Man Without Qualities

Tuesday, September 09, 2003

David Brooks: Compare And Contrast

The New York Times launches a new columnist today, David Brooks. Mr. Brooks is not off to the best start. For example, here is his summation paragraph:

The essential news is that Bush will do whatever it takes to prevail, and senior members of his administration are capable of looking honestly at their mistakes. You will just never be able to get any of them to admit publicly they've ever made any.

And here is the lead, very large-print headline from today's Los Angeles Times:

Iraq Estimates Were Too Low, U.S. Admits

That headline captions an article that includes the following passage:

"It is fair to say that the level of decay and underinvestment in the Iraqi infrastructure was worse than almost anybody on the outside anticipated," said one senior administration official. "We were all surprised," said another.

So, compare and contrast: David Brooks today asserts that you will just never be able to get any of the Bush Administration to admit publicly they've ever made any mistakes on the same day at least two senior members of the Bush Administration do just that.

Well, maybe that's OK. Maybe Mr. Brooks doesn't read the Los Angeles Times anyway.

In addition, the phrase Bush will do whatever it takes to prevail may be problematic because the place it appears - Times Op-Ed pages - frequently assert or insinuate that whatever it takes to prevail includes lying or worse, as Don Luskin correctly points out. One might also note that - contrary to Mr. Brooks' insinuation and the overt assertions of others on his Op-Ed page - the President has always desired major United Nations involvement in Iraq, that's what all the shouting was about in the little green glass shee-bang on the East River some month's back. The pertinent question now is: Can United Nations or international involvement be obtained or increased on conditions which are tolerable under present circumstances - that is, now that the war is over? The answer increasingly appears to be "yes," and to his credit Mr. Brooks acknowledges that much: Colin Powell was dispatched to talk with Kofi Annan about a resolution authorizing a greater U.N. role. Annan was receptive.

A regular columnist plays a long term game, and one would not want to judge Mr. Brooks' tenure at the Times prematurely. He is right not to want to begin facing down a fusilage of irate letters labeling him a conservative "hack." He has not even begun to build a separate constituency at the Times. But he is going to need to show substantially more intestinal fortitude than he does in today's first column if his tenure is to be more than an embarrassment. Mr. Brooks should, for example, keep in mind that he has not just been reborn, full grown, from the brow of Pinch Sulzberger. Mr. Brooks has a history - and an oeuvre. He simply cannot mimic the tone of the other Times Op-Ed page writers without eventually clashing violently with his prior positions and looking like a ridiculous, empty opportunist. (He writes: "[Members of the Administration] don these facial expressions suggesting calm omniscience while down below their legs are doing the fox trot in six different directions." Was this sentence a column-warming gift from Maureen Dowd?) I haven't (yet) checked Mr. Brooks' prior work for consistency with today's column, but my guess is that he's already slicing the baloney pretty thin here.


The use of United Nations or broader international forces in Iraq is very unlikely to reduce resistance or violence there - although it may mean fewer US troops take the shots. It's nothing short of bizarre that terrorists blowing up the headquarters of the UN in Iraq and killing the chief of the UN forces there has been taken by many of the Administration's critics as evidence that UN or more broadly internationalized forces would be better accepted in Iraq than US forces are. And doesn't the UN immediately reacting to the bombing by pulling out signal to the terrorists that terrorism is much more effective against the UN than the US?

My guess is that the Administration's request to the UN to assume a broader role is a tactical move on Bush's part that forms part of the same strategy that includes his request for more money. Yes, the Administration would prefer that the UN and other countries act more responsibly, and some enhanced cooperation may be forthcoming. Another UN vote might allow some countries such as India to provide some support, for example. But really substantial changes in the attitudes of those such as Chirac, Anan and Schroeder are highly unlikely - they haven't grown up yet, so it's probably not going to happen at all.

But for all that, the request should be made. The UN-or-broader-international-involvement move allows the President to answer the inevitable question: Why are you not trying to get other countries to shoulder or pay for more of this? In fact the UN, Germans, French, etc will probably not pay what they should. Of course, all that will be good reasons in the future to make them pay when it comes time to restructure the commercial and political relationships of the Mideast.

In the long run, the Iraq investment will bear a huge return, comparable to the return realized from the demolition of the Soviet Union and the reconstruction of Russia. The Soviet excursion was expensive for the West, both in terms of military investment to confront the Soviets and in terms of losses in post-Soviet commercial investment. But there's no question that was money well spent.

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