Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Freedland's Follies

The Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland today tries to give some legs to the Downing Street Memo controversy with his “Yes, they did lie to us” commentary. Essentially Freedland is trying to shame his countrymen into caring about the DSM by suggesting that Americans – yes Americans, of all people – are starting to take a serious look at the implications of the DSM.

But in the course of his attempt to get the Brits on side, Freedland shows a remarkable ignorance of the US. First Freedland has to set the stage by reminding his audience just how incurious and uninformed Americans generally were about the prospects of war in Iraq.

Before the war on Iraq, Britain witnessed a ferocious debate over whether the case for conflict was legal and honest. It culminated in the largest demonstration in the country's history, as a million or more took to the streets to stop the war. At the same time, the US sleepwalked into battle. Its press subjected George Bush to a fraction of the scrutiny endured by Tony Blair: the president's claims about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction and links to al-Qaida were barely challenged.
Well, I suppose if the US was “sleepwalking” in the run-up to the war, all those protests that we heard tell about across the US must have just been a dream. Yet another reason, I suppose, not to trust the BBC. And the irritating must have just been making things up.

But of course this is bunk. The notion that the US press unquestioningly accepted Bush administration assertions prior to the war is a ridiculous claim. No honest person who pays any attention to the far-from-Bush-loving US press could possibly believe that they docilely accepted what was coming out of the White House, especially regarding Iraq-al Qaeda links. As far back as August 2002, CNN was already raising questions about those links. In November of 02, Daniel Schorr, of National Public Radio (the US’s downsized version of the BBC, both in funding and in political orientation), was arguing that the case for an Iraq – al Qaeda link was unconvincing.

And of course we have America’s so-called paper of record. The NYT unfortunately does not allow free internet access to its archives. But you can run a search and see the headlines along with a short abstract for any article dating back to 1996. In running a search for “iraq al Qaeda link” between September 02 and March 03, I managed to discover Elusive Qaeda Connections, Iraq’s Ties to Terror; The Threat Isn’t Easy to Read, The Illusory Prague Connection, and Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda Are Not Allies, among others. I even managed to find the whole text of CIA,FBI Staffers See No Link Between Iraq, al Qaeda. And this is not a comprehensive list.

Clearly Freedland is selling a fictional past. But what about his view of the present?
Yet now the picture has reversed. In Washington Iraq remains close to the centre of politics while in Britain it has all but vanished. So the big news on Capitol Hill is he Democrats' refusal to confirm John Bolton, the man Bush wants to serve as US ambassador to the UN, in part because of suspicions arising from the lead-up to War.
As my British friends might say, that's bollocks. The lead up to the war has nothing to do with Democratic obstruction of Bolton’s nomination, and anyone with an ounce of political sense knows it. Oh sure, Harry Reid might now say it has something to do with that, but that’s only because that’s one of the few excuses the Dems have not already used in their never-ending quest to deny Bolton’s appointment. First it was his apparent hostility towards the UN itself. Then it was his overly brusque manner with subordinates. Then it was his supposed manipulation of intelligence data. Then it was suspicion that he “improperly” sought the identities of US citizens named in intelligence communications. Now, as Freedland puts it:
[The DSM] had established that "hyping intelligence" happened and [Reid] wanted to know if Bolton had ever been involved in similar exercises.
I’m kind of surprised that Reid hasn’t asked for the Warren Commission to be re-formed to look into allegations that Bolton was in Dallas in November of ’63. In taking this claim seriously, Freedland is either naïve or disingenuous.

And what of this newfound interest in the DSM in the States?
In Britain they have scarcely made a dent, but in America they have developed an unexpected momentum. Initially circulated on left-leaning websites, they have now broken out of the blogosphere and into the mainstream. The big newspapers have editorialized on the topic; last week Democratic congressmen held unofficial hearings into the memos...
Freedland should let the left-wing media watchdog Media Matters know about those “big newspapers”, given that, far from the DSM capturing the American imagination, it thinks there’s a mainstream media coverup going on.

And he should take a look at Bush-hating Washington Post reporter Dana Millbank’s take on these, um, “unofficial hearings".
In the Capitol basement yesterday, long-suffering House Democrats took a trip to the land of make-believe. They pretended a small conference room was the Judiciary Committee hearing room, draping white linens over folding tables to make them look like witness tables and bringing in cardboard name tags and extra flags to make the whole thing look official.
These were "unofficial" hearings in the same sense that my golf round last weekend was the "unofficial" British Open.

It’s fair enough, I suppose, for Freedland to implore his fellow Brits to take the DSM more seriously. But if he’s going to use the American political scene to help make his case, he at least ought to know a little bit about it.


Blogger Patrick said...

Freedland and the other Guardianistas, one must conclude, live in a parallel universe. Communication across the interface is clearly a one-way thing. Their total ignorance of the US is understandable. However, it is not to be condoned.

For example: I spent several hours the other day trying to educate a visiting old schoolfriend from the UK on the US Constitution, separation of powers etc etc. To no avail. The Guardian and the BBC had told him the US was a gulag, a dictatorship, with Cheney in absolute control, and with freedom of speech suppressed. With the straightest of faces he informed me that the New York Times was a propaganda tool of the Bush/Cheney fascist party. This from a man with a First from a very good English university (moreover, a First in the days when one had to be good indeed to achieve that).

I now read the Guardian on the Web for amusement. Great humourists and parodists like AL Kennedy, Monbiot and Freedland just make my day.

PBW Calgary, Alberta

4:46 PM  
Anonymous Mark said...

To Patrick:

Real interesting you should mention this. This point of view is not isolated to the UK. I read this article the other day, "The German Chair, a tale of torture at the hands of an America-hating diplomat"

The background on it is a WSJ writer meets informally with a German diplomat for lunch. Here's some of the conversation that ensued:

"Had I read the recent Amnesty International report on Guantanamo? 'You mean the one that compared it to the Soviet gulag?' Yes, that one. My host disagreed with it: The gulag was better than Gitmo, since at least the Stalinist system offered its victims a trial of sorts.

Nor was that all. Civil rights in the U.S., he said, were on a par with those of North Korea and rather behind what they had been in Europe in the Middle Ages. When I offered that, as a journalist, I had encountered no restrictions on press freedom, he cut me off. 'That's because The Wall Street Journal takes its orders from the government.'"

The DSM was a major issue in the UK. I can remember when the Labour Party was up for re-election, Blair took many questions on it (watched it on C-SPAN), mostly concerning the commentary in the memo about the Attorney General's opinion on the Iraq war. People thought it said that the AG said that the war was illegal. Blair tried best he could to assuage people's fears about that, saying that ultimately the AG determined that it was legal, and that people had been misreading the memo.

The same thing is going on here in the U.S., though the left is clinging to the idea that the memo says that the U.S. "fixed" facts and intelligence around its policy, implying to them that the U.S. was doing what it was accused of: cherry-picking intelligence to suit the argument for war. What puzzles me though is that the Brits of all people should understand the language of the memo. It is after all written in their dialect of English. As I've read recently, through TAE, "fixed" doesn't mean the same thing in the UK as it does in the U.S.

11:33 PM  
Anonymous Mark said...

It's difficult to believe that Freedland could come to the conclusion he does about our treatment of the debate about going to war. There were large demonstrations here, though not as large as in Europe. There was press skepticism here. There was intense debate about whether Bush was lying to us or not, and whether Saddam represented a real threat. The Democrats really started making noise in opposition to the war when the war started. Up to then, they had voted to give authorization to Bush to use force if necessary. They expected that the UN weapons inspectors would do their job and either find weapons and destroy them, or not find anything.

What's striking about the way things have played out politically, is that the Conservative Party in the UK used basically the same line of thought as John Kerry did when he ran for president: that war with Iraq was not out of the question for them, but that Bush/Blair went about it the wrong way. Further they weren't honest with the people they were supposed to represent. Kerry said he would've allowed the weapons inspectors to complete their jobs, rather than abort it, and done his dilligence to bring our allies (ie. Germany, France, some other major powers in the region) into it in a more concilliatory fashion (whether that would've worked or not is debatable). The Conservative Party leader said that he would've been more honest with the British people and told them straight up what was going on, rather than "pretending" there was WMD there, and that Iraq was an "imminent threat" (something Bush never said, by the way). Someone asked him whether the British people would've agreed to go with his line of reasoning. He said yes he did, but people in audience seemed to disagree.

11:57 PM  
Anonymous Ubercaimain said...

Thanks again, Scott.

Many back home read your blog and the insights your provide are inavluable.

Apparently, more than a common language seperates us from the lymies.


1:49 AM  
Anonymous Tiffany said...

Does anyone else find it amusing that the Downing Street Memo now has the same acronym as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual?

12:16 PM  
Blogger Stephen said...

Don't forget, Ubercamain, that the alleged "journalism" that Scott deals with in his excellent blog is not by any means all of the journalism that goes on in these sceptred isles, and that the circulation of newspapers like the Guardian is pathetically small, showing to what extent the ordinary Briton subscribes to their views. It is a certain minority, usually educated in the social sciences, and working in academia, government, or media, that consume and regurgitate this bilge. Not by any means all of the "limeys". By the way, I'm not one of them.)

1:59 PM  
Anonymous dan m said...

No, Stephen, The Guardian's influence is out of all proportion to its circulation.

The only place the BBC advertises its non-clerical jobs is The Guardian. And nearly all mid- and upper-level public sector jobs are placed there and only there. If you're in any of those job markets (many academics, too), why, you're a subscriber. The cross-fertilization between Guardian and BBC in particular is deep, endless, intractable and very dangerous (also paid for via the BBC 'licence fee' levied on all TV owners).

Actually, those ads are one way of identifying the malaise du jour and the spot where supporters of the newest leftist fad will next squander public money. It all leads to a self-selecting, self-referential, self-reinforcing merry-go-round of like-minded non-thought, mediocrity and failure.

3:12 PM  
Anonymous Mark said...

I read an article here in the U.S. recently talking about how competition breeds excellence, and used our education system as an example (public education--no competition and recognized as mediocre compared to the rest of the world, university education--with competition, and excellence recognized the world over). It definitely sounds like, from Dan's description, that the television media there is woefully in need of competition. At least they have it in the print media.

Canada has been suffering from much the same problem, as I understand. They used to just have the CBC for television (and U.S. network channel access along the southern border), but more recently they've opened up their media markets some to allow in the likes of CNN and Fox News. The UK could use that, yes?

2:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The reason the Guardian/BBC are so popular in the US is they fill the truth vacuum. Your media (and I watch it, even Fox News when I need a laugh) is a crock of shit! There is no analysis, no depth, hardly any foreign coverage, as if the US is more important than the WORLD. In 20 years China's gonna be kicking your ass, xie xie ni!

And Mark, we have our version of Fox, its called Sky News, also run by Murdoch. I watch it when I need entertainment, but never for news :)

6:24 AM  
Blogger Scott Callahan said...


On what evidence do you base the claim that the Guardian/BBC are "so popular" among Americans? In fact, I doubt they are at all.

As for the amount of foreign coverage, you are probably correct, at least relatively if not absolutely. That is because news consumers first and foremost want to hear about news that impacts upon them. In this respect, I doubt American news consumers are any different than those in other countries. The difference is that no foreign country has even close to the impact on the average US citizen that the US has on the average citizen in other countries. Being the sole superpower and the primary economic engine for the world, what goes on in the US is very important to those outside the US. However, what goes on in, say, Sweden (or most other European countries) is of virtually no consequence to the average American. Hence the lack of "foreign" coverage.


8:09 AM  

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