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11 September 1998

Life in this celebrity press corps: If it’s real debate on Iraq you want, you’ll stay far away from the Post

Synopsis: We deserve real debate about U.S. policy in Iraq. The Washington Post can’t quite seem to provide it.

Albright Defends Handling of Iraq
Thomas W. Lippman, The Washington Post,9/10/98

The Betrayal of Scott Ritter
Fred Hiatt, The Washington Post,9/6/98

The End of the Clinton Show
Michael Kelly, The Washington Post,9/2/98

Is there something wrong with U.S. policy in Iraq? Scott Ritter’s resignation from the U.N. weapons team has pointedly raised the question. And it might be a mark of a great public discourse, if the issue received real debate.

At THE HOWLER, sad to say, we’re still waiting. In recent weeks, most press corps attention has gone to key questions about where President Clinton may have once placed his hands. It’s hard to lock in on biological warfare, when there’s big issues like that to get straight on.

But what has happened, in recent weeks, when the press corps hasaddressed Scott Ritter’s questions? In our view, we’ve seen striking examples of the sad, lazy discourse so typical of this celebrity press corps. Last week, we criticized Michael Kelly’s slapdash treatment of the Ritter question in his “Clinton Show” piece (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/3/98). Now that Secretary Albright has defended her policy in a New Orleans appearance before the American Legion, we thought we’d revisit the Kelly piece, and take a look at this Fred Hiatt piece, which appeared in last Sunday’s Post.

In her statement before the American Legion, Albright gave a varied defense of the U.S. approach to Iraq (see Lippman in the Post). She hailed Wednesday’s 15-0 vote in the U.N. Security Council, suspending periodic reviews of economic sanctions on Iraq; the vote was a sign, Albright said, that the U.S. was building support for its policies. She said recent statements by Richard Butler, chairman of U.N. weapons inspectors, showed Ritter was factually misinformed in his presentation to the Senate. And Albright “argued that more selective, nuanced tactics adopted by the administration would prove more effective [than Ritter’s approach] in hemming in Iraqi President Saddam Hussein,” according to Lippman in the Post.

Is Albright right in her assesssment? At THE HOWLER, we don’t have a clue. Obviously, the issues are difficult for lay people to judge, and have been little discussed by the press corps. We haven’t seen even the start of a public discourse that would let us judge Ritter’s views.

But people who want to evaluate Iraq policy will want to consider the things Albright said. They will want to consider, not just Ritter’s complaints, but the policy rationale of the Secretary. Serious people will not simply assume that Ritter’s complaints represent well-founded judgment. Serious people will want to study all sides in the ongoing Iraq policy debate.

And that’s exactly what did not occur in recent treatments by Kelly and Hiatt.

Granted, Albright had yet not stated her case when Kelly and Hiatt wrote their (premature) treatments. But just to refresh you on our concerns, let’s quote, in full, what Kelly said in condemning Iraq policy last week:

KELLY (two paragraphs): Confronted with the reality of Iraq’s refusal to destroy its weapons of mass destruction, the administration declares its support for the U.N. Special Commission inspectors in Iraq.

Then, on Aug. 26, comes the resignation of William S. Ritter, the longest-serving American weapons inspector in Iraq. The highly respected Ritter says that the administration has supported a secret Security Council decision to abandon serious inspections in “a surrender to Iraqi leadership.” On ABC-TV’s “This Week,” Ritter asserts that the administration has placed “considerable pressure” on inspectors to avoid any inspections that might provide confrontation, and that administration officials forced the cancellation of two recent inspections.

This was one of three examples Kelly gave of what he called the “Clinton Show,” a presidential period informed by a pair of “false and dangerous ideas.” Trust us (or read the whole piece for yourself): Kelly was claiming, in standard blunderbuss fashion, that Clinton policy was foolish all over the world; and Kelly’s treatment of the matter quite plainly implied that Ritter’s complaints were right-straight-on-the-mark.

We pointed to the vacuous nature of the Kelly presentation in THE DAILY HOWLER on September 3. If we presume that Iraq policy is an important matter, and if we presume that it’s important that we get Iraq policy right, then no one would want to simply assumethat a critic like Ritter was on target. One would want to subject Major Ritter’s views to the strictest scrutiny one could provide.

Kelly, by contrast, joined the debate with his standard angry-man, flippant posture. His piece made no effort--none at all--to account for administration thinking; indeed, Kelly shows no sign of entertaining the thought that there may be an administration rationale on Iraq at all. In two paragraphs, total, spent on Iraq, he summarizes Major Ritter’s complaints; then he simply assumes that Ritter’s judgment is sound. Kelly makes no attempt--none at all--to argue his view on the subject. Ritter said it, and Kelly believes it--although Secretary Albright, traveling in Moscow at the time, had not yet even had the chance to state her objections to Ritter’s viewpoint.

Fred Hiatt considered the Ritter affair four days later, and his treatment wasn’t much better. Indeed, what was particularly striking about Hiatt’s treatment was a remarkable paragraph about Secretary Albright. According to Hiatt, after Ritter resigned and made his first public statements, Albright pretty much went ballistic:

HIATT: Then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright lashed out. Ritter “doesn’t have a clue about what our overall policy has been,” she told CNN. Claiming great success for Iraq policy on behalf of “the United States--and, I must say, me personally,” Albright nonetheless didn’t have enough confidence in that policy to sit by as Ritter testified to Congress. She urged a House committee chairman to squelch one such hearing, while Senate Democrats did their best to prevent Ritter’s testimony.

Hiatt’s presentation is truly remarkable. Albright, of course, was in Moscow at the time, traveling with President Clinton at the U.S.-Russia summit; the notion that Albright was cowering in a corner is a notion that Hiatt seems to have simply made up! Indeed, here’s the way Hiatt’s own Washington Post had explained Albright’s absence in its news columns:

THE POST (9/4/98): Democrats said they objected only to the timing of Ritter’s testimony, while President Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright were abroad. “We normally on a bipartisan basis try not to do things that jeopardize his authority...while the president is not in the country,” Sen. Charles S. Robb (D-VA) said in an interview.

Maybe Hiatt reads only the New York Times. Sorry. Same story:

THE TIMES (9/4/98): Partisan politics infused the hearing of the Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees. Democrats temporarily blocked the hearing even before it started, arguing that senior Administration witnesses who could rebut Mr. Ritter were out of the country, traveling with Mr. Clinton.

Our question: How can a great public discourse possibly be served when the Post will publish an account like this, in which Hiatt treats himself to exciting invective through an account he has essentially made up?

But leaving aside Hiatt’s remarkable calumny, his article gets us no closer than Kelly’s to an analysis of Ritter’s views. Hiatt takes up roughly half his column with varied complaints about personal conduct, including Secretary Albright’s refusal to appear and Sen. Joseph Biden’s inappropriate tone of voice. But in the few column inches he leaves then for content, he founders, like Kelly before him. “(U)nfortunately, Ritter does have a clue,” Hiatt says as he starts to examine Ritter’s claims. But, by the end of Hiatt’s exposition, we’re not real clear just what the clue is, or why we should think Ritter has it:

HIATT: No one can doubt the difficulty of the challenge posed by Saddam Hussein--difficulty aggravated, as Ritter said, by two years of confrontation, followed by concessions that have served only to embolden him. Whether to use force, how to marshal support at home and abroad for its use--these are tough questions that, as Albright suggests, are beyond Ritter’s responsibility.

So after all the yapping about poor Major Ritter, Hiatt isn’t quite willing to vouch for his insight. The questions Ritter raised are “tough” questions, it turns out; and Hiatt doesn’t argue at any point that Ritter’s outlook on these questions is valid. And of course, what Albright had said was, not that policy in Iraq was beyond Ritter’s responsibility, but that it went far beyond Ritter’s comprehension. Maybe when Albright stops cowering in a corner, and finally speaks up, maybe then Hiatt can belly up to the bar, and respond to her actualviews.

At any rate, Albright now has expressed her outlook, and we’ll be waiting for Kelly and Hiatt to critique it. In the meantime, we have to ask the Washington Post: what possible public interest was served by the publication of these two lazy pieces? Kelly’s treatment of Iraq was childish and inane, simply assumingthat critics of Clinton must be right. Hiatt assures us that Ritter “has a clue,” but ends up saying the questions are somehow beyond him. And along the way, he throws in a remarkable attack on Albright, in which he treats his readers to exciting invective with a presentation that is simply not true.

So let’s see now if Kelly and Hiatt respond to Albright. Our guess would be that writers like this prefer to speak when only one side has been heard. It makes for a much simpler column to write, and provides the chance for a whole lotta ’tude. And it kills any chance of what Post readers deserve--that’s the chance for a great public discourse.