To editors of The New York Times and producers at the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), David Brooks is the perfect conservative. He is educated, has good manners and is willing to break with his fellow conservatives on all manner of issues. He urged Barack Obama to run for president and has been described by White House insiders as the president’s favorite columnist.
The fact that few conservatives agree with much of what the man has to say endears him to his editors and producers, who tout him as a conservative for precisely that reason. Mr. Brooks describes himself as a Burkean conservative skeptical of centralized power, but has argued from time to time that Americans should be tolerant of presidential and government power grabs. His inconsistencies allow him to be generally supportive of those in power even as he poses as a gentle critic of establishment liberalism.
Mr. Brooks supported the initial invasion of Iraq, as did most Americans, but broke with the Bush approach to the Afghan war over his belief that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was dead wrong in his belief that a light rather than heavy American footprint might better serve U.S. interests in that troubled land. Mr. Brooks argued for a massive ground presence to avoid losing a war that Mr. Obama would later describe as the one we must win. He denounced Mr. Rumsfeld’s approach as the “illusion of the easy path” and scathingly attacked the belief that we could fight a war in Afghanistan with “cruise missiles, Special Forces and unmanned drones.”
With Mr. Obama’s election to the presidency, all that began to change. Mr. Brooks became a champion of the light touch, of the efficiency of targeting enemies of this country for assassination by drone. When the president and his friends acknowledged that they had targeted at least one American citizen for killing, he suggested only that there should perhaps be an internal board to review such cases before drones are actually launched. There were no outraged cries for a U.S. citizen’s rights; no columns demanding that rather than kill U.S. citizens, they be dragged back to this country for trial, not because they might be innocent, but because they are U.S. citizens.
Yet, this is precisely the argument that he is using today to justify and, indeed, praise the president’s decision to trade five terrorists for an army sergeant who, according to members of his own unit, left his post, his weapon and his body armor and wandered off into Taliban-held territory. We don’t know whether Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl deserted or defected; that will have to be determined by the Army itself. Only the future will reveal whether the Taliban fighters and commanders we released to get him back will end up being responsible for more American and allied deaths.
What we do know, though, is that once again, Mr. Obama made an arguably questionable decision, twisted the facts leading up to it to justify his failure to cooperate with Congress, and celebrated it for his own political purposes. That the enterprise backfired should have been predictable, as even Obama loyalists such as Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, voiced outrage at what their president was doing and how he was doing it.
There was, however, no outrage from the establishment’s favorite conservative. Mr. Brooks just as predictably agonized for a bit and decided that while the White House handling of the announcement, which former Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey described as “ghastly,” may have been ham-handed, the president did the right thing. It was the right decision, Mr. Brooks argued in The Times and on PBS, simply because we don’t leave Americans behind — ever. That, he says, justified everything, regardless of whether Sgt. Bergdahl was a deserter, defector or collaborator. It made the president right even if other U.S. citizens had died searching for him. The president was right because as an American citizen, we had an obligation to bring him back, no matter what, and besides, no one who wasn’t there when he was captured or surrendered to the Taliban can know what really happened.
Mr. Brooks argues that our national commitment to leave no one behind is crucial to maintaining “national solidarity.” He writes that this means “we will not abandon each other; we will protect one another; heroic measures will be taken to leave no one behind.”
Pretty good stuff, but where’s the consistency? He argues that the “president’s instincts were right. His sense of responsibility for a fellow countryman was correct. It’s not about one person; it’s about the principle of all-for-one-and-one-for-all .”
Mr. Brooks’ argument theoretically may be unassailable, but his making it might make more sense if it were consistent with his past positions. The House of Representatives is investigating what happened in Libya, where a number of Americans were left behind and killed as they fought our enemies. Mr. Brooks has dismissed the incident and the idea of getting to the bottom of why our people were abandoned in Benghazi as “trivial” and “partisan.” It may be true that a “foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” but one still has to wonder how Mr. Brooks ignores the inconsistency inherent in his virtual dismissal of the importance of what happened in Benghazi as compared with his embrace of the president’s actions in the Bergdahl case.
No wonder he’s the president’s favorite columnist.
David A. Keene is opinion editor of The Washington Times.