Howellin’ Wolf


If certain conservatives fear the liberal media will turn public opinion against the upcoming war on Iraq, it’s too late. The cat’s out of the bag. Voices all along the political spectrum are questioning the administration’s strategy for a preemptive strike (a/k/a the Bush Doctrine), and according to the latest polls, public support for such a strike is eroding. Some conservatives have blamed The New York Times for intentionally manufacturing this anti-war consensus, which may or may not be true. But if it is, then three cheers for Executive Editor Howell Raines. With the rule of law and every nation’s security at stake, he could not have chosen a better cause.

No one denies the Times is flying in the face of Bush’s war plans. But the pundits taking shots at the Gray Lady have made a few blunders of their own. Consider Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer. On August 18, Krauthammer accused Raines of devoting his “front pages to editorializing about a coming American war” and compared him to tabloid mogul William Randolph Hearst. Hearst is said to have ignited the Spanish-American War of 1898 a year earlier, when he sent a cable to artist Frederic Remington in Cuba, saying, “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.” But, according to a reader’s comment that appeared in the Post August 24, the story about Hearst is “almost certainly” apocryphal. The cable never surfaced, and the dates don’t line up to support the conceit of a newspaper single-handedly launching (or stopping) a war.

Krauthammer’s central charge involved an op-ed by former national security adviser Henry Kissinger that appeared in The Washington Post on August 11, and two front-page news stories that appeared in the Times August 16 and 17. According to Krauthammer, the Times twisted the meaning of the op-ed to make the elder statesman sound anti-war. In fact, the Times described Kissinger’s position accurately on August 16, under the headline “Top Republicans Break With Bush on Iraq Strategy.”

But in one sentence at the top of the August 17 article, the Times mistakenly lumped Kissinger with former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, whose recent Wall Street Journal op-ed had advised against a preemptive Iraq attack altogether. Kissinger’s take was different, suggesting ways Bush could refine his preemptive-strike strategy to win the support of the international community. (Top priority: Stop talking about regime change, which sounds interventionist, and focus on fighting weapons of mass destruction.) So the Times made a slight error. The real issue is judgment. Was it news when Scowcroft and Kissinger critiqued Bush’s war strategy within days of each other? Of course it was. Sensing their own vulnerability, the warmongers decided to attack the messenger.

In an unsigned editorial posted on the Web August 16, The Weekly Standard blasted the Times for exaggerating the numbers of Republicans in revolt. But a week later, a piece by Standard editor Bill Kristol painted Bush’s critics as a huge group, an international “axis of appeasement . . . stretching from Riyadh to Brussels to Foggy Bottom, from Howell Raines to Chuck Hagel to Brent Scowcroft.” The truth is, substantial opposition to the coming war is not new. There has long been a split on Iraq between Republican hard-liners and moderates, between Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Even as they whipped the Times for overstating Kissinger’s critique, both Kristol and Krauthammer went too far in the other direction, downplaying the substantial challenges he posed. For example, Kissinger says that in order to win international support, the U.S. must be committed to post-war reconstruction in Iraq. That will take more than lip service. And then there is the fear that if the U.S. debuts the preemptive-strike doctrine, it might be used by India to justify attacking Pakistan, or by Israel to deport millions of Arabs. Kissinger’s op-ed plainly stated, “It is not in the American national interest to establish preemption as a universal principle available to every nation.”

Rather than parse that sentence, other conservative pundits flocked to the Times-bashing last week. In its lead editorial August 19, The Wall Street Journal scoffed at the notion that Republicans are in revolt against Bush, calling this wishful thinking by “the remnants of the old Vietnam left.” On Crossfire, Ann Coulter accused the Times of siding with Saddam Hussein at a time when the preemptive strike has 70 percent support in the opinion polls. (Get with it, Ann: As of last week’s Gallup poll, public support had fallen to 53 percent.) Crossfire‘s Tucker Carlson suggested that Raines’s well-known political views render him unfit to run a news operation—a standard that, if applied consistently, would be grounds for removing Roger Ailes from Fox News.

So far, the Times has shown no signs of backing down from its casus non-belli. On August 21, the lead editorial demanded that Bush make public whatever evidence he has for going to war, while Maureen Dowd mocked the hawks. Two days later, a news story reported that Bush’s search for allies had suffered “another setback,” and an op-ed by former assistant secretary of state James Rubin explained why our track record in Afghanistan might cause potential allies to doubt our capacity for nation-building in Iraq. The next day’s op-ed came from former secretary of state James Baker, a conservative, who heartily endorsed the Hussein ouster but implied Bush would be foolish to do it without international support.

Contrary to Krauthammer’s suggestion that Kissinger had been “kidnapped,” the gravelly voiced diplomat was all over the talk shows last week, declaring his support for a carefully crafted preemptive strike. Kissinger is too wily to suggest Bush and company are rogues with no regard for legal principles. But he obviously thinks Condoleezza Rice can come up with better rhetoric than calling Saddam Hussein an “evil man.” “The U.S. saying that it will go to war against every man defined as bad is [no way to] run an international system,” he rumbled to Charlie Rose, “particularly when you are the strongest nation in the world.”

This week, Raines must have been relieved to see The Washington Post picking up the slack. On August 26, the Post ran a front-pager reporting that White House lawyers have decided they don’t need permission from Congress to launch a war on Iraq, though they may ask for it anyway, just to play nice. Deep in the story came this opposition news: “Some leading conservatives” have already rejected the White House’s expansive interpretation of the president’s war powers.

I’m looking forward to the honest headline that says, “Bush Doctrine Violates Constitutional and International Law.”

Archive Highlights