Our Man in Baghdad

Last week we learned that John Negroponte would become America's new ambassador to Iraq and will be running U.S. policy in the quasi-sovereign state that will exist from July 1 until elections can be held and a permanent constitution ratified. He speaks no Arabic and he has no experience in the Middle East or the Islamic world. He does have experience, however, dating back to his service as ambassador to Honduras from 1981 to1985, when he was responsible for implementing Ronald Reagan's illegal intervention in the Nicaraguan civil war. This experience also extends to turning a blind eye to serious human-rights abuses by the U.S.-funded Honduran military and lying to Congress about it. As a democracy-promotion strategy, the choice of Negroponte is a bit, shall we say, odd.

The press, meanwhile, doesn't seem to have time for the story. Particularly egregious has been The New York Times, which didn't see fit to cover the Negroponte nomination at all in its print edition. Judging by the quality of reporting contained in the paper's Web article by David Stout, brick-and-mortar readers may be better off. The story reads like a White House press release, noting only that Negroponte's career "includes service in Central America during the cold war proxy struggles there in the 1980s."

The irony is that the Times is not exactly lacking in knowledge of the situation. Bush's decision to nominate Negroponte for the post of United Nations ambassador in 2001 was deeply controversial in the wake of facts regarding Negroponte's conduct in Honduras -- facts that came to light largely thanks to some excellent mid-'90s reporting by The (Baltimore) Sun. Times articles on the subject in the summer of 2001 covered the controversy competently, as Negroponte's nomination continued to be held-up by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Democrats, several of whom had personally tangled with the Reagan Central America policy back in the '80s. The paper even penned an August 18, 2001, masthead editorial correctly stating that confirmation should be withheld until such time as Negroponte offered a proper accounting of his conduct.

He never did, putting forth instead the bizarre claim, "To this day, I do not believe death squads were operating in Honduras" -- an assertion contradicted by the CIA's own inquiry and, frankly, common sense. His nomination was saved, to put it bluntly, by Osama bin Laden. After the September 11 attacks, the United States needed a U.N. ambassador, and with the Bush administration dogmatically committed to choosing a scandal-tainted liar, Negroponte's Democratic opponents backed down.

So why did the Times take a fall? This marginally better Washington Post story (a story that ran in the actual newspaper, no less) on the Iraq nomination tells the tale in its one-paragraph dismissal of the controversy:

He was a contentious appointment to the United Nations because of his 1981-85 tour in Honduras at the time the United States was funneling weapons, money and political support to the Honduran-based rebels seeking to overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. But Republican and Democratic congressional staffers believe confirmation hearings will not focus on Negroponte's controversial past, but on the controversial future of U.S. policy after June 30.

The reporters, it seems, were ready to unload on Negroponte, but they couldn't find any Democrats to do their talking for them. According to the bizarre ontology of Washington journalism, if neither party wants to talk about something, it must not exist. For the Post to point out accurate, relevant details about the subject of its profile, that would be "bias."

This is a silly way to operate, but it's how the game is played. Which brings us to the question: Where are the Democrats? Back during the primaries, Howard Dean tried to make the case that he alone among the candidate was willing to stand up to George W. Bush. John Kerry said it wasn't so. "I have spent 35 years fighting for the values you and I believe in," he told a New Hampshire primary audience. He even had a good example, demonstrating his fitness to tackle the big foreign-policy fights, which recurred often on the trail. "I stood with so many of you and led the fight to stop Ronald Reagan's illegal, secret, unconstitutional war in Central America," he said. The implication was that he was ready to stand up and fight against Bush's horrible mismanagement the Iraq War. When questions were raised about his thin legislative record, Kerry pointed to his important work on several investigative committees, including, again, one looking into Central America policy.

Well, Ronald Reagan's illegal war in Central America is moving to Baghdad in a few weeks, and John Kerry's playing rope-a-dope. Kerry's Senate colleagues have adopted a policy of largely deferring to the party's presumptive nominee on questions of agenda setting, so nothing will be done unless he acts.

This unfortunate abdication is part of a broader dereliction of duty on the part of Congress as a whole, and the Democrats in particular. Through repeated public statements, several congressional Republicans -- notably Senators John McCain, Chuck Hagel, and Richard Lugar -- have made their displeasure with the president's current policies in Iraq known. One can assume that more have private misgivings. Indeed, Hill Republicans recently organized caucus briefings with Condoleezza Rice from which Democrats were excluded, in part to permit skeptics to raise questions without embarrassing the administration in front of the opposition.

Under the circumstances, it appears that a bipartisan coalition to force the White House to shift directions is a real possibility. An effort to forge such a coalition might fail, of course, but Democrats haven't so much as tried. The political calculation is easy enough to see: With no good options remaining, no one is eager to jump aboard the ship of U.S. foreign policy. Give Bush a free hand and he'll bear sole responsibility for anything that goes wrong.

Still, while the logic is understandable, that doesn't make it forgivable. Politically motivated Democratic acquiescence to Bush's Iraq policy is a big part of what landed us in our current jam. The time is long past for it to stop. John Kerry says he's ready to lead. Why not start now?

Matthew Yglesias is a Prospect writing fellow. His column on politics and the media appears every Tuesday.

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