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Foreign Policy has been under new ownership for nearly seven months—not long in the life of a bimonthly Washington mag. With that caveat, let’s make some definitive judgments about the editorial product.
*Web Site Overhaul: Success! Executive Editor Susan Glasser says in a memo that ForeignPolicy.com has tallied a million pageviews in “the last few days.”
All those clickers have a lot to land on at the site, thanks in part to a monumental expansion of online content in January. Longtime Washington Post military correspondent Tom Ricks is the headline name here, a guy with lots of sources and opinions. One of his recent crusades, on the Best Defense blog as well as in the Washington Post, is slamming the service academies. On Wednesday, for example, he delivered a nice dig at West Point, complete with a long quote from a cadet at the academy. And Ricks finds the sort of stuff that a less experienced reporter would never pick up on:
“The Federation of American Scientists generally advocates transparency in government, a policy with which I agree. They get a hold of many interesting military manuals, and some of those have been useful in my work. Tip for reporters: If you are going to hang with a tank unit, first read a manual on tanks.
But FAS know when to make a common sense exception, and did so recently after obtaining a military manual on sniper training. ‘For once, such restrictions [against dissemination] appear to make sense and the 474-page manual will not be posted on the Federation of American Scientists website,’ the group stated.”
Laura Rozen, in The Cable, vents her obsessions with various foreign policy issues and eminences. She knows how to blog and isn’t afraid to pick up the phone and work some sources. I liked her March 3 item that shadowed Gamal Mubarak, son of the Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, in a low-profile visit to Washington.
Foreignpolicy.com also beams the thoughts and aggregations of Daniel W. Drezner, a commentator with a light touch and a fine sense of humor.
There are many other blogs on the site—-perhaps a few too many to digest, and certainly too many to maintain. The Madam Secretary blog, for example, isn’t much more than a glorified rundown of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s official State Department schedule.
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Every site has a sleep-inducing vertical, and at Foreignpolicy.com that’s something called Shadow Government. A magazine press release touted the blog as this: “Notes from the loyal opposition. A high-profile team of conservatives will critique the new Obama administration’s foreign policy based on their own considerable expertise…”
If that sounds boring in conception, you won’t want to witness the execution. Here’s the lead paragraph of an item on the blog early Wednesday afternoon: “I am not a lawyer, not even a bad lawyer, so I am not competent to judge one way or the other on the legal reasoning in Philip Zelikow’s post. And, since, unlike Philip, I did not work on the issue inside, I am not privy to all that he knows about the matter. His legal reasoning strikes me as plausible, and I certainly agree with him that the legal issue is just one aspect of the matter. Philip usefully embeds the legal framework within a larger ethical framework. We also need to recognize that the ethical framework is part of a political framework.”
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Each trip through Shadow Government brings the same—-blowhards who can write only in the sense that they can put a lot of words on the screen.
To overcome the monotony, Shadow Government needs to break some news—-and this week it did just that, in a much-trafficked piece on torture policy.
*Print: Success? Not quite so much. The new team at Foreign Policy has a tough record to match when it comes to putting words on paper. Not only did the magazine win the general excellence category in the National Magazine Awards twice since 2003, but it was a finalist in this category three other times.
Signs of continuity are there. The March/April issue, for instance, featured a solid package titled “The Axis of Upheaval,” a collection of stories that leveraged Foreign Policy’s expertise in covering fucked-up countries. Jeffrey Gettleman’s piece on the chaos of Somalia was a great read and now has the additional credential of being prescient. And Sam Quinones turned in a fine story on the “criminal-capitalist insurgency” in Mexico.
The magazine’s Obama issue wasn’t nearly as good. It led with a tired headline on a tired cliché, next to the visage of the new president: “Yes, He Did. But What If He Can’t?” Tucked inside that edition was the sort of story that a bimonthly has no excuse for publishing. Senior Editor Christian Brose wrote a feature titled “The Making of George W. Obama,” which argued that the new administration may end up continuing many of the foreign policies of the Bush administration. Brose himself worked as a speechwriter for Condoleezza Rice, and it looks as if the initial concept for the piece was something of a tell-all from someone deep inside the Bush bureaucracy. It ended up as an extended exercise in self-congratulation. One line: “…Obama will inherit a foreign policy that is better than many realize.”
When pressed on this piece, Editor-in-Chief Moisés Naím stood behind it, saying, “If it’s there, it’s because I thought it was good.” When pressed further, he said, “We do have space constraints—-what can I tell you?”
The latest issue of Foreign Policy just rolled out this week.