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It's All About the Center

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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 [ /rd?http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/
article/2006/12/06/AR2006120602078.html ] 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 [ /rd?http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/
article/2006/12/05/AR2006120501127.html ] 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
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 [ /rd?http://
www.nytimes.com/2006/12/06/washington/06hamilton.html ]." For the
Broders of the world, there is no higher compliment. Interviewing Frank
Wolf [ /items/200612070007 ], 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 [ /rd?http://
] 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
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 [ /items/200611300003 ]," not to mention "pro-
military [ /items/200511180008 ]" and someone who "supports the troops
[ /items/200602020011 ]."
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 [ /rd?http://
] 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 [ /rd?http://www.newamericancentury.org/
statementofprinciples.htm ] 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 [ /items/200607270007 ] 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 [ /items/200612040006
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
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 [ /
AR2006112801276.html ] 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 [ /items/200611290012 ], 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 [ /rd?http://
article_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1003493812 ] 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 [ /rd?http://journalism.nyu.edu/pubzone/weblogs/
pressthink/2006/12/06/harris_q_a.html ] with NYU journalism professor
and blogger Jay Rosen, Post political editor John Harris (who is leaving
the paper [ /rd?http://www.editorandpublisher.com/eandp/news/
article_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1003410176 ] 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 [ /rd?http://
atrios.blogspot.com/2006_12_03_atrios_archive.html#116541997663290463 ],
if you think that the "center" includes people like Alan Greenspan and
organizations like the American Enterprise Institute, you're truly
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 [ /rd?http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/nationworld/
2003467319_iraqdig08.html?syndication=rss ]. 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 [ /columns/200612040004 ]
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 [ /items/200612060006 ]. "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
O'Reilly thus joins the pessimism brigade, along with his Fox News
compatriot John Gibson, who offered this suggestion [ /items/
200612080002 ]: "We can go to Kurdistan just like Charles Krauthammer
suggested [ /rd?http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/
2006/11/30/AR2006113001159.html ] 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

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