The problem of punditocracy ignorance does not usually constitute a national security threat. If most Americans walk around misinformed about Gary Condit’s sexual escapades or Elián González’s emotional state, the Republic will probably survive. But on an issue like missile defense–where so many generals and admirals consider it part of their patriotic duty to mislead the public–its ramifications become considerably more worrisome.
When a Pentagon spokesperson recently announced that it had carried out a “successful test in all respects” over Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific, some pundits swallowed this line faster than you can say “student deferment.”
In a column titled “The ‘Smart People’ Were Wrong,” the Washington Post‘s Michael Kelly beat his chest and snarled: “In the blink of a video screen going blinding white on July 14, it became impossible to offhandedly disdain a missile defense system as ‘weapons that don’t work.’ It does work. No one can any longer assert that missile defense is unattainable.” Melanie Kirkpatrick of the Wall Street Journal crowed about the “resounding success–putting the lie to the it-can’t-be-done crowd.”
I don’t know Kirkpatrick, but the gullible Mr. Kelly covered the Gulf War and should know better. It was back then that the Pentagon sold the pundits on a remarkably successful “kill ratio” for US Patriot missiles attempting to destroy Iraqi Scuds over Israel. This too was said to be proof that Star Wars worked. Kelly’s conservative comrades like Fred Barnes insisted that the Patriot’s alleged success proved that “we need SDI.” Patrick Buchanan declared: “The debate is over.” Then-President Bush “ought to insist on the restoration of full funding for SDI and entertain no counterargument.” Wall Street Journal editors concurred, adding, “The epic debates over ABM and SDI, after all, were over whether to give American civilians the kind of protection Israeli civilians have just received.”
In fact, according to a GAO study released in 1992, Patriots had a success rate of only 9 percent during the war. Israelis were actually safer without them, suffering more damage in fewer attacks when “protected.” In the event of a genuine attack on the United States, a missile defense system like the Patriot would have left Barnes, Buchanan and the Journal editors a heap of radioactive ash.
Pundits seem to lose not only their skepticism when writing about Star Wars but much of their intelligence. William Safire is no dummy, but swearing fealty to Star Wars last year, he committed perhaps the single silliest sentence his newspaper published since A.M. Rosenthal accused a man of killing Abe’s sister with his penis. Admitting that the technology for missile defense was nowhere to be found on earth, the former PR man countered, “But many who insist it will never work were doubtful our technology could ever put a man on the moon.” Aside from the obvious illogic involved here, are there actually any mortals on the planet who fit Safire’s description? Repeated entreaties to Safire and his editors have failed to turn up any such evidence.