Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Who Lost the Plot?

James Dobbins has a pretty good article entitled, Who Lost Iraq? in the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs. In this piece, Dobbins seeks to sift through the rubble in order to separate the salient lessons from the Iraq war fiasco from the overreactions and false positives. At times, Dobbins is right on the money, such as here:

The Bush administration's rhetoric since 9/11 has accentuated the warlike character of the terrorist threat and the martial nature of the required response. Yet most of the tangible successes in the "war on terror" have come as a result of police, intelligence, and diplomatic activity. Not until U.S. leaders rebalance their rhetoric will it be possible to redirect the government's funding priorities toward the nonmilitary instruments on which the suppression of violent extremist movements is most likely to depend.

And here:

It may well have been a mistake to exempt the Middle East from over 60 years of largely successful U.S. efforts to promote democracy, but it is unrealistic to expect this deficiency to be remedied within a few years. Recent efforts to accelerate political reform in the region have already backfired. Elections are polarizing events, particularly in societies already marked by sectarian conflict, as has been demonstrated recently in Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories. Rather than seeking dramatic electoral breakthroughs, let alone imposing reforms, U.S. efforts to advance democracy in the Middle East should focus on building its foundations, including the rule of law, civil society, larger middle classes, and more effective and less corrupt governments.

At other times, however, he gets it quite wrong:

If it is not the military's role to challenge lawful orders, still less is it the role of the press to manufacture controversy where none exists. In a democracy, the primary responsibility for opposing or at least critically examining the case for war falls on the opposition party. If the opposition chooses to duck that responsibility, as the Democrats largely did when the issue was put to them in late 2002, it is hard to fault the press for not stepping in to fill the void. [emphasis added]

No. In a democracy, the primary responsibility for critically examining the claims made by those in power, and the concomitant responsibility to speak truth in response to those claims, falls on the press. Relying on political parties that alternate roles in power to provide a check on power cuts against everything we know about human nature and the ability of power to corrupt even the most noble of spirits (with politicians and party aparatchiks usually starting many degrees away from "most noble" to begin with). Sure, sometimes they will be effective advocates against each other, but other times, there will be an unseemly pact of silence.

Thus, the media's duty is absolutely vital when matters of war and peace are concerned, even when - no especially when - there is two-party agreement to go to war. In fairness, it is perfectly acceptable for the press to, on occasion, enlist or receive assistance from the opposition party when in pursuit of its overriding mandate of locating truth and challenging the government's assertions. But to argue that the press should be beholden to the whims of only two political parties, and that any two-party consensus should effectively cut off debate, is an overly restrictive view of the role our press must play in order to insure the strength of our democracy.

This is especially true in a two party system in which both parties are generally pulled toward the center in order to appeal to the median voter. There is far less political diversity in America than in many, if not most, other liberal democracies. Thus, there is far less formal, party-level political "opposition" to a wide range of policies. Despite this, Dobbins would contend that the press has no obligation to examine the vast expanse of ideas, facts and policies that exists beyond this narrow sliver of political controversy.

At root, the two political parties are, to state a tautology, political parties. That is, each has narrow concerns and self-serving motivations that at times conflict with the best interest of the nation. The Iraq war vote was a prime example: carefully timed by the GOP to coincide with key dates on the electoral calendar, many Democrats recognized the political cudgel being forged by the Republican blacksmiths and decided to erect a shield by voting for war instead of standing by conviction.

In this, Dobbins is correct that the opposition party had a responsibility, and that many Democrats abdicated that responsibility in a shameful manner. But that does not exonerate the media for its similarly ignominious complicity at a time when it should have been even more critical, extra skeptical and relentlessly probing. It should also be acknowledged, however, that in some ways the electoral fears that motivated many Democrats to go along with the war vote have been reinforced by the media's pattern of coverage of national security issues in general - and the highly prejudicial framing of "strong vs. weak," "hawk vs. dove" and "serious vs. unserious" in particular. In each such pairing, the less desirable adjective is ascribed to any politician that approaches war with circumspection, and the more recklessly bellicose one is, the "stronger" and more "hawkish."

The press should - at least in theory - be freer to seek out the truth since it is aloof from the electoral optics of a certain legislative vote and its potential to be used as campaign fodder. Despite this, in many ways the press is operating under its own set of conflicts that has led to a breakdown of its efficacy and ability. For example, the mainstream media is all-too-frequently beholden to cozy relationships with Washington insiders, major editorial decisions are influenced by profit seeking models and the ulterior interests of a dwindling field of like-minded corporate parents, and there is a desire amongst journalists to cultivate and maintain high level access to sources in the government - which results in a supine recitation of the self-serving version of the truth that is told by power. Here is a fitting anecdote from NBC journalist John Hockenberry:

...[W]e had a lot of meetings at NBC about, you know, if you're doing a story and the person you're doing the story about offers to buy you a drink, you've gotta say no. If you're doing a story and they send you, after they see the story, some napkin rings -- silver napkin rings that are monogrammed "Thank you, Jon, for the story," you've got not only to return those, you've got to report those to the standards people at NBC because there's a whole ethics and conflict-of-interest thing.

So at one of these ethics meetings -- I called them the return-the-napkin-ring kinds of meetings -- I raised my hand and said "You know, isn't it a problem that the contract that [NBC's corporate parent] GE has with the Coalition Provisional Authority [...] to rebuild the power generation system in Iraq [is] about the size of the entire budget of NBC? Is that kind of like the napkin rings thing?" And the standards people said "Huh. That's interesting. No one's brought that up before." Now I'm not saying that I'm smart or that I'm advanced or that I'm ahead of my colleagues or maybe I had a lot of free time to think about this or maybe I'm some pinko-proto-lefty like Richard Nixon. I don't know! But the fact that it drew a complete blank among the NBC standards people was interesting to me.

Further, I'm not exactly sure what Dobbins means when he says that it is not the "role of the press to manufacture a controversy." Such creativity was not required in locating dissenting opinions, let alone a need to manufacture them out of whole cloth. There were many well-informed, well-respected experts who were opposed to the Iraq war and willing and able to give their opinions. Unfortunately, the media frequently ignored them. Many others in the media and professional think tank universe, though, were intimidated and likely felt pressured into silence. But the press itself played some part in creating and fostering the national mood that rejected dissent with a jingoistic fervor. From the Bill Moyers special that Dobbins cites in this article:

Bob Simon, who had strong doubts about evidence for war, was asked by Moyers if he pushed any of the top brass at CBS to "dig deeper," and he replies, "No, in all honesty, with a thousand mea culpas….nope, I don't think we followed up on this." Instead he covered the marketing of the war in a "softer" way, explaining to Moyers: "I think we all felt from the beginning that to deal with a subject as explosive as this, we should keep it, in a way, almost light – if that doesn't seem ridiculous.""
In fact, that does seem ridiculous. What it is not, however, is blameless.

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?