In an unforgettable review-essay in the June 2004 Washington Monthly, Nicholas Confessore detailed New York Times columnist David Brooks' maddening habit of oscillating between hard-nosed journalism and conservative-movement hackery. In the first kind of column, Confessore showed, Brooks will do some serious reporting or at least chin-stroking, sounding for all the world like a disinterested public savant; but in another, he'll gyrate and propagandize shamelessly for movement conservatives, the Bush administration, or both.
Familiar though that see-saw is by now, I had to rub my eyes on Thursday, March 16 while reading Brooks' announcement that Michael Gordon's and Lt. Gen. Bernard E. Trainor's new book 'Cobra II' reminds him that pundits and other tribunes of the public interest proved more honest and insightful than the Bush administration at the start of the Iraq war.
What's stunning isn't that outsiders saw more clearly than butt-covering insiders, but that this column by Brooks the outsider is a complete reversal of one on the same subject by Brooks the insider written two years ago. That old, familiar seesaw would be amusing if it weren't literally so lethal this time.
Herewith, the two Brookses: First, from this month, the independent outsider scourge of the Iraq warmakers' stupidity; and, second, back in 2004, the insider apologist for the same stupid warmakers.
David Brooks, The Outsider, March 16, 2006:
Everybody denigrates pundits and armchair generals, but [when the war had just begun, the week of March 24, 2003] the smartest of them recognized that something unexpected was happening: The US was not in the midst of a conventional war but was in the first days of a guerrilla war. Michael Kelly predicted that the war would be long and tough& David Ignatius in The Washington Post wrote that it was time to shelve the rosy scenarios' for war and face the fact that the US was confronting a difficult battle against resistance fighters.. Gary Anderson, a retired Marine colonel, suggested the chief threat would be& a drawn-out guerrilla war against the occupation'.
In TV studios and on op-ed pages, the debate shifted that week as retired officers and columnists called for more troops and officers on the front lines saw the same thing the smart pundits saw. Donald Rumsfeld and Tommy Franks saw nothing wrong, Brooks huffs; they stifled the free exchange of ideas, dismissed concerns about the insurgents and threatened to fire one general, William Wallace, who dared to state the obvious in public.
[I]f Rumsfield had made adjustments to the new circumstances then, much of the subsequent horror could have been averted, Brooks decides. But debate inside any administration is less sophisticated and realistic than the debate among experts outside. The people inside are more likely to self-censor because [d]ebate inside is much more likely to be warped by the egotism, insecurity, power lust, and distracting busyness of people at the top. Rumsfeld and Franks were contemptuous of the armchair generals and the TV kibitzers. But at the crucial moment in their lives, they got things wrong, and the pundits often got things right.
Brooks the outside, independent thinker got to pat himself and other pundits on the back, right? He recognized the insurgency's breadth and intrepidity and, with Kelly and Ignatius and others, foresaw a long guerrilla war, didn't he? He protested the administration's refusal to increase troops and damned its myopic and self-deluding leadership, right? Well, not exactly. Here's what Brooks wrote about all that a full year after the pundits and experts he now quotes had sounded the warnings he says were clear-eyed and prophetic:
David Brooks, April 20, 2004:
Come on people, let's get a grip.
This week, Chicken Littles like Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd were ranting that Iraq is another Vietnam. Pundits and sages were spinning a whole series of mutually exclusive disaster scenarios: Civil war! A nationwide rebellion!
Maybe we should calm down a bit. I've spent the last few days talking with people who've spent much of their careers studying and working in this region. We're at a perilous moment in Iraqi history, but the situation is not collapsing.
The Shiite violence is being fomented by Moktada al-Sadr, a lowlife hoodlum from an august family. . .Sadr and his fellow putschists have been spectacularly unsuccessful in winning popular support. The vast majority of Iraqis see Sadr as a young, hotheaded murderer who terrorizes people wherever he goes.
Most important, leadership in the U.S. is for once cool and resolved. We're going to raise troop levels if necessary. We're going to wait for the holy period to end and crush Sadr.... As Charles Hill, the legendary foreign service officer who now teaches at Yale, observed, I've been pleasantly surprised by the boldness and resolve.'
A quick study of the pronouncements of Hill, who left the State Department with his boss George Shultz after the Iran-Contra special prosecutor caught them dissimulating about what they'd known of that scandal and when, shows that Hill has dictated quite a few of Brooks' columns since 1993. And most are filled with the folly of would-be insiders who, "warped by the egotism, insecurity, power lust," get things even more wrong than the warmakers themselves. At least the latter had the excuse of being overwhelmed by monumentally "distracting busyness."
Brooks might claim that by the time he wrote his 2004 let's get a grip column, conditions looked more promising than in 2003, when Kelly and Ignatius foresaw the debacle that is now upon us. Brooks wouldn't have had to assail Chicken Littles and disaster scenarios if conditions had really improved and he hadn't been playing the insider.
As far as I can see from here way outside, even Houdini can't help him now. Brooks and Hill have almost as much to answer for as do Rumsfeld and Franks. Maybe that's why Brooks' column from March 16 spares no effort to show us how much worse Rumsfeld and Franks really were.
Jim Sleeper is a lecturer in political science at Yale.