On August 27, Richard Holbrooke, in an article on the Washington Post‘s Op-Ed page, endorsed President Bush’s policy of regime change in Iraq but asserted that his case would be strengthened if he took it to the United Nations. “The road to Baghdad runs through the United Nations Security Council,” the former ambassador to the UN wrote. Two days later Alexander Haig, appearing on the same page, announced his unqualified support for the President’s policy. “Ultimately,” he wrote, a US foreign policy “that allows a country such as Iraq to acquire weapons of mass destruction while violating solemn agreements is a guarantee of a world on the edge of greater terrors to come.” Three days after that, it was Bob Dole’s turn. Calling Iraq a “runaway freight train loaded with explosives barreling toward us,” Dole wrote that “we can act to derail it or wait for the crash and deal with the resulting damage.”
Over the next two-plus weeks, the Post would run articles by former Secretaries of State George Shultz, James Baker and–need I add?–Henry Kissinger, whose article “Consult and Control” took up the top third of the page and marked his second appearance on the page in a month. In early September Holbrooke showed up again to expand on his earlier point about the importance of going to the UN. And in early October, Sandy Berger contributed an article that–building on a piece he had written for the Post in August–made much the same point as Holbrooke’s.
Readers who found this diet of pronouncements from former US officials too bland and unnourishing could, of course, have sampled the Post‘s regular columnists. They include Jim Hoagland, who since the summer has written about Iraq nearly every week, and always in full-throated support of military intervention there. On September 15, for instance, he congratulated President Bush for his “rigorously honest speech” to the UN, which, he said, “more than lived up to his responsibilities to ‘make the case’ for urgent and forceful action to end Iraq’s open defiance of international law.” There’s also George Will, who weekly toasts the Republicans for their fortitude and taunts the Democrats for their vacillation. “All military disasters” can be summed up in two words–“too late,” Will wrote in mid-September, summing up his own position on Iraq. Also contributing regularly are Charles Krauthammer, Robert Novak and Michael Kelly, all staunch supporters of the Administration’s position.
What about the editorial page? Since mid-August the Post has been running editorials on Iraq about once a week, and they have unwaveringly supported military action there. “President Bush yesterday put the case of Iraq before the United Nations and challenged the institution to act,” a typical editorial stated on September 13. “It was the right way to go…. The president compellingly spelled out one set of indisputable facts.” The only time the Post faults the President is when he doesn’t make the case for invasion persuasively enough.
A survey of the Post‘s opinion pages over the past two months reveals a remarkable imbalance on the subject of Iraq, the great issue of the day. Collectively, its editorials, columns and Op-Eds have served mainly to reinforce, amplify and promote the Administration’s case for regime change. And, as the house organ for America’s political class, the paper has helped push the debate in the Administration’s favor.
Needless to say, the Post does run dissenting voices on Iraq. It has featured William Potter, an analyst at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California, on the possibility that war will make Saddam Hussein even more likely to use his biological weapons; John Mueller, a professor at Ohio State University, on how the United States is exaggerating the scale of the threats it faces; Fawaz Gerges, a professor at Sarah Lawrence College, on the difficulties the United States would likely face in building democracy in a post-invasion Iraq; and James Webb, a former Secretary of the Navy, on how an attack on Iraq could actually increase the likelihood of Muslim aggression against the United States. The paper also ran a stinging attack on Bush policy by former President Jimmy Carter. Decrying the Administration’s backsliding on human rights and its turn away from “laboriously negotiated” international accords, Carter attributed the Administration’s unilateralist approach to “a core group of conservatives who are trying to realize long-pent-up ambitions under the cover of the proclaimed war against terrorism.”
Some of the Post‘s liberal columnists have been sharply critical of the Administration as well. William Raspberry, in particular, seems to have been roused from torpor by Bush’s policy. “Our Insane Focus on Iraq,” ran the headline atop one of his columns. Mary McGrory, too, has gotten in some barbs.
But these voices have been drowned out by the din from the hawks. Hoagland, Kelly, Krauthammer, Novak, Will–week after week they appear, relentlessly demanding that the United States unseat Saddam Hussein. Hoagland writes about the issue so regularly (and monotonously) that he felt compelled to defend himself in a mid-October column. Weekly, Michael Kelly weighs in with his own special brand of nastiness. After Al Gore gave his speech criticizing the President, for instance, Kelly called him a “disgrace.” Joining in the chorus are several columnists who normally seem more moderate–Jackson Diehl, David Ignatius and Sebastian Mallaby. In late September, for instance, Diehl called the Administration’s new national security doctrine “a bold–and mostly brilliant–synthesis, one that conceivably could cause national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, who executed it, to be remembered as the policymaker who defined a new era.”
Meanwhile, some of the Post‘s in-house liberals have seemed ill at ease with the Iraq issue. E.J. Dionne approaches it mainly in terms of its effects on the political fortunes of the Democratic Party. (“The president’s decision yesterday to ask Congress for the broad authority to wage war on Saddam Hussein…will only aggravate hard feelings in Democratic ranks,” went a sample passage in a September 20 column.) Michael Kinsley excels at picking apart the weaknesses in others’ arguments (including George Bush’s) but generally avoids taking a position of his own. And Richard Cohen is all over the place, confessing doubts one week, declaring support for the President the next. Finally, on October 10 he came down squarely in Bush’s corner, calling the removal of Saddam Hussein “a worthy and sensible goal.” Such wishy-washiness makes the advocates of war seem all the more forceful.
To an extent, the tilt on the Post‘s Op-Ed page may reflect the difficulties liberals in this country have had in articulating the case against military action. The magnitude of Saddam’s cruelty, his lurid history of aggression and mass murder, his clear determination to obtain weapons that could disrupt world peace–all have placed critics of war on the defensive. That’s why so many have taken refuge in calls for deliberation, diplomacy and multilateralism.
Of course, there are plenty of pacifists, anti-imperialists and peace activists who would love the chance to make a case against the war on the Post‘s Op-Ed page, but the paper–wary, no doubt, of getting an anti-American broadside–hasn’t asked them. It has also excluded a thoughtful school of critics who have favored some past US interventions. A number of them attached their names to a full-page ad (sponsored by Common Cause) that ran in the New York Times in early October. They include Mark Danner, Ronald Dworkin, Morton Halperin, Tony Judt, Aryeh Neier and Orville Schell. While fully acknowledging the repugnance of Saddam Hussein’s regime, they raised a series of questions about the imminence of the threat he poses, the possible destabilizing effects of a war in the region, and the prudence of Congress’s granting the President such broad powers. Wouldn’t it be interesting to hear from this group? One might add such clear-eyed thinkers about international affairs as Timothy Garton Ash, Michael Ignatieff, Walter Russell Mead and Samantha Power. I don’t know where they stand on Iraq, but I’m sure they’d be a lot livelier than Alexander Haig or Bob Dole. Yet the Post seems to have shut them out.
Also striking is how few non-American voices appear in the paper. At a time when questions about US unilateralism are rampant, the number of Europeans and Arabs who’ve contributed Op-Eds on Iraq over the past month could fit into a taxicab. Women’s voices are equally scarce. Aside from the periodic comments of Mary McGrory and Ellen Goodman, one can go days hearing from nothing but middle-aged white men. All in all, the Post‘s opinion pages represent a narrow slice of the US political establishment.
For comment on this, I contacted Fred Hiatt, the Post‘s editorial page editor. He’s held that job since 1999, when he replaced the late Meg Greenfield. During her two-decade reign, the Post‘s opinion pages gained a reputation for being liberal on domestic issues and conservative on foreign ones. It was under Greenfield that the Op-Ed page became clogged with the likes of Krauthammer and Kelly. Hiatt, who had reported for the Post from Moscow, Tokyo and the Pentagon, was expected to be a moderating force. And, to some degree, he has been. He has brought in Kinsley to write a weekly column and has added Marjorie Williams, another liberal. (She has been out sick, however.) And McGrory, who had been exiled to the Sunday “Outlook” section, has returned to the Op-Ed page (though this was more her doing than Hiatt’s).
Interestingly, Hiatt’s own columns–he contributes every other week–are often critical of US foreign policy. On September 9, for instance, he called attention to the Administration’s abandonment of Afghanistan–a development that, he said, cast doubt on its ability to build a stable, democratic government in a post-Saddam Iraq. The tone seemed very different from the Post‘s strenuously pro-invasion editorials. When we spoke, though, Hiatt stood steadfastly behind those editorials. For at least the past five years, he said, the Post has been consistent on Iraq, arguing that “it’s a danger for the world if a man like Saddam Hussein can be ordered by the Security Council to give up his weapons, then not do so and have no consequences.” Hiatt also rejected any suggestion of bias on the Op-Ed page. While noting that some of the conservative columnists are “very talented polemicists,” he said that he goes out of his way “to find folks who can present other arguments.” When, for instance, Will and Krauthammer attacked the three Democratic Congressmen who went to Iraq, he said, “We ran a piece by one of them [Mike Thompson] explaining why he’d gone.” When I asked about the lack of voices from Europe and elsewhere, Hiatt noted that in August, when the question of German-US relations was in the news, he asked both Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer to comment. (They declined.) And when the charges of anti-Semitism in France came to the fore, he said, “We got the French ambassador to write.”
But is the French ambassador the person one really wants to read on anti-Semitism in France? And how likely is Schröder or Fischer to have something fresh to say about events in Germany? Government officials like them have many outlets for communicating their views. Wouldn’t it be more interesting to hear from an astute German writer or French intellectual? Occasionally, of course, an official will have something newsworthy to say, as when Brent Scowcroft, writing in the Wall Street Journal in August, expressed strong reservations about Bush’s Iraq policy. Most of the time, however, the comments from the Shultzes and Bergers and Holbrookes are utterly predictable.
Of course, readers can get other viewpoints elsewhere. The New York Times, for instance, has been as dovish on the war as the Post has been hawkish. Its editorials have consistently questioned Bush’s actions, and Nicholas Kristof’s dispatches from Baghdad have been so critical of US policy that some readers sent him e-mails urging him to stay there. Yet the Times has run a number of sharp pieces in support of military action, and it is much less willing to let officials drone on. What’s more, the Post, as the primary news outlet in the nation’s capital, has a special responsibility to offer a full range of voices. In failing to fulfill it, the paper has been guilty of being unfair and–even worse–dull.