"Dedicated to exposing the lies and impeachable offenses of George W. Bush"

At the pundits' table, the losing bet still takes the pot
By Jebediah Reed
January 10, 2007

A few years ago, David Brooks, New York Times columnist and media pundit extraordinaire, penned a love letter to the idea of meritocracy. It is "a way of life that emphasizes ... perpetual improvement, and permanent exertion," he effused, and is essential to America's dynamism and character. Fellow glorifiers of meritocracy have noted that our society is superior to nepotistic backwaters like Krygystan or France because we assign the most important jobs based on excellence. This makes us less prone to stagnancy or, worse yet, hideous national clusterfucks like fighting unwinnable wars for reasons nobody understands.

At Radar we are devoted re-readers of the Brooks oeuvre and were struck by this particular column. It raised interesting questions. Noticing our nation is stuck in an unwinnable war (or two), we wondered if America hasn't stumbled off the meritocratic path. More specifically, since political pundits like Brooks play such a central role in our national decision-making process, maybe something is amiss in the world of punditry. Are the incentives well-aligned? Surely those who warned us not to invade Iraq have been recognized and rewarded, and those who pushed for this disaster face tattered credibility and waning career prospects. Could it be any other way in America?

So we selected the four pundits who were in our judgment the most influentially and disturbingly misguided in their pro-war arguments and the four who were most prescient and forceful in their opposition. (Because conservative pundits generally acted as a well-coordinated bloc, more or less interchangeable, all four of our hawks are moderates or liberals who might have been important opponents of the war—so, sadly, we are not able to revisit Brooks's eloquent and thoroughly meritless prognostications.)

Then we did a career check ... and found that something is rotten in the fourth estate.

Tom Friedman
Pre-war position: Re-reading Friedman's columns from the six months or so prior to the invasion of Iraq can induce vertigo. Unlike many of his hawkish colleagues, he grokked all the vital details of the situation. He understood that there were alternatives to war ("Bottom line: Iraq is a war of choice"). He understood that the WMD casus belli was for the most part a convenient line (cautioning that it was merely the "stated reason" for the war, and early on calling out Bush and Blair for "hyping" the evidence). He took a shine to the idea of regime change, but seemed clear-sighted about its low chances for success ("Setting up the first progressive Arab state ... would be a huge undertaking, though, and maybe impossible, given Iraq's fractious history"). He grasped that the consequences of failure would be dizzying ("if done wrong, the world will never be the same") and that to succeed, at the very least, would require exceedingly deft execution on the diplomatic front as well as the military one. Yet he also noted that the Bush Administration was incompetent in at least the former respect, and recognized them as essentially a bunch of pathologically insensitive and hyperaggressive bumblers ("we are talking about nation-building ... [and] the Bushies seem much more adept at breaking things than building things").

So even a Webelo-grade logician knows where to go from here, right? You connect the dots and conclude that while it would be very nice to get rid of Saddam, it would also be stupid and dangerous.

But somehow he still managed to come out in favor of the war. And if the whole thing weren't so tragically misguided, his reasoning would be worth a chuckle. Says Friedman: "something in Mr. Bush's audacious shake of the dice appeals to me." A nice ballsy gamble of a war. Sure, it could throw the region into chaos, bankrupt this country, and dye the fertile crescent red with the blood of civilians; yet an audacious war is like a red lollipop—who isn't powerless to resist it?

Career status: On top of the world. Before the war he was charging less than $40,000 to give a speech; these days it's a rumored $65,000. And afterward the audiences are encouraged to scoop up copies of the World is Flat, his paean to corporate globalism that has been on the Times best-seller list for 91 weeks. The royalties certainly help defray the costs of a $9.3 million mansion in Bethesda and a second home in Aspen that—if the local phone book and Google Earth are to be trusted—is a massive chateau with its own lake on the swanky northern side of town, where Prince Bandar has his monstrosity.

Friedman was feted by Queen Elizabeth in 2004, and also received a lifetime award from the Overseas Press Club. Though he was probably the most influential pro-war voice in the American media, he still hasn't had to own up to his mistake. If you ask him about it—as Don Imus did recently—he quotes a few misgivings from his columns to demonstrate that he was quite aware the war could be a fiasco and a bloodbath. But let no one say it wasn't audacious.

Peter Beinart
Pre-war position: In 1999, at age 28, Beinart emerged into prominence when Marty Peretz named him editor of the New Republic. For the next three years he cranked out wonky commentary for the journal. But just prior to the war, like a ginger ale no longer relevant to today's youth, TNR underwent a rebranding campaign with an aggressive new visual design and a promise from its publicist that Beinart would be taking "several daring political stances." The apparent aim was to add some Mountain Dew-style 'tude to the world of low-circulation, high-influence political weeklies. The editorial effect of this brand enhancement campaign was an aggressive pro-war stance and sustained attacks by Beinart on war critics for being "blind," "intellectually incoherent," and purveyors of "abject pacifism"—essentially calling them pussies while advancing the manly position that we needed to go war "even without the U.N." One Democratic advisor complained to Beinart: "You're doing Rove's work for him."

Analytically though, Beinart is even less astute than Friedman. He swallowed the WMD line and called any other rationale "disingenuous." Of course, it's now increasingly accepted that the prospect of Saddam ever using WMDs against the U.S. was overblown. Bush Administration insider and national security expert Philip Zelikow reportedly acknowledged this even in 2002 and some of Beinart's more clear-eyed colleagues were making this case compellingly. They were called pussies.

Career status: Prognosis positive. Beinart is steadily climbing toward the penthouse of punditry. Just named as a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (a favorite among conspiracy theorists searching for the secret clique that runs the world), Beinart is also now a columnist at the Washington Post. He's constantly on the cable networks, with a list of the shows that regularly feature his insight filling out two paragraphs in his bio. A recent book, published by HarperCollins, was prominently (and positively) reviewed in all the best places.

Beinart has copped to being completely wrong about the war. Which is a good thing, of course. But in an interview last spring with the Columbia Journalism Review, he made another uncomfortable admission: He said that by early 2003, in advance of the invasion, it was becoming clear that the WMD accusations could be mistaken, and that he "was not suffiently attuned to... the evidence." Maybe his war bonnet was obstructing his vision. And he still has no shame about presenting himself as a font of foreign policy wisdom.

Fareed Zakaria
Pre-war position: In State of Denial, Bob Woodward delivers this sparkling scoop: Fareed Zakaria attended a secret gathering convened by Paul Wolfowitz in late 2001. The task at hand, according to a fellow participant, was to draft "a forceful summary of the best pro-war arguments" which became a blueprint for the Bush Administration's PR campaign. Although he was a columnist at Newsweek and was editor of the magazine's international edition, Zakaria didn't attend in a journalistic capacity—in fact, he signed a non-disclosure agreement beforehand.

On October 9, the New York Times picked up Woodward's scoop and ran a small but damning article about it in the Business (?!) section. It was one of those important stories that, for whatever reason, faded away before most people ever heard about it. (A Nexis search today on the key terms produces only two hits: the Times item and one in an obscure publication called the Frontrunner.) But we are left with the astounding fact that one of the war's crucial media proponents—apart from Zakaria's ubiquity and sterling reputation as a foreign policy analyst, his is by far the most prominent Muslim voice in the press—helped craft the arguments that Bush used to take the country to war. Then for 16 months leading up to the invasion, he wrote columns, edited news coverage, and appeared as an analyst on television putatively evaluating those same arguments for his vast audience.

Needless to say, Zakaria found the case for war a strong one. His role as confidential advisor to the administration was never mentioned though. And his most priceless bit of public prediction? A scenario for democratic revolution in the Middle East based on the idea that "oil goes to $10 a barrel." Today it hovers near $60.

Career status: Telegenic, debonair, with burnished intellectual credentials, Zakaria has emerged as the golden boy of media pundits. (Being a Muslim who supports a hawkish foreign policy hasn't exactly been a hindrance to his career either.) Far above the teeming masses of commentators who fight for face time on cable, he's a staple presence on ABC—as a panelist on This Week—and PBS, which gave him his own show in 2005. Recently, he's even cultivated an "alternative" following with his regular appearances on the Daily Show, where much to the delight of Jon Stewart and the audience he seems to loosen his tie and launch into vicious fusillades against Bush and the whole blood-soaked debacle in Iraq.

The assumption is that the pundit now "gets it." But it's possible that Zakaria has played it perfectly all along. When he couldn't afford to be labeled as a wimp or pacifist—the kind of guy who Peter Beinart would use for target practice—he made a "looking at the bright side" argument for war: sure there are huge risks, but everything might work out beautifully. When it became clear that the occupation was not going to be a happy affair, he became politely skeptical. Now that the failure of the Bush presidency and the Iraq war are assured, he has found in the Daily Show a forum and a fresh audience for becoming a savage critic of those same people he secretly helped a few years ago.

Zakaria today makes the unlikely claim that he didn't understand the purpose of Wolfowitz's intimate gathering. He says he mistook it for a "brainstorming session." Robert Kaplan, the only other day-job journalist present, was asked by the Times if that contention was credible. "No," he replied, "that's not possible."

Jeffrey Goldberg
Pre-war position: As Judy Miller pursues freelance projects out in Sag Harbor, doggedly accompanied by the rotting corpse of her career, she likely has much time for rumination. And it's tough to imagine these sessions of thought don't sometimes include spleen toward Jeffrey Goldberg. How did she end up getting screwed by Ahmed Chalabi and the neocons— metaphorically, of course—while Goldberg, who also demonstrated a remarkable willingness to channel their war-enabling disinformation, managed to keep both his job and his reputation? It's a tough task to argue that his work was any less influential in the pre-war debate than hers, or that he was any less of a go-to guy for the Rumsfeld gang. For instance, when Doug Feith had a hard-on about launching military action against Arab terrorists in Paraguay, who stepped forward and wrote the scare piece? Now we have a big special-ops base! And when Chalabi wanted to disseminate a dodgy tidbit about Saddam having a secret evil plan to kill 100,000 Israelis in a single day with bioweapons, was it not Goldberg who duly pimped it to the New Yorker's million discerning readers? It was indeed.

Goldberg did this, in fact, in his (in)famous 2002 feature "The Great Terror," which helped create the well-worn media portrait of Saddam as a genocidal lunatic with WMDs on hair-trigger ready to exterminate every hamburger-eating, freedom-loving person in the world. Both Bush and Cheney spoke approvingly of the 16,000-word article and singled it out as a good explanation why a war effort was justified. But the "Great Terror" is a J-school nightmare: bad sources, compromised sources, unacknowledged uncertainties, and the whole text spun through with an alarmist rhetoric that is now either laughable or nauseating, depending on your mood. (How did Remnick let this stuff go to print?) Goldberg floated sketchy theories that the dictator was working closely with Al Qaeda and was so irrationally villainous that he was developing a super-duper WMD from wheat mold that, in the author's words, had "no military value [except] to cause liver cancer, particularly in children."

Needless to say, "The Great Terror" hasn't aged well. The New Yorker hasn't made any retractions, but substantial parts of the article are simply hokum. The supposed Al Qaeda link, for instance, rested on the testimony of a drug dealer in a Kurdish prison. When a journalist from a major British newspaper tried to follow up on Goldberg's reporting he quickly determined the source to be "a liar."

Career status: Things are going swimmingly. Goldberg, as a staff writer at the New Yorker, holds one of the sexiest jobs in journalism. His stories about the Middle East and other subjects appear regularly in the venerable magazine. His new book is selling briskly on Amazon, and a dedicated signing event was scheduled into the New Yorker Festival. He won a National Magazine award in 2003. And "The Great Terror" was given an Overseas Press Club award—which in its dazzling absurdity rivals former CIA director George Tenet and General Tommy Franks winning Presidential Medals of Freedom.

But Goldberg does seem to be getting a bit touchy about his pre-war stances. In a short Q & A with New York magazine, he was asked a gentle question about that supposed link between Saddam and Al Qaeda. "Is that part of the interview?" he fired back. "Okay, fine, if you really want to go into it, the specific allegations I raised have never been definitively addressed by the 9/11 Commission." Get the sense he's ready to move on?

Robert Scheer
Pre-war position: As a liberal columnist for the LA Times, Scheer argued relentlessly against the war, focusing on the dishonesty of the administration's efforts to "frighten the American people into supporting" it and seeking to bypass rational discussion and analysis by making Saddam into a cartoonish "super-villain"—the kind of guy who sacrifices military strategy to give toddlers liver cancer. His work constituted perhaps the most full-throated anti-war voice on the editorial page of a major American newspaper.

Career status: In the toilet. Fired from the Times in 2005 after a 12-year tenure, his column was handed over to the well-fed and well-connected pro-war conservative, Jonah Goldberg. Scheer wrote afterwards, "The publisher Jeff Johnson, who has offered not a word of explanation to me, has privately told people that he hated every word that I wrote. I assume that mostly refers to my exposing the lies used by President Bush to justify the invasion of Iraq."

William S. Lind
Pre-war position: This arch-conservative commentator may have been the most prescient voice in the American media warning against the military dangers facing us in Iraq. His career began as a protégé of America's greatest military strategist, colonel John Boyd, and he has since achieved his own renown in that field. Prior to the war, Lind warned that invading Iraq would be of inherent benefit to both Al Qaeda and Hezbollah. He predicted, "When American forces capture Baghdad and take down Saddam Hussein, the real war will not end but begin ... as an array of non-state elements begin to fight America and each other." Bottom line: "It won't be pretty." He also pointed out that a basic tenet of military theory is that a democracy cannot win any prolonged war if the people are at all uncertain about the reasons for fighting. At that point, prior to the invasion, more than half of Americans thought Saddam had a hand in 9/11.

Career status: Still writing for a small audience. Lind is a contributor to the American Conservative and websites like military.com, counterpunch.com, and antiwar.com. No major publications have come calling, so not many people are hearing the urgent warning he's offering now. "I think we're probably going to hit Iran and that situation could be ten times worse than what we've got in Iraq," he tells Radar.

Jonathan Schell
Pre-war position: Covering the Vietnam War for the New Yorker, where he was a staff writer for 20 years, Schell saw how armed conflicts can go awry. Writing for the Nation and Harper's in 2002 and 2003, he made the case—amply supported by history—that any attempt to "impose" democracy from the outside and with an armed occupation is a fundamental error in understanding. As he saw it, all the Friedmans of the world, in love with the audacious experiment of trying to turn Iraq into a beacon of Middle Eastern democracy, were off in the poppies. Democracy, by its nature, must originate with a popular movement, not a bunch of guys in wrap-around shades and Kevlar vests riding in on Abrams tanks. And, lo, the Bush Administration has now leaked the fact that it's considering non-democratic scenarios to try to stabilize Iraq.

Career status: The New York Times, in Schell's words, "savaged" his 2003 book The Unconquerable World, which effectively predicted the disaster in Iraq. (This as the paper of record was publishing Judy Miller stories about those famous aluminum tubes.) Schell's main audience is the committed group of lefties who subscribe to the Nation. He drily remarks that, "There doesn't seem to be a rush to find the people who were right about Iraq and install them in the mainstream media."

Scott Ritter
Pre-war position: When world leaders spoke confidently about Saddam's biological and chemical weapons, Ritter was a lonely voice, saying that the arsenals had been destroyed after the first Gulf War. Having spent several years in Iraq as a U.N. inspector, the former marine had experience to support his statements. As we now know, he was correct.

Career status: It should be stipulated that, no matter how many times he's right, Ritter will be a tough hire as a mainstream commentator. If nothing else, he hasn't done a good job of keeping a clean image. (Charges of soliciting sex from teens online don't play well in Topeka.) But he's getting some face time on cable news for his recent book about Iran. On The Situation Room in a great—and highly unusual—moment of journalistic accountability, the host said, "Your skepticism about the rationale of going to war with Iraq [was] widely ridiculed. You were harassed, to put it mildly, for your views at the time. A lot of those views turned out to be accurate, so you speak [about Iran] with some credibility." (One of the people who trashed Ritter leading up to the war was Beinart, saying he had "no credibility" and should be ignored.) Like Lind, Ritter is now warning about the disastrous consequences of going to war with Iran.

Anyway, better late than never, Wolf. Now doesn't he deserve Bob Novak's job?

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