the least bad writing of the week: july 7-14

I realize I’m writing a tad late in the weekend to qualify for the normal “weekly roundups,” but with our collective Sunday hangover critical mass approaching, time begins to appear non-linear. So here’s the inaugural version of my possibly weekly corral of the least bad writing. No criteria exist for inclusion; my exquisite taste and unerring judgment render such trifles useless. Here’s to hoping someone finds something interesting in one of these.

Woman’s work: [Columbia Journalism Review, Francesca Borri] Italian freelance reporter Francesca Borri chronicles her current stint in Syria in a scattershot piece that touches on the economics of freelancing, the nature of war reporting, and a few instances of near-total despair. Best line:

One recent evening there was shelling everywhere, and I was sitting in a corner, wearing the only expression you could have when death might come at any second, and another reporter comes over, looks me up and down, and says: “This isn’t a place for women.” What can you say to such a guy? Idiot, this isn’t a place for anyone. If I’m scared, it’s because I’m sane.

Syria’s Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN): [The Guardian, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad] More in-the-weeds reporting from the stolid itinerant Abdul-Ahad, here focusing on the non-military strategy of Syria’s preeminent Salafi-jihadi group. Set in the eastern portion of the country, earliest to be taken under rebel control, JAN members showcase their social services and brutal consolidation of control even as they draw piquant lessons from al-Qaeda’s failures in Iraq. Best part:

“Why is it all right for you to take all the wheat silos and leave none for others?” the first man asked, bitterly.

“Because al-Nusra are the best to rule, and we can take care of the wheat,” said the technician.

Wallah [truly],” responded the man, “al-Nusra takes a cut of everything here – even the air that we breathe.”

Is Sexual Assault Really an Epidemic? [Foreign Policy, Rosa Brooks] Georgetown law professor Brooks marshals data in an effort to dispute the charge that the U.S. military faces a crisis in its incidence of and reaction to sexual assault. On the whole, she’s successful, though her theory on why the military sexual assault “scandal” outstrips the same phenomenon in other realms could be strengthened. Brooks argues that the outrage tracks closely with recent efforts toward female integration in certain military roles–possibly as an “I told you so” tactic–but I think other background factors set the tone. Americans generally hold the military to a perceived higher standard, both in conduct and prosecution (UCMJ), and reformers in particular feel that DOD, as a large, but nonetheless cordoned institution, can be molded toward social justice more easily than society as a whole or other institutions, eg universities.


Let’s open with Zack Beauchamp’s “The Political Theory Behind Egypt’s Coup” [Thinkprogress Security], in which our author delves into heretofore-ignored foundational questions about expression and legitimacy of democratic will. Would it were true that our more popular writers retained such honesty:

So we’re back to where I started this discussion — we’re not quite sure how to talk about the democratic legitimacy of what’s happening in Egypt, because we’re not quite sure how to talk about democratic legitimacy in transitional semi-democracies in general.

A key portion of Beauchamp’s empirical questions revolve around measuring authoritarianism in pre-coup Egypt. How does Morsi’s year stack up against those of Mubarak? Against a democratic ideal? Do we even have enough data? If we don’t, can we extrapolate (as SCAF seems to have done) and make a decision anyway? Two thorough, but diametrically opposed views on this question this week, the first from Century Foundation’s Michael Hanna, chronicling in “Blame Morsy” [Foreign Policy] the foibles and follies of the ousted Muslim Brotherhood president. On the other side, National Interest’s John Allen Gay steers clear of defending Morsi, but lets loose on his detractors in “Egypt’s Illiberal Liberals.” Also still scribbling from Egypt is Lawfares Laura Dean, whose running diary provides crucial context to Tahrir-centric reporting.

And to round up Egyptian events, GWU’s Marc Lynch summarizes the regional reactions in “Money to Meddle” [Foreign Policy] and downplays the ability of GCC states to influence outcomes in Cairo. Best part:

Mubarakism failed for a reason, and the new version is unlikely to fare better. Anti-Islamism will have a short-half life as a legitimating formula for the new leadership. While the Gulf states and the old elites may have taken advantage of the uprising against Morsy, they neither created nor controlled popular anger. A significant portion of the June 30 protest wave wants continuing revolution and the building of democracy, not Gulf tutelage or the restoration of the pre-2011 status quo.

And go see Pacific Rim. It makes Avatar look like a freshman film student’s lazy offering.

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