September 19, 2003

Lies, damn lies and Andrew Sullivan

The Blogosphere's answer to Joe Isuzu is at it again.

Here's Andrew Sullivan this morning on Democratic presidential candidate Wesley Clark:

Reading this essay by Wesley Clark, I have to say I'm not reassured that he has what it takes to wage a war on terror. If he had been president, the war in Afghanistan would probably not have taken place, let alone the war against Saddam. [Emph. added]

And what did Gen. Clark actually say in his essay about the war in Afghanistan?

Instead of cutting NATO out, we should have prosecuted the Afghan campaign with NATO, as we did in Kosovo. Of course, it would have been difficult to involve our allies early on, when we ourselves didn't know what we wanted to do, or how to achieve it. The dialogue and discussions would have been vexing. But in the end, we could have kept NATO involved without surrendering to others the design of the campaign. We could have simply phased the operation and turned over what had begun as a U.S.-only effort to a NATO mission, under U.S. leadership. [Emph. added]

In reference to another one of these of childishly transparent Sullivan falsehoods yesterday, Kevin Drum asked whether "he just assumes his readers don't know how to click a hyperlink?" That's a good question. And I'd like to add one of my own: When are Sullivan's fellow neocons in the Blogosphere going to figure out that his seemingly almost pathological aversion to the truth is not exactly giving their cause a good name?

UPDATE: I just got an e-mail asking whether the word "pathological" isn't a bit harsh? Well, it is, I guess. Just as harsh, in fact, as it was when Andrew used it to describe Bill Clinton.

UPDATE 2: When one of the most reasonable voices in Blogdom weighs in to say that you're being unfair, I think you have an obligation to step back and give the possibility serious consideration. So let's do that.

Here's Andrew's original post in its entirety:

CLARK ON THE WAR: Reading this essay by Wesley Clark, I have to say I'm not reassured that he has what it takes to wage a war on terror. If he had been president, the war in Afghanistan would probably not have taken place, let alone the war against Saddam. His first instinct after the deadliest act of war against the American heartland in history was to help the United Nations set up an International Criminal Tribunal on International Terrorism. I'm not even making that up. Maybe Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia could head up the committee. If I were to imagine a parody of what a Rhodes Scholar would come up with in such a moment, I'd be hard pressed to come up with something more perfect. His insistence throughout the piece is on process, process, process. Everything is seen through the prism of NATO's Kosovo campaign, his one claim to military glory. Can you imagine having to get every special ops target in Afghanistan approved by 19 different countries, including those who opposed any action against the Taliban? Can you even begin to imagine constructing a case for any action in Iraq under similar auspices? It simply wouldn't have happened. Which is the point. It's important to remember that under the last administration, almost nothing happened to address the genocide in the Balkans until the genocide had taken place. Why? Because we needed a consensus from all the Europeans to even wipe our collective ass. And the Europeans couldn't agree on anything in the 1990s. Have you noticed greater unanimity since? There's also no sense in Clark's essay about other agendas from our allies. It's all very well to achieve maximum international consensus on every international action. But what if you cannot get it? What if you cannot get the U.N. even to live up to its own resolutions, let alone American priorities? What if a critical "ally", like France, has a firm policy of thwarting American power - wherever and whenever it is waged? The notion that Bush created such a French policy is a fantasy. Clark's foreign policy strikes me as an abdication of foreign policy. That was dangerous in the 1990s. It would be fatal now. - 12:08:30 AM

Even after re-reading all that quite carefully -- and with an eye toward giving Andrew every benefit of the doubt -- I still come away from it with the distinct impression that Clark was disinclined toward military action in Afghanistan, and favored "help[ing] the United Nations set up an International Criminal Tribunal on International Terrorism" instead. And that just isn't true. So, for now at least, I think I'll stick by my guns on this one.

Posted by Jack O'Toole on September 19, 2003 07:32 AM

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A Bodyguard of Lies
Excerpt: Jack O’Toole catches Andrew Sullivan assuming that his readers are too lazy or dumb to click a link. Here’s Andrew Sullivan this morning on Democratic presidential candidate Wesley Clark:Reading this essay by Wesley Clark, I have to say I&#...
Weblog: Crooked Timber
Tracked: September 19, 2003 10:59 AM
Comments

Far be it from me to stop anyone picking on Andrew Sullivan, but, in this case, I don't think he's guilty.

Sullivan's point is that prosecuting the Afghan campaign "with Nato" is essentially the same as not prosecuting it. That's contentious (and almost certainly false: Clark doesn't rule out prosecuting the campaign without NATO, should the need arise) but, Sullivan does spend most of his post making the point.

Posted by: ogged on September 19, 2003 11:05 AM

ogged,

I appreciate your point, but just can't agree.

Had Andrew written that "the war in Afghanistan would have failed," or that "the war in Afghanistan would have been much harder to win," I'd have said that I thought he was wrong on the merits, but perfectly fair in terms of his commentary.

But, in my mind anyway, the words "we should have prosecuted" are simply not reconcilable with Sullivan's flat assertion that "the war in Afghanistan would not have taken place."

Posted by: Jack on September 19, 2003 11:28 AM

Sorry. Meant to say Sullivan's flat assertion that it "probably" would not have taken place...

Posted by: Jack on September 19, 2003 11:35 AM

Would it be very pomo chic to agree with you here and disagree with you over at Crooked Timber? Dunno, but I posted a comment there in response to Ted Barlow's update.

Posted by: ogged on September 19, 2003 12:12 PM

I apologize in advance for not being a fire-breathing neo-con, or even an ardent Sully-supporter, but I am with ogged - saying Sully lied is a huge stretch.

This is the first response suggested by Clark:

Soon after September 11, without surrendering our right of self defense, we should have helped the United Nations create an International Criminal Tribunal on International Terrorism. We could have taken advantage of the outpourings of shock, grief, and sympathy to forge a legal definition of terrorism and obtain the indictment of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban as war criminals charged with crimes against humanity. Had we done so, I believe we would have had greater legitimacy and won stronger support in the Islamic world. We could have used the increased legitimacy to raise pressure on Saudi Arabia and other Arab states to cut off fully the moral, religious, intellectual, and financial support to terrorism.

OK, he does say "without surrendering our right to self-defense". But when, in the context of all these resolutions and indictments, do we actually go to war?

All of a sudden we skip to the paragraph you highlight, where "Instead of cutting NATO out, we should have prosecuted the Afghan campaign with NATO, as we did in Kosovo."

But Clark says nothing about what might have triggered such a campaign. Bush, if you recall, negotiated with the Taliban for a while (Surrender Osama or Die!) What is Clark proposing? I think Sully could reasonably read Clark's article as proposing months of UN wrangling followed by some lame IIC court order, sanctions, and what not. Then, having failed to win world backing, we could go to war! Well done.

From which it follows that Sully's controversial opening, "If [Clark] had been president, the war in Afghanistan would probably not have taken place" is a reasonable opinion supported by the evidence Sully presents.

Now, you may disagree, but that hardly makes Sully a pathological liar.

Or, if you can find in Clark's article some suggestion of just how his proposed UN process would lead to war, bring it up, and shut me up.

As an aside, it is sort of heartening to read Clark's exhotations about building international consensus. Too bad the Brits and the Brass didn't actually unite behind his consensus. But he at least talks about being a team player.

Have a great weekend.

Posted by: Tom Maguire on September 19, 2003 02:12 PM

You flatter me Jack, but people who read my blog regularly will see right through it!

I think we're really not so far apart on this. I'm just objecting to the use of the word "lie" here. I don't even really want to defend Sullivan, I just want to reserve the word so that it's really damning when we do use it.

There's no question that Sullivan wants to leave a false impression. As you say, one would come away thinking that Clark did not favor war in Afghanistan. But Sullivan's gift, such as it is, is to craft a tendentious interpretation of Clark's words while not falling into an outright lie. He covers himself with "probably;" he willfully misreads Clark's "soon after September 11" to say that that's Clark's "first instinct;" and, of course, he presumes that if a NATO ally had objected to war, we would not have gone to war. This is all horribly unfair to Clark. But unless you want to say there's no distinction between misinterpretation (even if willful) and lying, then I think we have to say that Sullivan doesn't *quite* lie.

(by the way, I'm about to hop on a plane and probably won't be able to respond for the rest of the weekend--don't abuse me too much in my absence!)

Posted by: ogged on September 19, 2003 05:59 PM

From the UPDATE:

I still come away from it with the distinct impression that Clark was disinclined toward military action in Afghanistan, and favored "help[ing] the United Nations set up an International Criminal Tribunal on International Terrorism" instead. And that just isn't true.

Well, I still come away with the distinct impression that Clark opens the subject of Afghanistan as follows:

"The Kosovo campaign suggests alternatives in waging and winning the struggle against terrorism: greater reliance on diplomacy and law and relatively less on the military alone. Soon after September 11, without surrendering our right of self defense, we should have helped the United Nations create an International Criminal Tribunal on International Terrorism."

Now, I excerpt the next bit as free verse:

"...forge a legal definition of terrorism... obtain the indictment of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban as war criminals charged with crimes against humanity.... greater legitimacy... won stronger support in the Islamic world... used the increased legitimacy... pressure on Saudi Arabia and other Arab states to cut off fully the moral, religious, intellectual, and financial support to terrorism.... used such legitimacy... strengthen the international coalition against Saddam Hussein.... encourage our European allies ...condemn more strongly the use of terror against Israel... bring peace to that region... Reliance on a compelling U.N. indictment... given us the edge in legitimacy throughout much of the Islamic world...

Applesauce. I promise you, the complete absence of deadlines, what-ifs and or-elses caused Andrew's apoplexy. Nothing in here suggests Clark would have been uncomfortable talking about this eternally.

Now, maybe the General would have gone ahead and set deadlines, and (as he notes) exercised our right to self defense if either he or the American public got fed up with the progress of the discussion group. But he does not say so anywhere in the article.

And this point does seem to merit a hint or two - what does one do if the process fails. Or do processes fail - maybe maintnenace of the process is the only objective. How might Clark reconcile a conflict between the process (engage our allies) and the objective (get bin Laden)? No hints here.

To presume that he would have set deadlines and then acted, and then to accuse Sully of lying for doubting it, seems to be a stretch.

Supporting your notion that he was willing to fight, I find the "prosecute" passage you cite, and the "without surrendering our right of self defense" qualifier I noted earlier.

Supporting Andrew's notion is everything else, including such howlers as:

"NATO involvement would probably not have hastened our victory in Afghanistan."

No rush to war, or even a rush to victory. Patience!

And:

"The United States concentrated its firepower on Taliban and al Qaeda troops, hideouts, and weapons stores--precisely the kinds of targets the Europeans were **most likely** to have approved."

Emphasis, and tears of laughter, added. Hey, maybe they would have let us bomb Al-Qaeda! Or maybe not, but do let's ask.

Sorry, I am getting giddy with snark here. Slightly more calmly, I should point out that we had a real calendar problem with Afghanistan - winter and Ramadan made a late fall campaign very controversial. Had we talked for even a few months (how long does it take to set up an "International Criminal Tribunal on International Terrorism"?), a war before spring would have been almost out of the question - Clark could reprise his Kosovo bombing, but the Northern Alliance would have been useless, and one wonders whether our Special Forces could have been as effective spotting targets in extreme weather.

All assuming that the world supported such a war - the Taliban were viewed as distinct from al-Qaeda, and negotiations might have proceeded for quite a while.

Anyway, I hope you have a chance to think it over.

Have a great weekend.

Posted by: Tom Maguire on September 19, 2003 09:40 PM

If I were General Clark's advisor I would counsel him as Carville did Dean on last week's "K Street": stop giving your opinion on hypotheticals. Now.

People will paint your calm, considered answers to "what if" intellectual exercises as weakness, waffling, "eggheadedness," etc. Dukakis made the same mistake in being too professorial in his death penalty answer during that debate.

A political campaign is not a faculty lounge. Deep thinking and measured responses don't play in public. Leave that stuff to your policy meetings behind closed doors, otherwise you'll never get to a place where you can use your brains.

Posted by: Julia Grey on September 20, 2003 12:09 PM

Oh, man, memories of the Bush-Dukakis debate. i was watching with a wildly partisan Dem friend, who agreed that, if it were a heavyweght boxing match, the ref would have stopped it.

I vividly recall the Duke's answer to "who are your heroes?" Roughly, it was "firemen, yeah, they run into burning building... and teachers, that's it, teaching all those cute little kids... and policeman, helping old ladies across the street, or is that the Boy Scouts." But, somewhat weirdly, none of his heroes actually had names. Very democratic, I suppose - you are the group to which you belong. (And I see he did mention Jonas Salk.)

Bush answered second and actually dropped a few names in there.

But the aspect of that debate that resonates to this day - when it was over, the Duke left the stage, and Bush stayed behind to shake hands with the panel of questioners. One of the talking heads I was watching opined that "I don't like to pick a winner immediately after this type of debate, but I will say this - after a football game, its normally the winning team that celebrates on the field, and the losing side retreats to the locker room."

And I have never, ever seen a candidate walk off the stage after a debate since then.

Transcript:
http://www.debates.org/pages/trans88b.html

Posted by: Tom Maguire on September 20, 2003 03:31 PM

Andrew Sullivan's assertion was a reasonable opinion about the likely implications of Clark's "NATO first" approach to Afghanistan. Thus, "lie" is not appropriate -- even in its current, completely debased usage (see slimy innuendo among pols and pundits these days).

And Sullivan put his finger on the key point, in fact he went very easy on Clark. Purely from a substantive, serious perspective, bringing NATO in a la Clark's preference was a fatuous idea. On its face.

Clark's own recent history should have given him a small clue. Clark of course knew NATO is not structured or generally equipped to fight expeditionary campaigns -- of which Afghanistan presented one of the most challenging examples in modern history.

Further, under Clark's command, NATO fought a farcical campaign against a pipsqueak opponent in their own region. It's key to note that Clark labored under the defining incompetence of his superiors in Washington. And Clark wasn't to blame for the inherent disutility of NATO (which wasn't built for the purpose) in fighting such an offensive/punitive action, but he sure as heck should have learned from the experience. That his first instinct in 2001 was to get NATO involved is just as damning as Sullivan implies.

The Kosovo campaign was in microcosm a display of the essential fiction that underlies vapid debates about "multilateralism" in use of force today. That fiction is that significant military action will be anything other than a US show, with small supporting roles played by others. Even in Europe, "NATO" meant US airpower, and -- though not used -- US ground forces. This is not a criticism per se of "allied" spending and seriousness about defense -- that's a separate topic.

But it's central to the whole discussion of "multilateral" actions to recognize that, in effect, we're talking about multilateral "permission" for the US to undertake the costs and risks of military action. UNSC permission to attack Iraq would have resulted in exactly zero change in the composition of the deployed forces or killed-in-action. Clark's inclination to place such permission above results in a war of self-defense is damning.

And the harshest implications Sullivan makes about Clark's willingness to take action are amply confirmed by Clark's own words reported today, in which he trots out the tired and unserious line about use of force being only a "last resort," and how of course diplomacy hadn't run its course with Iraq. Either he's not aware of the 12-year history of UNSC-centered diplomacy on Iraq, including Res. 1441 and it's December deadline, or he's pretending to adopt the tranparently disingenuous positions of France and Germany. He's also fallen back on the empty "containment" alternative to regime-change in Baghdad, as though WMD technologies or Iraqi terror links were containable, or the apparatus of containment wasn't on the verge of total collapse.

Clark gets some leeway, as anyone running for office (especially in the primaries), for hedging and "evolving" certain views to reach his political objective. But when a candidate who's chief "qualification" is his military career says "It's very difficult to change people's minds when you are bombing them and killing them," as Clark did today, it's difficult not to snicker and just lump him in with the other geopolitical know-nothings vying against him for the nomination.

Posted by: IceCold on September 20, 2003 04:34 PM