An “Honest” Failure

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Now that Ned Lamont has finally finished trouncing Joe Lieberman in the Connecticut Democratic primary for Senator, one might hope for a brief respite from the tsunami of hype the race has generated. Don’t bet on it. The issue that the race has largely turned on (at least in the mainstream media’s eyes) is Iraq, or more specifically, Lieberman’s inability to see the dire, violent reality of the situation there. But Lieberman isn’t alone in choosing "faith" over reality. The balance of the punditocracy offers up the same self-contradicting analysis.

You can find the same arguments across the (microscopic) pundit spectrum. From Washington Post editors to David Broder to David Brooks to Chris Matthews to Cokie Roberts to Joe Klein to William Kristol to Marty Peretz to Jacob Weisberg to Michael Barone to Mike Allen, the punditocracy was unanimous: a defeat for Joe Lieberman would be a defeat for "strength"; a victory for Ned Lamont would be one for a Democratic "cut and run." As Iraq appeared every more hopeless by the minute, it was as if the pundits had had Karl Rove’s talking points directly injected into their respective blood streams.

Perhaps the purest form of this attack appeared last Sunday on The Washington Post’s op-ed page when neoconservative Robert Kagan called Lieberman the Democrats’ "last honest man." In what would be considered irony anywhere but Washington DC, however, the entire piece was built on an intellectual sleight of hand. Kagan treated the former vice-president as among those Democrats who have "twisted themselves into pretzels to explain away their support for the war." Kagan wrote: "Al Gore, the one-time Clinton administration hawk, airbrushed that history from his record. He turned on all those with whom he once agreed about Iraq and about many other foreign policy questions. And for this astonishing reversal he has been applauded by his fellow Democrats and may even get the party’s nomination."

But nothing could be further from the truth. [*] Take a look at Gore’s September 23, 2002, speech to the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco. His extremely clearly-stated and forceful argument-prophetic as it turns out-that the rumblings for war in Iraq were distracting from the American military’s ability to wage war against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Instead of turning on those with whom he had previously agreed on Iraq, he said that he still would stand behind military action against Saddam: "I believe that we are perfectly capable of staying the course in our war against Osama bin Laden and his terrorist network, while simultaneously taking those steps necessary to build an international coalition to join us in taking on Saddam Hussein in a timely fashion." For this speech Gore was mocked as literally "crazy" by the likes of Charles Krauthammer and Joe Klein. The latter said "he looked like a madman" while Krauthammer, who parroted the same lies, joked that the ex-VP had "gone off his lithium."

Kagan, in lamenting the beating Lieberman has taken "because he didn’t recant" his support for the invasion of Iraq, ignores that not only has Lieberman not withdrawn his support, but that he has written angry op-eds for The Wall Street Journal celebrating the cell phone usage of Iraqis as proof that they are better off under American occupation, and has repeatedly spun a line that is consistent with that of the Bush White House but largely divorced from what the rest of the world recognizes as reality. In November 2005, Time magazine Baghdad bureau chief Michael Ware told a radio interviewer that after having had lunch with Lieberman, "Either Senator Lieberman is so divorced from reality that he’s completely lost the plot or he knows he’s spinning a line. Because one of my colleagues turned to me in the middle of this lunch and said he’s not talking about any country I’ve ever been to and yet he was talking about Iraq, the very country where we were sitting."

Kagan is right to say that many Democrats have admitted that they were wrong to vote to give the President the power to wage war. And why shouldn’t they? Remember, Senate Republicans continue to keep classified the (probably whitewashed) investigation into the purposeful manipulation of pre-war evidence. Kagan purposely ignores this phenomenon with his "pretzel" logic= But of course it does not require intellectual twists and turns to turn against a war one once supported; a lying president and a Congressional majority helping to cover it up are more than enough. This is yet another definition for "honest" in Kagan’s Lieberman apologia, and for "strength" in The Washington Post endorsement of Lieberman over Lamont- as in so much of contemporary punditocracy discourse would be "unwilling to admit a mistake no matter how many deaths are required to maintain the pretense of progress."

What’s even stranger about the pundit position is just how far it has flown from the fulcrum of mainstream opinion. On Wednesday, a CNN poll found that sixty percent of Americans currently oppose the war in Iraq, "the highest number since polling on the subject began with the commencement of the war in March 2003." CNN also reports that the 36 percent of respondents who said that they were in favor of the war represent exactly half of the 72 percent who said they were in favor of the war when it began. These numbers were consistent with a recent New York Times/CBS poll that found the following: 62 percent disapprove of President Bush’s handling of the war, while only 32 percent approve.

  • 63 percent think the war with Iraq was not "worth the loss of American life and other costs" while only 30 percent think it was.
  • 57 percent think things are going very or somewhat badly for U.S. "efforts to bring stability and order to Iraq" while only 41 percent think things are going "very or somewhat well."
  • 53 percent think "Iraq will probably never become a stable democracy" while only 4 percent think it will occur in the "next year or two."
  • 56 percent think the U.S. should "set a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq," compared to 40 percent who oppose such a timetable.
  • 72 percent think the Iraq war has made the U.S. image in the world worse, 69 percent think it has hampered U.S. diplomatic efforts, and 41 percent think continued U.S. presence in Iraq makes the region less stable; only 25 percent think it makes the region more stable.

If most Americans are sufficiently mature to admit they were mistaken in supporting this president and his war, why aren’t members of the elite punditocracy?
It is a question that will continue to haunt us, I fear, as more and more Americans are asked to die for a mistake, with no solution in sight. After all, it’s impossible to solve a problem that you can’t admit you have.

* After I wrote a short item about this column on my website, “Altercation,” Kagan wrote in to say that he agreed that he had been unfair to Gore on the question of the war itself, and had only wished to point out his previous hawkishness on Iraq. It was an honorable thing to say but it begs the question as to why no editors at the Post found his argument objectionable or even questionable since the Post itself had published the text of Gore’s Commonwealth Club speech, as well as Krauthammer’s mockery of it.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow of the Center for American Progress and the author of six books. His most recent, When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and its Consequences, was just published in paperback by Penguin, which is the subject of a historians’ online symposium.

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Eric Alterman

Senior Fellow

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