War coverage: Media toe presidents’ lines

The joke’s on us might be the plaint of those who voted for Barack Obama believing they were electing the anti-Bush, a long-awaited liberal peace monger who would restore the nation’s standing in the world as a paragon of rational diplomacy — who wou

ld eschew the might-makes-right unilateralism of the Bush administration.

This is no joke, though; it’s deadly serious. To the dismay of many on the left, the foreign policy of the Obama administration has been — as pointed out by New America Foundation Director Peter L. Bergen in a recent New York Times Sunday op-ed piece — more big-stick Teddy Rooseveltian than finger-wagging Jimmy Carterian. The “sizable” military accomplishments of Obama — whom the Republicans ironically try to cast as soft on defense — include, according to Bergen, not only the decimation of Al-Qaida’s leadership. “He overthrew the Libyan dictator. He ramped up drone attacks in Pakistan, waged effective covert wars in Yemen and Somalia and authorized a threefold increase in the number of American troops in Afghanistan. He became the first president to authorize the assassination of a United States citizen, Anwar al Awlaki, who was born in New Mexico and played an operational role in Al-Qaida, and was killed in an American drone strike in Yemen. And, of course, Mr. Obama ordered and oversaw the Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden.”

A couple of interesting ironies, at least, are present in the discussion of Obama as what The Times labeled in the headline over Bergen’s piece, “Warrior in Chief.” One is the glaringly small-picture view that compares Obama to his predecessor. Fact is, Obama simply is fitting neatly into a presidential foreign policy paradigm constructed during a nearly 60-year period, beginning with the post-World War II Truman Doctrine establishing U.S. aid for foreign nations (Turkey and Greece in this specific instance) feeling the threat of communist insurgency.

The other irony in this war-president discussion is that the venue for the criticism of Obama’s foreign policy bravado — the editorial pages of The Times and other elite newspapers — is the same forum that over the years has helped every president since Harry Truman wage war abroad. My research of a dozen of the nation’s major newspaper editorial pages — forums in which the framers of the day’s current events set their agendas and sway public mood and policy — during the last six decades has found avid support by the nation’s press for each presidential argument for foreign military intervention. Conservative and liberal, West Coast and East Coast, North, South and Heartland, these newspapers have lined up in support of the military action that followed each pronouncement of doctrine.

An expanding thread of justification and argument for financial and military involvement abroad has ensued, along with an ever-enlarging presidential authority to take the nation to war — all abetted by a press in editorial commentary ranging from hedging acceptance and complicity to outright cheerleading.

A brief history of U.S. war diplomacy: After Truman sent troops to Korea following the North’s invasion of the South, his successor pronounced the Dwight Eisenhower Doctrine of lending military assistance to those nations who fear communist insurgency or threat and who request help. Eisenhower invoked this doctrine to justify sending troops to Lebanon. And Eisenhower’s Domino Theory – which argued that if one Southeast Asia nation fell to communism, others would follow – justified the Vietnam War. President John Kennedy cemented this foreign policy archetype by expanding the Vietnam War and with the failed Bay of Pigs humiliation. Even as the Vietnam War effort was failing, Lyndon Johnson exclaimed his own doctrine, sending troops to the Dominican Republic in the cause of social justice and nation building. The doctrines kept coming – and so did the list of reasons. Jimmy Carter drew an oil and human-rights line in the Middle East. Ronald Reagan sent troops to Beirut, and invaded Grenada to battle terrorism and communism. George H.W. Bush went to war for oil and human rights in the Middle East and Somalia, Bill Clinton for human rights in Bosnia. George W. Bush declared the right to wage pre-emptive war to protect national interests and security, and now Obama lends U.S. support on behalf of humanitarianism.

These proclamations justified military involvement abroad on behalf of containing communism, promoting democracy, and humanitarianism — all without benefit of the constitutionally required congressional declaration of war but with the implicit backing of Congress, through resolution and funding, and a compliant press that saved the hard questions for later. With talk of war with Iran in the air, we — and Congress, apparently — can do little more than worry about what will be the next presidential war.

Indeed, drone strikes in Pakistan during the first two years of the Obama presidency occurred at the rate of every four days, compared to every 43 days under Bush, and “two years into his presidency, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning president was engaged in conflicts in six countries: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and Libya,” wrote Bergen. Both congressional liberals and conservatives criticized the Libyan military intervention, which involved drone assaults but no ground troops, Bergen correctly pointed out.

As for the press role in this foreign adventurism, it is useful to remember here, as Walter Lippmann observed some time ago, that most citizens get their news of foreign events, including war, second-hand — through mediated channels that include newspapers. Newspapers, particularly during the period under discussion here, have traditionally set the national reporting agenda; even when television news replaced newspapers as Americans’ primary source of information about the world, television news directors and managers took their journalistic cues from the nation’s major and regionally dominant newspapers.

When it comes to the crucial period leading up to war — the time frame when the case for war is argued, the pre-war phases when war can still be prevented — the nation’s press has habitually abandoned its ballyhooed watchdog role. Instead, these purveyors of public opinion took on a lap dog or guard dog role — as in guarding the interests and ideologies of the nation, the culture and the economy in which they thrive. And in the process, they constructed a reality of the world based largely — especially when it comes to matters of foreign policy and defense – on official government sources who had a strong interest and played an authoritative role in framing how the news of these policies was portrayed to the public.

To be sure, these same newspapers — the Times of New York and of Los Angeles and Seattle, the Journal of Wall Street, the Tribune of Chicago and Post-Dispatch of St. Louis, the Post in Washington and Denver, USA Today, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Houston Chronicle in the South — donned their watchdog garb once the wars began, investigating atrocities, lies and misplaced alliances and causes. But this sort of skeptical journalism came late — after the wars had begun, the troops had landed, the bombs had fallen, the missiles had fired, the troops and innocent civilians had been slaughtered. It came after the United States was involve, and thus in a political and time frame making it more difficult to get out than it had been to get in.

Certainly, these press agents asked some questions and expressed some uncertainty along the way; but these questions and doubts had primarily to do with war strategy rather than war doctrine. For example, while many of these newspapers demonstrated some skepticism regarding President George W. Bush’s arguments regarding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, beyond some initial questioning, none in the end ardently disagreed with or challenged the larger, dominant frame for war that the Bush presidency built carefully over a period of months: that Saddam Hussein posed a threat to his neighbors and to the United States; that he was aligned with the terrorists who attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001; that he was an evil despot, part of an Axis of Evil, who needed to be plucked like a toxic weed from Middle East; that a regime change to a democratic form of government would best serve the region, the world, and U.S. interests. By the time of the invasion, all of these newspapers had bought into this larger argument. The primary question regarding war — especially after former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s damning presentation to the United Nations demonstrating the connivance and intentions of Hussein — became not whether to go to war with Iraq, but when and how to do so, whether unilaterally or with United Nations backing.

The Bush case for war with Iraq followed the template established by his predecessors: arguments on behalf of national security, of resisting authoritarianism, of protecting U.S. and Western interests and values abroad (oil and democratic forms of government, for example), of protecting American citizens facing threat from despotic governments, and finally of rescuing citizens of other nations from the oppression of their leaders.

The question here is not whether bad rulers and policies need to be resisted or whether U.S. security must be protected — as Obama eloquently argued in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, when he explained that he “cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people.” Make no mistake, the president urged. “Evil does exist in the world. A nonviolent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al-Qaida’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism — it is a recognition of history, the imperfections of man, and the limits of reason.”

Rather, the argument is that presidents have increasingly used this sort of rationale to take the nation to war in a process that expanded steadily since World War II without Congress raising much of a ruckus beyond the feckless War Powers Act that came out of the Vietnam War. And this presidential war power has flourished with the blessings of a press that has abdicated its Fourth Estate responsibilities of oversight. The process culminated, most recently, in the U.S. participation in the liberation of Libya — a military drone exercise that drew some press criticism for ignoring constitutional war-making authority but that sparked press applause nonetheless.

In a televised speech explaining his decision to undertake the Libyan military operation, President Obama included a justification that echoed explanations by former presidents, including Johnson’s Dominican Republic intervention, Reagan’s Grenada invasion, George H.W. Bush’s decision to send troops to Somalia, and Clinton’s explanation for ordering air strikes and deploying ground troops in the Bosnian conflict. “For generations, the United States of America has played a unique role as an anchor of global security and as an advocate for human freedom,” the president said. “Mindful of the risks and costs of military action, we are naturally reluctant to use force to solve the world’s many challenges. But when our interests and values are at stake, we have a responsibility to act.” He added, in reference to the uprisings in other Middle Eastern and North African nations of which the Libyan civil war was a part:

“Born, as we are, out of a revolution by those who longed to be free, we welcome the fact that history is on the move in the Middle East and North Africa, and that young people are leading the way. Because wherever people long to be free, they will find a friend in the United States. Ultimately, it is that faith — those ideals — that are the true measure of American leadership.”

These are the same ideals cited by presidents from Truman on in their defense of military engagement. They are the same values and arguments invoked by the press in its editorial chorus of celebration for the successful denouement of the Libyan operation — a war choir that resonated with pro-war editorials dating to Korea.

Trumpeted the New York Times: “There is little doubt that the rebels would not have gotten this far without NATO’s air campaign and political support from President Obama, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron. When critics in Washington and elsewhere declared Libya a quagmire, these leaders refused to back away.”

“Though you wouldn’t know it from the reaction at the Council on Foreign Relations or among some GOP presidential candidates, this is a victory for freedom and U.S. national interests,” claimed The Wall Street Journal.

Chimed in USA Today: “The inter-vention was a high-stakes gamble about which we’ve been skeptical, but if ultimately successful, it can be an important step in what stands to be a long, difficult process of rebooting U.S. policy away from support for dictators and toward support for the people’s democratic aspirations.”

The Washington Post praised the operation. “The imminent collapse after 42 years of Moammar Gaddafi’s brutal and capricious regime demonstrates that even a half-hearted U.S. effort can make a big difference. Mr. Obama insisted six months ago that U.S. participation would last only ‘days;’ he kept the connection between military means and political goals murky; he fudged rather than comply with the War Powers Resolution; he was slow to recognize the Libyan opposition.But as British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy led, Mr. Obama crucially maintained enough U.S. support to keep the NATO mission going. Libyans themselves provided the motivation and the manpower, but they could not have succeeded without U.S. help. And Mr. Obama sustained the mission despite criticism from both Democrats and potential 2012 opponents.”

And so on, citing from other newspapers included in my research (excepting the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which, its editorial page editor informed me, no longer editorializes on non-local topics):

Detroit News: “Libya’s malevolent dictator, Moammar Gadhafi, is out of power. A six-month rebellion, backed by NATO air strikes, has ended his regime. That is a victory for the Libyan people and one that the West ought to celebrate. For 40 years, Gadhafi ruthlessly exploited Libya’s oil resources for his own gain and made the country a pariah in the West.”

Chicago Tribune: “Then there is Libya’s mad despot, Moammar Gadhafi. After months in which he and his security forces fought to put down a broad-based insurgency, the capital city of Tripoli was overrun by rebels Sunday, virtually sealing his doom. Here, the opposition has not only moral support but military help from abroad, in the form of an extended NATO air campaign.”

St. Louis Post-Dispatch: “There isno doubt that without NATO’s intervention, this megalomaniac slowly would have rolled up the rebels, hunting them down — as he said — ‘like rats and cockroaches.’ Mr. Obama took heat from both the left and the right for sending U.S. air and naval forces into the fray. We are among those who believe he owed Congress more in the way of consultations under the War Powers Act of 1973. Still, while the economy may be a mess, the president can take some comfort in knowing that in the span of four months, he helped rid the world of Osama bin Laden and Moammar Gadhafi. Not a bad summer’s work.”

Denver Post: “The Khadafy era in Libya — an improbable 42 years of brutality at home and bloody adventurism abroad — is seemingly finished. And that’s cause for celebration despite the uncertainty over what sort of government will eventually emerge. … The brave rebels who bucked the odds and took on Khadafy’s troops deserve the major credit for victory, of course, but they could not have succeeded without the air support they received from Western powers. President Obama can justly claim a foreign policy triumph in the face of considerable skepticism from critics, which included this editorial page.”

Seattle Times: “NATO airstrikes have provided key support while keeping foreign troops off the ground, allowing Libyans to liberate their country. Combat air patrols will continue until all pro-Gadhafi forces surrender. The air coverage helps rebels and protects civilians. Initially, the U.S. provided much of the firepower. President Obama, responsive to a war-weary American public, shifted to allow the international community to lead — a strategy that worked.”

Los Angeles Times: “The use of force to address the internal abominations of other nations raises profoundly difficult questions for American policymakers. Eager not to serve as the world’s police force and yet determined to support democratic values and human rights, the United States often finds itself facing limited, unpalatable options. It may stand aside and allow rulers to abuse their people, or it may intervene, risking American lives and reinforcing the international impression that this nation is entitled to govern others. In Libya, the Obama administration chose a middle course. The U.S. provided limited air and drone support to rebels who might well have been defeated without it. It declined to act unilaterally, but rather played a supporting role in an effort led by European nations that have a greater stake in Libya’s stability. And though there were signs of mission creep, of deepening embroilment in Libya’s civil war, the U.S. largely resisted those temptations. Not one American soldier set foot in Libya. Force is sometimes justified, but it should only be deployed when other methods have failed, when it can serve a vital end and when it can be effective in securing that result.”

Of course, nothing works like success — a case that Obama is making in his campaign for re-election. It is a campaign that, when it comes to foreign policy, promises a replay of past presidential contests that have raised national security concerns. In the past, though, these worries have been used to target the Democrats, have accused Democratic presidential candidates as weak on defense and national security. This time, it is the Democratic candidate who will have the national security argument on his side — due, in large part, to a foreign policy of military adventurism that, make no mistake, is not any modern or new development. It is one steeped in more than 60 years of tradition, with a big boost from a Congress that has ceded its war-making authority and a press that has surrendered its watchdog responsibilities when it comes to the most crucial decision any president must make — to go to war.

Editor’s Note: In this story, Moammar Gadhafi’s name has been spelled differently. It is used in quotes from differing publications and those publications spelled the name in differing ways.

Steve Hallock is director of the School of Communication at Point Park University in Pittsburgh and author of “The Press March To War: Newspapers Set the Stage for Military Intervention in Post-World War II America.”

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