NY Times Pits War Skepticism Against Patriotism

Blog ››› ››› JEREMY HOLDEN

The front page of The New York Times created a false choice between being patriotic and voicing skepticism of military force, pairing reports that residents of a town in Pennsylvania are opposed to military action in Syria with the headline "Proudly Patriotic But Skeptical On Syria Attack."


There is no inherent tension between skepticism of military action and patriotism. Any perception that questioning the use of military force raises questions about a skeptic's patriotism only exists because outlets like The New York Times create it. 

The report itself details myriad reasons that residents in a southwestern Pennsylvanian town remain skeptical of the wisdom of intervention in Syria, contrasting that with overwhelming support among residents for military action in Iraq 11 years ago:

As President Obama tries to rally domestic support for military action against Syria, the skepticism in Waynesburg only underscores the political hurdles he faces. This bucolic, if fading, corner of southwest Pennsylvania wears its patriotism on its sleeve, shirttail and pockets. At the time of Mr. Bush's decision to invade Iraq, a Quinnipiac University poll in Pennsylvania found that 86 percent of the voters in and around Waynesburg were solidly behind him.       

But in myriad ways, the calculus has changed. Some say they now believe that domestic needs neglected during a decade of war override foreign imperatives. Some, reviewing years of pitched struggle in Afghanistan and Iraq, see the Middle East as quicksand that must be avoided at all costs. Some say that Syria's civil war is Syria's problem, and that the United States is not the Mr. Fix-it for all of the world's crises.

And here, at least, more than a few see military action against Syria as unacceptable simply because it is Mr. Obama's idea.

Regardless of whether the answers to any of these questions lead to a decision to support military action or to oppose it, asking them says nothing about patriotism. And The New York Times, of all places, should know that.

More than a decade ago, skeptics were silenced during the run-up to the Iraq War. That example has led voices including that of Colin Powell to say that skepticism is necessary when considering the merits of military action. A lack of skepticism was central to The New York Times' own much discussed failures during the march to war in 2002-2003. In a 2011 column, Bill Keller, the editor of the Times during the Iraq War debate, wrote:

I remember a mounting protective instinct, heightened by the birth of my second daughter almost exactly nine months after the attacks. Something dreadful was loose in the world, and the urge to stop it, to do something -- to prove something -- was overriding a career-long schooling in the virtues of caution and skepticism.

As Americans again debate the wisdom of using military force to intervene in a foreign country, there is little value in creating a false choice between patriotism and skepticism. 

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