Sunday, March 16, 2008

Washington Post Death Spiral Watch

(Non Brad Delong edition)

Jim Hoagland has an op ed in today Washington Post with an excellent title "Needed: Honesty on Iraq". I'm betting that some editor wrote the headline, though, since the article reads as if it were written by someone from another planet who had no concept of earth-bound reality and no actual knowledge of the history of the US and Iraq.

To begin with, the op ed is that favorite in the journalistic nihilistic universe of the Washington Post, it is a "meta" piece--that is, it doesn't really bother to be honest about Iraq, but rather, it talks about the need for politicians to be honest about Iraq. What Jim Hoagland thinks the US should do in Iraq he doesn't deign to say beyond suggesting a generalized "stay the course." There is the usual Washington Post pretence of "pox on all their houses" with Hoagland claiming to find fault with all three candidates for President, although of course he really only finds fault with the Democrats. There is the familiar Washington Post editorial bloated rhetoric, with Hoagland generously sharing with us that the three politicians are "insulting the future," whatever that is supposed to mean.

But it is in recounting the history of the US with Iraq that Hoaglan launches into fantasyland. Here he is on Bill Clinton: "Bill Clinton used sanctions and pinprick missile attacks that helped protect the Kurds and Iraq's Arab neighbors. But those tactics also had the effect of aiding Hussein in grinding into dust any remaining social cohesion in the country." So, without any evidence presented, Bill Clinton somehow becomes a partner of Saddam Hussein in the oppression of his people. In the previous paragraph Hoagland skirted lightly over the fact that the Reagan and first Bush administration had provided material aid to Hussein (" did little to prevent or to punish" Saddam's actions against the Kurds is Hoagland's closest approach to that truth) , going so far as to send Donald Rumsfield to shake the tyrant's hand, and then proclaims the first Bush in some sense the "victim" of the policy ("They reaped Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait as reward.") Somehow, no doubt for reasons of space, the first Gulf War goes unmentioned, as does the immediate aftermath when President George H. W. Bush encouraged Iraq's shi'ites to rebel and then stood idly by when Saddam viciously put the rebellion down, even though we had overwhelming military force on the ground in the area. Somehow in Hoagland land, protecting the Kurds so that they could set up their own defacto state (which has some earmarks of democracy in it, however it may fall short) is "aiding" Saddam, but standing by while Saddam slaughters his own people is not worth mentioning.

Other inconvenient facts similarly are kept at bay. The Clinton administration had a fairly activist foreign policy, which did involve military action in the Balkans to protect Bosnia from a ruthless dictator, and then engage in the diplomacy and peace-keeping and aid necessary to keep the whole enterprise afloat. This sort of nation-building, which presumably Hoagland is retrospectively advocating that Bill Clinton should have done in Iraq, was of course the subject of attack by George W. Bush when he ran for President in 2000.

In the world of editorial writing, at least as practiced by Hoagland, word counts are the only restraint. But in the real world in which politicians must act, there are limits of resources such as money and troops. Hoagland talks about "moral obligations" that Iraq poses for Americans, but he seems to ignore the actual financial and physical obligations of the war on Iraq. I'm all for John McCain spelling out how much his "victory" in Iraq is going to cost in blood and treasurer, and what sort of taxes he's going to levy to pay those costs. Let's see, the war is approaching $200 billion a year and at best we've managed to achieve a fragile stalemate. Are we talking adding another $100 billion/year? $200 billion? and for how many years?

The war in Iraq has been a disaster because it has been from the beginning based on lies. The Washington Post Outlook section in which Hoagland's op-ed appears has as its lead story an article that points out that after five years, we still don't know the real reasons we went to war in Iraq. Colin Powell went before the United Nations and lied that we had proof that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. Paul Wolfowitz went before congress and said the war would pay for itself. Donald Rumsfield, he who had gone to Baghdad to shake the tyrant's hand, assured us that there would be no need for hundreds of thousands of troops and that the war would be over quickly. They told these lies and the Jim Hoagland's of the press repeated these lies and now say in that oh-so-grand "no insult to the future" way, we must continue to muddle along because "fresh thinking is badly needed."

When I first read Hoagland's let's-be-honest-without-being-honest op ed, I thought how Thucydides had dealt with the way words decay in war and how partisans stop speaking the same language even when the words remain the same. I looked up the passage (Thucydides is talking about the civil war in Corcyra during the Peloponnesian War) and found it more apt than I had recalled:

"To fit in with the change of events, words, too, had to change their usual meanings. What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a party member; to think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying one was a coward; any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one's unmanly character; ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted for action."

Could anything better describe the behavior of the mainstream press when it came to their reporting and cheer leading on Iraq?

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