Press Watch

Press Watch

Opinion journalism is pushing the conversation about war to the right.

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Thursday, November 1, was a typical day in the life of the Washington Post's Op-Ed page. At the top center of the page, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in an article headlined "Beyond This War on Terrorism," made a pitch for his plan to transform the US military into an institution that could protect the American homeland while also "projecting US forces in distant corners of the world." Below it, in a piece headlined "Abdul Haq's Last Hours," Robert Novak excoriated the Bush Administration for its indifference to the "unequaled potential" of the "legendary Afghan commander" to "flip" Taliban leaders. To the left was a column by George Will ("The F-16 Solution") that recalled with relish Israel's 1981 bombing of Iraq's nuclear reactor–an attack, Will wrote, that underlined for America the value of "robust unilateralism" in the cause of self-defense.

Since September 11, the Post Op-Ed page has been a playpen for columnist-commanders. Day after day, it features a steady drumbeat of calls for Washington to escalate its war in Afghanistan and, while it's at it, to target other countries. No fewer than seven regular contributors–Will, Novak, Charles Krauthammer, Jim Hoagland, William Kristol, Robert Kagan and Michael Kelly–compete to offer the toughest, manliest views on the conflict. Increasingly, they have been joined by Richard Cohen, an in-house liberal, who seems out to prove his mettle. The Post's editorial page, meanwhile, tends to echo the Op-Ed page. In addition, the paper regularly makes space available to such national security types as Zbigniew Brzezinski, Lawrence Eagleburger, Brent Scowcroft and Donald Rumsfeld.

Actually, the Scowcrofts and Rumsfelds seem models of moderation when compared with the columnists. Thus, the day after Scowcroft contributed an innocuous piece about the importance of coalition-building, Robert Kagan, in a piece headlined "Coalition of the Unwilling," roared his disgust for the coalition, warning that if we let coalition members "call the shots, they'll gladly drag us down to defeat, everywhere." William Kristol has used the page to attack Colin Powell, George Will to thumb his nose at the State Department and Robert Novak to deride the CIA.

For sheer ferocity, though, no one can match Charles Krauthammer. "The war is not going well and it is time to say why," he proclaimed on October 30, all of three weeks into the conflict. "It has been fought with half-measures. It has been fought with an eye on the wishes of our 'coalition partners.' It has been fought to assuage the Arab 'street.' It has been fought to satisfy the diplomats rather than the generals." Expressing contempt for the Administration's food drops and its concerns about civilian casualties, Krauthammer fumed, "Why have we not loosed the B-52s and the B-2s to carpet-bomb Taliban positions? And why are we giving the Taliban sanctuary in their cities? We could drop leaflets giving civilians 48 hours to evacuate, after which the cities become legitimate military targets." Pursuing such a strategy, of course, could create a bit of a refugee problem, but Krauthammer makes no mention of this. To do so would be to introduce a complication–for Krauthammer just another form of weakness.

The same is true for the others on the page. Since September 11, for instance, the Post has run at least a dozen columns demanding the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, yet not a single one has bothered to consider how this daunting task might be accomplished, nor what the potential fallout might be. With no troops to command, no casualties to answer for, no foreign governments to confront, the Post's columnists are free to vent all kinds of nonsense. And they do so with great arrogance.

The Op-Ed page does feature some alternative voices, like David Broder, E.J. Dionne Jr. and Michael Kinsley, but they tend to focus on domestic affairs and in any case are no match for the Stentorian Seven. As a result, the page seems stale and one-dimensional, offering much less diversity of opinion than, say, the New York Times Op-Ed page. Nonetheless, the Post's page is highly influential. Several of its columnists–Will, Novak, Kristol–regularly appear on TV. Others are frequently quoted. On a recent installment of CNN's Late Edition, for instance, Wolf Blitzer, interviewing former Senator George Mitchell, read from the Krauthammer column cited above, then said, "A lot of critics are beginning to say the same thing. Are they right?" It is "astonishing," Mitchell replied, that "less than three weeks after a military action is begun, people are already pronouncing ultimate verdicts on it." Nonetheless, this is how conventional wisdom gets formed in Washington.

And what's the effect on policy? As one former White House aide told me, national security officials have access to so much sensitive information that they tend to dismiss columnists as uninformed. And the fact that George Bush is a Republican no doubt insulates him from the type of baiting the Post's columnists engage in. But, with TV compliantly amplifying their views, these opiners clearly push the debate to the right, and in this way they exert constant pressure on the Administration to escalate its actions. The Post–and the nation–would be far better off if the paper put some of those columnists out to pasture and let some new nags in.

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