July 24, 2006

What Now?

by Michael J. Totten

I find myself unsure what to write about now that I’m back and can blog again. I worked in tranquil Northern Iraq -- the Kurdistan region -- for two weeks. I also visited Amman, Jordan, and Tel Aviv, Israel for about 24 hours each during a time of chaos and war.

Because I signed a confidentiality agreement before starting my consulting job in Northern Iraq, there is little I can write about. But of course I learned some things unreleated to my job while I was there, and I took over 1,000 photographs with my spiffy new professional photojournalist camera. There isn’t anything stricly newsy out of Iraqi Kurdistan right now, but it’s an interesting part of the world all the same.

I’ll get to everything in due time, but what do you want first? Posts from Northern Iraq? Brief dispatches from Amman and Tel Aviv? Or my armchair reaction to events in Lebanon and Israel?

Many of you hit my Pal Pay donations button recently, so you tell me what you want most and when you want it.

What do you want me to write about first?
Northern Iraq
Amman and Tel Aviv
Armchair response to Lebanon/Israel conflict
Free polls from Pollhost.com
Posted by Michael J. Totten at July 24, 2006 04:06 PM

How about how life is in Portland after a trip like yours... Is it mundane? Reassuringly normal? Comparatively banal?

Posted by: Marcus Cicero at July 24, 2006 04:15 PM

My vote is for Lebanon. You have more real-world experience with Lebanon and Hezbollah then probably 99% of the talking heads on network news and pretty much every other American-based blogger. Your insight into this conflict is always very welcome.

Posted by: Mike Silverman at July 24, 2006 04:21 PM


All of the above.

I get bored here after a while, but I am very glad to be home right now. I missed my wife, of course, and when I woke up this morning I felt like I was in paradise.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at July 24, 2006 04:21 PM

I'd personally love to hear your take on the Lebanon affair. You've been close to the action (not too long ago) and on both sides of the fence. You've also gotten to hear the opinions of many in Lebanon, that unfortunately do not get heard loud enough, thanks to the loud rethoric that makes what passes for "news" here in the US.

First though, get some rest :)

Posted by: Bad Vilbel at July 24, 2006 04:25 PM

"Consulting Job" ? "Confidentiality agreement" ?
Is this the politically correct way of saying you work as a spy for the trigger-happy neocons who put the MidEast on fire with their infamous and hilarious stupid schemes ? I hope they're paying you well for such for such a shameful job.
A junior amateur spy masquerading as a blogger and wannabe journalist, what a brilliant cover !

Posted by: Pauline at July 24, 2006 04:43 PM

Pauline is banned for trolling.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at July 24, 2006 04:47 PM

Only 5 comments in and already a snark. Relax and decompress Michael, we'll understand if you feel your family and you deserve some downtime. Glad to see you back though.

Posted by: Dawnsblood at July 24, 2006 04:50 PM


The Mossad office called while you were out. They said they were having trouble using the "PayPal" - heh heh - button, so they're cutting you a hard check. Check under that big fake rock at the corner of Fifth and Burnside.

Oh, and welcome back.

Posted by: Asher Abrams - Dreams Into Lightning at July 24, 2006 04:57 PM

Michael - It's good to have you back. I feel like my favorite brother has just returned home from adventures abroad and is about to make my world much bigger.
Rest up and enjoy the comforts of home.

Posted by: Fighting Sullyvan at July 24, 2006 05:05 PM

Definitely Lebanon. I would like to hear your thoughts on the bombing of your old neighborhood, Hamra.

Posted by: Avery at July 24, 2006 05:30 PM

I'd like to hear about Lebanon; but I'd also like to hear about why Turkey wants to invade the Kurdish part of Iraq. And what is going on on the Turkey/Kurdish-Iraqi border to provoke them.

Posted by: Alcibiades at July 24, 2006 05:35 PM


I REALLY want to see those photos from your fancy camera.
But deciding which several of over 1000 to post is going to take some time.

I vote that your first writing should be decided by your writer's gut. What's bubbling up in you that needs expression?
More than happy to wait a bit for whatever is second.

And third.

Welcome back.

Posted by: Stephen_M at July 24, 2006 05:53 PM

Please talk about what you want. But,I am out of ammo on the current Lebanon-Israel situation, and I think I understand your position. Frankly I think it's a little early for analysis and is a likely to turn out 'poorly'.

Over the past week we have beaten that poor horse senseless, and are still about at square 1. Some 'interesting' things said by some that perhaps might better be left not said again. Certainly not right now.

I frankly would prefer to see the photos from your trip, as I have used the 1000 words over and over and over again in your absence.

But whatever makes you comfortable is OK-fine by me.

Posted by: dougf at July 24, 2006 06:06 PM

"Pauline is banned for trolling."

Michael, I don't want to get myself banned, but if you read her comment again, you may see it as kind of a weird sense of humor, I did anyway.

Also, I really do want to hear your opinion on the Lebanese/Israeli conflict. I think many people value your view, over others, and rightly so.

Posted by: Brooklyn at July 24, 2006 06:15 PM

Glad you're back and especially that you're safe -- thanks to Callimachus for a fine job; very different flavor than you would have done, but the same kind of thoughtful cuisine.

Your thoughts on Lebanon, of course! Everything (where's the book?)

I thought Pauline was joking; she has a name, probably a real email address. And it's not like your fans don't wonder (like Asher).

I immediately thought, when you said not gov't, it would be somebody interested in some investment/ company buying; thinking they could trust you and that you were "connected." In business, those two, even without most other formal training, are some 80% of initial investment banking/ consulting type stuff. My second thought was marketing. And I can wait until you can tell.

While Lebanon especially; quick Amman & especially Tel Aviv posts are most topical now, before anything more dramatic changes, e.g. bigger Israeli ground incursion; Syria jumping in; "ceasefire" push getting unbearable (at least a week?).

Does Lebanon have a draft, how IS the Lebanese Army? (I think you said; I wasn't paying attention enough. Didn't the good guys with the Cedar elections?) The Leb Army's an issue for the coming week(s).

Posted by: Tom Grey - Liberty Dad at July 24, 2006 06:17 PM


I had to delete follow up comments by Pauline. She isn't kidding. She's a deranged and paranoid individual who needs to be sent somewhere else.

I have signed Lord-only-knows how many confidentiality agreements when working in the private sector. There is absolutely nothing out of the ordinary about it.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at July 24, 2006 06:21 PM


Pauline is French. Now that she's done with her hissy fit here, perhaps she and some of her fellow "yutes" can go start a riot somewhere.

Meanwhile, welcome home.

Posted by: Pete (Alois) at July 24, 2006 08:19 PM

I'd like to hear about Turkey and the Kurds, myself, and expect that you'd have some not-easily-available information and maybe some insight.

But you write well, and interestingly, regardless of the subject.

Posted by: Joel Rosenberg at July 24, 2006 08:25 PM


First, welcome back to the States.

my armchair reaction to events in Lebanon and Israel?

I vote for that, but look forward to your Iraqi Kurdistan pics and stories.

Posted by: SoCalJustice at July 24, 2006 08:28 PM

Write about anything you want. I've learned a good deal from this site, and wouldn't presume to tell you what to write about. Surprise me; enlighten me.

Posted by: BillBC at July 24, 2006 08:37 PM

What do the non-Hez politicians think about current situation - what do they need to get rid of Hezbollah? Are they pro-Hez though in general? Has Israel's actions made it worse or better for them?

Posted by: Mike Woolf at July 24, 2006 08:53 PM

How about whether democracy in Lebanon is worth sacrificing for this security experiment? Will another civil war be worth it?

I know alot of pundits will predict the best outcome (like they did in Iraq). It would be nice sometime if they started assuming the worst and worked from there.

Posted by: sr v at July 24, 2006 09:06 PM

So the IDF was looking for the Lebanese population to turn against Hezbollah, that did not happen.

It were also squeezing the government to take action against Hezbollah by bombing the state's infrastructure, such action did not happen.

Few Hezbollah casualties have occured, the missile arsenal remains potent and fresh supplies are already on their way if not already delivered.

So what did the IDF actually achieve.

Posted by: Lira at July 24, 2006 11:45 PM

From your reporting from the Israel/Lebanon border I first learned of the brazen level of Hizbollah's rocket installations and their deliberate planting of them in civilian sites. All too soon, the fears of the IDF you talked to were realized, and now Israel is accused of ruthlessly murdering innoccents. I feel that, ssurely, Israel is doing its best to precision bomb identified and justified targets and not sprinkling them them randomly ina counter-terrorist strategy.

Your grief at what the bombing was doing to the places and people you love was very evident. What I'd like to hear most from you is how you now feel about developments and whether Israel's apparent commitment to scouraging Hizbollah offers the Lebanese their best hope for an independent future. I cannot believe that the Iranian proxies will ever honestly negotiate or that a cease-fire agreement would provide anything but an opportunity for Hizbollah to regroup.

You -- an armchair observer?!!! It is to laugh.

Posted by: dragonfly (stu williamson at July 24, 2006 11:47 PM

Some clarifications about that elephant in Lebanon for all of us blind folks groping around trying to figure out what's actually in front of our noses.

Posted by: Barry Meislin at July 24, 2006 11:56 PM


Way, way, way, way off your usual beat, but, now that you are back in Portland, a retrospective of the VanPort flood of ('46? '47?) and any implications that might have on the rebuilding of New Orleans. You're an Oregon lifer. I've never lived in Oregon, bu before I was born, my parents owned a house off Macadam Road in Briarwood, just down the River from Lake Oswego, in '47 and in '47.
"They" never rebuilt Vanport (sensibly, in my opinion!). It was closer to the River than Jantzen Beach, for cryin' out loud! Who owns that property now, anyway?


Posted by: Warren Windrem at July 24, 2006 11:56 PM

There is just too much out there about Israel/Lebanon at the moment. Whilst you may have greater insight into the conflict than most of the other armchair pundits, the volume of post on blogs by actual Israelis and Lebanese makes 3rd party comment less useful than it was in the past.

Please give us stuff from Northern Iraq. This is your USP! It may not be newsworthy, but the little things you notice and comment on are the things which give the Middle East greater context, and I am sure Northern Iraq will be in the news again sometime soon (The Israel/Lebanon crisis has masked recent reports about Turkey's troop movements on the border).

Posted by: Neil at July 25, 2006 12:12 AM

I'm equally interested in your observations and commentary re the Israel/Lebanon thing, as well as the reason why the Turks would want to go into Kurdistan.

I doubt the government of the area is actively abetting raids into Turkey, but as with Lebanon, a government must be accountable for the things that happen in it's territory when they affect other states.... and I doubt the Turks will be as restrained as the Israelis are being.

Posted by: rosignol at July 25, 2006 02:29 AM

"She isn't kidding. She's a deranged and paranoid individual who needs to be sent somewhere else."

She is obviously ignorant if she really believes that the fighting and bloodshed in the middle east has only started when the "triggerhappy neo-cons" became involved.

Posted by: Andrew Brehm at July 25, 2006 03:51 AM

I'll vote for the Armchair first.

You can put your feet up on the Ottoman too, if you will try to explain the lack of criticism of Israel from the critics of the Iraq war.

Your first blush criticism of Israel was the harshest that I have read from anyone I respect. Do you still think that, "...they aren't going about it the right way, and they're punishing far too many of the wrong people."?

Posted by: DeanT at July 25, 2006 06:25 AM

MJT:"I had to delete follow up comments by Pauline. She isn't kidding. She's a deranged and paranoid individual who needs to be sent somewhere else."

Pete (alois):"Pauline is French. Now that she's done with her hissy fit here, perhaps she and some of her fellow "yutes" can go start a riot somewhere."

Oh my gawd, I sided with a crackhead...and she is FRENCH! I learned my lesson, Michael, and I stand corrected. Note to self: In the future go with MJT's hunch.

Posted by: Brooklyn at July 25, 2006 06:51 AM


The Vanport area is now known as Delta Park in North Portland. There is a substantial shopping area with a number of large stores on the East side of I-5 and a Portland International Raceway (PIR) on the other.

The biggest survivor of the Vanport flood was the community and veteran's college that became Portland State University (PSU). PSU now occupies a substantial part of downtown Portland and occasionally fields sports teams that almost gain notoriety.

A local filmmaker, Kelly Baker, made a movie about the conspiracy theories related to the Vanport flood in 1999 called "Birddog". He also had the good taste to cast my father and a number of his good friends. Look for the signature Tom Peterson cameo if you can get a copy.

Posted by: Patrick S Lasswell at July 25, 2006 08:02 AM

Delta Park also contains Portland Meadows race track, a LOT of Big Box Stores and some industrial development. Also in the immediate area (but not technically in Delta Park) is a Zupans Grocery store which has begun to settle into the earth so unevenly that the floors are all lumpy and rolling. This is a relatively new piece of construction (I don't know the date)but it illustrates the instability of the area. I grew up 30' from the Willamette River and was evacuated in 96 during the floods. We were very lucky, but I know how it feels to have Nature give you a tap on the shoulder. I can't imagine how the people of New Orleans feel after such devastation.

Posted by: Lindsey at July 25, 2006 08:32 AM

I routinely have to sign NDAs (Non-Disclosure Agreements) in my business, and it's totally unrelated to national (or any other kind of) security. Heck, sometimes I have to sign one before the job interview can start! So I'm not leaping to any conclusions about what you were doing.

As for what to write: Use your judgement. That's what attracts us here anyway, isn't it?

Posted by: wj at July 25, 2006 08:35 AM

I would like at least one 'armchair' post RE Lebanon/Hezbollah and whether you think that Hezbollah stores its weapons in the civilian buildings that are being bombed, as many allege. Like another commenter said, you have more firsthand knowledge of the Lebanese and the Hezbollah wingnuts than most of the talking heads we're hearing from currently.

After that, northern Iraq? I haven't hit the tipjar yet but will very soon. Thanks again, you are an invaluable resource for those of us who are trying to stay informed.

Posted by: Stacy at July 25, 2006 09:06 AM

A day after criticizing Israel for “disproportionate” strikes against civilians, U.N. humanitarian chief Jan Egeland accused Hezbollah of “cowardly blending” among Lebanese civilians.

“Consistently, from the Hezbollah heartland, my message was that Hezbollah must stop this cowardly blending … among women and children,” Egeland said. “I heard they were proud because they lost very few fighters and that it was the civilians bearing the brunt of this. I don’t think anyone should be proud of having many more children and women dead than armed men.”


He doesn't understand the fact that they'd rather have propaganda points then living Shia.

I wish Israel would stop giving them their cherished propaganda points, if at all possible, while hunting down and killing the leadership and hard core fighters, though.

Posted by: SoCalJustice at July 25, 2006 09:19 AM

Not to jump the gun (or post off-topic), but I'd be curious to hear what you think of Siniora's proposal, specifically his idea for Israel to withdraw from Shebaa and thus remove Hezbollah's excuse for armament. I was labelled an "Islamist" and an "Arab nationalist" for suggesting this in another thread.

Posted by: naha at July 25, 2006 10:35 AM

"his idea for Israel to withdraw from Shebaa and thus remove Hezbollah's excuse for armament. I was labelled an "Islamist" and an "Arab nationalist" for suggesting this in another thread."

I wouldn't call you either of those things for making the suggestion; just naive. The same argument--that the peace loving muslims would beat their swords back into plowshares if Israel only gave back some piece of land--has been advanced in the past in regard to:

  • Sinai
  • Gaza
  • the West Bank
  • various parts of Jerusalem

Each time, within a few months or years the terrorism begins again with new demands to withdraw from another territory. All else being equal, the evidence is that withdrawing from any given piece of land has no effect on terrorism, except to let the terrorist bases closer to Israeli towns.

Posted by: Stacy at July 25, 2006 10:44 AM

Michael, welcome back! Everyone in my office has been checking your site for updates these last two weeks. As far as your next post goes, I have the same questions as Mike Woolf:

"What do the non-Hez politicians think about current situation - what do they need to get rid of Hezbollah? Are they pro-Hez though in general? Has Israel's actions made it worse or better for them?"

Posted by: WFB at July 25, 2006 11:05 AM


Here's what one non-HA politician thinks/says:


Posted by: Bad Vilbel at July 25, 2006 11:07 AM

Hey gang. I have been bumming around the Middle East this last couple of weeks... I was supposed to be in Beirut with Michael this week, but alas... I was able to interview a woman from Beirut who fled to Tunis (where I am now), I hung out with the Prime Minister of Turkey in Cyprus (man can he throw a party). I have limited net access while on the road, but I will try to give my 2 cents on the Turkey threat to invade Iraq tomorrow. Right now I have a quick posts on my blog. If Michael will forgive the piggy backing...


Posted by: sean at July 25, 2006 11:27 AM

I'd like to apologize to Sean for borrowing his best friend in the pursuit of filthy lucre. On the other hand, if Sean had come up with the idea, he would have been the one to go to Iraq but I wouldn't have gotten to party with the Prime Minister of Turkey.

I look forward to buying you a beer sometime in September when we are both back in town.

Posted by: Patrick S Lasswell at July 25, 2006 11:57 AM

Stacy: I'm already well aware that many of the commenters here have a near-pathological aversion to the idea of exhausting all peaceful means of resolution to this conflict. I apologize if it seemed that I was trying to rekindle the debate here.

Posted by: naha at July 25, 2006 12:21 PM

No problem Pat, but I will take a beer from a rich man! I am glad you guys got out of there mostly intact (Hah! My father said his was disolved naturally in alcohol!). Nosh.

Posted by: sean at July 25, 2006 12:25 PM

I vote for the Lebanon/Israeli war, of course, since we all value your insight into that part of the world. But I would also be interested in your take on the Kurdish/Turkish tensions that Jim Geraghty mentioned here.

Posted by: Lee at July 25, 2006 01:00 PM

While I don't have a preference for what you post first, I would like to see a photo essay of Portland and environs some time in the future. It'll give you an excuse to enjoy the fine weather and sip cappucinos at sidewalk cafes while showing us the native wildlife, er... residents of that fair city. You have a great eye and I'm sure the photos would be great.

There's been alot of interesting blogging on both the lebanese and israeli sides, and if you haven't been keeping abreast of it while in Kurdistan, you might want to catch up before jumping right in on that issue. It's been interesting to see the lebanese bloggers in particular as they posted with a sense of foreboding, changing to alarm, then despair, then resignation, etc. The human dimension has been far more riveting than the military and political analyses I've seen.

One thing about your stay with the Kurds - do you sense a growing commitment to achieving independence sooner rather than later?

Posted by: gluon at July 25, 2006 02:57 PM

Could you predict Lebanon life after the war ? Would it ever be the same ? Thanks

Posted by: salam at July 25, 2006 03:19 PM

naha: don't worry about it, actually I am sorry for starting a discussion in what was intended as a thread to suggest topics for Micheal's next few posts. I'm what a lot of people would probably call a right wingnut, but I like to think I keep my perspective, and an open mind. It's embarassing to think that the people who called you a terrorist would probably consider themselves on my side of the aisle. Cheers!

Posted by: Sta at July 25, 2006 03:55 PM
Winner, The 2007 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

Pajamas Media BlogRoll Member


"I'm flattered such an excellent writer links to my stuff"
Johann Hari
Author of God Save the Queen?

Andrew Sullivan
Author of Virtually Normal

"Brisk, bracing, sharp and thoughtful"
James Lileks
Author of The Gallery of Regrettable Food

"A hard-headed liberal who thinks and writes superbly"
Roger L. Simon
Author of Director's Cut

"Lively, vivid, and smart"
James Howard Kunstler
Author of The Geography of Nowhere

Contact Me

Send email to michaeltotten001 at gmail dot com

News Feeds


Link to Michael J. Totten with the logo button


Tip Jar


Terror and Liberalism
Paul Berman, The American Prospect

The Men Who Would Be Orwell
Ron Rosenbaum, The New York Observer

Looking the World in the Eye
Robert D. Kaplan, The Atlantic Monthly

In the Eigth Circle of Thieves
E.L. Doctorow, The Nation

Against Rationalization
Christopher Hitchens, The Nation

The Wall
Yossi Klein Halevi, The New Republic

Jihad Versus McWorld
Benjamin Barber, The Atlantic Monthly

The Sunshine Warrior
Bill Keller, The New York Times Magazine

Power and Weakness
Robert Kagan, Policy Review

The Coming Anarchy
Robert D. Kaplan, The Atlantic Monthly

England Your England
George Orwell, The Lion and the Unicorn