Entry from July 22, 2003

“Archduke Ferdinand found alive: World War unnecessary.” The spoof headline from the 1930s neatly sums up the attitude of the baying pack of journalistic hounds who have been on the hopeful trail of presidential wrongdoing since my last look at the media in mid-May. After a month of attending — though only with half an ear — to the incessant self-questioning of pundits and reporters about the possibilities of distributing blame for the missing Weapons of Mass Destruction, I could take it no longer and left the country for a month in Central America, almost out of range of the media’s agonizing. When I came back, the media were still discussing the possibilities of distributing blame for the missing Weapons of Mass Destruction, but had narrowed their focus to the possibilities of distributing blame for the specific assertion in the last State of the Union Address that British intelligence suspected Saddam Hussein of having tried to get uranium from Niger.

In Central America the possibilities of distributing blame for the missing WMD were not a big topic of conversation. There was, however, considerable interest in the question of whether or not America’s president had engineered the September 11th attacks on America for partisan advantage, so I guess you can say this for the American media to date: at least they (mostly) confine their scandal-hunt to the upper, more genteel slopes of Conspiracy mountain. Another example of their refinement, perhaps, was the care with which these highly educated journalists pronounced Niger after the French fashion as NEE-jhair — though as they would presumably not have claimed that the capital of France was Pa-REE, I suspect this was just desperation to put some distance between their tongues and a similar word spelt with a double-g.

Yet for all the harping on the Nee-jhairian uranium, or the WMD, or any other, relatively modest manifestation of Bushite culpability in connection with our government’s war-making, I found that the president’s poll numbers were still pretty high, and that the expected outcry among the people over being deceived was still pretty muted. It’s embarrassing to admit that one remembers the Vietnam-era slogan, “What if they gave a war and nobody came?” but it came inevitably to my mind with the following emendation: “What if they gave a scandal and nobody came?” — nobody, that is, outside the media whose job it is, in their own conceit, to uncover and report on scandals that they may thus be expected to greet, even in doubtful form, with enthusiasm when they find them.

I don’t, by the way, question the good faith with which the media endeavor to suggest that the president’s willingness to credit Saddam’s dubious — or in some accounts, not so dubious — uranium hunt is a genuine scandal. But it is undeniable that the men and women of the media have at least as much of a vested interest in finding such a scandal in what was at worst a faulty intelligence report as the president did in believing such a report in the first place. Meanwhile, if ordinary people can see the joke in mistaking the Archduke’s murder, the immediate casus belli of the First World War, as the justification for four years and more of horrific slaughter, they can presumably also see the essential frivolity of the media’s focus on the Nee-jhairian uranium, genuine or otherwise.

War must ultimately be justified not in terms of its causes, which are always a jumble of the great and the trivial and often not understood until after the fact, but its results. The causes are always more or less probabilities — because probabilities are all we have to go on in advance. Afterwards we have more concrete facts to base our judgments on, and to go on arguing about the probabilities as they seemed before the conflict started is like saying that the winner at roulette didn’t really win because the odds were against his number coming up. And in spite of the continuing attacks on our soldiers there — which have given rise to another and equally risible mini-scandal over General Abizaid’s use of the word “guerrilla” to describe them — in Iraq Bush’s number came up. Again.

Consider. A brutal mass murderer is deposed, millions of people are given hope for the first time in a quarter of a century and, most importantly from the point of view of the national interest, those who thought (as Osama bin Laden is known to have thought) that Americans were soft and cowardly and unwilling to fight have at last been slapped, hard, on the ear by that other think they have long had coming to them. Those who talk after the fashion of First World War pacifists of America’s “war aims” apart from this are either naVve or scandal-mongers. Or both. In every war there is only ever one real “aim,” however many causes there may be, and that is to decide who shall be master. That is now determined. Terrorists and other recalcitrants have been taught respect for American power, and the weapons of mass destruction — never more than a potential threat whether they existed or not — are now the concern only of those for whom American power is the real scandal.

Or of those who want to bring down the president and who are at least as unscrupulous as they represent him as being about the means to their favored end. At the least, they have made the easy, post-Clintonian assumption that accusations of bad faith against one’s political opponents are all just part of the cut-and-thrust of politics in 21st century America and not, as in fact they are, a poisoning of the wells of civic culture. Virtually since the day he took office, Bush has been repeatedly, almost routinely, accused of dishonesty in matters of political and economic substance by the likes of Paul Krugman, Jonathan Chait and Michael Kinsley, and no one seems disposed to suggest that such accusations are or ought to be outside the bounds of civilized discourse.

As a result, the habit is now spreading to the rest of the media and to the political opposition, who are accusing the president of “deception,” saying that he “knowingly misled the American people” and suggesting (in Senator Bob Graham’s case) that he deserves to be impeached. Over a possibly faulty intelligence report about Saddam’s lust for Nee-jhairian uranium? Preposterous! But clearly, Graham is just following in the footsteps of Krugman et al. in assuming the worst about his president. Soon, we can imagine, he will be joining them, along with Noam Chomsky, Gore Vidal and the intellectual élites of France and Central America, in imputing even darker crimes to what Vidal calls “the Bush junta.” It’s all enough to make Bill Kristol exult that the Democratic party has been driven mad by its hatred of Bush. He may be right, but this should be no cause for rejoicing among patriotic Americans who care about preserving our tradition of democratic debate between honorable opponents.

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