The Return of the “Stab In the Back”

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Take a look at the morning paper nowadays and it’s clear that America has a lot of enemies. Two or three different brands of insurgency are operating in Iraq. North Korea has nuclear weapons and Pakistan is selling them. Our former best friend in Baghdad turns out to be an American spy. Al Qaeda, of course, is still out there. All this notwithstanding, some commentators on the right seem to have decided that the real enemies aren’t the ones they read about it the papers, but the people who write them.

Thus, Michael Barone opined in his May 24 column "that today’s press works to put the worst possible face on the war" in Iraq. The president’s main task, then, is not to improve his war-fighting policies, but to "show, once again, that the media have got it wrong." Three days earlier, columnist Morton Kondracke warned that "the media and politicians" are "in danger of talking the United States into defeat in Iraq."

The argument here – that everything is fine except the media coverage – is absurd on its face. The reporters in question are, unlike their pundit-detractors, on the ground in Iraq witnessing the situation for themselves. It is undeniable, moreover, that a growing chorus of former war supporters – liberals and conservatives alike – people like George Will, Tucker Carlson, Thomas Friedman, Fareed Zakaria, and Bill Kristol have grown increasingly dubious that the president’s policies will bring us to success. Is this band of ex-hawks really trying to bring America down, or are they sincerely worried that the president is the one bringing us low? The doubters, moreover, are hardly to be found in the press alone. Three of the past four top generals in the U.S. Central Command have denounced the president’s handling of the situation and the fourth is on the board of a company that depends on good will from the Pentagon to stay in business. These general are not die-hard liberals, or surly reporters, they’re men who’ve spent years commanding all U.S. military forces in the region. Perhaps the argument can be made that the likes of Barone and Kondracke are more familiar with the difficulties of war-fighting in the Middle East than are these men, but it’s a case I’ve yet to see.

Nevertheless, the political purpose of the theory isn’t hard to grasp. The groundwork is being laid for a new version of the "stab in the back" myth that helped destroy Weimar Germany. No matter how far south things go in Iraq, the blame will be laid not at the feet of the president who initiated and conducted the war, but rather on those who had the temerity to note that it wasn’t working. Rather than the critics having been proven right, or so the story goes, the critics are to blame for the failure of the very policy they were criticizing. It’s an ugly tactic, and as you go down the journalistic food chain, it grows uglier still.

Former Gingrich aide, Tony Blankley, writing in the well-known bastion of journalistic propriety that is The Washington Times, likewise took the press to task, calling it "heatbreaking, though no longer perplexing, that the president’s political and media opposition want the president’s defeat more than America’s victory." Standard stuff, so far, but he went on to lament that nothing could be done about it . . . yet. "Sedition laws almost surely would be found unconstitutional, currently — although things may change after the next terrorist attack in America." Some might find it heartbreaking, though no longer perplexing, that the president’s political and media allies are more committed to his re-election than to the basic principles of American democracy.

On May 18, Glenn Reynolds, a law professor at the University of Tennessee and the proprietor of InstaPundit, the most popular of the hawkish weblogs, pushed this line of thought further down the road. "Freedom of the press, as it exists today," he observed, "is unlikely to survive if a majority – or even a large and angry minority – of Americans come to believe that the press is untrustworthy and unpatriotic=" While Blankley worried that the courts might block his dreams of censorship, Reynolds doesn’t even need a majority. How will this work? Mob violence, perhaps? Indeed, if his campaign to incite the defacement of New York Times distribution boxes goes well, that might be the next logical step.

The image of an "unpatriotic" press hell-bent on wrecking Bush’s war couldn’t be further from the truth. Indeed, we got into this mess in no small part because of the media’s reluctance to apply a proper degree of scrutiny to the administration’s claims about weapons of mass destruction and the likely postwar situation. With the original rationale for war long since having bitten the dust, we’ve now shifted to a campaign designed to bring American freedoms to Iraq. It’s a campaign that will likely fail, not because it’s being undermined by a hostile media, but because the president has steadfastly refused to commit the resources necessary to achieve his grandiose vision. As if the consequences of the fateful mismanagement of the war weren’t bad enough, we now face that prospect of losing the very liberties we set out to spread.

Matthew Yglesias is a staff writer at The American Prospect. Visit his Web site at




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