Over the weekend I mentioned the full-throated endorsement, in a Washington Post op-ed by Joshua Muravchik, for going to war with Iran. In case you wonder whether I'm mischaracterizing it, the actual headline on the article was, "War With Iran Is Probably Our Best Option."
Since then the news focus has drifted, partly because of the impending election results from Israel. But the prominent play for such bellicose views was a powerful distillation of what I'm calling the Chickenhawk Nation syndrome: a country in which people breezily recommend war but are uninterested in the tedious details of who will do the fighting or whether the proposed war could be won. Thus some samples of reader reaction:
1) But it's just an op-ed! A number of readers pointed out that this was not the official view of the Post's editorial board but rather that of an outside writer. Indeed, that of a writer known for such views: Back in 2006 he published a very similar op-ed in the LA Times which began, "WE MUST bomb Iran." Today in The Nation Ali Gharib went into more aspects of what he called "The Worst Case for War With Iran You'll Read in a Major Newspaper."
A reader who recently left the military writes:
Generally I detest the "chickenhawk" attack—it seems to me Americans should be able to weigh in on military affairs even if they aren't veterans,and indeed nothing good would happen if you left this stuff to the military to think about. But this disgusted, demoralized former soldier is sick of how often "we can strike as often as necessary," [a line from the WaPo piece] means, "you can." And when you're done, we'll toss you to the curb for being stupid enough to have been a soldier, thankyouverymuch,
That said, though, I'm perplexed by the repeated attacks on the Post for publishing the letter ... The opinion Muravchik voices is very much out in the wild—I for one hear it voiced a lot—and the Post op-eds probably ought to be open to ideas not their own. I'm happier than not that they're letting people—like you—be aware that this idea is out there. That's their job.
Would many nuts (surely including Mr. Muravchik) freak out if some other country's paper wrote something similar? Sure we would. But that's not an argument for making our press monolithic, it's an argument for thinking harder about what it means when something shows up in some foreign news.
I agree that it's useful for this argument to be exposed in explicit form, and that op-ed pages exist in part to show a range of opinion. But anyone who has followed WaPo over the past 15 years knows that along with the WSJ it's had consistently the most hawkish editorial line in foreign policy among the mainstream media. Of the mainstream organs that had pushed hard for the Iraq invasion back in 2002, it is unusual in not having conducted a public "were we wrong?" reassessment, as many others did on the tenth anniversary of the war. Three months ago, Jacob Heilbrunn and and James Carden argued in the National Interest that the Post had become "the most reckless editorial page in America." That's why this article, in this setting, drew a different kind of notice than it would have elsewhere.
2) The quest for virality. A reader writes in about the craft elements of this piece and the decision to publish it.
I'm a journalist who was incensed by Muravchik's chickenhawk column, because it was so smug and so irresponsible.
The journalist part is important to this story. Here's the thing. This column is almost identical to one he wrote in 2006 for the Los Angeles Times. (The names have changed, but the structure and ideas are identical. Even some of the phrases are the same!)
Now, as a person, okay he's been beating the same war drum for ages, big deal. As a journalist, and a freelancer who absolutely struggles sometimes to get stuff out there, I just cannot stand that not only has [various epithets amounting to "he"] not come up with any new ideas in the past nine years, but he is getting uncritical publication from editors in the name of virality, because you know that's what the Washington Post is trying to do.
3) The enemy won't just sit there. Another Army veteran noticed the similarities to Muravchik's 2006 article and made the broader point about the problem with loose chickenhawk talk:
I would like to draw your attention to the fact Mr. Muravchik wrote a nearly identical Op-Ed in 2006 for the LA Times entitled "Bomb Iran" in the middle of the Iraq War... Fanning the flames of war is what he does.
I would also like to point out his confident assumption that war is something we do to other people, and they sit there and take it. Nobody strikes back in a time and manner of their own choosing; nobody has heard of asymmetric warfare. In reality, war is more like football where the opposition has its own strategy, and even takes the initiative once in a while.
Enough said. It is depressing beyond belief that people like Muravchik are enjoying national prominence again.
4) Intensify the contradictions: balanced budget versus more defense spending. Recent news stories, like this one in the NYT, have pointed out a growing tension within the GOP on budget issues. It pits those who are mainly interested in cutting the budget against those who are mainly interested in increasing defense spending — not to mention those who would like to do both. For another time: the way this tension worked out (or didn't) in the Ronald Reagan years. For the moment, this note from a reader:
Thank you for noticing the Washington Post's warmongering, for that is what it is. I would point out that for the previous 4+ years, the Washington Post editorial board has been screaming loud and long about the US debt, which it cites as rationale for cutting seniors' earned, and already less than survival level Social Security benefits.
If the US is so poor that it needs to steal from its grandparents, how can it afford a war with Iran, expansion of the war in Afghanistan, and probably a war with Russia, as well? Why does no one ask the WaPo editorial board these questions?
Tomorrow, we'll see how the results from Israel affect the negotiations with Iran—including the aspect almost never mentioned in US discourse, which is that five other countries besides the United States are currently party to the sanctions and possible deal. These include China and Russia, hardly patsies for U.S. positions, along with France, Germany, and the U.K. The idea that a letter from Tom Cotton and 46 other Senators would change the policy of the Russians or Chinese in a useful direction ... well, welcome to the big leagues, Senator Cotton.
Starting tomorrow in this space we'll look again at the A-10 and F-35 debates, which have had important new developments, and more reader reactions pro and con on the implications of a chickenhawk outlook.
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