November 2009 | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

November 2009

Obama, So Far

   Above the Fold

    On the eve of the most important foreign policy speech of his presidency, pundits are more divided than ever over what Barack Obama has or has not accomplished in the first ten months of his presidency.

    FCP’s common-sense-of-the-week-award goes to Jacob WeisbergWriting in Slate, Weisberg makes a series of extremely sensible observations.

Among them:

* This conventional wisdom about Obama’s first year isn’t just premature—it’s sure to be flipped on its head by the anniversary of his inauguration on Jan. 20. If, as seems increasingly likely, Obama wins passage of a health care reform a bill by that date, he will deliver his first State of the Union address having accomplished more than any other postwar American president at a comparable point in his presidency. This isn’t an ideological point or one that depends on agreement with his policies. It’s a neutral assessment of his emerging record—how many big, transformational things Obama is likely to have made happen in his first 12 months in office.

* Through the summer, Obama caught flak for letting Congress lead the process, as opposed to setting out his own proposal. Now his political strategy is being vindicated. The bill he signs may be flawed in any number of ways—weak on cost control, too tied to the employer-based system, and inadequate in terms of consumer choice. But given the vastness of the enterprise and the political obstacles, passing an imperfect behemoth and improving it later is probably the only way to succeed where his predecessors failed.

*  If Obama governs for four or eight years and accomplishes nothing else, he may be judged the most consequential domestic president since LBJ.

* Obama’s claim to a fertile first year doesn’t rest on health care alone. There’s mounting evidence that the $787 billion economic stimulus he signed in February—combined with the bank bailout package—prevented an economic depression. Should the stimulus have been larger? Should it have been more weighted to short-term spending, as opposed to long-term tax cuts? Would a second round be a good idea? Pundits and policymakers will argue these questions for years to come. But few mainstream economists seriously dispute that Obama’s decisive action prevented a much deeper downturn and restored economic growth in the third quarter.

    That’s all true.  The other side of the coin, which Weisberg ignores, is best expressed by Glenn Greenwald, who has become the conscience of America on all questions of torture and civil liberties.  Greenwald takes Kevin Drum, Andrew Sullivan and Matthew Yglesisas to task for giving Obama more or less of a free pass for his failure to reverse many of Bush’s policies in these areas.   Yglesias, for example, wrote “I agree that the civil liberties record hasn’t been exactly what I would have wanted, but I’m continually surprised that people are disappointed in this turn. Of all the things for an incumbent President of the United States to take political risks fighting for, obviously reducing the power of the executive branch is going to be dead last on the list. If you want to see civil liberties championed, that’s going to have to come from congress.”

    For Greenwald, and for anyone who shares George Orwell’s conviction that one’s own side must live up to its own principles, Yglesias’ analysis simply won’t do.

    “It’s interesting how what was once lambasted as ‘Constitution-shredding’ under George Bush is now nothing more than:  Obama’s ‘civil liberties record hasn’t been exactly what I would have wanted,’ writes Greenwald.  “Also, the premise implicitly embedded in Matt’s argument is the standard Beltway dogma that there would be serious political costs from reversing the Bush/Cheney abuses of the Constitution and civil liberties.  The success of Obama’s campaign – which emphatically and repeatedly vowed to do exactly that  – ought to have permanently retired that excuse.”

    “Whatever else is true,” Greenwald continues, “watching Obama embrace extremist policies can still be ‘disappointing’ even if one isn’t surprised that he’s doing it.  I could understand and accept a lot more easily this blithe acquiescence to Obama’s record if it weren’t for the fact that progressives and Democrats spent so many years screaming bloody murder over Bush’s use of indefinite detention, military commissions, state secrets, renditions, and extreme secrecy – policies Obama has largely and/or completely adopted as his own.”

    FCP shares all of Greenwald’s disappointment over Obama’s failure to repeal all of Bush’s extra-consitutional policies.   So far, the only major act of the administration on the other side of this argument–besides the outright banning of torture–has been the appointment of Michael Posner as assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.

   Posner, who headed Human Rights First for three decades, has as good a record of fighting the Bush administration’s torture policies as anyone else in America,  so his selection was extremely encouraging.  It has also gone almost completely unreported by the MSM and the blogosphere alike.

    Meanwhile, holding up the radical fringe this week is Newsweek editor Jon Meacham, with a piece which could easily make him even more of a laughing-stock than he was before. So far, Meacham is the only “mainstream” pundit I know to take Liz Cheney seriously, after she suggested her father really ought to run for president.

    Ignoring the fact that Cheney was the author of almost all of the foreign policy decisions which have brought the nation to the edge of catastrophe, Meacham heartily endorses Liz Cheney’s suggestion–“Because Cheney is a man of conviction, has a record on which he can be judged, and whatever the result, there could be no ambiguity about the will of the people. The best way to settle arguments is by having what we used to call full and frank exchanges about the issues, and then voting. A contest between Dick Cheney and Barack Obama would offer us a bracing referendum on competing visions.”

    Bracing indeed.   Apparently, the plight of Newsweek is now so desperate, Meacham will do literallyanything to try to bring attention to his magazine.


Update: For a shameful example of the non-journalism so often favored by Washington journalists, don’t miss this morning’s appalling interview  with Meacham’s would-be Republican presidential nominee in Politico.  Conducted by Mike Allen and Jim Vandehei, the 90-minute exchange does not include a single tough question.   It also contains absolutely zero news, just an endless repetition of the same Cheney rant we have heard over and over again this year.  I guess that’s why Politico is leading with it today.

   The intrepid Politico reporters reported:

   “Cheney was asked if he thinks the Bush administration bears any responsibility for the disintegration of Afghanistan because of the attention and resources that were diverted to Iraq. ‘I basically don’t,’ he replied without elaborating.”

   Follow up, gentlemen? Naturally, there was none.

   If either of these reporters knew any of the details about this subject, they might have asked the former vice president why reducing the number of American troops in Afghanistan from 48,000 to 37,000 in Cheney’s final year of office–and slashing aid to Afghanistan from State and the Department of defense from $9.6 billion to $5.4 billion during the same period– had nothing to do with the current meltdown over there.   But the pristine ignorance of these reporters insures an utterly free ride for the their subject.

   As the indispensable Steve Benen points out  at The Washington Monthly this morning, “there’s no real journalism to be found. No fact-checking, no pushback, no scrutiny. Just an uninterrupted string of predictable, misguided nonsense. Cheney could have just written a blog post/screed, and had Politico publish it. This would have saved Mike Allen and Jim Vandehei the trouble of adding quote marks to their stenography.”




Lessons for Afghanistan from Lyndon Johnson's last Secretary of Defense

 Above the Fold

   Forty odd years ago, in the spring of 1968, when America was trapped in another terrible quagmire, William Westmoreland, the commanding the general in Vietnam, made a startling request of  president Lyndon B. Johnson: on top of the 500,000 American troops already serving in Southeast Asia, Westmoreland said he  needed 206,000 more to finish the job. 

    When that 206,000 number was reported in a headline on the front page of The New York Times, it caused “a national disturbance,” Clark Clifford remembered.

    Clifford had been brought into Johnson’s administration in 1968 to be the new Secretary of Defense, because he had been a reliable hawk on the Vietnam war and–to Johnson’s dismay–Clifford’s predecessor, Robert McNamara, had lost confidence in America’s ability to prevail in Vietnam.   But after Clifford arrived at the Pentagon, his views about the war underwent a very rapid metamorphosis.

    “Will three hundred thousand more men do the job?” Clifford asked his generals, and he received no assurance that they would.  How long would  the war last with hundreds of thousands of more troops to wage it?  Six months?  A year? Two years?   No one could agree.  Worse still, Clifford couldn’t even find a single man willing to express any confidence in his own guesses.

    “It all began to add up to the realization on my part that we’d been through a period of the never-never land in thinking that we were going to win this,” Clifford told me twenty years later–and  Clifford ended up convincing Lyndon Johnson that another huge troop increase in Vietnam would be a disaster.

    Now we are mired in another unwinnable war, half a world away, in a country governed by a deeply corrupt president.   If we are lucky–really lucky–Karl W. Eikenberry, the retired lieutenant general now serving as America’s ambassador to Afghanistan, will have the same effect on his president that Clark Clifford had on his.

    Just as Clifford had special standing as a hawk on the Vietnam War, Eikenberry’s words carry special weight because he is the former American military commander in Afghanistan.  The news last week that Eikenberry had sent two cables questioning the wisdom of General Stanley A. McChrystal’s request for 40,000 additional troops may have come just in time to prevent Obama from drowning his presidency in another hopeless war.

    Eikenberry’s sensible skepticism was a refreshing contrast to the attitude of so many Washington “journalists” who are, almost unbelievably, repeating all of the mistakes they made as cheerleaders in the run up to our last spectacular national adventure, the War in Iraq. 

    Why are they doing this?

    As Hendrik Hertzberg explained the fundamental problem of Washington to me a couple of years ago, “It’s much harder to damage your career by consistently supporting war and cruelty than by consistently supporting peace and love. The default position is ‘bombs away.’”

   And that goes for journalists and public officials alike.

    In that venerable “bombs away” spirit,  David Broder echoed dozens of his confreres when he wrote in The Washington Post last week  that “the cost of indecision is growing every day.”   Instead of rejoicing that there was now some real debate within the administration over the idiotic idea of sharply escalating American involvement in Afghanistan, Broder reached for exactly the wrong quote from exactly the right person.  Broder wrote that “Obama needs to remember what Clark Clifford, one of Harry Truman’s closest advisers, said: that the president ‘believed that even a wrong decision was better than no decision at all.’ “

   If only Broder wasn’t too senile to remember what Clifford had said to Lyndon Johnson about Vietnam, instead.

    Then we have intrepid TV reporters like Chip Reid, the chief White House Correspondent for CBS News.  Why Reid holds that title is another deep Washington mystery–except that he looks right for the job.  Last Thursday, Reid filed a lengthy and not completely unbalanced report for the CBS Evening News,  about the president’s deliberations on Afghanistan.  It was perfectly OK, really, until Reid got to his kicker–the place reporters often use to put their own opinions in someone else’s mouth.

    “That the president is so thoroughly researching such a critical decision is a good thing,” said Reid, “according to CBS News national security consultant Juan Zarate.  But, there’s great danger,  [Zarate] says, if it looks like uncertainty.”  Then we got Zarate himself, the only talking head in Reid’s whole piece:

    “It’s the body language of indecision, or the perception of indecision, that may matter more, in some ways.  It matters in terms of how our allies view our sense of resolve in Afghanistan, how our enemies perceive our willingness to have backbone for whatever decision is made.”

    Once upon a time, not so very long ago, when the former deputy national security advisor to the previous president made a completely mindless observation like that one, he would at least have been identified as a former Republican official now challenging  a Democratic president. But in the wonderful world of 21st century Washington, a Bush aparatchek like Zarate can now have his past magically erased by CBS News, where he is reborn on the evening news as an objective “national security consultant to CBS“–with no mention whatsoever of his previous employment.

    There’s another piece of extremely recent history that all of the Washington hawks demanding that Obama escalate the war have conveniently forgotten.   In his final year in office, it was George Bush who reduced the number of American troops in Afghanistan from 48,000 in June of 2008, to 37,000 in January of this year.  During the same period, aide to Afghanistan from State and the Department of defense was slashed almost in half, from $9.6 billion in 2007 to $5.4 billion in 2008, according to an excellent new report from the Center for Strategic & International Studies.

    So after spending more than $167 billion on the war in Afghanistan, and failing for seven years in a row to come up with a winning strategy, Bush sharply reduced American resources in Afghanistan during his final year in office, pretty much guaranteeing the god-awful mess Obama inherited when he took office. 

   Now we can only pray that Obama will follow the advice of his ambassador and his vice president, and reverse course before this war buries his presidency exactly the same way Vietnam buried Lyndon Johnson’s.


Update: For Ed Koch’ clarion call for immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan go here;
 and for additional, relevant Westmoreland quotes, see Barry Eisler’s post.