What 9/11 hath wrought: A polarized country, a toxic media environment and a crisis of democracy

Department of Defense photo (cc) 2009 by Tech. Sgt. Jerry Morrison, U.S. Air Force

Like all of us who are old enough, I have vivid memories of Sept. 11, 2001, just as our older brothers and sisters do about the assassination of John F. Kennedy and as our parents and grandparents did about the attack on Pearl Harbor. As others have said over and over again, it was a cool, clear morning, a preview of fall. I was working at The Boston Phoenix, where I covered media and politics. I stepped outside to get coffee and ran into an old acquaintance.

“Isn’t it terrible what happened at the World Trade Center?” she asked.

Read the rest at GBH News.

David Brooks’ semi-mea culpa on the war in Iraq

It’s easy to make fun of David Brooks’ semi-mea culpa on the war in Iraq. But let’s not forget that liberals like John Kerry and Hillary Clinton voted for the war, and if you think they did it solely for political posturing, then you’re more cynical than I am.

Personally, I was against the invasion, but I thought it was a close call. And if you go back to Bill Clinton’s presidency, you may recall that horror stories about sick and starving Iraqi children — a consequence of U.S. sanctions — led some liberals to call for a humanitarian intervention.

Finally, in 1998 Bill Clinton signed the Iraq Liberation Act, which committed the United States to regime change.

Brooks was always the most thoughtful among the war’s supporters. What he has to say today is worth reading.

Iraq, Saddam Hussein and the rise of the Islamic State

The Washington Post today fronts a horrifying story by Liz Sly showing how the remnants of the Saddam Hussein regime are pulling the strings of the Islamic State. We will be paying for the hubris of the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld era for many years to come.

As Faulkner put it, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

B-minus Barack does no harm

In my latest for the Guardian, I survey morning-after punditry following President Obama’s speech on Iraq, and discover that even some of his critics were mildly impressed. The problem is that no one, including his supporters, was particularly wowed, either.

Investigating the WikiLeaks video

I think it’s only right that all of us hold off before offering any judgments on the astonishing video published by WikiLeaks yesterday showing a U.S. Apache helicopter killing 12 Iraqis, including a Reuters photographer and his driver. The U.S. military has confirmed the 2007 video’s authenticity, according to the New York Times.

I watched the entire 17-minute-plus video last night (there is also an unedited, 38-minute version), and my main reaction — other than horror — was one of cognitive dissonance. The audio made it clear that the American crew believed the people on the ground were armed combatants. The video told an entirely different story: men walking around, seemingly not up to much of anything in particular.

And no, I’m not offended by the American crew members’ bantering. If they had good reason to believe they were shooting at a legitimate target, so what? The real question is why they held that belief.

Anyway, I don’t want to get ahead of the story. What this calls for is further investigation.

The BBC has some background on WikiLeaks, which is hosted mainly in Sweden.

The decade in media

Washington Post reporter Howard Kurtz has written as good a summation of the decade in media as you’re likely to find: a tremendous explosion in innovation and diversity; mind-boggling failures by the legacy media, especially during the run-up to the war in Iraq and their continued obsession with celebrity non-news; and the meltdown of the business model. Definitely worth a read.

Lost Will on Afghanistan

Columnist George Will today calls for the near-total withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, writing:

[F]orces should be substantially reduced to serve a comprehensively revised policy: America should do only what can be done from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, airstrikes and small, potent Special Forces units, concentrating on the porous 1,500-mile border with Pakistan, a nation that actually matters.

Will’s column is not a huge surprise — he’s been offering previews on ABC’s “This Week.” His assessment matters because of his status as a conservative icon, although, as a traditional conservative rather than a neocon, he was never as gung-ho about war in the Middle East as, say, William Kristol.

Giving Will’s views even more resonance is an especially bleak assessment by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the American commander in Afghanistan, who is calling for a far greater commitment of U.S. forces.

President Obama faces an incredibly difficult dilemma. He campaigned on a platform of shifting resources from Iraq to the conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan, arguing that the move was necessary to deny Al Qaeda a refuge. Yet that’s a dubious proposition, given that Al Qaeda could move anywhere. Indeed, the only reason it’s in Afghanistan is because it was chased out of Sudan.

But before you say we should let Afghanistan go, remember that Pakistan is unstable and armed with nuclear weapons.

Is Will right? I don’t know. I do know that if Obama can meet American security needs without putting American troops in harm’s way, then he should do so as quickly as possible.

Darth Vader returns

In my latest for the Guardian, I express my shock and horror at Dick Cheney’s interview with ABC News, in which he (1) defended torture on the grounds that it’s not torture unless he says it is and (2) all but mocked President Bush on the decision to go to war with Iraq. Give him this: the man is not a hypocrite.

The corruption of Gen. McCaffrey — and NBC

To me, the most reprehensible aspect of retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey’s behavior, documented in a massive front-page story in Sunday’s New York Times, wasn’t that he used his military connections on behalf of his military-contractor clients, and then didn’t disclose those connections during his paid appearances on NBC News.

That’s bad enough. But what was truly the most corrupt about McCaffrey’s behavior is that he deprived NBC’s viewers of his honest opinion at a time when it might have mattered. Worst of all: NBC executives knew it and did nothing.

The story, by David Barstow, is a follow-up to a long piece he wrote last April about conflicts of interest among paid television commentators with military background. At the time, I called it “as sickening a media scandal as we have seen in our lifetime.” Unfortunately, it pretty much disappeared without a trace.

McCaffrey, a four-star general, may be the worst — or at least the most prominent — of them all, sucking up to the military in order to serve his clients among military contractors, and going on NBC News to offer his expert opinion. Most telling is what happened when he momentarily deviated from the official line, early in the war:

Only when the invasion met unexpected resistance did General McCaffrey give a glimpse of his misgivings. “We’ve placed ourselves in a risky proposition, 400 miles into Iraq with no flank or rear area security,” he told Katie Couric on “Today.”

Mr. Rumsfeld struck back. He abruptly cut off General McCaffrey’s access to the Pentagon’s special briefings and conference calls.

General McCaffrey was stunned. “I’ve never heard his voice like that,” recalled one close associate who asked not to be identified. He added, “They showed him what life was like on the outside.”

Robert Weiner, a longtime publicist for General McCaffrey, said the general came to see that if he continued his criticism, he risked being shut out not only by Mr. Rumsfeld but also by his network of friends and contacts among the uniformed leadership.

“There is a time when you have to punt,” said Mr. Weiner, emphasizing that he spoke as General McCaffrey’s friend, not as his spokesman.

Within days General McCaffrey began to backpedal, professing his “great respect” for Mr. Rumsfeld to Tim Russert. “Is this man O.K.?” the Fox News anchor Brit Hume asked, taking note of the about-face.

For months to come, as an insurgency took root, General McCaffrey defended the Bush administration. “I am 100 percent behind what the administration, what the president of the United States, is doing in Iraq,” he told [Brian] Williams that June.

There should be firings at NBC News for the failure to disclose McCaffrey’s work for military contractors. Then again, as Beth Wellington reminds us at NewsTrust, NBC’s corporate owner, General Electric Co., is itself a major military contractor, and thus had its own conflict of interest with which to contend (or not).

The FCC is investigating, although it’s hard to imagine that it will dig as deeply as it ought to.

“On the Media” recently rebroadcast an interview it conducted last spring with one of television’s compromised analysts, Maj. Robert Bevelacqua, formerly of Fox News.

Fighting at the end of the world

You must read C.J. Chivers and Tyler Hicks’ account in the New York Times of U.S. soldiers defending a remote, dangerous outpost in Afghanistan. It is horrifying and heartbreaking, and you can’t help but be filled with admiration for the soldiers’ courage.

According to the Times, more soldiers will soon be arriving — a trend that may accelerate given President-elect Obama’s goal of shifting resources from Iraq to Afghanistan.