“Media Matters”; by Paul Waldman

The big news this week was the release of the Iraq Study Group report, which comes at a time when President Bush has lost not just the left and the center, but increasingly the right as well (more on that in a moment). Almost lost in the extraordinary amount of attention given to the ISG was the fact that the one person who could act on its conclusions seems dead-set against even considering doing so.

It's all about the “center”

The big news this week was the release of the Iraq Study Group report, which comes at a time when President Bush has lost not just the left and the center, but increasingly the right as well (more on that in a moment). Almost lost in the extraordinary amount of attention given to the ISG was the fact that the one person who could act on its conclusions seems dead-set against even considering doing so.

President Bush has already said that he'll ignore the ISG's two main recommendations, to begin redeploying troops and to talk to Syria and Iran. Which might lead one to wonder what all the fuss is about. But far be it from the pundits to be troubled by that, distracted as they are by the wonder of the ISG's “bipartisan” glory. The commission's work, said a news article in The Washington Post, “proved to be a nine-month study of how to bridge not only Iraq's deep divide but also America's.” David Broder, dean of the Washington press corps, marveled at how deliciously bipartisan it all was. “Whatever the final impact of the Iraq Study Group report being issued today, for the 10 commission members this was an exhilarating experience, a demonstration of genuine bipartisanship that they hope will serve as an example to the broader political world,” Broder wrote. Are their recommendations sound? Will it make a difference? Who cares? The commission included both Republicans and Democrats!

And that, as far as Broder and those like him are concerned, is what made it so worthy of all the attention and praise. The New York Times profiled commission co-chairman Lee Hamilton, its headline calling him "A Compromiser Who Operates Above the Partisan Fray." For the Broders of the world, there is no higher compliment. Interviewing Frank Wolf, the Republican congressman who proposed the commission, NBC News anchor Brian Williams asked, “Are we at our best when our best and brightest get together and hammer out a problem like this?” Let it be noted that this was the first and likely last time anyone referred to Ed Meese as one of “our best and our brightest.”

But bipartisanship has its down sides too, something that pundits are loath to acknowledge. The Times also reported that in order to obtain consensus, the commission had to water down its recommendations:

The Democratic case for a timetable for troop withdrawal was pressed most aggressively by William J. Perry, defense secretary in the Clinton administration, who said that almost all combat troops should be out of Iraq by the first quarter of 2008. Republicans felt the recommendation would box in President Bush, who has rejected calls for a deadline for withdrawal.

Mr. Perry said in an interview Wednesday on National Public Radio that the issue was resolved in two hours of private talks between him and James A. Baker III, the study group's Republican co-chairman and a former secretary of state. The compromise language replaced a recommendation that the United States “would” withdraw troops from Iraq under a timetable with a finding that the United States “could” withdraw the troops by early 2008. “I was willing to give up the language but not the substance,” Mr. Perry said.

Perry, it must be noted, can at least claim that he raised a caution or two before the war began. In September 2002, he urged that “a highly intrusive inspection regime” be put in place, but failing that, the United States should be prepared to take military action [San Jose Mercury News; 09/10/02]. But one can't help but notice the continuing scarcity in this debate of those who were right from the beginning about Iraq. It's not that they don't exist; it's just that they are so seldom asked to offer their opinions about where to go next. It remains the case that the primary prerequisite for being considered “serious” on matters of foreign policy and national security is that you were wrong on the most momentous foreign policy and national security decision of the last few decades. If your judgment was faulty, your understanding lacking, your foresight non-existent, your ideology blinding, then you are someone whose opinions should be listened to. If you supported what may be the single biggest foreign policy debacle in our nation's history, you are “serious.” That disastrous error in judgment, which has so far resulted in the deaths of nearly 3,000 U.S. troops, also makes you "strong on defense," not to mention "pro-military" and someone who "supports the troops."

Consider Weekly Standard editor and Fox News mainstay Bill Kristol, perhaps the foremost advocate of the Iraq war before it began. Kristol's magazine devoted a whole issue in 1997 to its vision for Iraq, under the heading, “Saddam Must Go,” and kept advocating for the overthrow of the Iraqi government, something they crowed about at the war's outset. Kristol is still listed as chairman of the Project for a New American Century, whose messianic vision of American greatness spread over the planet by force of arms ran aground in the ditch of the war it pushed so relentlessly (the signatories to PNAC's mission statement today read as a veritable who's who of discredited neoconservatives, from Dick Cheney to Paul Wolfowitz to Dan Quayle to “Scooter” Libby to Donald Rumsfeld). Today, despite the colossal failure of the war he pushed so relentlessly -- not to mention the fact that he is now advocating that we do it all over again in Iran -- Kristol continues to be sought out by print reporters and television programs for his sage advice on foreign policy and is treated as something other than a raving lunatic.

So it has been from the beginning. Remarkably, this week, The Washington Post allowed to be published an article outlining just how, in reporting the congressional authorization of the Iraq war, the paper virtually shut out the voices of members of Congress who not only opposed the resolution but accurately predicted the disaster that would follow. The story was by Walter Pincus, one of the few reporters for a mainstream news outlet who can say of his reporting during the run-up to the Iraq war that he actually did his job. As Pincus wrote:

Although given little public credit at the time, or since, many of the 126 House Democrats who spoke out and voted against the October 2002 resolution that gave President Bush authority to wage war against Iraq have turned out to be correct in their warnings about the problems a war would create.


The day after the House vote, The Washington Post recorded that 126 House Democrats voted against the final resolution. None was quoted giving a reason for his or her vote except for Rep. Joe Baca (Calif.), who said a military briefing had disclosed that U.S. soldiers did not have adequate protection against biological weapons.

“As a veteran, that's what hit me the hardest,” he said.

[Representative Barbara] Lee was described as giving a “fiery denunciation” of the administration's “rush to war,” with only 14 colleagues in the House chamber to hear her. None of the reasons she gave to justify her concerns, nor those voiced by other Democratic opponents, was reported in the two Post stories about passage of the resolution that day.

But within the Washington media establishment, people who opposed the war from the beginning seem not to exist at all. Five days before Pincus' article appeared, the Post op-ed page carried a column by David Ignatius paying tribute to Republican Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel. Ignatius wrote, “What would make a Hagel [presidential] candidacy interesting is that he can claim to have been right about Iraq and other key issues earlier than almost any national politician, Republican or Democratic.”

But as we pointed out, Hagel voted for the war. It is a bizarre kind of hindsight to say that he was “right about Iraq and other key issues earlier than almost any national politician,” when there were dozens of elected Democrats who not only spoke out against the war and voted against it, but predicted accurately most of the problems that have come to pass since the invasion in 2003. To his credit, Ignatius did later acknowledge that critics of his column were right.

But in the looking-glass world of the national media, the acceptable range of opinion on national security runs from the center to the right. In a recent interview with NYU journalism professor and blogger Jay Rosen, Post political editor John Harris (who is leaving the paper to begin a new multimedia journalism venture) felt liberated enough to describe the mindset at work:

Jay Rosen: Do you think the political press has a “political perspective” or would you say that on the whole it doesn't?

John Harris: In my experience, the vast majority of political reporters approach ideological questions with what you might call centrist bias. They are instinctually skeptical of what they see as ideological zealotry. They believe activist government can do good things but are quick to see how those aims are distorted by partisan corruption or bureaucratic incompetence. They tend to have a faith that politics should be a tidier and more rational process than it is.

I sometimes think that if Washington political reporters ran the government their ideal would be to have a blue ribbon commission go into seclusion at Andrews Air Force base for a week and solve all problems. It would be chaired by Alan Greenspan and Sam Nunn. David Gergen would be communications director, and the policy staff would come from Brookings and the American Enterprise Institute. They would not come back until they had come up with sober, centrist solutions to the entitlements debate, the Iraq war, and the gay marriage controversy. It took me a while to realize how this instinct for rationalist, difference-splitting politics can itself be a form of bias.

Ya think?

Of course, as Duncan Black noted in response, if you think that the “center” includes people like Alan Greenspan and organizations like the American Enterprise Institute, you're truly deluded.

Iraq Study Group or no Iraq Study Group, the civil war in that country rages on, with 30 American soldiers giving their lives in the first week of December. The recent decision by NBC to refer to the civil war as a “civil war” brought a predictable flood of condemnation from the White House and their allies in the conservative media. But as our Eric Boehlert wrote this week, “the fact that a simple decision to use the phrase 'civil war' passed for news itself simply highlights how timid the mainstream press corps has been during the Bush years.”

The critics cried that NBC's decision to call the Iraqi civil war a “civil war” is one with political implications (and therefore, the network must want America to lose). What they don't seem to grasp is that choosing not to call it a “civil war” is a decision with political implications, too. It isn't that NBC is taking a side while CNN, Fox, CBS, and ABC aren't. Those networks take a side just as surely when they refuse to acknowledge the reality of what is happening in Iraq. It just happens to be the administration's side.

Meanwhile, some of our old friends are getting plumb tuckered out with the war in Iraq. After all, it's been a long while since we had ourselves a good old-fashioned statue-toppling. So “let them kill each other,” says Bill O'Reilly. “Do I care if the Sunnis and Shiites kill each other in Iraq? No. I don't care. Let's get our people out of there. Let them kill each other. Maybe they'll all kill each other, and then we can have a decent country in Iraq.”

Sounds like a great plan -- give that man his own TV show so he can share his wisdom with us. And a radio show. And a syndicated newspaper column.

O'Reilly thus joins the pessimism brigade, along with his Fox News compatriot John Gibson, who offered this suggestion: “We can go to Kurdistan just like Charles Krauthammer suggested and protect the one group of Iraqis who have managed to live in peace, and we'll just watch the rest of it go up in flames. And the Iraqis will have no one to blame but themselves." Rush Limbaugh, on the other hand, is happy to have the entire Middle East descend into anarchy:

All right, well, let's just have them. Let's just have the civil wars and let the crumbs crumble and the cookie crumble where -- because I'm fed up with this. The Palestinian situation -- for 50 years we've had the Palestinian situation, and it's not going to be solved until the Limbaugh Doctrine is imposed or tried. And that is, this is a war, and until somebody loses it, it isn't going to stop. And now, you know, we've done everything we can to make Lebanon a democracy, and it's crumbling because Syria keeps killing the popular leaders there. Meanwhile, the Hezbos [Hezbollah] keep expanding their influence in Lebanon.


Fine, just blow the place up. Just let these natural forces take place over there instead of trying to stop them, instead of trying to use -- I just -- sometimes natural force is going to happen. You're going to have to let it take place. You can spend all the time you like with diplomacy, and you can spend all the time you want massaging these things with diplomatic -- you're just -- you're just delaying the inevitable.

When the ISG's report was released on Wednesday, commission member Leon Panetta issued a desperate plea: “This country cannot be at war and be as divided as we are today. You've got to unify this country.” We may disagree about a lot, but it seems that Americans are unified in their conclusion that the war is a disaster. President Bush's grand dream that invading Iraq would spread democracy across the Middle East has become nothing but a cruel and tragic joke, now seeming so absurd that even the administration, for all its vague talk of “victory,” won't dare to mention it. When the establishment conservatives like those on the ISG and the media conservatives like Limbaugh and O'Reilly are all desperately looking for lifeboats to bail out of the ship the administration is steering, you know we've passed the point of no return.