FOR SEVERAL decades, the Washington Post has functioned not only as a chronicler of national politics, but also as a social arbiter of the capital’s elite. The two were fused in the paper’s trendsetting “Style” section, which was invented in 1969 by the legendary editor and scion of New England grandees Benjamin C. Bradlee. This fusion reached a kind of apotheosis with the paper’s reverent coverage of his funeral at the National Cathedral last October. “Style” referred, among other things, to the “A-list gathering of friends and family,” noting that eight hundred guests attended the “invitation-only party in the back yard of Ben Bradlee and [Sally] Quinn’s home.” It treated his funeral not as a moment for reflection about Bradlee’s tenure, but as a social occasion—a final gathering of the “royal court,” as Post gossip columnist Roxanne Roberts put it, that Bradlee and Quinn had presided over. In this regard, it was a worthy tribute to Quinn’s credo, “Good luck and good timing are great, but ultimately, a Washington party rises and falls with its power quotient.” And so Washington didn’t just celebrate Bradlee but also itself.
Still, for all the preening and social calibration, the event had a valedictory air to it, one that highlighted the distance the Post has traveled, from its glory days when it brought down the high and mighty, to its current difficulties in remaining a viable enterprise. This past summer, after all, marked the fortieth anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s resignation, which was partly prompted by the reporting of two Post journalists, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Under Bradlee, the Post helped publish the Pentagon Papers in 1971 and then one Watergate story after another between 1972 and 1974. It was showered with acclaim and aspired to compete with the New York Times.
Two generations later, however, the Post is facing stiff competition for readers and attention in its own hometown from new rivals such as Politico, which was founded in 2007 by former Post staffers. Six years after that, the Post’s financial woes and sagging readership prompted the storied Graham dynasty to sell its stake to the Amazon entrepreneur Jeff Bezos. Meanwhile, Woodward, once the brightest star in Washington’s journalistic firmament, has published a series of books in which, as Joan Didion noted, “measurable cerebral activity is virtually absent.” But perhaps the most intriguing shift at the Post has occurred at the editorial page under the direction of Fred Hiatt. For over a decade, Hiatt has steadily moved the page in a more aggressive direction, a development that prompted Fox News contributor James Pinkerton to observe in 2004:
Remember the days when the Washington Post was the enemy of the Republican administration in the White House? Those days are gone. Today, the neoconservative voice of the Post’s editorial page is one of President Bush’s most valuable allies. It’s possible, of course, to find more hawkish voices than that of the Post, but none have the same wide circulation or impact—and none have the Post’s liberal reputation. Which is a gift to the neocons, who can say, “Even the liberal Washington Post agrees with us!”
Pinkerton was not an isolated voice. After Hiatt sacked the liberal blogger Dan Froomkin in 2009, Andrew Sullivan said, “The way in which the WaPo has been coopted by the neocon right, especially in its editorial pages, is getting more and more disturbing.” His sentiments mirrored those of Glenn Greenwald, who dismissed Hiatt himself as one of a “bevy of typical, banal establishment spokespeople who are highly supportive of whatever the permanent Washington establishment favors.”
THROUGHOUT ITS history, the Post has been decisively shaped by different editorial-page editors. For several decades, its most influential figure was J. Russell Wiggins, a staunch Cold War liberal who joined the paper as managing editor in 1947 before rising, in 1960, to become editor and executive vice president. “He put it on the map,” recalled the paper’s publisher Katharine Graham. Wiggins, who was born in 1903, had opposed isolationism and appeasement policies toward Nazi Germany and saw Communist aggression in Vietnam as a fresh totalitarian challenge that had to be defeated. In numerous editorials, he never budged from his adamant support for the war and admiration for Lyndon B. Johnson’s conduct of it. In May 1965, for example, Wiggins published an editorial stating that a successful Communist attack on an air-force base at Pleiku showed
with dreadful clarity that South Vietnam is not an isolated battlefield but part of a long war which the communist world seems determined to continue until every vestige of Western power and influence has been driven from Asia. . . . It is now clear that withdrawal from South Vietnam would not gain peace, but only another war.
Still, the mood was palpably shifting in Washington as establishment worthies such as Walter Lippmann publicly opposed the war as a futile endeavor and pushed Graham to alter the Post’s editorial line. She did. After Johnson appointed Wiggins ambassador to the United Nations in 1968, Graham tapped his deputy Philip L. Geyelin to succeed him. Geyelin, who was skeptical about Vietnam and had joined the editorial board in 1967, went on to receive a Pulitzer Prize in 1970 for his antiwar editorials. In 1979, he stepped down and became a foreign-affairs columnist.
The paper’s publisher, Donald E. Graham, replaced him with deputy editorial-page editor Meg Greenfield, who had begun her career at the Reporter magazine. She won a Pulitzer Prize in 1978. Greenfield described her fiefdom as possessing the rather unadventurous “sensibility of 1950s liberals.” While Greenfield’s tenure was marked by a kind of staid, even somnolent, conventionality, she seemed to recognize that the Post had a vital role to play in promoting genuine debate. Katharine Graham said that Greenfield was “independent and uninfluenced by trends or molds” and that her judgment was “dispassionate.” Greenfield also had a keen eye for fresh conservative talent, hiring George F. Will and Charles Krauthammer as columnists. But the overall tone was resolutely centrist, with contributors such as Geyelin, Edwin M. Yoder and David Broder. “To the degree that a newspaper can be said to have a soul,” wrote Eric Alterman in Sound and Fury: The Making of the Punditocracy, “that of the Washington Post can be found in the columns of its venerable political reporter and pundit, David Broder.”
Upon Greenfield’s death in 1999, the Post said that she “continued a tradition under which the Post editorials avoided hortatory calls to action in favor of making points by marshaling facts.” What’s more, her deputy and successor Stephen Rosenfeld, who opened the paper’s Moscow bureau in 1964, shared the same reputation. After he died in 2010, his Washington Post obituary stated: “He said, ‘Write the editorial as if you’re going to be sitting across the dinner table from the person in the evening,’ recalled Colbert King, a former editorial board member and columnist. ‘That was quintessential Steve, and that always had a leveling effect on me.’” But perhaps the most handsome appreciation came from another colleague:
A different kind of man than Stephen Rosenfeld might have bristled when a younger journalist signed on as a fellow editorial writer, claiming some of the same interests—Russia, East Asia, human rights. Steve instead welcomed me with the warmth and generosity that were his trademarks during all his decades at The Post. . . . His interest in conflicts and countries that others tended to ignore was no joke. Puerto Rican sovereignty, Cypriot division, ethnic hostility in Sri Lanka—Steve understood that even when official Washington wasn’t paying attention, these things mattered to millions of real people, and so they mattered to him.
IN WRITING this tribute, Hiatt, who joined the Post editorial board in 1996, was also expressing his own convictions. A forceful writer with a proclivity for casting a gelid eye at liberal pieties, Hiatt took over leadership of the editorial page from Rosenfeld in 2000. Like Rosenfeld, Hiatt had served in Moscow, where he was co-bureau chief together with his wife and fellow Post reporter Margaret “Pooh” Shapiro. But in contrast to Rosenfeld, who experienced Soviet totalitarianism firsthand, Hiatt lived in Russia from 1991 to 1995, the frenzied years when the Soviet Union disappeared and Russia experienced economic shock therapy. As a result, his editorials on Russia in general, and Vladimir Putin in particular, seem to reflect the disillusioned experiences of a generation of young scholars, journalists and prodemocracy activists who traveled to Russia during the Yeltsin era: Jeffrey Sachs, David Lipton, David Remnick and Michael McFaul, among others. Attracted by the promise of a free, democratic, capitalist and pluralistic Russia that would replace the ossified, totalitarian Soviet Union, they admired Boris Yeltsin and his reformers.
It was a heady time. During the 1990s, the belief in promoting democratization abroad was widespread. It was supposed to be America’s “unipolar moment,” a term coined by Krauthammer. It bestrode, or came to see itself as bestriding, the world as a colossus. Journalists such as Thomas Friedman enskied globalization: it would usher in nothing less than a new era of peace and prosperity for all. No two countries that each had a McDonald’s, we were told, would fight one another. Intent on burnishing his foreign-policy credentials, Governor Bill Clinton eagerly espoused the virtues of globalization and American power. In his “New Covenant for American Security” address at Georgetown University in 1991, for example, Clinton recalled that at the dawn of the Cold War, the United States had to
find ways to rebuild the economies of Europe and Asia, encourage a worldwide movement toward independence, and vindicate our nation’s principles in the world against yet another totalitarian challenge to liberal democracy. Thanks to the unstinting courage and sacrifice of the American people, we were able to win that Cold War.
Clinton was by no means alone in his conviction that American leadership would inexorably lead to an interdependent world. Though obviously the most prominent, he was but one of a number of liberal Democrats, such as Time magazine foreign-affairs columnist Strobe Talbott, who had viewed the Cold War—and above all, Ronald Reagan—with suspicion, if not hostility, but now retroactively professed that nothing other than American resolve had brought the decades-long drama to a peaceful denouement.
In ways large and small, the template, particularly after America’s successes in deploying airpower in Bosnia and Kosovo, was now set: democracy versus tyranny (selectively and flexibly defined); freedom versus authoritarianism (also selectively and flexibly defined); us versus them—and all that was needed to emerge victorious over “them” (whoever they might be) were frequent displays of American might. The “Vietnam syndrome” was passé. A new generation of liberal hawks who believed in the efficacy of American military power emerged in the Democratic Party. Washington, they assumed, could more or less do what it wanted, whenever and wherever it chose.
In Clinton’s words, “In a world where freedom, not tyranny, is on the march, the cynical calculus of pure power politics simply does not compute. It is ill-suited to a new era.” Just how seductive this way of looking at the world was (and remains) to large swathes of the liberal political establishment became even clearer in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. As the late Tony Judt wrote, “The ‘Clinton generation’ of American liberal intellectuals take special pride in their ‘tough-mindedness’ [and display] an exuberant enthusiasm for violent political transformations at other people’s expense. . . . The use value of such persons to ambitious radical regimes is an old story.”
ENTER HIATT. He swiftly injected a newly provocative tone into the editorial page. He did this by repudiating the cautious hand-wringing of the Greenfield era and replacing it with a return to the liberal-hawk credo that prevailed during Vietnam. Hiatt, you could even say, does not represent a profound break with the Post’s past. On the contrary, he exemplifies the very impulses that originally led the paper astray. The editorial-page editors routinely castigate President Obama for failing to embrace nation building in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria, while demanding a tougher line on human rights toward such countries as China, Russia, Myanmar, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain, Egypt, Hungary, Ecuador, Venezuela and Nicaragua. In short, Hiatt has turned the paper into a megaphone for unrepentant warrior intellectuals. He is championing a wider movement to revive the crusading foreign-policy doctrines that, more often than not, have brought Washington to grief.
Exhibit A, of course, is Iraq. The extent to which the mainstream press, including the New York Times, credulously repeated Bush administration rodomontade about the need to expel Saddam Hussein from power is a familiar tale. But it is one that, in the context of the Post’s continued support for other bold foreign-policy moves, whether in Russia, Syria, Myanmar or East Asia, bears repeating. By one count, that of PBS’s Bill Moyers, the Post ran no fewer than twenty-seven editorials in the space of six months to justify the invasion. According to Columbia University’s Todd Gitlin, “For the 12-week period of Dec. 1 through Feb. 21, hawkish op-ed pieces [in the Post] numbered 39, dovish ones 12—a ratio of more than 3-to-1.” The most egregious example might be a February 11, 2003, editorial titled “Standing with Saddam” in which France and Germany were excoriated for having the temerity to suggest that perhaps another try at inspections carried out under UN auspices might be the more sensible way forward.
This editorial appeared only days after Secretary of State Colin Powell made the administration’s concocted case for war to the United Nations. Powell’s evidence was deemed “irrefutable” by the Post. The editorial said that it was “hard to imagine” how anyone could doubt the rightness of the administration’s course of action. Nor was this all. On the day of Powell’s presentation, the Post ran another editorial titled “The Case for Action” in which previous efforts at containing Hussein were dismissed. It was unrealistic, the editorial stated, to ignore that strategy’s “costly failure during the 1990s.” So obvious was this “failure” that its specifics were not enumerated. On July 30, 2004, the Post lambasted John Kerry for failing to embrace the war in Iraq: “Kerry last night elided the charged question of whether, as president, he would have gone to war in Iraq. He offered not a word to celebrate the freeing of Afghans from the Taliban, or Iraqis from Saddam Hussein, and not a word about helping either nation toward democracy.”
Four years after the invasion, the editorial page wrote about some of the lessons it learned from the Iraq War. The primary one was that the “decision was right, the execution wrong.” So entrenched is this mantra that even in the face of all evidence, Jackson Diehl, the editorial page’s deputy editor since 2001, said in a column marking the ten-year anniversary of the Iraq debacle that the tragedy was not so much that thousands of Americans and Iraqis died; that trillions of dollars were squandered; or that Sunni and Shia sectarian fanatics across the Levant and Maghreb were emboldened. Instead, it was that the “post-Iraq logic embraced by President Obama . . . has ruled out not just George W. Bush-style invasions but also the more modest intervention used by the Clinton administration to prevent humanitarian catastrophes and protect U.S. interests in the 1990s.” Diehl concluded by criticizing the critics: “The problem here is not that advocates of the Iraq invasion have failed to learn its lessons. It is that opponents of that war, starting with Obama, have learned the wrong ones.” If the Iraq War had induced some circumspection on the editorial page, that would be one thing. But this did not really occur. The most that Hiatt would concede to the Columbia Journalism Review in 2004 about the editorial page’s categorical assertions that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction was, “If that’s not true, it would have been better not to say it.” Well, yes.
Throughout, the Post has clung to its belligerent message, whether the topic is the Middle East or Europe or even political appointments in the U.S. government. In 2009, for example, there was bludgeoning of career diplomat and former ambassador Charles W. Freeman. Freeman was nominated by then director of national intelligence Dennis Blair to chair the National Intelligence Council in March 2009, a fairly innocuous post. He then became the subject of a frenzied attack. After Freeman countered his attackers by saying that the Israel lobby had targeted him and that his opponents “plumb the depths of dishonor and indecency,” the Post fired back with its own vituperative language. It called Freeman’s comments a “grotesque libel” and a “crackpot tirade.” Not content with imputing anti-Semitic motives to Freeman in an unsigned editorial, the Post also published a character assassination by then congressman Frank Wolf.
Even more peculiar was the Post’s attempt to derail former senator Chuck Hagel’s nomination to be Obama’s secretary of defense. In the Post’s view, the Vietnam veteran and former senator from Nebraska was little more than a “fringe” phenomenon in the U.S. Senate. It warned that Hagel, in a 2011 interview with the Financial Times, had said that “the Defense Department, I think in many ways, has been bloated . . . I think the Pentagon needs to be pared down.” It was hardly a radical idea in 2011 that it would be possible to bring Pentagon spending back down to 2007 levels, as the country was no longer fighting two full-scale wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But Hagel’s biggest transgression, the Post wrote, was that he had previously “argued that direct negotiations, rather than sanctions, were the best means to alter Iran’s behavior.”
WHAT ABOUT the editorial page’s position on the broader Middle East? A few weeks after President Obama’s second inauguration, the Post complained about the president’s marked unwillingness to involve the United States in Syria: “The president’s only public explanation for his resistance . . . amounted to excuse making.” The Post’s recommendation was straightforward: arm the moderates. After all, the failure to do so earlier caused “an opposition that once was a peaceful pro-democracy movement” to be “all but overtaken by jihadist organizations.” Arming the so-called moderates, the paper contended, would have enabled them to defeat both the forces of Bashar al-Assad and the numerous radical elements opposing him.
April 25, 2013, brought more complaints about the president’s “weak and muddled” policy. In addressing those readers for whom the 2003 Iraq invasion is a continuing source of discomfiture, the Post wrote: “No one wishes to repeat the mistake of intervening in Iraq on the basis of faulty intelligence.” Indeed. And yet, in the space of the very same paragraph, the Post expressed incredulity as to why “the administration now declines to join in the analysis of its close allies,” which indicated that Assad had used chemical weapons. “Syrians,” readers were duly warned, “are furious at the United States.” No mention was made as to how the Post came about drawing that conclusion. In any case, the administration stated in a April 25 letter to Senator Carl Levin that “the chain of custody is not clear, so we cannot confirm how the exposure occurred and under what conditions.” It did not confirm the use of chemical weapons until June.
As Syria continued to unravel, Obama contemplated bringing a resolution authorizing the use of force before Congress after he concluded that Damascus had employed chemical weapons in a major attack in August. The Post editorial board—previous assurances that it didn’t want troops in Syria aside—urged lawmakers to set aside their fears that the jihadi threat might end up being empowered if the United States decided to attack Assad. The jihadists, according to the Post, were not some monolithic front; indeed, they made up only “a small minority of the anti-government forces.” How did it know? Readers were told that Elizabeth O’Bagy, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, “reports that there have already been demonstrations against the jihadists” in Syria. A week later, it was revealed that O’Bagy, who had been parading around Washington’s corridors of power as “Dr. O’Bagy,” was never even admitted to a doctoral program at Georgetown University.
Withal, the Post conceded that while “al-Qaeda groups such as the al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant have used suicide bombings, beheadings and other brutal tactics. . . . the strength of the al-Qaeda forces has been exaggerated [emphasis added].” These forces, it hardly needs pointing out today, had not been even remotely “exaggerated.” Today they have essentially managed to wipe out the same Free Syrian Army whose prowess the editorial page touted. But this has hardly deterred the Post. Instead, it has advocated sending in ground troops—without specifying their number—to eliminate the Islamic State. A November 19, 2014, editorial hedged by acknowledging that Obama “appears to recognize the severity of the threat posed by the Islamic State and appears to be focused on the job of leading the fight.” At the same time, it concluded, “If he continues to allow his ideological resistance to steps such as the deployment of ground forces to constrain the campaign, he will ensure its failure.”
But does Obama’s approach toward battling the Islamic State really rise to the level of a comprehensive ideology? Or is it a prudent tactical move to ensure that America doesn’t become enmeshed in a hopeless ground war? Can the Islamic State be eliminated, or is it more realistic to attempt to render it nugatory?
IF THE Post’s record on the Middle East is questionable, what about its take on Russia? In many ways, its hostile view of Moscow might seem to be vindicated by Putin’s dangerous revanchism in Ukraine and his military muscle-flexing elsewhere. But it is also the case that the Post has propounded a stance on Russia, from Hiatt’s earliest days as editor, that was probably bound to boomerang. As far back as June 1, 2000, for instance, the Post stated: “Yes, let’s meddle in Russia’s affairs.” And for the succeeding decade and a half, that’s exactly what the Post has espoused.
As Hiatt wrote in a Post op-ed on March 26, 2000:
As president, [Yeltsin] was far from a perfect democrat. . . . Yet at key moments, when many of his advisers were tugging another way, he chose bravely. In 1996, trailing badly in polls to a Communist rival, he chose to campaign and take his chances rather than—as his inner circle advised—finding some pretext to cancel the vote.
That’s certainly one gloss on the 1996 Russian presidential election. A different accounting of Yeltsin’s victory might have acknowledged that he, in fact, stole it. As for Yeltsin’s decision to bomb the democratically elected parliament in October 1993, Hiatt really cannot object too strongly—after all, as he wrote, “Many of those same leaders shortly returned to public life, as governors and members of parliament.” It is Putin, so goes the narrative, who alone is responsible for Russia’s slide into autocracy. According to the Post, the outbreak of hostilities in August 2008 between Russia and Georgia posed “a grave challenge to the United States and Europe.” Indeed, “The United States and its NATO allies must together impose a price on Russia if it does not promptly change course.”
Sound familiar? Nowhere in the Post’s account did the sudden recognition of Kosovo’s independence by the United States and the European Union six months prior play any role in Russia’s decision to intervene in Georgia. After all, recognition of interstate boundaries that have been reconfigured through the use of force, as was done in the case of Kosovo, might serve as an unwanted precedent down the road. And sure enough, it did last March when Russia, in the wake of the Ukrainian crisis, annexed Crimea. At nearly every turn in the Ukrainian crisis, the Post has indulged its impulse to see the world in Manichaean terms.
In February 2014, two days after the abandonment of the February 21 agreement that was supposed to create constitutional reform and was signed by the Ukrainian opposition and the foreign ministers of Germany, France and Poland, the paper wrote that “the moves were democratic” and that “Kiev is now controlled by pro-Western parties.” Missing from the editorial was the fact that Kiev was now also controlled by a cabinet that included some unsavory far-right characters who viewed both Russia and the Russophone southeastern regions of Ukraine with hostility. After the annexation of Crimea, the Post engaged in some more of its familiar tub-thumping. Thus, on March 31, it stated that calls for the federalization of Ukraine, the recognition of Russian as an official language and early elections in May “would strip Ukraine of its sovereignty and render it ungovernable.” This was a far cry, though, from its earlier February 24 editorial, which said, “Ukraine’s new leaders will need to adopt conciliatory policies that reassure Russian-speaking Ukrainians that they will not face retaliation or discrimination.”
As the conflict wore on, the death toll in eastern Ukraine ticked ever higher. According to UN figures, by mid-August there were roughly 2,600 civilian dead and well over five thousand wounded. The number of internally displaced persons, estimated at well over one hundred thousand, was dwarfed by the number of refugees that had flooded into Russia, an estimated 750,000. Yet that was apparently of little concern:
With so many innocent civilians caught up in lethal combat, it is tempting to look for a cease-fire or some kind of time out that would lead to a period of diplomatic negotiation. But what would a pause and diplomacy accomplish? Any negotiations that leave this blight festering in Ukraine must be avoided. The only acceptable solution is for Mr. Putin’s aggression to be reversed.
Almost as bad as the callousness on display is the lack of candor. At no point did the Post actually explain how it would propose to go about reversing Putin’s aggression. Until, that is, a week later, on August 28, when readers were warned of the “global repercussions of this struggle” and told that it was time “to supply Ukraine with the arms and intelligence it needs to defend its territorial integrity.” In other words, it was time for the United States to become involved in a shooting war with Russia by proxy, a position that has been endorsed by Senator John McCain and others but that carries its own rather obvious perils.
Most recently, in a November 17 op-ed, Hiatt himself wrote that Obama was bungling the Ukraine crisis by not taking a much more forceful line, including sending weaponry. Hiatt drew a historical parallel, lamenting American inaction in Hungary during the Soviet invasion in 1956: “The Soviets were swimming against the tide of history when they invaded. . . but Hungary would endure more than three decades of oppression before the tide swept them out again. The tide of history often needs help.” But surely President Eisenhower had it right when he refused to enmesh America directly in Hungary rather than risk a nuclear confrontation with the Kremlin.
HIATT’S EVIDENT instinct to avoid the bromidic vapidity common in editorial pages is laudable. It’s also the case that the paper’s op-ed section is not monolithic and features excellent columnists such as Will, David Ignatius and Fareed Zakaria. But, in general, the Post responds to dangerous and complex problems with simplistic prescriptions. Hiatt has created a foreign-policy fairy-tale land in which nasty authoritarian regimes can be magically transformed by American leadership into democratic ones. If only. And these illusions are by no means confined to the editorial page. Hiatt has hired a retinue of new columnists, including Jennifer Rubin, Robert Kagan, Michael Gerson and Marc Thiessen, who espouse a very hard line indeed. Last October, as Americans worried about the advances of the Islamic State and the spread of Ebola, Thiessen, a former Jesse Helms staffer and George W. Bush administration speechwriter, even conjured up a scenario of “Ebola terrorism” in which these “two threats converge into one.” He envisioned terrorists deliberately infecting themselves with Ebola and then traveling to the United States to use the virus as a bioweapon. It scarcely needs saying that this was a vision completely unmoored from reality.
There is no reason to think that any of this will change soon. As one editorial warned, “This is, in a very real sense, the defense of the United States. The Administration has not made enough of the point that we are [at war], fundamentally because our own vital interest is at stake. . . . The stark fact remains that this is a struggle about the organization of the world.” It appeared on September 5, 1966.
James Carden served as an adviser to the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission at the State Department and is a contributing editor at The National Interest. Jacob Heilbrunn is editor of The National Interest.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Daniel X. O'Neil/CC by 2.0