Magazine article The American Prospect

Their War, Too: Are Mere Pundits Responsible When an Administration's Policy Goes Wrong? When Their Sophistic Arguments Helped Sell and Sustain It, Very

Magazine article The American Prospect

Their War, Too: Are Mere Pundits Responsible When an Administration's Policy Goes Wrong? When Their Sophistic Arguments Helped Sell and Sustain It, Very

Article excerpt

IN THE INFORMATION AGE, WARS ARE NOT MADE BY governments alone. This is especially true of wars of choice. When America has been attacked--at Pearl Harbor, or as on September 11--the government needed merely to tell the people that it was our duty to respond, and the people rightly conferred their authority. But a war of choice is a different matter entirely. In that circumstance, the people will ask why. The people will need to be convinced that their sons and daughters and husbands and wives should go halfway around the world to fight a nemesis that they didn't really know was a nemesis.

That's why a war of choice is different. A war like the Iraq War, whose public support before the idea was seriously discussed started out well below 50 percent, needs to be sold--"marketed," as White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card once put it--needs, well, marketers.

And, in the information age, an administration can't, and doesn't, market alone. It takes an army of salespeople--it takes a village, you might say--to accentuate the positive. And when an administration spreads demonstrable lies and falsehoods, or offers "evidence" that can't be wholly refuted but for which there is nevertheless no existing proof, it takes that same army to stand up and say: "Yes! These assertions are true! Those who deny them are unpatriotic, or simpletons, or both!" And finally, when the war goes terribly, terribly wrong, that same army is called to the ramparts one last time, to say, in a fashion that approaches Soviet-style devotion: "Things are in fact going well! The insurgency is dying! Abu Ghraib is not a scandal! Saddam Hussein did have ties to al-Qaeda; you just don't know it yet!" And so on.

For its war in Iraq, the Bush administration relied on and benefited from the cheerleading of a group of pundits and public intellectuals who, at every crucial moment, subordinated the facts on the ground to their own ideological preferences and those of their allies within the administration. They refused to hold the administration's conduct of the war and the occupation to the ideals that they themselves professed, or simply to the standard of common sense. They abdicated their responsibilities as political intellectuals--and, more elementally, as reliable empiricists.

They went far beyond just making the kinds of mistakes that pundits make. I'm a pundit, too; I know the game. We're wrong more often that we'd like to acknowledge. But these pundits weren't merely incorrect about, say, the likely outcome of welfare reform. They were wrong--colossally wrong--about the single most important matter that can be put before the American people. Indeed, they were more than wrong--they ceased being intellectuals and became apologists.

The delusions for which they were apologizing weren't only the administration's; they were their own as well. There was an odd sort of integrity to their dishonesty; they believed (most of them did) all the theories that justified the war. But they didn't present these theories as theories. They presented them--misrepresented them--as facts.

Yet by some curious code of Beltway etiquette, the war hawks are still sought out for their judgments on war and peace, geopolitics, and military and political strategy. They are, in varying degrees, the journalistic equivalents of Donald Rumsfeld--authors of disaster, spared from accountability, still bewilderingly in place. Herewith, five of the top offenders.

WILLIAM KRISTOL: THE STRATEGIST

Since 1998, it's been Weekly Standard Editor Kristol who's argued most persistently that getting rid of Saddam Hussein should be the central goal of U.S. foreign policy. So even before the debris of 9-11 had settled, Kristol--like his longtime neoconservative compatriot Paul Wolfowitz, and, indeed, like the president himself--saw an opportunity to take the coming war to Iraq. "I think Iraq is, actually, the big unspoken elephant in the room today," Kristol said on National Public Radio's All Things Considered the day after the attacks. …

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