I feel a certain unease with Ross Douthat’s disquiet with Jon Chait’s unhappiness happiness with Bill Kristol’s anger with certain liberals’ dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq. Seriously, Ross’s objection to Chait – or, more accurately, Ross’s unwillingness to wrestle with Chait’s argument – seems to rest entirely on the fact that Chait’s magazine, The New Republic, has a wishy-washy, passive-aggressive, hard-to-pin-down position on the war ...
The underlying mystery here is hardly a mystery. At TNR, Peretz remains a vigorous defender of the war. Chait and some others were for the war and have become critics of its execution. Foer and others were against it from the start. I’m not sure how you would synthesize these positions into Weekly Standard-style editorial calls-to-arms or what, in the nature of magazines, obliges TNR to do so. TNR and the Standard are simply different kinds of magazines.
Larison chimes in:
By the same token, Ross’ critique of Chait would be considerably more powerful if it were possible to discern clearly what Ross’ own view on the war was at the present time. It isn’t that Ross never writes about the war, but he doesn’t say much about what kind of Iraq policy he thinks would be best. In his bloggingheads appearances, he will often make a point of declaring himself to be something of an agnostic on the “surge,” and thus ends up, by default, with a “wait and see” position. That’s fair enough, but it is a bad position from which to criticise someone else’s reticence about Iraq policy.
Meanwhile, Chait himself writes that I'm guilty of a non sequitur for using his attack on Kristol as an excuse to gripe about TNR's recent silence on the Iraq War. I take his point, but I don't think that my turn was exactly a non sequitur so much as an expression of disinterest in a controversy that's completely tangential to the much-more important debate about what to do next in Iraq - a debate from which TNR, both in its editorials and in the essays it chooses to run, has largely absented itself of late. Kristol accused The New Republic of giving up on success in Iraq - indeed, of choosing to ignore evidence of success because of a commitment to a narrative of defeat - and cited the Beauchamp piece as his prime example, and I think Chait is absolutely right to call that criticism unfair and unfounded. (Though I think Chait's larger attempt to draw a contrast between the old neocon idealism and the new neocon thuggery is considerably weaker, as are some of his other swipes). But it's unfair and unfounded in part because it's impossible to tell what TNR does think about the war, which in turn gives the whole debate a sideshow quality that makes me inclined to tune it out.
Now it's true, as Larison notes, that it's likewise hard to tell what I think about the war, and one could argue that if it's okay for me to say that I don't have anything substantive to offer and leave it at that, then it's okay for The New Republic as well. But TNR isn't a twenty-seven-year old writer who's traveled very little outside the U.S., prefers film criticism to reading Foreign Affairs, and has spent the last year writing a book about domestic political history and public policy. TNR is a major Washington magazine with a good-sized staff and a prestigious list of a contributing editors and contributors - many of them foreign-policy experts of one kind or another - that asks to be taken seriously as a place where informed readers go to encounter smart center-left opinion on the major issues of the day. I don't think it's fair to simply say, as Matt does above, that TNR is a different kind of publication than the Standard; they do differ, but TNR runs staff editorials, just like TWS, and TNR is very much in the mix of Beltway political debate, just like TWS, both of which - to my mind, at least - create an obligation to be much more involved in the arguments over Iraq than have been lately.
And I don't just mean the arguments about the progress of the surge - I'd like more on our political options in dealing with Maliki's government, more on potential strategies for withdrawal, more how to deal with Iran, and so on and so forth. If the magazine's staff can't agree on an official editorial stance, then they should run more bylined pieces on these topics, even - or especially - if those pieces contradict one another. If there's a "cacophony" of opinion on the subject within the halls of TNR, then I want to hear it. From a branding point of view, I can see why they would want to steer clear of the Iraq debate (since it hasn't exactly been good for their image over the last few years), and I respect what Frank Foer has been trying to do overall with the magazine of late - namely, focusing it more on strong narrative writing than on Beinart-style hectoring. But at a time of polarization and paralysis in the national debate, I think a magazine with TNR's aspirations has a duty to contribute significantly to the conversation, even at the risk of being boring, repetitive, cacophonous or self-contradictory.
I don't just mean to go after TNR on this front. When the right-wing blogosphere was attacking them around the clock over the Beauchamp scandal, I suggested that this was a waste of everybody's time and a distraction from more pressing matters. When Max Boot a long attack on the advocates of withdrawal, I criticized him for failing to address the crucial question of what political strategy, if any, we should marry to our current military approach. (I would lodge a similar criticism against the Weekly Standard.) The same goes for that awful Michael Ignatieff piece I dinged earlier this month: The worst thing about it was Ignatieff's failure, after announcing that "the decision facing the United States over Iraq is paradigmatic of political judgment at its most difficult," to advance any serious argument about what decision the United States should make.
I apologize if this kind of complaining about others' opinions, rather than advancing my own, is annoying to my readers. But at the moment it's the only way I can find to contribute to the debate - by trying to goad other writers and thinkers into doing a better job of writing and thinking their way out of the trap we seem to be in.