War for the Hell of It: The Sad Decline of David Broder

With all the Election Day back-and-forth between both parties over what to do about sky-high unemployment—whether to cut deficits, increase them, or keep them about the same—Washington pundit “dean,” or 81-year-old David Broder of The Washington Post, sought to break through the tired old arguments with a unique and little-discussed solution: war. Specifically, Broder wanted Obama to attack Iran.

Randolph Bourne worried nearly a hundred years ago in a famous anti-imperialist argument that “war is the health of the state.” This was an argument that at the time owed much to both John Atkinson Hobson and V.I. Lenin. Over the years it fell victim to more sophisticated analyses that demonstrated that war spending is actually a pretty ineffective way of stimulating demand relative to, say, direct job creation through internal investments, which has the additional advantage of not killing tens or possibly hundreds of thousands of innocent individuals.

Make no mistake. One can find arguments for and against an attack on Iran (though most of those in favor tend to ignore the technical difficulties of actually achieving one’s military objectives under almost any imaginable scenario). But Broder does not deal with such arguments, much less the complications that arise once one does. Rather, he makes a straightforward argument on purely economic grounds.

Witness the following:

The nation is suffering simultaneously from high and persistent unemployment, lagging investment, massive public and private debt, and a highly inefficient tax system.

The steps that have been ordered so far in Washington have done nothing more than put the brakes on the runaway decline. They have not spurred new growth.

But if Obama cannot spur that growth by 2012, he is unlikely to be reelected. The lingering effects of the recession that accompanied him to the White House will probably doom him.

Can Obama harness the forces that might spur new growth? This is the key question for the next two years.

… In this regard, Obama has no advantage over any other pol. Even in analyzing the tidal force correctly, he cannot control it.

What else might affect the economy? The answer is obvious, but its implications are frightening. War and peace influence the economy.

… Here is where Obama is likely to prevail. With strong Republican support in Congress for challenging Iran’s ambition to become a nuclear power, he can spend much of 2011 and 2012 orchestrating a showdown with the mullahs. This will help him politically because the opposition party will be urging him on. And as tensions rise and we accelerate preparations for war, the economy will improve.

Broder would like to pretend that he is not saying what he is really saying. “I am not suggesting, of course, that the president incite a war to get reelected.” In this regard, he sounds a great deal like Glenn Beck saying Barack Obama hates white people, only to follow it up by saying he is not saying Obama hates white people. In the very next sentence Broder promises: “But the nation will rally around Obama because Iran is the greatest threat to the world in the young century. If he can confront this threat and contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions, he will have made the world safer and may be regarded as one of the most successful presidents in history.”

Leave aside the many questionable economic assumptions that Mr. Broder blithely asserts but remain highly contested in the real world of economic debate. The Wonk Room’s Matt Duss traces the genesis of this particular argument here, from Bush National Security Adviser Elliott Abrams responding to The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg: “The Obama who had struck Iran and destroyed its nuclear program would be a far stronger candidate, and perhaps an unbeatable one.”

Duss notes that Sarah Palin appeared to like the idea as well. He imagines she heard it from the anti-Arab academic and neoconservative activist Daniel Pipes, who five days earlier had argued that “a strike on Iranian facilities would dispatch Obama’s feckless first year down the memory hole and transform the domestic political scene.”

It would not be entirely surprising if Broder came across the idea on the basis of Palin’s suggestion. He has long been a fan of the ex-Alaska governor. In a column called “Sarah Palin displays her pitch-perfect populism,” Broder could barely contain his enthusiasm for this “public figure at the top of her game—a politician who knows who she is and how to sell herself.”

Then again, Broder may have come up with this idea all by himself. My guess is that if he did, however, he couldn’t have given it much thought. After all, not only is the idea of going to war to boost the economy deeply immoral, it’s also been tried and failed.

Remember, the United States is already fighting (for most practical purposes) two wars at once, and no one would argue that it is doing much for anyone’s economy, save those perhaps of the stockholders and employees of Halliburton, Blackwater, and the like.

Economist James Galbraith points out that the effect of the war spending in Iraq was pretty much exhausted by 2004. And yet given the destructive potential of modern weaponry it is hard not to be shocked by the casual attitude that David Broder takes to the commitment of America’s blood and treasure to war.

During the period when President Obama was weighing all the military options available to him regarding Afghanistan, Broder went into an absolute tizzy over the prospect of a president who—in decided contrast to Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam and George W. Bush regarding Iraq—thought it necessary to subject each option to detailed scrutiny before committing the nation and its soldiers to expanded military conflict. Broder, however, grew so impatient with the process he insisted on an “urgent necessity … to make a decision—whether or not it is right.”

Not so long ago, David Broder was perhaps the most admired pundit in the business. In a loving profile in the second issue of the now defunct Brill’s Content, Michael Kramer, its editor-in-chief, waxed romantic about the pundit he called “the class of the field.”

“There are those the rest of us seek out for guidance,” he sang. “They are the calm, sober, voices we reference to test our own theories and check our own tendency to hyperventilate. This is particularly true in political journalism where one person stands out—David Broder.”

Kramer explained later in the piece that Broder’s “influence derives from the entirety of his non-hysterical work, an oeuvre that has conferred on him an authority no journalist has enjoyed since James Reston wrote for The New York Times.” The much-admired Ronald Brownstein added that “Many of us take Broder into account, and particularly in times of crisis, like now, because he never loses his head.”

Well, when a pundit calls for war to improve the economy and the fortunes of the president waging it, someone has clearly lost his head. It’s a shame that The Washington Post continues to empower such cavalier pontificating about literal matters of life and death by pundits who long ago demonstrated themselves unworthy of the subject’s seriousness. Their willingness to print such sentiments is almost as sad a development as the apparent ability of Mr. Broder to believe them.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College. He is also a Nation columnist and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His newest book, Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama, is available for preorder.