A Newsletter With An Eye On Political Media from The American Prospect
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The Media Always Sees Democrats in Disarray
And they always see wars as worth fighting
"Whether it’s Barack Obama negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran or Biden drawing down in Afghanistan," explains my good friend and America’s single most valuable foreign-policy thinker, Bernie Sanders aide Matt Duss, in Greg Sargent’s Washington Post column, "it’s crazy that Democratic presidents face more aggressive criticism from their own party for trying to end wars or prevent them through diplomacy than they do when continuing decades-old wars or launching new ones."

The thing is, there’s an unspoken conspiracy between so-called "centrist" Democrats and "savvy" members of the mainstream media to undermine the priorities of the vast majority of the party’s voters (and, according to almost all public-opinion polls, those of most Americans). It reveals itself most obviously in two types of stories. The first is the "Dems in Disarray" narrative. Republicans can eternally march in lockstep with a psychopathic, racist, sexist, proto-fascist, mentally unbalanced con man rapist, and yet reporters are most interested in the thoughtful "misgivings" of Democratic centrists who have "concerns" about the priorities of their party.

The folks at Politico Playbook may not be the worst of the bunch. I don’t watch enough cable TV or pay attention to talk radio, trash Twitter, or whatever to really say. They do, however, produce the most annoying entry into my mailbox every day. The thing about Politico’s reporting is that, save for rare circumstances, its afterlife is only guaranteed to last as long as it takes you to read the article. This one, which showed up Tuesday morning, entitled "Pelosi Underestimates Her Moderates," lasted only a few hours and made me angry that I bothered to read it in the first place. Yet it’s a near-perfect specimen of breathlessness combined with thoughtlessness to fill your mind with pointless bullshit that—thanks to Nancy Pelosi doing what she does every damn time one of these silly episodes arises—proved itself irrelevant a few hours after it was written. Take a look, however, for posterity’s sake.

The article reads as if Politico’s owners were sponsoring a cliché contest with cash prizes. It kicks off with the headline "DEMS IN DISARRAY, PART XLVII" right after the words "Fucking Assholes." Curses and clichés in one headline—if it weren’t so early in the morning, I imagine they would have been breaking out the champagne. In just the first few hundred words after that, we encounter a "budget standoff," an "impassioned plea," "gross underestimations" of people "playing a little hardball," with members "rolling their eyes" over the failure of "tired and grumpy" holdouts while "spicy" Nancy Pelosi watched the unhappy fate of the Democrats’ "best-laid legislative plans." Yes, folks, it took four writers to polish all those diamonds, all about a House vote that was well on its way to being worked out when this ruined my morning coffee. (On a related note, did someone at The Washington Post decide to hold this piece, determining the already-resolved Pelosi/moderate showdown "unresolvable," just long enough to humiliate its author?)

The second place that this unspoken conspiracy rears its head is when it comes to war. "Centrists" love wars and so do savvy reporters, most especially the star members of the punditocracy. If you think I exaggerate, I offer you these two examples from the two people I judge—and I get to judge because I wrote this book—as the two single most important and influential foreign-policy pundits in the United States:
  1. Fareed Zakaria’s Greatest Hit
  1. Thomas Friedman’s Greatest Hit

This is the belief structure that lies beneath the relentlessly negative narrative adopted by the mainstream media in their coverage of the Biden administration’s attempt to extricate the United States from a 20-year, $2.4 trillion-dollar foreign-policy catastrophe that has helped no one, save arms dealers and corrupt Afghan warlords (and now, thanks to a gazillion dollars’ worth of military materiel, the Taliban). War may or may not be the "health of the state," as Randolph Bourne put it back in 1918, but it is certainly the foundation of an awful lot of journalistic self-regard. It is also the source of a plethora of casual, but almost always costly, misinformation.

For example, TAP alumnus Josh Marshall has some harsh words for The Atlantic’s George Packer, who had written that the "private rescue effort in Afghanistan is basically running separate from the United States government’s Operation Allies Refuge; it became necessary because the official evacuation is beset by chaos and bureaucratic blockage." Josh responds: "To portray this as some solo effort amidst US abandonment and an ‘overwhelmed’ US government is as remarkable as it is, frankly, gross." In fact, as this fine New York magazine piece by Eric Levitz demonstrates, the evacuation was truly an amazing accomplishment, and was forced on the Biden administration by the fecklessness of the Trump administration, despite the disappointment of both George Packer and the geniuses at Politico, and yes, despite even the lamentable terrorist bombings of Thursday morning.

Josh’s observation sent me back to a seminal article that Packer published in The New York Times, just as he was on the cusp of becoming a famous foreign-policy pundit, and as the nation debated an invasion of Iraq. In it, he valorized the efforts of liberal hawks to convince the rest of us to get on board with George W. Bush’s jihad (now widely recognized as the worst foreign-policy blunder in all of American history, and I included both Vietnam and Afghanistan in that calculation. See here if you disagree). I won’t quote directly from the piece because almost all of the people quoted in it are either friends or ex-friends or ex-colleagues of mine who look like massive jerks today, and that would make me appear petty. (Michael Walzer is a welcome exception.) Packer and I were friends back when he wrote this, and he came to my apartment to interview me for the piece. I knew the war would be a disaster, and so I could not countenance any of the arguments he wished to highlight. I was, therefore, left out of the piece. But nearly 20 years later, what I remember best from that afternoon was Packer’s argument—made over and over—that even if Bush could not be trusted to brush his own teeth without screwing up, there was a "danger" of liberals failing to recognize situations where the use of military force was actually a good idea, and refusing to get on board, because we were wimps. I replied that while this might be theoretically possible, the reality was that the far more likely scenario was the embrace of what then-brand-new Sen. Barack Obama called "dumb wars," which were being pushed by the punditocracy and what we now call "the Blob."

The liberal hawks, as Jacob Heilbrunn has written, somehow viewed their own ideas "as weapons in a moral struggle." They knew virtually nothing about Iraq or even war itself. They brushed aside obvious evidence of the Bush administration’s lethal combination of arrogance, fanaticism, cluelessness, and dishonesty, which was certain to make a hash of whatever it was they thought they were doing. As Christopher Hitchens would (finally) admit in his 2010 memoir, Hitch-22, they "rather tended to assume that things of [the] more practical sort were being taken care of." (His armchair warrior co-commando, Andrew Sullivan, voiced his primary concern that the "decadent left in its enclaves on the coasts is not dead—and may well mount a fifth column.")

These attitudes were—and remain—impervious to reality. When the scope of the catastrophe revealed itself, Packer accused those who had been prescient about the coming catastrophe—presumably people like Obama, Ted Kennedy, and Al Gore, to say nothing of the more than 650 security scholars who signed this letter—of possessing "second-rate minds." The hawkish liberal pundit Richard Cohen, borrowing (rather crazily) from the French ex-Stalinist Pierre Courtade, insisted, "You and your kind were wrong to be right; we were right to be wrong." Thomas Friedman accused opponents of the war of "deep down" wanting America to fail in Iraq because "they thought the war was wrong." His colleague Roger Cohen wrote, amidst attacks on TAP alumni Mike Tomasky and Matt Yglesias, that the problem was merely "hyperventilating left-liberals [whose] hatred of Bush is so intense that rational argument usually goes out the window." And yet, as Slate’s Timothy Noah, a repentant war supporter, noted back in 2008, "Five years after this terrible war began, it remains true that respectable mainstream discussion about its lessons is nearly exclusively confined to people who supported the war," which is one reason we are where we are.

Whether it’s cheerleading for war or elevating the deep seriousness of the corporate wing of the party, somehow America’s punditocracy always ends up telling us the same damn story.

Here is a 2014 debate that Michael Walzer had with yours truly and Jeff Faux about the value of U.S. military power, among other things, in solving the world’s problems, published by Dissent.

And this terrible review of John Mueller’s book, The Stupidity of War, in The Washington Post offers further evidence of the punditocracy’s infatuation with war. The review’s author, Marvin Kalb, describes himself as "a former network correspondent and Harvard professor … a senior fellow at Brookings." It’s hard even to imagine better Beltway qualifications to pontificate about the wonders of war …

Of course, Edwin Starr said much the same thing in a song that is, unfortunately, an evergreen; So, alas, is this song and this song and this song and this song.

The death of Charlie Watts can only mean the death of the Rolling Stones, tour or no tour. Here is the band in 1975 when I was lucky enough to see them as a 15-year-old kid, and here they are, sadly, for "the last time" in 2019.

And here, finally, is undoubtedly the greatest of the many great songs that Tom. T. Hall, who also died this week, ever composed. Look him up if you are unfamiliar.

See you next week.
Eric Alterman is a CUNY Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, an award-winning journalist, and the author of 11 books, most recently Lying in State: Why Presidents Lie—and Why Trump Is Worse (Basic, 2020). Previously, he wrote The Nation’s "Liberal Media" column for 25 years. Follow him on Twitter @eric_alterman
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