Saturday, June 19, 2004

One reason the United States finds itself at the edge of a foreign policy disaster is its underinformed citizenry, a key weakness in a democracy.

Some seven years ago, the veteran journalist Garrick Utley noted a counterintuitive paradox. As U.S. global power — military and economic — expanded in the 1990s, coverage of international affairs in the U.S. press diminished.

A closer look revealed that except for the principal national newspapers, most major metropolitan papers had little or no staff reporting daily from abroad. News editors say they could not justify the cost of expensive overseas bureaus in view of their readers’ limited interest in foreign affairs.

As a result, readers were offered fewer foreign stories and had less context for understanding overseas events.

When the president travels, the media go with him. But when he moves on, so does the media caravan. No one is left behind to report the aftermath as, for example, in October 2003, when China’s president appeared before the Australian Parliament 24 hours after President Bush and instead of the grim “with us or against us” Bush exhortations regarding the terrorist threat, offered an interactive, optimistic, trade-based vision of East Asia’s future. Who left the deeper impression? It took two months for U.S. readers to get the reports.

The lack of timely, in-depth international reporting means Americans are more likely to react to events abroad through the limited prism of their emotions or ethnic backgrounds or in line with their domestic political alignments.

The scope for misunderstanding broadened in the 1990s when the cable news channels introduced a type of hyper-tabloid coverage directed at certain demographies and driven by ratings. The result was a format that saw itself as entertainment. It simplified news developments and hardened viewer attitudes toward what often were nuanced international challenges. A new genre of celebrity, the “talking head,” emerged, whose main quality was firm, unambiguous opinions rather than grounded knowledge.

In 2001, an America largely disinterested and uninformed about foreign affairs was convulsed by terrorism from abroad. It was a moment defined by fear, the most basic human emotion that, more than others, suspends time and thought and renders those in its grip unusually susceptible to demagoguery. This was the moment when a small, largely unknown group of neoconservatives injected itself decisively into the foreign policy process. These neoconservatives, with origins among formerly left internationalist Democrats, tend to be characterized by a Jacobin, uncompromising set of values.

In retrospect, one could not know how susceptible an inexperienced president and a less informed polity would be to the policies that have brought about the risky positions in which the nation now finds itself. Since then, the major print and electronic media have moved to redress the foreign news balance. But it has been a game of catch-up.

Foreign bureaus remain underresourced, and the availability of news, other than on immediate crises, is still limited. The American people lack a foundation of knowledge that would enable them to dodge, for example, Fox News’ frequent disinformation bullets. Perhaps most disturbing, an accurate understanding of the issues we face remains elusive.

Just before the second anniversary of the September 11 attack, polls showed 70 percent of Americans believed the hijackers were Iraqis, that Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against our troops, and there was a proven link between Saddam and al Qaeda. It is clear this lack of public grasp contributed to limits on debate in decisive hours after September 11 when the neoconservatives steered their way….

A striking aspect of U.S. response to September 11 was the unwillingness of the center — once this would have been called the “Establishment”: the Senate, the House of Representatives, the Judiciary, foreign policy institutions and media leaders — to open a public debate in 2003 on the administration policy.

A network of overlapping interests in the center made it difficult to break ranks and ask disquieting questions. Politicians are sensitive to opinion polls of the moment; journalists need sources, and so do not tell all they know. News anchors need prominent guests and thus often foreshadow issues to be raised in interviews. Academics often rely on federal and foundation grants, and are cautious about giving offense. Some believe think tanks depend even more on partisan fund-raising.

Regardless, a major national enterprise was allowed to proceed without a full examination of the White House case, a clear understanding of the costs, or what the end game would look like. There was, notoriously, little discussion of an “exit” strategy — that is, how and when the vast Middle East project would conclude. Administration claims of forthcoming help from allies were largely taken at face value. And many congressional Democrats voted to authorize war.

Growing public uncertainty with the Iraq venture finally registered in opinion polls and provided grounds for Democratic challengers to open a critical debate. But even then the mainstream candidates were hesitant. They didn’t want to risk being seen as soft on national security, or, worse still, as unpatriotic. Dissent was relegated to the periphery.

Howard Dean’s antiwar coalition gave vent to some of the anger in a sector of the public about the cost and rationale of the enterprise. His campaign showed that, even while the center underperformed, the intrinsic vitality of the American political process could produce a force for second thoughts….

The combination of a public lacking international affairs awareness and of an elite center falling down on the job provided the opening for the neoconservatives to frame the post-September 11 policy process in their terms. These were terms they had developed years before, leaving them the only ones near the seat of power with a prepared set of reactions.

Making the case for the decade-old neoconservative objective of attacking Iraq required a web of deception: that Saddam Hussein had and intended to use WMDs; that Saddam protected and supported al Qaeda; and that if he were not removed these weapons might be provided to al Qaeda, which would use them against the United States.

These claims, in essence, transformed the issues at hand by turning the possible existence of these threats into “proven” facts. The process, which anthropologists call the “discursive construction of reality” uses language to create a reality different from the one prior to the use of the language.

In this case, prominent neoconservatives fashioned a dialogue, a linguistic environment, that caused many to believe the claims were rooted in fact, which was not so. The war justification thus was created by hypothesis and interpretation.

Stefan Halper directs the Donner Atlantic Studies Program at Cambridge University in England. He was a White House official 1971-1977 in the Nixon and Ford administrations and a deputy assistant secretary of state from 1981 to 1983 under President Reagan. Jonathan Clarke is a Cato Institute foreign affairs scholar and a former counselor in the British Diplomatic Service. This article was extracted with the authors’ permission from their new book, “America Alone — The Neo-Conservatives and the Global Order,” Cambridge University Press.

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