< Iraq Coverage VS. Syria Coverage


Friday, September 06, 2013

BOB GARFIELD:  When Daily Show host Jon Stewart returned from a 12-week sabbatical on Tuesday, it took him no time whatsoever to regain his sea legs.


PRESIDENT OBAMA:  After careful deliberation, I have decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets.

JON STEWART:  Wow, America taking military action against a Middle East regime! It’s like I never left.


BOB GARFIELD:  For Stewart, talk of redlines and airstrikes is an eerie reprise of the drumbeat for invading Iraq ten years ago, and one big red flag, he found, of course, on cable news, a  rogues’ gallery of familiar faces supporting intervention – neocons Paul Bremer, Donald Rumsfeld, and the hawkishly  reliable, William Kristol.


WILLIAM KRISTOL:  But I wish he could have intervened a year ago, two years ago.

JON STEWART:  Ah, hey everybody, the idiot parade is in town!


BOB GARFIELD:  The message was pretty plain:  Here we go again, Iraq redux, duped into war hysteria by the same characters spouting the same pieties and telling the same lies. But is that the case? Putting aside that the Daily Show cut the videotape to misrepresent Rumsfeld's actual sentiments, was it also mischaracterizing the scope of the present debate? For instance, here was NBC's Brian Williams asking National Security Advisor Susan Rice about blowback from an attack on Syria.


BRIAN WILLIAMS:  What about the measurable chance, as recent history has taught us, that military action could, in this case, make things worse?


BOB GARFIELD:  And here's FOX News's Bill O'Reilly asking Senator John McCain how sure he is that it was the Bashar al-Assad regime that deployed the poison gas.


BILL O’REILLY:  There is a contention that it’s a setup by the rebels who want Assad punished by the USA, want to get USA inside that country’s activities. They did it, Assad didn’t do it. That’s the float contention that’s around.


BOB GARFIELD:  A decade after invented yellow cake uranium, innocent aluminum tubes and phantom weapons of mass destruction, are we, as Stewart suggests, being marched blindly into catastrophe?

MAX FISHER:  No. I think that that premise is totally wrong.

BOB GARFIELD:  Max Fisher is a foreign affairs blogger for the Washington Post.

MAX FISHER:  There have been people - and I'm not talking about me, people much smarter than myself – who really care about the Middle East, care about Syrian foreign policy, have been writing reams about this for two years now. I think the coverage of Syria has been really nuanced, really careful, has really talked about the larger issues that are going on there. And I think it's a shame that some people walk in, all of a sudden, six or seven days ago, because now it's also a political issue and they hype up the political issue, and that's all we’re listening to. So, you know, I think Stewart is actually playing right into the hands of the very people that he’s trying to criticize, by making it all about them. And it's not about them.

BOB GARFIELD:  A lot of the criticism of the press in the lead-up to the Iraq war concerned how gullible the, the public was and the press, with the Bush administration's string of allegations that Saddam Hussein was connected to the 9/11 hijackers, that he was purchasing yellowcake uranium from Niger, that he had a - aluminum tubes which were the smoking gun of a - a nuclear program, hook, line and sinker. Tell me about the  coverage that you’ve seen now and how it differs from a decade ago.

MAX FISHER:  I think there's certainly a lot more looking critically at claims from the government. I mean, you're seeing the media really push back on even just the number of dead that Secretary of State John Kerry was citing. I think that Iraq is  certainly top of mind for everyone.

The mistake that we’re repeating is that - you know, at first we weren’t really talking about Iraq during the Iraq debate, which is one reason that it was so easy for us to make this mistake that Saddam Hussein would support al Qaeda, which, if you know even a little bit [LAUGHS] about al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, is kind of, on its face, pretty silly. And I think that's a mistake that we’re repeating a little bit in Syria, that we’re not really talking about Syria right now. A lot of the debate that you see in these hearings with Kerry and Hagel and a lot of the media coverage that I’ve been seeing on it is talking about is American credibility at stake, what if the United States gets sucked in? Who’s gonna win the argument? Which party is gonna look good?

Often, I think it's to the exclusion of the actual Syrians and the actual Syrian war, and I think that that can really skew the conversation around it.

BOB GARFIELD:  Notwithstanding the, the pyrotechnics around the congressional vote on cable - it seems to me that even cable news has done a reasonably good job at fleshing out the issues, the risks, the rewards and, and so on. Am I hallucinating?

MAX FISHER:  [LAUGHS] I think that they have been pretty good. I mean, the thing that people make a mistake about with foreign policy sometimes is they think, okay, just like any other issue, it's, you know, left and right. Right after Secretary of State John Kerry’s speech last week, you know, basically laying out the case for strikes, CNN had a big debate on Syria policy between Van Jones and S.E. Cupp. [LAUGHS] And it was just – it – you know, it was everything that was kind of wrong with the way that media covers foreign policy -


- because they don't know anything about it.

BOB GARFIELD:  The usual pundit subjects parsing this all through the prism of - domestic politics.

MAX FISHER:  Right, because what else could possibly matter than Democrats fighting with Republicans. But the thing about foreign policy is a) it’s, it’s really hard, and b) there are kind of these ideological divides on it that really don't fall on party lines. You know, the theorists would call it realism versus idealism. You know, you see in the Republican Party there are a lot in the Tea Party wing, led by Rand Paul, who are saying, let’s not get involved. Then you see people like John McCain saying, no, no, American leadership, we have to get involved.

And you see something really similar on the left, where there are people who argue for humanitarian intervention. I’m thinking here are people like Anne-Marie Slaughter, who used to work for the State Department. And then there are the kind of anti-war left movements that said, you know, bombs are not the answer. And I think because you have that complication, it kind of disrupts the typical cable coverage of it because you can't fall back on left versus right, and you have to go, wait a second, there are actually some really tough issues here about American foreign policy and America's role in the world.

BOB GARFIELD:  Max, thank you very, very much.

MAX FISHER:  Thank you.

BOB GARFIELD:  Max Fisher is a foreign affairs blogger for the Washington Post.


Max Fisher

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