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." But neither should it be turned over to the memo prose of out-of-office officials, making it read like a sheaf of communiqués. Nor ought there to be a special dispensation for heaven-bent opponents of war who offer no solace to the brutalized Iraqis, refuse to explore the awfulness of Hussein's tyranny or disdain the language of human rights because it has been pre-contaminated by Bush.
But the Post could publish anyone in the world it likes. While the editorials are trashing the sluggish herd of appeasing swine ("Standing With Saddam," Feb. 11), the newspaper could find more than a single "Old European" -- Justin Vaisse of the Brookings Institution -- who is not that. It could have its pick of Europeans who propose a reinforcement of Hussein's containment box and who otherwise defy Washington's blithe stereotype of the Franco-German axis of baguette-and-wurst. These Europeans might remind Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his cheerleaders, who box up Germany with Libya and Cuba as members of the "axis of don't-go-there," that this selfsame Germany is currently contributing 2 billion euros a year into postwar Afghan reconstruction. This among other complicating points was made in good English on the openDemocracy Web site by Michael Naumann, formerly minister of culture in German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's cabinet and now publisher and editor of Die Zeit. True, last November, as Michael Massing reported in The Nation, Post editorial-page editor Fred Hiatt approached Schröder and German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, but they declined. Yet the only German to appear on the editorial pages during the 12-week period I surveyed was Christian Democratic leader Angela Merkel, who supports Bush.
And why stop at "Old Europeans"? There are "New American" dissenters, including think-tankers galore who are not soft on Hussein and who make realistic arguments against war. There are Eastern Europeans, Latin Americans, Africans and Asians who surely have a stake in the world economy and the fate of Islamic fundamentalism. There are academic realists such as John Mearsheimer, Stephen Walt, Richard Betts, Robert Jervis and Kenneth Waltz who take containment seriously. We know these people exist because they have published cautionary arguments in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and Foreign Affairs. There are hesitant generals, one of whom, Wesley Clark, was given a voice in a David Ignatius Post column on Jan. 31. [See "Meet Mr. Credibility," TAP, March 2003.] There are anti-warriors, some of them Iraqis in exile, who are not naive about Hussein's wickedness or power. (One, Faleh A. Jabar of Birkbeck College at the University of London, had a sensible contribution in the January issue of The Progressive.)
There are, in short, a host of hat colors, not just white and black. If the Post were interested in elevating the level of debate, it could do a good deal more.
Some of the Post's columnists do know an argument when they see one. The hawkish Jim Hoagland is well-informed, and the water he carries for the White House is sometimes acidic. On Jan. 26, for example, he wrote that "Iraqis who met with Bush on Jan. 10 were surprised at how little he seemed to know about the embryonic plans for a democratic, federal Iraq or about the organized opposition to Saddam Hussein."
But some of the Post's hawks only swing for the fences. On Feb.12, for example, Michael Kelly devoted his column to smearing Germany's Fischer. Kelly, a verbal cartoonist, has no qualms about getting in his reader's face. "Mr. Fischer, who are you?" he writes. "For the formative years of your political life, you were no man in a blue government suit. You were a man in a black motorcycle helmet." Smack! Thwack! To make this case, Kelly rests exclusively on Paul Berman's splendid New Republic report from 2001 -- or rather, on half of it. That's because Berman's piece intelligently and comprehensively tracked Fischer from the latter's revolutionist stance of the 1960s to his interventionist one of the '90s, a time when the foreign minister fervently supported intervention against then-Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic in Bosnia and Kosovo. (After Berman's piece came out, Fischer went on to incur the wrath of many Greens by supporting the U.S. attack on the Taliban.) The whole point of Berman's profile was that Fischer grew up. He overcame his knee-jerk anti-Zionism and his automatic "yes" to everyone who said "no" to Washington or Zion. It's the fact that Fischer no longer casts an automatic "no" that gives force to his position on an Iraq war. When Fischer shakes his finger at Rumsfeld and says, "I am not convinced," he means what he says: that he is open to arguments but the one that Rumsfeld puts forward is not convincing.
But this is too subtle for Kelly, who relishes the sound of his own snickers. Who can forget his trashing last September of Al Gore's anti-war, anti-Bush doctrine appeal? For example: "Gore's speech was one no decent politician could have delivered. It was dishonest, cheap, low. ... It was breathtakingly hypocritical, a naked political assault delivered in tones of moral condescension from a man pretending to be superior to mere politics. It was wretched. It was vile. It was contemptible. But I understate." Kelly makes light of his allergy to understatement. But this does not make his high-percussion performance more honorable. Kelly's readers would have no idea that, as former Ambassador Peter Galbraith wrote in a letter to the Post on Sept. 27, 2002, Gore in 1988 "was one of the original sponsors of the Prevention of Genocide Act, which would have imposed comprehensive sanctions on Iraq for gassing its Kurdish population. The bill passed the Senate but died in the House in the face of Reagan administration opposition."
Part of the problem at the Post is the mildness and self-vexation of liberals. Regular columnists Hoagland, Kelly, George F. Will and Charles Krauthammer abhor doubt; counterparts Raspberry, Richard Cohen, E. J. Dionne Jr. and Mary McGrory are in the doubt business. Now, there's value in unpredictability. Doubt, including self-doubt, is refreshing in pundits. But the doubt ratio is terribly skewed -- in American politics overall, not just at the Post. When you are the only serious daily newspaper in the nation's capital, even if you have been yanked rightward by the government's center of gravity, you should stoke up the strongest possible counterarguments. When your editorials read like direct transcriptions from the West Wing, it's all the more imperative to instigate robust debate. Editorial pages should shy away from the Vince Lombardi theory that winning is the only thing that counts.
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