Scholarly bait and switch on Iraq

Published 2:27 pm Thursday, August 30, 2007

In theory, the integrity of American democracy is protected by the vigilant watchdogs of our national news media, seeking constantly to illuminate the truth without fear or favor. In practice, many citizens understand, our celebrity Washington press corps too often performs in ways having more to do with personal (and institutional) ambition and unspoken agendas than informing the public. Alas, the temptations of TV punditry — wealth, fame and social status — have eroded journalism’s professional standards to the point where they scarcely exist.

Call their hand, moreover, and you’re apt to encounter some of the biggest crybabies in the world. I learned that the hard way during the “Whitewater” debacle of the 1990s. Reporters, editors and pundits who thought nothing of insinuating that the president and first lady had committed felonies grew indignant when anybody had the temerity to point out they didn’t have their facts straight.

Committed to a group narrative that studiously avoided dispositive facts, they fed out of Kenneth Starr’s soft little hands like Shetland ponies, up until he skipped town and left it to a replacement to admit that Whitewater was bunk. By then, however, Bill Clinton’s spectacular indiscipline changed the subject to sex, so few really noticed.

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Most alert citizens were troubled by the role of Washington-establishment journalists — again motivated by careerism, groupthink and insider gossip — in driving the United States to attack Iraq. Back in 2003, reporters “embedded” with U.S. troops treated the invasion like the world’s biggest Boy Scout Jamboree. Many have since sobered up. Shocked by the nonexistence of Saddam Hussein’s fabled arsenal of nuclear weapons, even the mighty New York Times published an elaborate mea culpa apologizing for getting so crucial a story utterly wrong. Judith Miller, the reporter most responsible, no longer works there.

Anybody who thinks there are serious changes in the way Washington establishment journalists do business, however, is dreaming. Consider the current propaganda barrage trumpeting the success of the White House’s “surge” in Iraq. A fascinating dispute that’s broken out between two Brookings Institution “scholars” and some skeptical, increasingly influential, Internet bloggers, tells the tale.

Hardly anybody with a television can have missed the good news: President Bush’s “surge” is working! Success may be at hand. So said Michael E. O’Hanlon and Kenneth M. Pollack, who described themselves as “two analysts who have harshly criticized the Bush administration’s miserable handling of Iraq,” in a New York Times op-ed column, and in subsequent visits to almost every radio and TV studio in Washington. After interviewing American soldiers and Iraqi officials, they pronounced themselves “surprised by the gains we saw and the potential to produce not necessarily ‘victory’ but a sustainable stability that both we and the Iraqis could live with.”

They urged that politics be put aside and the surge continue at least through 2008.

That got Salon’s Glenn Greenwald going. Where and when, he wondered, had these two jokers ever harshly criticized Iraq policy? Pollack has been a prominent Iraq war hawk from the start. It’s fair to say he’s staked his career on it. His now-discredited 2002 book “The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq” convinced many wavering Democrats, converting “more doves into hawks than Richard Perle, Laurie Mylroie and George W. Bush combined,” as Slate’s Chris Suellentrop wrote.

Greenwald also produced a documented list of bellicose quotes proving that O’Hanlon, too, was “from the beginning, a boisterous supporter of the invasion of Iraq.” In an interview with Greenwald he foolishly agreed to, O’Hanlon was forced to concede that “(a)s you rightly reported — I was not a critic of this war. In the final analysis, I was a supporter.” Indeed, both men have been vociferous — if little-known outside the Beltway — advocates of “The Surge” since before it began.

In short, the entire premise of their article was false, as New York Times editors who published it had to know. Furthermore, as Greenwald, a trial lawyer turned author and blogger, had no difficulty getting O’Hanlon to admit, their tour of Iraq was conducted entirely under Pentagon auspices. They never spent a night outside the “Green Zone.” Everywhere they went, and everybody they interviewed, was selected and approved by their military sponsors — something they also neglected to mention to interviewers on CBS, CNN or NPR.

“It is difficult to avoid reaching any conclusion,” Greenwald wrote, “other than that (Pollack and O’Hanlon) willfully served as propaganda tools in order to bolster the perception of success for a war and a ‘Surge’ strategy which they prominently supported and on which their professional reputations rest.”

A clearer case of journalistic malpractice would be hard to find. Almost needless to say, the Brookings boys and their Beltway supporters have now begun disparaging the credentials and motives of Greenwald and other bloggers who have dared challenge their scholarly prerequisites.

How dare this peasant rabble interfere?