Go here please to read my column this week, on why firing David Gregory won’t actually change Meet the Press.
Click here to jump directly to Reed Richardson.
I don’t have much this week. I saw Jorma Kaukounen at the Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett last weekend, where he was joined on acoustic guitar by the great Barry Mittelhoff and G.E. Smith. The room was so crowded (and I am so old) despite the $85/$100 cover that I had to sit on the floor in the back corner near the merch table for most of the show, so I couldn’t see. But I could hear. And Jorma has not lost a beat at 72. And the crowd was most appreciative and engaged. Generally I prefer electric Hot Tuna, but when you hear “Hesitation Blues” and “I Know You Rider,” played so exiquisitely in so intimate a room, it feels churlish to complain and I so won’t.
A couple of recommendations: I reviewed the first volume of Country Funk when it came out a couple of years ago. There’s a volume two now, “Country Funk Volume II 1967-1974,” from Light in the Attic, with newly re-mastered, featuring cuts by Bob Darin, Thomas Jefferson Kaye, Willie Nelson and more. It’s a nice package with a comic with story by Jessica Hundley along with Jess Rotter's illustrations and the music is mostly stuff you won’t find anywhere. My favorite is “Rising Sign” by Jim Ford, who Sly Stone once called ''the baddest white man on the planet,” but it’s all kinda interesting and fun
Also I wanted to add my voice to all those recommending the new collection of long short stories and novellas by Stephan Zweig under the title, The Collected Stories of Stephan Zweig. It’s 720 pages of pure surprise and I’m grateful to the Pushkin Press for bringing it out and helping me to figure out why I’ve been hearing that name for so many years, and finally delving in. You won’t regret it you do too.
Beltway to Obama: More Fear, Please!
By Reed Richardson
There really is a pathology that lurks within our elite media discourse when it comes to U.S. foreign policy. At the root of this pathology sits a well-cultivated neurosis about our country’s esteem, its place (rank) in the world. This insecurity, in turn, breeds an almost incessant neediness for displays of machismo and dominance and aggression from our political leaders. And precisely because the U.S. military serves as the biggest hammer in the world, it has become all too easy for lazy members of the media in this country to view every crisis overseas as a stubborn nail in need of some swift flattening.
In other words, ours is a nation where patience and diplomacy have fallen out of favor among an establishment that is now far more interested in rapid response and confronting the latest mortal enemy with “kinetic action” (the kind that involves Hellfire missiles, carrier groups, and, ultimately, an infantry division or three). The unrestrained id version of this mindset—via, naturally, Fox News—can be viewed here . As a result, our cable news talk shows and national op-ed pages have developed debilitating case of selective listening, one that tunes out context and deliberation in foreign policy discussions and only really tunes in when it’s being warned what to be afraid of.
But what happens when the president doesn’t reflexively indulge in saber-rattling hyperbole? When he doesn’t take every excuse to deploy our vast arsenal of weaponry? When doesn’t reliably offer up fear-based Pavlovian signals for the pundits? Well, as the past week demonstrated, the establishment freaks out.
Take, for instance, this jingoistic op-ed by John McCain and Lindsey Graham that the New York Times took it upon itself to run. At this point, McCain and Graham have so consistently beat the drums of war for so long I think of them as the Charlie Watts and Ringo Starr of the Senate’s war hawks. The notion that this pair would offer up any insights beyond ‘Bomb Country X now’ is silly, and yet the Times gave them a platform.
After knocking around Obama for “reactive half-measures” and endowing the brutal jihadist group Islamic State with everything but evil superpowers, Graham and McCain made this it-would-be-funny-if-it-weren’
That didn’t stop the Washington Post ’s Dana Milbank from writing his own hyperventilating column . Pivoting off of a Russian-inflamed civil war in Ukraine and another grisly beheading by the brutal jihadist group Islamic State, Milbank also appears confounded by Obama’s lack of tough-guy histrionics. His column’s lede perfectly captures his up-is-down thinking: “President Obama is not worried. And that is unnerving.”
Of course, it’s not that Obama isn’t worried. On multiple occasions, and again at the Baltic Summit this week, the president expressed his concern about the alarming advances of the Islamic State and Russia’s revanchist strategy of fomenting unrest in its neighbor. What’s unnerving to Milbank is that Obama isn’t matching the level of outrage of the establishment’s conventional wisdom. To help maintain this ruse, Milbank notably omits any mention of the steps Obama has already taken in response to these crises— a wave of tough economic sanctions on Russia and an ongoing campaign of limited airstrikes on IS positions in Iraq. Nor, apparently, does Milbank read his colleague at the Washington Post , Walter Pincus, who has some great behind-the-scenes reporting on the alliance building that the administration has undertaken across the region to box in IS and ultimately defeat the group.
To Milbank and his Beltway compadres, though, it is Obama’s leadership specifically that is lacking. Exhibit A: the president’s damning public admission last week that the US “didn’t have a strategy yet” on dealing with IS inside Syria. To say that one day and then turn around the next and reassure Americans that they’re safer than ever before amounts to “happy talk” per Milbank. However, if you set aside the outrageous boogeyman-type coverage that predominates in the most of the press, you find that, again, Obama is right .
What’s more—and this is important—there’s been a wholesale inversion of how the establishment defines hubris and overconfidence. No doubt, Obama owns his share of ill-advised military misadventures, among them a futile “surge” in Afghanistan and a misguided faith in a morally repugnant and counterproductive drone policy. But it’s only when he chooses a relatively cautious approach to a foreign threat like IS that he gets branded a naïve and dangerously optimistic president a la Bush. Eleven years ago, what constituted dangerous “happy talk” from the White House looked very different and took a staggeringly higher toll, but it took years for the Beltway pundits to come out of their defensive crouch and figure this out.
This reminder of Bush’s dreadful legacy would no doubt be considered a cheap partisan shot by the National Journal ’s Ron Fournier, a bust of whom will no doubt one day adorn the Newseum’s “Both Sides Do It” installation. Right on cue, Fournier’s column this week predictably flays Obama for a lack of leadership, which admittedly isn’t much of a surprise since he writes a version of this same column at least once a month . (This stubborn lack of editorial creativity on the part of Fournier long ago reached the point of easy parody.)
As you’d expect, Fournier takes the same shots at Obama that the rest of the Beltway centrists crowd. He claims Obama’s “dithering” helped “spawn the ISIS wave,” but presents no proof of this bold assertion. In a clever bit of no-win logic, he dings the president for dismissing ISIS as a junior-varsity level threat last year, and then dings Obama again for ignoring a group that he said wasn’t a threat in the first place. And the Fournier shakes his venerable head at Obama for being “incapable of leading anybody to a solution.”
So what should have Obama done differently in Syria a year ago to fix everything, one might ask? (I mean, besides striking a courageous diplomatic deal that rid that nation of its chemical weapons, a success Fournier conveniently omits.) Or, for that matter, what might that “solution” to the region’s sprawling sectarian unrest have looked like? Ah, but the answers to these questions are an intellectual burden that Fournier never even attempts to carry. He just knows leaders lead by leading, through leadership. And Obama ain’t one of them.
Like Milbank, Fournier, in his zeal to complain, minimizes the actions Obama currently is taking to stop IS’s spread in Iraq in order to further fixate on the president’s rhetoric :
“Despite ordering airstrikes against ISIS targets, Obama doesn't seem to agree that Islamic extremists in Syria and Iraq pose an unprecedented threat to America.”
Fournier can’t even give Obama credit for actually doing something without couching it in as a backhanded insult. Also note he isn’t even brave enough to say whether he approves or disapproves of the airstrikes, wants more or less of them or anything else. Again, actual policy isn’t Fournier’s cup of tea. So instead he just moves on to quibble over Obama’s refusal to say IS represents an unprecedented threat, one he later characterizes as “existential.” Needless to say, this is goddam ridiculous. By definition, every new threat is unprecedented, which is to say nothing about how we should respond to it. More obviously, it is 100% wrong to imply IS will ever threaten the very existence of the United States. Yet this over-the-top language is what simple-minded Beltway critics seem to value more than anything else in a president.
Indeed, at times, this need for a good-guy, bad-guy foreign policy narrative can fully overwhelm a pundit’s journalistic instincts. Case in point, this atrocious Frank Bruni column , where the very headline gives the game away: “Obama’s Messy Words.” In it, Bruni practically begs for the president to shovel ominous scaremongering and saber-rattling braggadocio at the press.
For example, Bruni seems baffled by Obama’s perfectly innocuous observation that the current threat from IS pales in comparison to the one posed by the old Soviet Union. He simply cannot engage with the rational conclusions one might draw from it. “Set aside the question of how germane the Cold War example is,” Bruni says, right before reciting a list of IS’s grisly depredations. The point of this scare tactic? To infantilize the press and the public: “[T]he last thing that you want to be told is that it’s par for the historical course, all a matter of perspective and not so cosmically dire. Where’s the reassurance — or the sense of urgency — in that?”
Again, grok what Bruni is saying here as a member of the press—to paraphrase Col. Nathan Jessup: “I can’t handle the truth.” Personally, I think this country is better served with a president who exercises a little more circumspection and candor before massively overreacting to the foreign enemy du jour . After having just recently concluded a decade of mismanaged, unnecessary war, don’t we deserve a commander-in-chief that maintains his composure, instead of uttering outrageously provocative, off-the-cuff statements that only make matter worse and that he later regrets? (Sad to say, our current Vice President clearly shares the same affliction .)
But Bruni doesn’t stop there. Sounding like some soulless corporate image consultant who enables rather confronts the powerful, he practically recoils at Obama’s acceptance of rather tepid limits on U.S. power.
“He’s adopted a strange language of self-effacement, with notes of defeatism, reminding us that ‘America, as the most powerful country on earth, still does not control everything’; that we must be content at times with singles and doubles in lieu of home runs; that not doing stupid stuff is its own accomplishment.
“But that doesn’t make it the right message for the world’s lone superpower (whether we like it or not) to articulate and disseminate. That doesn’t make it savvy, constructive P.R.
“Message.” “savvy.” “P.R.” Gack.
That any journalist would express a desire to essentially be manipulated instead of told the truth, however banal it may be, is chilling. To read the whole thing is to get a sense that Bruni was emotionally lashing out at the president, channeling the entire Beltway’s disgust at his unwillingness to stick to the normal U.S. foreign policy script. But it was his absurd “notes of defeatism” remark that made clear the media establishment has now fully bought into the idea that Obama’s presidency, much like the tail end of Jimmy Carter’s, is mired in a kind of intractable malaise. Unable to get any actual legislation through the Republican House, the only thing left that Obama actually could do was start another war somewhere. And here he’s not even keen to do that. What a failure.
This “malaise” narrative—and the myths that surround it—actually plays a key role in the foreign policy pathology I spoke of at the beginning. As Rick Hertzberg reminds us, the “crisis of confidence” speech he helped Carter write in 1979 [excerpted here ] never actually mentioned the word “malaise.” (That term was attached to it after the fact.) Nor was it the disaster that history tells us it was. In fact, Carter’s speech was quite popular . His approval numbers shot up 11 points overnight and the White House received an outpouring of positive mail. It was only after Carter clumsily sacked most of his Cabinet in the days that followed that elite opinion turned against him and the speech, and eventually the public’s disapproval followed as well. And while on one hand, that moment foreshadowed the end of Carter’s political career, Hertzberg argues that the speech and its aftermath also had a long-lasting ripple effect on the relationship between the president and the press.
“The speech was a truthful and prescient diagnosis of what was wrong with the country and what in many ways continues to be wrong with the country,” Hertzberg says, looking back. “A side effect was the discrediting of candor about unpleasant truths and the enshrinement of ‘optimism.’”
This “optimism” is not the hard-earned optimism that Carter spoke of at length in that same speech 35 years ago. Nor is it the measured, look-at-the-big-picture optimism that Obama stands accused of falling victim to today in dealing with Russia and the Middle East. Instead, the prevailing ‘optimism’ that has reigned over our foreign policy establishment for the past few decades—with disastrous results—is that of Reagan and of Bush. It’s a flawed American Exceptionalism that operates a de facto foreign policy of violence driven by a never-ending plague of manufactured threats. This pathological insecurity is all about pursuing vengeance abroad rather than justice, choosing condemnation of enemies over cooperation with allies. But perhaps the greatest danger of all is when it convinces the American public and the press that the most frightening thing we have to fear is when our leaders tell us the truth.
I agree with you, but want to bring something to your attention.
The established mass-media (NYT, WaPo, etc.) are so strong that they are able to make the public believe lies. I lived in Finland before and during the Iraq war and could see how the U.S. public was led to believe that Saddam Hussein was connected with the 9/11 and had WMD, but at that time at least the European media was not 100% following the USA's line. Since then a lot has changed.
USA and EU mainstream media now work in unison. Even people like you believe that Assad used chemical weapons, although there are very serious investigators who show otherwise—it's simply an old and forgotten story. The propaganda jumps to any new "facts" to justify whatever new war needs to be fought.
The MH17 [airplane downing] was used to justify sanctions against Russia. This wasn't so long, but it seems the issue is forgotten by those who used it and now they are pushing for new ways to escalate the conflict, although there are serious doubts that the initial reports, which were true – it looks like the Ukrainian army might have something to do with it, but nobody reverses the sanctions – there can be only push for more…
To me it is clear that some people decide to make Ukraine a NATO member and would do anything to achieve their goal.
All the best fighting with the strong propaganda machine!
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