Tag Archives: Iraq

Bill Keller wants to repeat history, which would make him wrong twice.

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Last night, New York Times columnist (and former executive editor) Bill Keller’s column, “Syria Is Not Iraq,” appeared online. (It’s seen in the above screenshot at right, juxtaposed against equally intellectually-challenged fellow columnist Thomas Friedman’s piece from last year.) As usual, it was a doozy:

As a rule, I admire President Obama’s cool calculation in foreign policy; it is certainly an improvement over the activist hubris of his predecessor. And frankly I’ve shared his hesitation about Syria, in part because, during an earlier column-writing interlude at the outset of the Iraq invasion, I found myself a reluctant hawk. That turned out to be a humbling error of judgment, and it left me gun-shy.

Of course, there are important lessons to be drawn from our sad experience in Iraq: Be clear about America’s national interest. Be skeptical of the intelligence. Be careful whom you trust. Consider the limits of military power. Never go into a crisis, especially one in the Middle East, expecting a cakewalk.

But in Syria, I fear prudence has become fatalism, and our caution has been the father of missed opportunities, diminished credibility and enlarged tragedy.

Keller concludes:

Whatever we decide, getting Syria right starts with getting over Iraq.

No, Keller, it doesn’t. Getting Syria right starts with acknowledging how Iraq happened. But doing that would require directly confronting the central role of Keller’s paper in propagating a flimsy and ultimately disastrous case for war in Iraq. Getting over Iraq, to use Keller’s convenient word choice, is a euphemism for allowing the same source that got everything so wrong in Iraq to make the same case for war in another country — again, with no exit strategy or, even, any strategy at all.

Keller argues that our failure to arm the rebels for fear of assisting al-Qaeda is in fact resulting in the same outcome, by ceding ground to the Saudis and Qataris, who are all too willing to assist radicals on the ground in Syria. But what Keller fails to mention is the fact that, after two years of civil war, an American decision to intervene now would raise more questions than it answers and may very well cause a public opinion backlash in the Arab world. Instead of being lauded as saviors, there is at least an equivalent likelihood of rebels asking, “How many lives could you have saved if you’d been here earlier?”

That alone is not a reason to stay away. But the audacity of the clamor for intervention — led by people like John McCain and, yes, now Bill Keller, the same people who so badly misjudged the prospects for success in Iraq — is that it makes the same characterizations about Syria that it did about Iraq. You’d think once would be enough.

Keller writes:

What you hear from the Obama team is that we know way too little about the internal dynamics of Syria, so we can’t predict how an intervention will play out, except that there is no happy ending; that while the deaths of 70,000 Syrians are tragic, that’s what happens in a civil war; that no one in the opposition can be trusted; and, most important, that we have no vital national interest there. Obama conceded that the use of poison gas would raise the stakes, because we cannot let the world think we tolerate spraying civilians with nerve gas. But even there, the president says he would feel obliged to respond to “systematic” use of chemical weapons, as if something less — incremental use? sporadic use? — would be O.K. This sounds like a president looking for excuses to stand pat.

This is a sickening, absurdist paragraph. “Looking for excuses to stand pat?” In Keller’s conceptualization, then, war is the default option, and Obama is doing somersaults in an attempt to evade his natural obligations. But this is simply not the case. Obama is perfectly right to observe that no vital national interest necessitates an American intervention in Syria (although he is seemingly less confident on this score than previously thought).

Keller’s not done:

In contemplating Syria, it is useful to consider the ways it is not Iraq.

First, we have a genuine, imperiled national interest, not just a fabricated one. A failed Syria creates another haven for terrorists, a danger to neighbors who are all American allies, and the threat of metastasizing Sunni-Shiite sectarian war across a volatile and vital region. “We cannot tolerate a Somalia next door to Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey,” said Vali Nasr, who since leaving the Obama foreign-policy team in 2011 has become one of its most incisive critics. Nor, he adds, can we afford to let the Iranians, the North Koreans and the Chinese conclude from our attitude that we are turning inward, becoming, as the title of Nasr’s new book puts it, “The Dispensable Nation.”

Again, Keller’s historical — and personal — amnesia, combined with his implicit but entirely unsubtle smearing of prudent foreign policy analysts as appeasers, is appalling. There is no “genuine, imperiled national interest.” The primary reason everyone’s suddenly started talking about Syria is that Israel started bombing it. As always, Israel’s security interests take precedence over our own: where two years of civilian death and suffering elicited little more than yawns and sighs of boredom in living rooms throughout America, a few targeted airstrikes by Israel are amazingly effective at focusing the hive mind.

Keller writes:

But, as Joseph Holliday, a Syria analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, points out, what gets lost in these calculations is the potentially dire cost of doing nothing. That includes the danger that if we stay away now, we will get drawn in later (and bigger), when, for example, a desperate Assad drops Sarin on a Damascus suburb, or when Jordan collapses under the weight of Syrian refugees.

Yes, let’s go to war now, risking very real American lives, to prevent a hypothetical outcome that may or may not cause mass fatalities in another country’s civil war.

Here is perhaps my favorite line:

Fourth, in Iraq we had to cajole and bamboozle the world into joining our cause. This time we have allies waiting for us to step up and lead. Israel, out of its own interest, seems to have given up waiting.

Israel?! That’s his example? Israel, he may recall, was perfectly onboard with the American invasion of Iraq as well. And why shouldn’t it be? Any half-conscious human being can see the natural advantage of allowing a foreign country to wage war on another’s behalf — including paying the costs in lives and massive budget deficits. Israel can stand pat and let Americans take the heat again, as we’ve been doing for years.

“Why wait for the next atrocity?” Keller asks. Indeed, why? For neoconservative warmongers like Bill Keller, waiting is for appeasers. The case for intervention in Syria, like that in Iraq, recalls the title of the famous post-financial crisis book, This Time Is Different. Each time, excuses and half-justifications are lazily proffered so as to distinguish one hawkish prophecy from its disastrous predecessors. This time, let’s approach the problem differently, instead of feebly attempting to differentiate this potential foreign policy quagmire from another, very real one from the past.


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“But the war was politics.”

President George W. Bush addresses sailors dur...
President George W. Bush addresses sailors during the “Mission Accomplished” speech, May 1, 2003. (Photo credit: Wikipedia.)

Howard Fineman takes a look back at the beginning of the Iraq War, whose “shock and awe” campaign began ten years ago on Wednesday:

There were some reasons to expect success, or at least not to accept the dire warnings against invading Iraq. Bush’s critics had predicted disaster in Afghanistan, but in the first year or two after Operation Enduring Freedom, it seemed as though the “war lords” of the Bush administration were tough customers who knew what they were doing.

On the other hand, American ignorance of the Arab and Muslim worlds 10 years ago was alarmingly vast. More than ignorance, there was fear, prejudice and propaganda…

As for me, I could say that I was covering politics, not war, and that it wasn’t my job to try to pierce the veil of lies and “precog” justifications of the Bush-Cheney-neocon axis.

But the war was politics. It was a new battle for the president to be seen fighting as he headed toward a reelection run. I should have known more, studied more, asked more questions and been more skeptical.

I hope I am wiser now. I hope we all are.

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ABC’s Jake Tapper takes on The Newsroom

Actually, he took it on over a month ago, but I somehow missed it until just now. In the pages of The New Republic, Tapper took Sorkin to task:

There’s much to criticize in the media—and TV news in particular. But though “The Newsroom” intends to lecture its viewers on the higher virtues of capital-J journalism, Professor Sorkin soon reveals he isn’t much of an expert on the subject.

So far, so good. But what bothers me about Tapper’s critique is that he dislikes The Newsroom for all the wrong reasons. Here’s the crux of the problem with the show for Tapper:

McAvoy sanctimoniously laments the deterioration of public discourse and the news media’s complicity in it. But if that is the problem, his subsequent actions reveal a commitment to a uniformly partisan solution. McAvoy—and, by extension, Sorkin—preach political selflessness, but they practice pure partisanship; they extol the Fourth Estate’s democratic duty, but they believe that responsibility consists mostly of criticizing Republicans.

See, this is the crux of my problem with Tapper. I have a whole laundry list of complaints about The Newsroom — from the excessively preachy tone of all the dialogue to the half-baked and subpar romantic suplots to the improbably lucky connections the newsroom stuff was able to milk for details following the Gulf oil spill, and a million other things besides.

But if there’s one thing Sorkin doesn’t get wrong, it’s also the one thing that rubs Jake Tapper the wrong way. This is unfortunate, because — as someone who, admittedly, is not as familiar with Tapper’s journalism as I should be — I nevertheless have some unexplained fondness for the guy. But it appears something about Sorkin’s critique struck a little too close to home.

But before I get into that, Tapper’s not finished:

And when McAvoy goes after a National Rifle Association campaign to portray Obama as anti-gun, he insists on depicting it as a moral crusade in defense of the public good. But he never feels the need to question whether—in the midst of crises in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the international economy—it’s really so noble after all to devote one’s limited resources to fact-checking relatively unimportant political attacks. As such, it’s hard not to judge the resulting segment as falling short of McAvoy’s newly idealistic raison d’être—though Sorkin clearly seems to think otherwise.

Tapper goes on to say that McAvoy, much like other cable news stars, is blind to his own ideology. There may be a crumb of truth in that. But aside from the anchor’s comically atrocious disdain for the common people (“we are the media elite,” McAvoy declares on-air, without a smidgen of irony), it seems that the NewsNight anchor’s worst crime in Tapper’s eyes is assigning the truth any relevance at all. There are wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he says, and an economy in crisis. Why not discuss that?

But to those of us who would like to see something more from the news than a mere dash-to-the-bottom for the juiciest new storyline (another suicide bombing in Baghdad! stocks fall 2% in an afternoon!), it really does matter whether the NRA lied about Obama’s alleged anti-gun record. And it really does matter that Michele Bachmann falsely claimed the Obamas’ trip to India cost American taxpayers $200 million per day. (It would appear that even Tapper would agree with this last assessment: he filed a short report about the White House’s rebuttal of Bachmann’s claims.)

Tapper treats the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as completely separate entities from the “relatively unimportant political attacks” to which Sorkin’s Will McAvoy devotes so much of his time. But the aggregate effect of lie after lie being spouted by many vocal Republicans at the time, without any fear of being held accountable by the media, helped to fuel the popular discontent that has rendered Obama a much less effective president on both domestic and foreign policy issues. Political capital is a very real thing.

But that’s not actually the biggest mistake Tapper makes. Indeed, he believes some stories are irrelevant, and yet he and his organization, ABC News, continue to cover them indiscriminately. But the one thing they’ve forgotten to do right — and practically the only thing Aaron Sorkin actually got right — was to nail the coffin definitively on the constant stream of baseless attacks emanating daily from right-wing circles. (Tapper’s tepid report on the India misinformation story, especially given the update he tacked on at the end, leaves the impression this was just another political squabble between perpetually lying politicians. It wasn’t: one side was lying. The other side wasn’t. This matters.)

This isn’t about being ideological. It’s about doing the very thing Jake Tapper thinks he’s doing by focusing on the “moderates and liberals wielding [power]:” holding our elected officials accountable. This is not to say that liberals or Democrats or Obama himself shouldn’t be held to account either. But to simply assume that pointing out one side’s deliberate falsehoods is somehow partisan — without even bothering to evaluate whether the other side is actually guilty of the same crimes and to the same extent — is actually taking sides. It’s taking the side of those who choose to distort and disguise and deny the truth, at the expense of those whose attachment to facts is at least somewhat stronger. (These are all politicians, so we can safely assume no one’s that sentimental about honesty.)

Jake Tapper may be a good reporter, but his attack on Sorkin’s “moral crusade” smacks of New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane’s prejudicial term “truth vigilante.” Sorkin is a lot of things: preachy is one of them, for instance. But being evenhanded — as in a real balance based on facts, not the faux balance based on the terror of appearing partisan advocated by Tapper — is not something Sorkin got wrong. It’s something Tapper didn’t get right.