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.