A Decade Later

I haven’t written anything about Syria yet because a) I’m no expert and b) so many others have already written so much good material about it. But this morning, I woke up to a column in the New York Times from established columnist Nick Kristof, and I found myself drawn to the keyboard by what he wrote, to say what I can, in my way.

Kristof’s piece was introduced to me by a tweet from Bill Burton while I was still waking up. If you’re not familiar, Burton is the former Deputy Press Secretary for the Obama White House (also former DCCC communications director under Rahm Emanuel) and current senior strategist at Priorities USA. The tweet said, simply: “Important piece from Kristof in support of military action in Syria,” and gave the link. Burton, as you can see from his bio, is a consummate “company man.” His entire job has been political strategy and the communication thereof, so it’s not a surprise to see him shouting as loudly as he can about any piece which makes the case for his former boss’ chosen path to war in Syria.

That doesn’t mean, by itself, that Kristof’s piece is bad or suspect…but without even reading it, Burton’s highlighting of the piece guarantees that it’s at least coincidentally in near-total alignment with the President’s position. And it is. The piece is remarkable for it’s attempt to present an evenhanded, I-wish-there-were-a-better-way-but-this-is-just-common-sense approach to the thorny issue of the Syrian civil war, while subtly (and with no fingerprints) suggesting those who do oppose the proposed military action are not just incorrect, but somehow wrongheaded:

In other words, how is being “pro-peace” in this case much different in effect from being “pro-Assad” and resigning oneself to the continued slaughter of civilians?

When you see a mainstream journalist resorting to tired red/fascist/terrorist-baiting tactics like the above, you know we’re well and truly engaged in war mode. Kristof should know better, because he sounds here like every “warblogger” who, in the wake of 9/11, pushed for whatever war George W. Bush wanted. Here’s Glenn “Instapundit” Reynolds in December of 2002, calling those urging caution in Iraq objectively pro-Saddam:

I said that the peace movement is playing into Saddam’s hands and is thus “objectively pro-Saddam.”

If you can slip a sheet of paper sideways between Kristof’s argument today and Reynolds’ from a decade ago, you’re a better word-parser than I. Back during the run-up to the Iraq war, those of us looking to refute claims like Reynolds’ of being “objectively pro-Saddam” sometimes had to violate the Godwin rule and remind people of similar quotes from figures farther back in history. But today, when considering the Syria question, all of us who were sentient and paying attention during the Bush administration can now remember – and put our hands on – plenty of quotes from that time which allow history itself to demonstrate with glaring retrospective clarity the fallacy of such arguments.

What’s worst about Kristof’s piece isn’t even the spots like these (and there’s more than one) where he baits and smears the war-detractors. It’s the lip-service he pays to being one of them. Kristof, like many “liberal hawks” of the Iraq war era, peppers his piece with exculpatory clauses (“Critics of American military action in Syria are right to point out all the risks and uncertainties of missile strikes, and they have American public opinion on their side,” or “A decade ago, I was aghast that so many liberals were backing the Iraq war.”). These clauses serve a dual function. First, they function to reassure the liberals who are actually opposing the war that Kristof is truly, at heart, one of them. That gives Kristof cred (and, he hopes, forgiveness for what he’s about to do) with the doves. But such disclaimers also allow Kristof to then turn around and expect cred from both the hawks and the undecided by saying “see, I’m really a liberal dove…but on this one, I agree with YOU.” Et, voila! – instant Very Serious Person.

The problem with Kristof’s rationale for his argument is that it doesn’t stand scrutiny. It’s true Kristof did, during Iraq, raise red flags about the Bush administration’s heedless rush to war, regardless of the facts. In that regard, Kristof got it more correct than too many of his colleagues in the press who were just as cowed and terrified in the wake of 9/11 as most of the citizenry, and who uncritically and cheerfully banged the drum for war. But in a 2002 column entitled Wimps on Iraq, Kristof gave away the game regarding his real position on the Iraq question:

President Bush has convinced me that there is no philosophical reason we should not overthrow the Iraqi government, given that Iraqis themselves would be better off, along with the rest of the world.

Kristof followed this remarkable admission up by saying “Mr. Bush has not overcome some practical concerns about an invasion,” but given the fact that no one disputed Saddam was a bad guy, Kristof’s posing of practical concerns about the Iraq invasion seem, in retrospect, to be just the reverse-position triangulation of what he’s doing today: attempting to seem reasonable. Then, Kristof threw the sop to the warhawks by saying he agreed with regime change (so as not to appear like an unserious hippie or anything), but went on to bring up many of the concerns a lot of the rest of us were raising about a potential Iraq invasion.

The lesson Kristof seems to have taken from Iraq, however, is that once the bombs start falling, public opinion swings (at least initially) toward the side of the warhawks, and the momentum thus becomes much greater to just argue “in for a penny, in for a pound,” and urge that (since we’re already there and everything) we just keep pushing for regime change. Regime change? Even Obama isn’t talking (publicly) about regime change. Is that really what Kristof wants?

You bet it is. Kristof said it plainly in the run-up to the Iraq war. Today, he knows it’s toxic to say such a thing outright, so he resorts to supporting the limited action that’s actually on offer, knowing that it can easily be expanded once we’re already “a little bit pregnant.” Here’s Kristof’s tell:

Involving the International Criminal Court sounds wonderful but would make it more difficult to hammer out a peace deal in which President Bashar al-Assad steps down.

Right there, as News Connoisseur on Twitter pointed out, Kristof shows a discerning reader that, just as in Iraq, his real position is that of liberal hawk: he favors interventionism as a rule. However, also as with Iraq, I think you’d be hard pressed to find any but a very tiny handful of reality-deniers who believe Assad isn’t a murderous thug the world would be better off without. The real disagreement is over what to DO about that shared knowledge and belief regarding Assad, and it’s the same disagreement as it was in Iraq: will US military action help or not? Kristof’s attempt to suggest that war skeptics are “effectively pro-Assad” is little more than an attempt to muddy those waters, and I’m pretty sure he knows that. Even if he doesn’t, it comes through pretty clearly in his writing.

The bottom line on this is that Nick Kristof is today what he was ten years ago and for all I know always has been: a liberal interventionist. It’s clear from his consistent support for regime change. The only difference between now and then is that in 2002, Kristof thought his credibility rested on making sure he didn’t rush pell-mell into support for war (war proposed by a Republican, remember). A decade later, the Iraq experience taught Kristof that once the media juggernaut gears up for war, there’s no price to be paid for hippie-punching (and certainly no reason to feel the need to appeal to them) — so he’s willing to bait them using literally the same tired clichés used by the warbloggers of Iraq, without ever addressing the best of their arguments against military intervention in Syria. It may look like a 180-degree switch of position, but in fact, it’s very consistent: regime change for “bad guys” is always desirable, and war is a reasonable means to achieve it. Cruise missiles for a better tomorrow.