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.