Wednesday, November 22, 2006

All the President's Men. (As in, they're all the President's men. Every last one of them. Even that "liberal" one over there. Yeah, that one too.)

How did I manage to miss this? A little over a month after September 11, on Nov. 29, Paul Wolfowitz gathered together a group of "a dozen policy makers, Middle East experts and members of influential policy research organizations" in a secret meeting. The purpose of the event was to draft a report for Bush in favor of invading Iraq. Also present, however, were at least two journalists, Fareed Zakaria and Robert D. Kaplan. All signed "confidentiality agreements" to keep mum about the whole business.

In other words, two highly prominent journalists, one a columnist for Newsweek and the host of Foreign Exchange on PBS, the other an editor, foreign correspondent, and columnist for The Atlantic Monthly, clandestinely helped to plan the Iraq War, then proceeded to promote it in their positions of power and influence while giving no indication of their personal involvement.

Wow. I probably shouldn't be so surprised. Robert Kaplan certainly had no qualms at the time: "Everyone was in a patriotic fervor," he says. (Glenn Greenwald gives an excellent though typically heated treatment of Kaplan's latest follies here.) What interests me more is the extent to which this example, among countless others, really shatters the myth of the "liberal media."

"Liberal media" isn't really the best term. I will grant what seems to be incontrovertible evidence that most members of the mainstream media do identify themselves as "liberals." But most educated people, I will venture to say, are "liberal" in the same way that journalists are: more secular than deeply religious, nondiscriminatory towards or at least tolerant of "deviant" practices like homosexuality, pragmatic rather than dogmatic about abortion, etc. In this way the "liberal" media will always be annoying to anyone to the right of Fox News, Human Events, the Family Research Council, et al.

However, when it comes to truly fundamental shared concerns among citizens, such as executive power and the decision to go to war, I really don't see how our national media can be termed anything other than "craven," and I certainly don't understand how the National Review and Rush Limbaugh can fume and fuss about the New York Times, USA Today and other media outlets being "treasonous."

(You might accuse me here of arbitrarily privileging these concerns over an issue like abortion--true, abortion is equally wrapped up in conceptions of the rights and liberties of citizens, and according to some viewpoints human lives might be at stake, but even if we grant these points I still think a state's constitutional structure is of the utmost importance, precisely because it makes thinking about right and liberties possible at all. War is of equally high importance because it is a decision that cannot be checked by the citizens of the enemy state--in choosing to attack them, we choose to violate their liberties [sovereignty] unilaterally. Here we might interject that this shouldn't even be a concern under normal circumstances, since the only justifiable casus belli is one of self-defense. As young citizens of the United States, however, we have quickly seen that we must be on our toes to check our government's inclination towards "wars of choice.")

To return to my original point, I am incredulous at the idea that our "liberal media" has "sabotaged" the national security or "tied the President's hands during wartime" or "emboldened the enemy" or whatever other ridiculous claims conservative commentators trot out. It appears self-evident to me that these last five years have witnessed an almost universal abdication by the press (not to mention our elected leaders) of their responsibility to fairly gather and report information to the public. In addition (and I consider this a separate issue), almost every pundit, columnist, and newspaper of note (even that hateful bastion of liberalism, The New York Times) supported the war at its inception. I'm sure the Times now prides itself on its "independence" or "patriotic dissent" or what have you in criticizing the execution of the war, but before the war even began, when it counted the most, the Times certainly did no disservice to the Bush Administration with its Judith Miller propaganda and incessant ra-ra editorials about unilateral military action. (See this informative TNR article from early 2003: they rightly note that the Times basically echoed the Administration on everything right up until the actual start of the war, when it turned fickle and washed its hands of the situation. So, they enabled but then distanced themselves. Whether this is better or worse than the policy of TNR, which was to fully buy into the war rhetoric, is debatable.)

This cravenness persists in the debate about the NSA phonetapping scandal, which is constantly portrayed as a fight on the part of the Democrats against the President's powers to tap domestic calls. This is not the issue, although that debate should probably happen, too. The debate is about whether the President, acting solely on his own authority, can issue wiretaps without warrants, i.e. by bypassing the FISA court. This point is almost always obscured or ignored. By neglecting to specify this point, the press allows many Americans to be deceived by conservatives into thinking that Democrats are terrorist coddlers, or at the very least "weak on national security." (This should in no way indicate that I think Democrats are perfect saints about protecting our individual liberties, or that their version of the "war on terror" is any less overblown and deceptive than Republicans'.)

The President has not gotten everything he's wanted, to be sure. He didn't get privatized social security, Harriet Myers, the Dubai ports deal, and a few other measures. And the press has at times risked its neck to reveal the truth (NSA, the Financial Tracking program). Conservatives can, I suppose, be annoyed at these instances, because as a rule the most extreme of them tend to hate and denounce anything that isn't personally handstamped by the White House propaganda machine. Mostly though, I think they simply want to deflect criticism from their own failed policies onto the press, which is constantly "undermining the war effort." Thus the apparatus that graciously enabled them to carry out disastrous decisions becomes the perfect "fall guy" when they fuck it all up.

What I'm basically getting around to here is the obvious, which is that the Iraq War and its attendant issues (executive power, torture) have made us ponder, in my case very deeply, how much we really know about our government and society as a whole, and how much we can trust it. My belief right now, as far as the press is concerned at any rate, is that we are downright deceived in our conception of possessing a "free and fair" press. Our national media is corporate-owned and elite-directed. Its members, no matter how "liberal" on the social issues, will not hesitate to gleefully swallow and regurgitate immense loads of pro-government pablum. I'm not about to compare CNN to Pravda or some truly state-controlled untruth factory, but the level of democratic, objective reporting we can reasonably imagine, hell, which we should expect, is in no way being met. It has effectively given this President more than he could possibly hope for. My recommendation, since I feel I should make one in the face of all this negativity, is to read but also promote international journalism, as well as grassroots publications in the United States, even "radically unmainstream" media outlets like the World Socialist Website, Alternet, Znet, In These Times, and also paleoconservative dissenters like The American Conservative. Each of these obviously has its own ideological agenda and often highly disagreeable points, but the extent to which they have been overwhelmingly right on these very issues of war and power when compared to the mainstream discourse is startling.

6 Comments:

Blogger Robot said...

I fear that some of your thinking in this post too often strays towards the conspiratorial. Look at your language. No where in the NYT article does it say that the "purpose of the event was to draft a report for Bush in favor of invading Iraq." The purpose, it seems, was to discuss our foreign policy options in the Middle East and Afghanistan, and one of the suggestions that came out of that discussion was that we invade Iraq.
"The report," the article says, "supported the invasion of Iraq." This is a rather major difference, isn't it? If the purpose of the event was to draft a report for Bush in favor of invading Iraq, then the journalists are indeed in bed with the administration -- following the administration's line, Pravda, etc.

But it's not that at all. In some sense, this was a war created by and for many intellectuals, many journalists, and not the other way around. You know this story by now. You've heard it a million times. The Project for a New American Century had championed a new invasion of Iraq well before September 11th. There was nothing "pro-government" about supporting the invasion of Iraq, except for the fact that of the many intellectuals who had been apart of the Project, some were now in government and some in journalism. Why should their committments have changed when Wolfowitz became deputy secretary and thus part of the government? Quite the contrary: if you were on board with invading Iraq before Sept. 11th, I doubt you'd be persuaded that we don't need to transform the Middle East, beginning in Iraq, when a couple dozen Middle Easterners (largely from Saudi Arabia but no matter) flew two planes into the Twin Towers.

There's nothing at all in any of this that suggests that our press is not free and fair (see the Armstrong Williams case of last year for an example when it wasn't). As Zakaria convincingly says, he's not just a journalist, he's somewhat of an expert on Middle East foreign policy. If someone wants his opinion, whether it's Newsweek or the U.S. government, they should ask him.

As for the liberal media, you're absolutely right that editorially it was largely behind (and in some cases still is) the war. The New York Times certainly did fail the nation's citizens when it allowed Judith Miller et al to go on their rampage. But what's happened? The major players involved in that scandal (editor and journalist) are practically out of journalism, and the NYT has been absolutely fearless (with good reason to fear) in exposing various administration efforts to blur that "legality thing." And remember that for every Brooks, Friedman, Safire, there was a Rich, Dowd, Krugman, and Herbert. The New York Times still has the highest quality overall of correspondents writing in the English language. I'll take them over Znet or indymedia anyday. And I think it's absolutely wrong at most, and premature and least, to say that such a newspaper "gleefully swallows and regurgitates immense loads of pro-government pablum." It's just not true, plain and simple.

Nonetheless, a lot of your anger, Scantron, certainly has your echoes elsewhere. It seems to me it's mostly directed by Liberals against other Liberals over the war. It's the Tony Judt, Matthew Yglesias (who by the way, I think supported the war? Does anyone know? Wikipedia says yes) diatribes and the Hitchens/Berman/Beinhart, etc. responses. The questions being raised are crucial: what does a "Liberal" foreign policy mean and look like? was support for the war wrong in theory? was it wrong in its appreciation of the competency of the administration? is it only wrong in retrospect? is it a case of Monday morning quarterback, or 20/20 hindsight? if you supported the war are you still a "Liberal"?

I think this is a healthy discussion to be having right now. It perhaps was the case that Liberal supporters of the war really got their own philosophy wrong, and now it's time for an apology. What was never the case, I think, is that this war was the exclusive product of the "Bush Administration/Corporate" axis. Intellectuals supported the war for their own reasons, and in the case of Berman, Hitchens, Beinhart, etc, they had almost nothing to do with their worship of the administration or their ties to corporate America, or to securing resources, etc. Instead, in the eyes of many of these journalists/intellectuals, this was a war about spreading democracy, fighting fascism, and ending tyranny.

Was it the wrong war, at the wrong time, with the wrong administration? Absolutely. Yet, I'm not willing to throw these intellectuals into some big conspiratorial group that you seem to want to. And for one reason: Liberals have never had some uniform platform when it has come to American wars. Dewey, one of our greatest liberals, supported WWI, only to turn against one of our most liberal presidents and condemn American entry into The Great War. Was he a Liberal in both his support and his condemnation? Did his swing to pacifism-in-all-but-name in the wake of Hitler finally capture what it truly theoretically meant to be Liberal?

In my own opinion, were Dewey to truly have lived up to his pragmatic sense of Liberalism, he would have supported WWII, and condemned the Iraq War in much the same way as you lay out Scantron: that the Iraq war was a war of choice; that the real threat to national security was Anti-American Islamic extremism, and Al-Qaeda; and that any other fight would divert resources and (ugh) "moral capital" from this fight, and would require a superfluous degree of malfeasance in order to gain the support of the public and the yet dissenting intellectuals.

11:23 AM  
Blogger Scantron said...

I'll respond more when I get the chance (need to bake some cornbread dressing right now!) but I must say, Robot, you'd better think about what you're saying. You chide me for straying towards the "conspiratorial" in my post. But here's your own language:

"In some sense, this was a war created by and for many intellectuals, many journalists, and not the other way around."

"There was nothing "pro-government" about supporting the invasion of Iraq, except for the fact that of the many intellectuals who had been a part of the Project, some were now in government and some in journalism."

Well, I can certainly rest easy now knowing that our wars are concocted in academe, in magazine editorial rooms, and in million-dollar-endowed think tanks rather than as a result of defensive retaliation against offensive attack.

Don't you realize that when you say that the war was crafted in advance by intellectuals and journalists for reasons other than those presented to us by the government, and that those people are part of a group (the PNAC) which had spread itself throughout the government, the military, the media, the think tanks, and the academies, you are effectively describing a CONSPIRACY, whether you want it to be so or not?

Don't just trot out the PNAC as a datum that I've "heard a million times." Did you know what the Project for the New American Century was when the war was being promoted? Do you think the majority of Americans knew then, or even *now*? Do you think they know that the major objectives of the PNAC have nothing to do with our war rationale? Do you think people would have supported the war if the primary reasoning had been, "Well, we've got these academics and apparatchiks here, and they've *really* wanted to overthrow Saddam for a while now, so now that Sept 11's happened, why not?" If there had not been incessant fearmongering and inflated claims about mushroom clouds?

The greater point of my post, of course, is that the PNAC is not solely to blame; that anyone who favored this war could also count on the acquiescence of the press and the inability of the public to demand fairer journalistic standards. I'll expound on this more later, since you bring up some good points. For the moment, think about what you're saying. When the intellectuals, the journalists, and the government are indistinguishable, and you admit that their war reasoning was different from the public rallying, how comfortable are you with this nexus? Is this something we should accept as "everyday"? Perhaps the language of the "conspiracy" isn't so immoderate after all. As the saying goes, just because I'm paranoid, it doesn't mean they're not after me.

2:24 PM  
Blogger Scantron said...

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

2:37 PM  
Blogger Robot said...

A short response for now. I think you raise a lot of good questions. First, let's (in the true English language sense of you and I) try to be reasonable about plausible historical motives and actors. For example, while it is true that the idea for regime change in Iraq was around before September 11th, if you read any of the Project for American Century's late '90s documents, you'll find that the reason they want Saddam out is because they viewed his pursuit of biological weapons as a serious threat to American interests in the region, and that his removal would create a domino effect of ME democracy. The myth of WMDS weren't created after September 11th by Neocons to support a war they had wanted for a long time. I think Kristol and Kagan really thought Saddam was a menace, was persuing WMDS, that this was bad for America, and that anything short of regime change would be inadequate.

After the hysteria of 9/11, it was wrong though not absurd or conspiratorial to think that Saddam had such weapons, and would attempt to use them or sell them to someone with malicious intentions. After the seemingly facile overthrow of the Taliban, meanwhile, it seemed like the Neocons were on to something -- that American power really IS effective, and that maybe we CAN spread democracy and overthrow terrible regimes. While the American people did not likely know about the Project for a New American Century, they no doubt already supported a number of their pillars, which were far from conspiratorial if you ask me: that they believed the discovery of WMDS was a slam dunk in much the same way as the non-Neocons Colin Powell, British Intelligence, George Tenet, all to varying degrees (Powell admittedly the least so) did; that the American military would be greeted with flowers; that the fall of Saadam would mean a safer, more democratic Middle East. When the Neocons would remind us with every passing minute that "September 11th changed everything" (forcing me to recall Robert Fisk's shocking statement in Graham Chapel about how "September 11th changed nothing!"), they were right. But contrary to "we've *really* wanted to overthrow Saddam for a while now, so now that Sept 11's happened, why not?" I think their tune was more like "we've *really* wanted to overthrow Saddam for a while now, so now that Sept 11's happened, can't all of you Americans see the urgency?

Where you see conspiracy I see grave, idiotic, policy failure. Policy failure. Policy failure. The Neocons were wrong in the late '90s as in 2003 about WMDS. They were wrong to think that the events of 9/11 had anything to do with Saddam. They were wrong to think that regime change was the only answer. But I insist there was no conspiracy. It only appears so in the wake of such repulsive binary thinking, where the Neocon world was made of some hierarchy with U.S. on top, Europe, Japan, and Australia in the middle, and everyone else (Saddam, Iran, Mohammad Attah, Osama) in the bottom. Given the immense intellectual depravity of this kind of thinking, we should not be surprised by attempts to link Saddam and Osama. It's not that they need to conspiratorially create evidence for the attack. Rather, it's that their was such an intellectual neurosis, such a "state of denial" that WMDS were apriori considered a slam dunk, as they had been for the previous ten years.

Now, should you "rest easy now knowing that our wars are concocted in academe, in magazine editorial rooms, and in million-dollar-endowed think tanks rather than as a result of defensive retaliation against offensive attack"? Yes and no. With the exception of our responses to four separate attacks on various naval boats (Spanish-American War, German U-Boat attacks, Pearl Harbor, Vietnam), of which only one of them actually required a full-scale war, there has been not a single American military effort in the past century that was born of true defensive retaliation (Afghanistan being another, rather peculiar exception). The truth is, rarely does America fight a war out of true defensive retaliation, in other words. But how is this conspiratorial in any sense. The Bush Doctrine, as with the Truman Doctrine, was there for everyone to see. They both, essentially, were doctrines of preemption. That was the whole idea. That was their selling point.

Finally, I will admit to one grave error. If there's one thing I hate it's using terms like "the intellectuals" and then trying to describe how this "class" acted as any given point. The truth is more subtle. As I tried to say, there wasn't some secret nexus between journalists, government, and intellectuls. Rather, there were SOME individuals from each group who because of their various commitments, found it reasonable to agree on a similar foreign policy. This, too, is not conspiratorial, as I've already written. What is conspiratorial about people with similar ideas meeting, talking, and proposing? Was the New Deal tbe product of a conspiracy because it looked for a while that a hell of a lot of government officials, intellectuals, and journalists supported these reforms?

The difference between the New Deal reforms and the Iraq War is so obvious it hurts. It has nothing to do with conspiracy, and everything to do with what it truly means to address problems pragmatically.

7:30 PM  
Blogger Robot said...

As a side note, I think this kind of debate is fascinating. I'm amazed at the huge difference, here in Spain, between saying that blaming ETA for M-11 was a "conspiracy" by the Popular Party to conceal the truth, or simply a product of an incompetent reaction (there are also those who say the attacks were a conspiracy on the part of the Socialists, but that's another matter). The difference in interpretations is quite a big deal. Likewise, the debate over the "Israeli Lobby" can be situated in this framework. On the one hand, there are those who believe that the work of the lobby is a conspiracy, while others believe it's just a lobby that's really good at what it does.

Alas. All tryptophan and no Green Bean Casserole makes Robot a dull boy. Happy Thanksgiving. God Bless America.

7:38 PM  
Blogger Austin 5-000 said...

I have to agree with Robot's assessment of the "conspiracy" argument; I want to address the news reading recommendation. The important point here is that no one on Alternet or any of the other sites you listed does any original reporting. They're all as dependent on the New York Times and AP as we are. So if you want to wade through a bunch of shitty articles about vegetarianism and the immorality of thanksgiving to get some sub-par analysis of the same basic facts that everyone else knows, go for it. But the "alternative" media does not, as of yet, represent a source of actual news. Instead, it's a source of alternative interpretations of the news, similar to blogs. Wouldn't reading intelligent blogs be a better use of your time?

4:24 PM  

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