders, but we know those concerns are unfounded and irrelevant–this NATO deployment is defensive in nature, and anyway it’s none of Russia’s business how NATO and its member states work out troop deployments, even when they’re happening in Russia’s near abroad.

Now, here’s a story I just came across this morningContinue reading

What’s it all about then (subscriber post)

A lot of virtual ink has been spilled over the past two and a half weeks–well, longer than that, really–over the issue of what the Trump administration is really on about. The bad things they’re doing are really “head fakes” to cover the really bad things they want to do. They’re laying the groundwork for an executive branch coup by pre-emptively blaming the judiciary for a future terrorist attack. Steve Bannon is really running the country in Trump’s name. They want to give the opposition “protest fatigue” so that they can go about their real agenda in peace. They’re all KGB moles. Etcetera.

I’m guilty of this myself, to some extent. I’ve attributed motives to their early moves on Iran that may be too clever by half. But I’d like to suggest that, while I don’t think it’s wrong to think about the Trump administration’s larger goals–Trump himself may be a massive idiot, but it would be a big mistake to assume his whole administration is just stupid–I also think that, when we’re all trying to discern those larger goals, the key to understanding the Trump administration could be deceptively simple. At least when it comes to Islam and much of their foreign policy, they are, in short, who we thought they were: Islamophobes who don’t care what kind of carnage they leave in their wake as long as they get to have a war with Islam.

I’m trying something new with this post. Periodically I’m going to start writing for my Patreon subscribers only as a way to reward them and (hopefully) raise money. You can find the rest of this post here, and I hope you’ll consider going there and contributing something to the upkeep of this blog. I’m not changing models and I’ll still write plenty of free pieces here, but this is a new wrinkle I’m trying out. Thanks for your support!

Fake News and the March to War

Fake news and war have been partners in (literal) crime several times in American history–Remember the Maine, the Gulf of Tonkin, the mushroom cloud smoking gun, etc.–so it’s deeply traditional for a mostly fake news outlet like Fox to commemorate the rise of our first Fake News President by bringing us another entry in war-mongering Yellow Journalism. In this case, a Houthi naval attack on a Saudi frigate in the Red Sea yesterday was apparently MEANT FOR A US WARSHIP BREAKING FLASHING RED LIGHT EXCLAMATION POINTS. Yes, the Houthis were actually trying to blow up a US vessel but mistakenly hit a Saudi one instead, somehow.

How do we know this attack was MEANT FOR A US WARSHIP OMINOUS FLASHING PREPARE FOR WAR TEXT? Because one of the Houthis shouted “DEATH TO AMERICA” while carrying out the attack. He did this while reciting the Houthi slogan…which includes the phrase “DEATH TO AMERICA.” So in reality this means nothing, but because you can’t get the war you want unless you’re prepared to invent some justifications along the way, the Republican Party’s favorite fake news outlet took this ridiculous Pentagon invention and happily published it.

Rather than do a line-by-line debunking here, I annotated the Fox report at Genius. I know it’s shouting into the void, but annotating it helped me stop being mad, and these days that’s about all you can hope to accomplish.

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Most Americans oppose scrapping the Iran nuclear deal

Here’s something interesting. Earlier today, the University of Maryland’s Program for Public Consultation (PPC) released the findings of a poll showing that almost two-thirds of Americans oppose the idea of withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) and attempting to renegotiate its terms. Overall, 63.7% of respondents prefer to “continue with the deal as long as Iran complies with the terms,” while only 34.4% would rather “withdraw from the current deal and seek to negotiate a new deal.”

President-elect (ffffuuuuuu) Trump, of course, campaigned heavily on the idea that the JCPOA was a bad deal—“the worst deal ever negotiated,” in his words—that should be renegotiated at a minimum, if not scrapped altogether. If the poll is right, then most Americans disagree with his assessment, though (as you might expect) the partisan split in the poll was high—58.1% of Republicans support renegotiating the deal, while 85.6% of Democrats and 58.6% of independents want to leave it in place. The primary driver of the “keep it in place” side seems to be a pretty firm–and I would argue correct–feeling that Iran would be unwilling to negotiate a new deal or renegotiate the JCPOA’s terms if the US were to walk away from the deal as it exists now. Nearly 70% of respondents believed it “unlikely” that Iran would be amenable to new talks, including substantial majorities among people of all three party affiliations. Interestingly, a little under 58% of respondents think it’s likely that the other nations that were party to the deal would agree to abandon it if the US did, which I think is seriously misguided but maybe that’s just me.

It remains to be seen whether Trump will be susceptible to public opinion on this issue, particular when his top foreign policy adviser, National Security Advisor-designate Michael Flynn, is stridently anti-Iran. Still, as Jim Lobe notes, Trump’s FP team isn’t uniformly anti-JCPOA:

Although generally quite hawkish toward Iran, top appointments to his administration so far have been divided on the JCPOA. Trump’s national security adviser, Gen. Michael Flynn (ret.), is strongly opposed to it, while his nominee for secretary of state, Gen. James Mattis (ret.), believes the deal is flawed but worth sustaining. A U.S. withdrawal or reimposition of sanctions, he warned last spring, would prove largely ineffective or even counter-productive because the other parties in the P5+1 (Britain, France, Russia, and China plus Germany) were highly unlikely to go along.

Congress is another consideration here, of course; there are enough hawks in both houses to support at least some piecemeal challenges to the JCPOA–they may not vote to back out of the deal, but they could, for example, vote to block any more economic aid or business deals going to Iran, or to reimpose former nuclear-related sanctions under some alternate justification, and it’s hard to know how Trump would respond to something like that. These poll results suggest that Congress should also tread carefully here.

Hi, how’s it going? Thanks for reading; attwiw wouldn’t exist without you! If you enjoyed this or any other posts here, please share widely and help build our audience. You can like this site on Facebook or follow me on Twitter as well. Most critically, if you’re a regular reader I hope you’ll read this and consider helping this place to stay alive.

Conflict update: December 22 2016

Folks, the real conflict here is between me and the concept of a decent night’s sleep. I seriously considered taking the night off, but given that I’d like to take a couple of the next few nights off I figured I needed to get your #content out there tonight. This one might be a little shorter than usual though.

World War III

Oh, OK. Cool. What? There’s more?

In a year-end speech to his top military officers on Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin threw down the gauntlet, declaring that the Russian military, emboldened by recent adventures in Syria and Ukraine, is ready to defeat any country that dares challenge it. “We can say with certainty: we are stronger now than any potential aggressor,” he proclaimed. “Anyone.”

He also made a pitch for bigger and badder nuclear weapons. Putin said Moscow must “strengthen the military potential of strategic nuclear forces, especially with missile complexes that can reliably penetrate any existing and prospective missile defence systems.”

On the plus side, if you were worried about four years of President Trump, maybe you don’t have to worry about that so much.



Aleppo as of today, presumably the last time we’ll need to see this map (Wikimedia | Kami888)

Aleppo is finally and fully back in Bashar al-Assad’s hands, with the final evacuations, delayed again by bad weather, having been completed today. The focus of the war effort will likely turn to Idlib, but world attention is likely to be on these Turkey-Russia-Iran talks to see if they have any legs in terms of getting some kind of peace process on track. There are plenty of little reasons to be skeptical of this, but one big one: the main rebel groups still fighting–Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, Ahrar al-Sham, Jund al-Aqsa, the extremists–will be excluded from any peace process and wouldn’t participate in one even if they weren’t. The thing to watch now, it seems to me, is what Russia does. Moscow isn’t in the business of propping Assad up indefinitely, and its renewed closeness with Turkey raises the possibility that Ankara could broker a relationship between the Russian government and the rebels with whom Turkey has some sway. If that works, you may see Moscow begin pushing a political settlement to the war that isn’t entirely in Assad’s interests but is entirely in Russia’s–and in that case, you may also see Iran object.

ISIS released a video today that appears to show them burning two Turkish prisoners alive, probably the same Turkish soldiers who were reportedly kidnapped by ISIS late last month.


Joel Wing, as usual, has a great roundup of the activity in Mosul, or more accurately the inactivity. Iraqi forces are holding to reinforce and refit, and to turn security in liberated areas over to police, before beginning its push again. Wing highlights this interview in Rudaw with General Fazil Barwari, the commander of the “Golden Division,” the elite counter-terror force that has spearheaded the Mosul operation. He notes that ISIS has used ten times the number of car bombs defending Mosul as it used defending Ramadi, and really seems to suggest that the operation would be going more smoothly if civilians had fled the city in advance of the fighting. Since Iraqi forces told civilians not to flee the city, this seems like a pretty substantial criticism of the operation. Failing that, Barwari says that expectations of a civilian uprising against ISIS failed to materialize because the people in the city have been so terrified over the past couple of years. He also claims that ISIS is still being reinforced from Syria and offers some thoughts as to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s whereabouts.

Today’s big story, I think, is that three different car bombs in eastern Mosul today killed at least 15 civilians and eight Iraqi troops. ISIS claimed responsibility, as though there were any doubt.

Israel and Palestine

Now that the danger to Israel’s West Bank settlements has passed, indefinitely by the way, it’s worth looking at some of the people, other than the Palestinians, who are being hurt by the Israeli government’s obsession with annexing the West Bank. Specifically, I mean Israelis living in poverty and having to cope with drastic cuts in social services while their government allocates resources toward stealing land and paying people to live on it:

But wait, there’s more. In accordance with a policy that proves that crime pays, the public coffers, meaning the inhabitants of Israel, will lose another 130 million shekels ($34 million). That’s the price tag of getting a few dozen criminals living in the unauthorized West Bank outpost of Amona, on stolen Palestinian lands, to obey a court order to vacate their trailer homes and move to an adjacent hilltop also not under the sovereignty of their state. In northern Tel Aviv, across from the railroad station on Arlozorov Street, dozens of law-abiding citizens live in frayed, rain-drenched tents (forced out of apartments they could no longer afford). No one offers these homeless Israelis an iota of the aid that the government is pouring into the “legal” settlements — as the government calls them, in defiance of international law — in the occupied West Bank and the outposts there. The price of the deal with the settlers of Amona also includes the cost of demolishing dozens, perhaps hundreds of houses built without permits by Arab-Israelis in their communities within Israel’s sovereign borders. According to recent reports, that’s what Netanyahu promised the Jewish lawbreakers from the settlement movement in a compromise outline for the evacuation.

Benjamin Netanyahu’s government is cutting $60 million out of its budget for local governments, and most of that (the $34 million figure cited above) is going to pay for the resettlement of the 40 families living in Amona. Priorities!


The Pentagon says its drone campaign has killed 28 al-Qaeda fighters in Yemen since mid-September. I assume that nobody else was killed in the strikes, because obviously the military would tell us if there had been, right?


Washington says it “supports” the Afghan government’s decision to investigate charges that the country’s vice president, Abdul Rashid Dostum, for maybe/possibly/probably abducting and torturing a political rival. Dostum is probably too powerful to actually be brought to justice (he’d probably have much of the country’s Uzbek community, including his own fighters, behind him if he opted to resist) and, not to keep flogging this horse, but in a nutshell that’s why all the president’s horses and all the president’s men probably won’t ever put Afghanistan together again (to be fair, it’s never been all that “together”). Corruption matters.

Democratic Republic of the Congo

Six people have been killed and a whopping 150 wounded this week in fighting in the DRC that, go figure, didn’t have anything to do with Joseph Kabila. Pygmies and Bantus in the southeastern part of the country are at war with one another independent of who the country’s president is or how long he might be thinking about staying in office.

In violence that does have to do with Kabila’s decision to postpone the election until he somehow becomes popular again various technical problems can be resolved, his government has now killed 34 protesters and climbing, while arresting more than 300 people. The heavy protesting seems to have peaked for the time being, but until the underlying problem (by which I mean Kabila) is rectified then the potential for flareups will remain high.


Malta? Sure, why not. Pope Francis has ordered an investigation into the dismissal of the former Grand Chancellor of the Knights of Malta, Albrecht von Boeselager, earlier this month. Von Boeselager’s heinous crime? Apparently the Knights’ charitable arm, Malteser International, has in the past distributed condoms to women who were trafficked into sex slavery in Myanmar in order to help protect them from STDs, and von Boeselager knew they were doing this and didn’t stop it. Because naturally if women are being put at risk of dying and many of them might be saved by the judicious use of a birth control device, the Good Catholic thing to do is let them die.

Francis, to his credit, has taken the view that condom use in preventing the spread of disease may not be the worst thing in the world, and so he’s maybe not so keen on the Knights canning this guy, which they seem to have done without Francis’s knowledge even though the leadership of the order claimed they were acting at his request.

This isn’t really conflict-related, but the Knights of Malta, formerly known as the Knights Hospitaller, are a regular topic around here, so I thought the story was worth a mention.


Police have arrested seven people accused of plotting to set off explosive devices all over Melbourne on Christmas Day. They’re calling the suspects “self-radicalized” but “inspired” by ISIS.

Hi, how’s it going? Thanks for reading; attwiw wouldn’t exist without you! If you enjoyed this or any other posts here, please share widely and help build our audience. You can like this site on Facebook or follow me on Twitter as well. Most critically, if you’re a regular reader I hope you’ll read this and consider helping this place to stay alive.

We are so screwed

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on September 11, 2001:

CBS News has learned that barely five hours after American Airlines Flight 77 plowed into the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was telling his aides to come up with plans for striking Iraq — even though there was no evidence linking Saddam Hussein to the attacks.

That’s according to notes taken by aides who were with Rumsfeld in the National Military Command Center on Sept. 11 – notes that show exactly where the road toward war with Iraq began, reports CBS News National Security Correspondent David Martin.

New National Security Advisor-designate Michael Flynn shortly after September 11, 2012:

Days after Islamist militants stormed the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012, Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn reached a conclusion that stunned some of his subordinates at the Defense Intelligence Agency: Iran had a role in the attack, he told them.

Now, he added, it was their job to prove it — and, by implication, to show that the White House was wrong about what had led to the attack.

In Rumsfeld’s case, his assertion was never proven, but he got the war he wanted anyway and half the planet is still grappling with the consequences. In Flynn’s case, his assertion was never proven, and the war is TBD. I know we’re living in a post-fact world, but it should be terrifying to pretty much everybody that the people setting national security policy for Donald Trump practice the same “here’s my conclusion, now go find facts to support it” method that Bush 43’s team used to such great effect.

That whole profile on Flynn is frankly frightening, but I thought this bit deserved particular highlighting.


Meet General Ripper, our next National Security Advisor

The role of National Security Advisor is a funny one, insofar as it has no constitutionally-defined duties so it can be, more or less, whatever a particular president wants it to be. Sometimes the National Security Advisor can be more bureaucratic, helping a president centralize national security policy with the National Security Committee in the White House rather than delegating it out to cabinet agencies–it’s pretty well-established that the Bush administration cut Colin Powell out of the loop in favor of Condoleezza Rice in his first term, and a long succession of frustrated former Defense Secretaries testifies to the degree to which Barack Obama has cut the Pentagon out in favor of relying on the NSC. The National Security Advisor can also be the number one influence on a president’s foreign and military policy, simply by virtue of the fact that the National Security Advisor is there in the White House, with the president, every day, while cabinet secretaries, top military brass, etc. are all, to some extent, coming and going. Henry Kissinger is the archetype here, but McGeorge Bundy, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and others have served prominent roles in their administrations.

In the case of a president who, by all outward signs, exhibits no knowledge of, nor curiosity about, foreign policy and national security issues, the National Security Advisor can play a massive, formative role in setting policy. And so we come to President-elect Donald Trump, who just named retired Lt. General Michael Flynn, former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, as his National Security Advisor. On the plus side, um, Flynn’s personal hygiene seems to be above reproach. On the minus side, he’s a war-mongering, Islam-hating lunatic whose appointment all but confirms your worst fears about how Donald Trump’s administration is going to handle threats.

Here, for example, is Michael Flynn calling Islam–not “radical Islam,” you’ll note–“a malignant cancer” while denying that it’s a religion: Continue reading