Friday, June 25, 2010

Eric Alterman: Foolish loudmouths in the military and in the media

  If you take a look at General Stanley McChrystal’s complaints about Vice Joe President Biden, Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke, and U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry, Spencer Ackerman notes that, “All the criticisms—of Eikenberry, of Jones, of Holbrooke, of Biden—are actually just immature and arrogant snipes at how annoying Team America (what, apparently, McChrystal’s crew calls itself) finds them. This is not mission-first, to say the least.”

  Instead of an explanation of why Ambassador Eikenberry’s objections to present military strategy are misplaced or mistaken, we get snide remarks designed to discredit without deigning to engage, such as, “Here’s one that covers his flank for the history books. Now if we fail, they can say, ‘I told you so.’” “Biden?” suggests a top adviser. “Did you say: Bite Me?” and one aide calls Jim Jones, a retired four-star general and veteran of the Cold War, a “clown” who remains “stuck in 1985.” What the hell does that mean?

  Indeed, what is most striking to me about the Rolling Stone piece is how the criticisms it uncovers are mundane, clichéd, and unsubstantive—just like the critique one hears over and over in the media about the progress of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy. I do not refer to those who believe that President Obama is a massive disappointment with regard to constitutional liberties and the war on terror. I share many of these. Rather it’s the conservative talking heads—not the crazies on Fox and elsewhere, but the allegedly thoughtful ones who shake their heads at the shame they discern regarding Obama’s inability to shape the world according to the blueprints they keep in their heads.

  A most pristine illustration of this phenomenon can be found in a harsh critique of Obama’s foreign policy authored by Mortimer Zuckerman—the real estate billionaire who owns U.S News and World Report.

  The article is, in many respects, an amazing performance. It consists of one unsupported assertion after another, occasionally stitched together by journalistic weasel words, such as “seems” and “appears,” and a heavy use of the passive voice so that the writer does not have to take responsibility for making any statements that are either provable or disprovable. What’s more, it asserts that millions, sometimes billions, of people agree with his assertions without any evidence offered to support these beliefs. Do I exaggerate? Let’s take a look:

  Zuckerman writes: “The reviews of Obama’s performance have been disappointing,” yet he cites none. “He has seemed uncomfortable in the role of leading other nations, and often seems to suggest there is nothing special about America’s role in the world.” That’s two “seems” in one sentence. “Seems” is another way for a journalist to say “I am making this up.” (“Seems? Nay it is. I know not seems,” sayeth a famously indecisive prince of Denmark. Act I, Scene II.)

  He continues, “The global community was puzzled over the pictures of Obama bowing to some of the world’s leaders and surprised by his gratuitous criticisms of and apologies for America’s foreign policy under the previous administration of George W. Bush.” Oh really? Just who and what is “global community?” Does Zuckerman have a cell phone number for them? An email address? Or is the author of this piece perhaps putting his own thoughts in the mouths of um, the entire world?

  In this case, however, Zuckerman does cite a source: “Middle East authority, Fouad Ajami” who, Zuckerman writes, “pointed out that Obama seems unaware that it is bad form and even a great moral lapse to speak ill of one’s own tribe while in the lands of others.” Ajami, as it happens, is a right-wing hawk and a Bush administration partisan. This “authority” sounded very much like Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh in a recent editorial for The Wall Street Journal, where he is a regular contributor, when he discussed the “un-American moment in our history” that gave rise to Obama’s election. Gone, he argued, is “the empiricism in political life that had marked the American temper in politics.” “A charismatic leader had risen in a manner akin to the way politics plays out in distressed and Third World societies,” Ajami went on. Obama interpreted the election, he said, “as a plebiscite granting him a writ to remake the basic political compact of this republic,” and “overwhelmed all restraint.”

  Next Zuckerman gets specific, and let’s see what he finds. “Even in Britain, for decades our closest ally, the talk in the press—supported by polls—is about the end of the ‘special relationship’ with America.” Again, no evidence for what he calls “the talk,” to say nothing of whether there was more such talk when George W. Bush was president.

  Next? “French President Nicolas Sarkozy openly criticized Obama for months, including a direct attack on his policies at the United Nations. Sarkozy cited the need to recognize the real world, not the virtual world, a clear reference to Obama’s speech on nuclear weapons.” Two questions: 1) Is this fellow really implying that criticism of an American president by a French president is something new? 2) What is so “clear” about that reference to nuclear weapons, which after all, has no mention whatsoever of weapons of any kind?

  And what does he say about Afghanistan, where the macho men on McChrystal’s staff so enjoyed their frat-boy cut-up lines? “[A]nxiety was provoked by Obama’s severe public criticism of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his coterie of family and friends for their lackluster leadership, followed by a reversal of sorts regarding the same leaders." There goes that useful passive voice again. “Anxiety was provoked,” huh? How did that happen? Could it be because Karzai stole the election, enriched his drug lord brother, and flirted with the Taliban? Hmmm, Zuckerman does not mention that.

  Obama, he continues, “is one of those people who believe that the world was born with the word and exists by means of persuasion, such that there is no person or country that you cannot, by means of logical and moral argument, bring around to your side.” Again, evidence? Oh, nevermind. “As the former president of the Council on Foreign Relations, Les Gelb, put it, there is ‘the impression that Obama might confuse speeches with policy.’” There is? Where? Who has it? Who said it? How did they know? Again, evidence? Again, nevermind. (And by the way, who is Les Gelb’s notion of an effective foreign policy vicar? That would be Dick Cheney.)

  But where is all this going, Mort?

  “The end result is that a critical mass of influential people in world affairs who once held high hopes for the president have begun to wonder whether they misjudged the man. They are no longer dazzled by his rock star personality, and there is a sense that there is something amateurish and even incompetent about how Obama is managing U.S. power." I realize this is getting tiresome, but just who is this “critical mass of influential people in world affairs” and how does Mort know what they are thinking? Of course he does not say because they are likely only thinking it in Mort’s own mind. And as for “this sense,” again where? And again, held by whom? And again, based on what evidence?

  I know it’s no fun to check the facts compared to say, treating your unsupported opinions as facts, but if Zuckerman had done legwork like Romesh Ratnesar of Time and gotten his hands on the Pew Global Attitudes Project survey released last week, he might have learned that “President Barack Obama remains popular in most parts of the world” and “in most countries, especially in wealthier nations, President Barack Obama gets an enthusiastic thumbs up for the way he has handled the world economic crisis”—the only exception being the United States. What’s more, “opinions of the U.S., which improved markedly in 2009 in response to Obama’s new presidency, also have remained far more positive than they were for much of George W. Bush’s tenure.” There’s plenty more there if you're interested, but my point is, one has to wonder what is really at work after reading over 1,600 words that are entirely divorced from reality.

  I guess this is a good time to mention that Zuckerman, in addition to being a billionaire real estate magnate and magazine owner, is also a massive Jewish philanthropist that for a while got himself named head Council of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations—and remember there is no such thing as a “minor Jewish organization.” The concerns of the government of Israel have been foremost among his own ever since, and he has never publicly disagreed with any government of Israel on anything substantial insofar as I am aware. (We appeared on “Larry King” during the 2006 Israeli invasion of Gaza—Zuckerman was replacing David Horowtiz—and he took the exact positions on every issue related to the invasion that the Israeli government was taking at that moment in time, which was not easy as these positions were ever-changing.)

  So when he writes, “Obama has asserted that America is not at war with the Muslim world. The problem is that parts of the Muslim world are at war with America and the West,” we can assume that he is aware of the logical inconsistency in his argument but does not really care. But I do. The fact that “parts of the Muslim world” are at war with America does not in any way imply that America should be at “war with the Muslim world.” It implies that we should be “at war” only with those parts that are at war with us. Even George W. Bush was always careful to make that distinction.

  So it is rather difficult to take Zuckerman seriously when he goes on to complain about the “religious intolerance, failing economies, tribalism, and gender apartheid that together contribute to jihadist extremism.” And when he adds his complaint that Obama “chose not to publicly support the Iranians who went to the streets in opposition to their oppressive government,” he is telling an outright lie. What does Zuckerman think Obama had in mind when he said the “iron fist of brutality” had been used to silence protesters and called the actions of officials an “unjust suppression?”

  When it comes to these Arabs, Zuckerman naturally understands them better than the president. “The Arabs believe you do not deal with Iran with the open hand of a handshake but with the clenched fist of power. Arab leaders fear an Iran proceeding full steam with its nuclear weapons program on top of its programs to develop intermediate-range ballistic missiles. They did not see Obama or his administration as understanding the region, where naiveté is interpreted as a weakness of character, as amateurism, and as proof of the absence of the tough stuff of which leaders are made.” Again, add up all the evidence for all of these assertions and you still come up with $2.25 less than it costs to buy a subway ticket in New York.

  President Obama, in his capacity as commander-in-chief, decided he had no choice but to cashier General McChrystal. If the fellow who owns U.S. News and World Report were to demonstrate a similar sense of responsibility, the fellow who wrote this embarrassing yet self-revealing piece might want to stick to his day job. Barring that, perhaps he might wish do to do some reporting in, say, Afghanistan.…

  About the author: Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College. He is also a Nation columnist and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His most recent book is, “Why We're Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America's Most Important Ideals.” His “Altercation” blog appears sporadically here and he is a regular contributor to “The Daily Beast.”

  This article was published by the Center for American Progress.

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