Magazine article The American Prospect

The Pro-War Post: The Paper's Opinion Columns Turn Hawkish on Iraq. (Media)

Magazine article The American Prospect

The Pro-War Post: The Paper's Opinion Columns Turn Hawkish on Iraq. (Media)

Article excerpt

WHAT'S THE ROLE OF AN OP-ED PAGE? Echo chamber for a newspaper's editorials? Ping-Pong table for both sides of the story? Or supplier of third, fourth, and nth sides and angles of the polyhedral truth? The reader might guess that this writer prefers a lively page that improves the debate, makes new arguments and surveys intelligent thought from all manner of viewpoints. If you're The Wall Street Journal, the answer is (excepting Al Hunt) "echo chamber." No surprise there. It's rather more odd that if you're The Washington Post, the disconcerting answer, at least during December and January, was also echo chamber. To pump up its chorus of hawkish editorials, the Post called up a flock of yes-birds. For the 12-week period of Dec. 1 through Feb. 21, hawkish op-ed pieces numbered 39, dovish ones 12--a ratio of more than 3-to-1. The doves have been coming from behind--though probably too late to shake the White House.

In December the total number of dovish columns, including columnists, was, to stretch the sum, two: a moral appeal by former U.S. Rep. Bob Edgar (D-Pa.), head of the National Council of Churches, and a skein of questions by William Raspberry--good, legitimate policy questions, eminently worth asking, but still questions. The number of unequivocally hawkish columns: 11.

In January the paper's ratio was four dovish pieces to 17 hawkish ones. You might think this a bit of a pile-on, and you would be right. The editorials during December and January numbered nine, and all were hawkish. This editorial mood continued into February, culminating in a blast at the French and Germans headlined "Standing With Saddam." Apparently it's not only George W. Bush who doesn't "nuance."

Now for the refreshing news: During the first three weeks of February, the Post played ratio catch-up. From Feb. 1-21, it ran six anti-war pieces, 11 pro-war ones and 10 that were ambivalent or noncommittal. Note also this oddity: In its Feb. 5 summary editorial, "The Case for Action," the Post took issue with "those who advocate containment through inspections," charging that they "ignore that strategy's costly failure during the 1990s." But Saddam Hussein was kept in his box after the Gulf War, and he is far weaker today than he was in 1991. The real failure of containment would come only if he used weapons of mass destruction--which is most likely if he's attacked. But if readers of the Post's editorial pages were looking for a thorough debate of the options, they would have found but a single column advocating "containment through inspections." This was a Jan. 28 piece by the Carnegie Endowment's Jessica Mathews, who pioneered the supremely useful notion of "coercive inspections," which the Bush administration considers a "nonstarter" for reasons it doesn't get around to specifying. Then, to its credit, on Feb. 9, the Sunday "Outlook" section ran a second long, well-informed piece by Mathews detailing "truly muscular inspections" as a practical alternative to all-out war.

On Feb. 11, the Post editorial pages also ran former Pentagon official Morton H. Halperin's "A Case for Containment," which argued for a "containment-plus" [See "Deter and Contain," TAP, Nov. 4, 2002.] that would entail "tightened sanctions, beefed-up inspections, support for opposition groups and the creation of a [United Nations] war-crimes tribunal." Halperin proposed force short of all-out war, "stationing UN-authorized troops on Iraq's borders," backing weapons inspectors with force, "destroying from the air any building to which inspectors are denied entrance." Thus did Halperin put the lie to the White House notion that the choice is strictly between "action" and "doing nothing."

Hawks unquestionably have their arguments. Various pro-war cases deserve to be made, as does the point that they sometimes clash. If the administration makes these arguments shoddily, they still deserve to be made cogently somewhere. An op-ed page does not have to be ,mechanically balanced, with so many "nays" to so many "yeas. …

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