The Wash. Post's Jennifer Rubin Divide And The Iraq War

Why Did Editor Rajiv Chandrasekaran Lash Out At Rubin On Twitter?

Jennifer RubinIt is just over one week since Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma read Defense Secretary nominee Chuck Hagel four questions suggested to him by Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin during Hagel's confirmation hearing. The substance of the questions Inhofe delivered to Hagel in the Senate chamber -- a typical Rubin laundry list of neoconservative wisdom gleaned from her January 28 post titled, “Our Dimwitted State Department” -- was quickly overshadowed by the public reaction of Post senior correspondent and associate editor Rajiv Chandrasekaran. When Inhofe described Rubin's post as “kind of an interesting article,” Chandrasekaran shot off an angry tweet. “I hate it when senators refer to WP opinion blogger posts as articles,” he growled. "@JRubinBlogger is NOT a WaPo reporter."

That he's right is a fortunate thing for the Post. If the daily employed Rubin to cover national security and international affairs, they'd have a bit of a Judith Miller problem. Since the Post hired Rubin in late 2010, she has routinely embarrassed the paper by putting bylines on Romney campaign press releases; endorsing blood-thirsty calls for revenge against Palestinians; and successfully experimenting with the manufacture of durable conservative fantasy narratives.  

Chandrasekaran likely isn't the only Post editor displeased with Rubin's frequent assaults on the standards and reputation of his newspaper. But among Post brass, it seems right he'd be the one with the shortest fuse (he has not responded to repeated requests to discuss the tweet). Chandrasekaran spent much of the last decade reporting for the paper from the Middle East, including stints in Egypt, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. He was a key part of the Post's widely praised all-star coverage of the Iraq war and occupation, serving as Baghdad bureau chief in 2003 and 2004.

While the Post failed its readers in many ways during the selling of the war, its coverage from Iraq was often unmatched. Chandrasekaran's reporting colleagues during those years included Steve Coll, Anthony Shadid, and Tom Ricks, who together wrote much of the first draft of the sordid history of the Bush administration's refusal to plan for the aftermath in Iraq and the widespread suffering that resulted.

Chandrasekaran's lasting contribution to this history is his book about Year One of the occupation, Imperial Life in the Emerald City, a close examination of the ideology, corruption and incompetence that the Bush White House exported wholesale to the Green Zone. During his time in Iraq, Chandrasekaran lost a few close friends to the chaos and the violence.

All of which is to say that Chandrasekaran has a deeper understanding than Rubin of post-Saddam Iraq and the consequences of neoconservative ideology. And it is this -- not simply concern for the blurring categories of journalism in the Internet age -- that may explain the editor's Twitter rage that caught so many off-guard. It must not be easy to write a damning expose of the biggest foreign policy disaster in memory, then watch the arrival of a colleague who began writing only recently “as a lark” and who from the comfort of Northern Virginia whines about the U.S. drawdown in Iraq, attacks anyone who dared question or criticize the Bush/Cheney leadership, and asks with a straight face, “How much did the emergence of a democratic Iraq have to do with this popular revolt in Tunisia?"

Rubin's archive doesn't contain commentary on the Iraq war in real-time. It doesn't go back far enough. When Chandrasekaran was reporting from Baghdad and Najaf, Jennifer Rubin was working in West L.A. as an attorney for Dreamworks. She started writing and blogging only after her move to Virginia in 2005

This also appears to have been the year she became a Republican. Steve Hulett, who says he knew Rubin well from 2000 to 2005 when he was president of the Animation Guild, a labor union representing animation and visual effects artists, says her politics were those of a mainstream California Democrat right through the 2004 election. “She talked like a straight-ahead Hollywood liberal,” Hulett told Media Matters. “We used to chew the fat all the time in her office and over at lunch at Café del Sol near Dreamworks. She supported Kerry in 2004 and worked closely with [Jeffrey] Katzenberg, who is a big time Democratic donor. I didn't know what to think when she moved east and started blogging like mad as a conservative. I don't know if it's a marketing pose, or if she really believes it, or what. But it is odd.” 

If Rubin's right turn dates to 2005, it is extremely odd. This was the year many Bush supporters began to question their support for the president and his party -- no doubt at least a few of them while reading damning exposes like Chandrasekaran's Imperial Life in the Emerald City. After last week's social media flare-up, I reread that book and tried to imagine how anyone could have done the same and still backed those responsible for the mess described. As Rubin uses her Washington Post perch to call for more aggressive U.S. military action in the Middle East, it's worth recalling some of choice bits Chandrasekaran brought back from occupied Iraq, beginning with the arrival of Jay Garner, tasked by the White House with overseeing a reconstruction it expected to last all of 90 days, and end with Ahmed Chalabi reigning over a grateful, peaceful, and fully privatized U.S. vassal state.

Chandrasekaran's book captures for all time the rank ineptitude of the Coalition Provisional Authority set up by the Bush White House. Most of them were selected for political loyalty despite being completely ignorant about Iraq and the region. In a representative line, one of them chirps to Chandrasekaran, after months in the country, “I've never interviewed an Iraqi, but the graphs and the trend lines are headed in the right direction.” Those in the Green Zone bubble were encouraged to stay there, and get their news from Fox and Stars and Stripes.

Chandrasekaran reports that one of his sources at Halliburton who cleaned rooms at the Al-Rashid Hotel told him that many CPA staffers kept copies of A Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Iraq next to their beds. When an Iraqi translator attempted to give a senior CPA figure a copy of Hanna Batutu's The Old Social Classes and Revolutionary Movements in Iraq, a seminal modern history of the country, the official declined, pointing to a 1970s travel guide. “Everything I need is in here,” he said. Then there are the vignettes of epic waste, merely hinted at by a Pentagon audit revealing occupation authorities could not account for nearly $9 billion, including $2 billion in cash stuffed into duffle bags at the New York Federal Reserve. The Treasury officials sent to rebuild the economy were told not to worry about generating employment, but to focus on privatizing everything as quickly as possible. Even looting was justified at the highest levels as “a form of shrinkage” that could assist the larger privatization project.

There is a great section about that era's icon of incompetence, Bernie Kerik, who Rubin once obliquely defended from Paul Krugman's charge of being a “fake hero.” It's worth recalling that the former police chief and current convict was not just a Giuliani stooge; he was the personal choice of President Bush to rebuild the Iraqi police. Chandrasekaran quotes sources describing how Kerik was both uninterested in his post and bothered by the occasional visits of Iraqi judges and interpreters to the agency down the hall from his office that was tasked with reorganizing the Iraqi justice system. “Who the fuck are these people?” Kerik would demand when he saw them pass his door. “What the fuck are they doing here?” It took a patient aide to explain to Kerik, “Those are Iraqis, they are the reason we are here.”

Together, scenes like these go a ways toward explaining why Chandrasekaran may not have much patience when it comes to his neoconservative colleague. Among the last people we meet in Imperial Life in the Emerald City is John Agresto, a Republican whose occupation portfolio was the Iraqi university system. Disillusioned by the occupation, Agresto described himself to Chandrasekaran as a “neoconservative mugged by reality,” a play on Irving Kristol's quip defining neoconservatives as liberals mugged by reality. In Rubin, we have the curious case of a corporate lawyer less mugged by reality than seduced by the chance to reinvent herself as a rightwing pundit and apologist for utterly failed and discredited foreign policy projects.

Unlike her journalistic hero, Norman Podhoretz, Rubin has yet to publish the book-length version of her personal conversion story. Preferring bite-sized bits of thinking and writing, she continues to channel her considerable energies into a stream of blog posts that collectively resemble a more Beltway-friendly Pam Geller. If Rajiv Chandrasekaran succumbed to a flash of intemperance after her invocation during a nationally televised hearing, the only surprise is that it took so long.