Casting the First Stone

How do we trust Newsweek when criticisms often depend on unnamed sources?

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

A new round of Middle East hysteria has broken out in Washington. It goes like this: Iran is not really such a serious threat; but once again we are cooking intelligence, ignoring moderates, being needlessly provocative, acting unilaterally and preemptively, looking for a mere pretext to strike, and refusing to try diplomacy. Supposedly Mr. Bush, if just for political reasons alone, can’t wait to face the bad choice of removing the Iranians’ centrifuges and the worst choice of letting them be.

That we have been engaged with Iran on and off for 27 years is forgotten. We are also apparently to put aside for a moment Iran’s breakneck efforts to get the bomb and forget its serial threats to wipe out the Israeli democracy.

This fear of American cowboyism is now widespread in and out of government. Consult, for example, the latest Newsweek cover-story exposé by Michael Hirsh and Maziar Bahari (“Rumors of War”), in which we are lectured about George W. Bush’s blundering:  “The secret history of the Bush administration’s dealings with Iran is one of arrogance, mistrust and failure.”

For Newsweek, there is a weird (or rather, warped) sort of moral equivalence, in which Bush has become the doppelganger of Ahmadinejad, as evidenced by the cover photo of the issue showing a composite face — Bush and Ahmadinejad each contributing half (Bush, of course, being the right side, while the right-wing fascistic Ahmadinejad is on the left). The suggestion is that without these two similar extremists, there would a sort of natural détente between our two not so dissimilar nations:

In a warped parallel to Bush, who found his voice after 9/11 rallying Americans to the struggle against a vast and unforgiving enemy, the Iranian president rose in stature throughout the Middle East as he railed against America.

Apparently after reading this Newsweek exclusive, one is supposed to snicker at the pedestrian Bush idea that Islamic terrorism is “vast,” “unforgiving,” or really an “enemy” at all.

This old Cold War media chestnut of two Manicheans on the path to Armageddon resurfaced also in the Sharon/Arafat days of the Intifada. Then we were lectured that, without those two fossilized extremists in charge, the natural aspirations of the common people on both sides of the border could have resulted in a breakthrough.

Few of such a therapeutic mindset wished to hear in those dark days that a democratically elected Sharon — subject to the audit of a free press and the censure of a nonviolent opposition — was not comparable to a thug and a terrorist who had rigged one plebiscite and killed off or jailed most who spoke out against him.

Now one is gone, the other incapacitated. Yet the violence continues unabated — despite the liberal confidence that a “reasonable” Olmert and the “good” Abbas might have worked something out.

But neither can bring peace — any more than Sharon or Arafat could have — since the problem was never so much personalities per se as the fact that a constitutional democracy was surrounded by corrupt autocracies leveraged by Islamic terrorists.

So beware of Newsweek’s latest “secret history” of our “hidden war” with Iran.

Anonymous Sources

The piece also has many of the hallmarks of what we have come to expect from this once-hallowed magazine.

First, of course, there are the Woodwardian unnamed sources, and lots of them. An occasional inside informant may be necessary. But in the case of aNewsweek, already on public probation for past lapses, resorting to such “senior officials” and “participants” should be seldom and sparse.

Yet, remembering little and learning even less, Newsweek, in a relatively short essay, offers us the following:

  • “It’s plausible,” says a senior Coalition adviser who is also not authorized to speak on the record.
  • Says a U.S. official involved in the talks, who asked not to be named speaking about topics that remain sensitive.
  • Riding high, Bush seemed to like the idea of a swap, says a participant who asked to remain anonymous because the meeting was classified. Some in the room argued that designating the militants as terrorists had been a mistake, others that they might prove useful against Iran someday.
  • Asking not to be named because the topic is politically sensitive, he says he got the rough draft from an intermediary with connections at the White House and the State Department.
  • According to a diplomat who was there but asked not to be identified revealing official discussions.
  • Says a White House official, who could not be named discussing Iran.
  • A senior British official who would only speak anonymously about deliberations with the Americans describes Tehran’s mood around this time as “cock-a-hoop.”
  • Says an Iranian intelligence official who asked not to be named because secrecy is his business.

Apparently, the more volatile the assertion, the more likely there is no proof for it — other than a source who will not be identified, always apparently for prudent rather than self-serving reasons.

After the past furor over Bob Woodward’s methodology and Michael Isikoff’s work, it’s a matter of guesswork as to whether these Newsweek quotes are accurate, made up, or enhanced. And I doubt any editors could be certain either, unless they had tapes of these anonymous, self-serving sources to certify their own reporters’ authenticity.

When Newsweek’s Koran story went south, and after it had resulted in several deaths, we got this strange explanation from Isikoff: “Obviously we all feel horrible about what flowed from this, but it’s important to remember there was absolutely no lapse in journalistic standards here.” Actually, Mr. Isikoff, it is important to remember that several died precisely because of “a lapse of journalistic standards.”

“Good” Sources

Second, in the Newsweek boilerplate formula — remember the apotheoses of Richard Clark, John Murtha, Joe Wilson, etc. — we always get the few “good” and thus named sources. Most often, they are presented as the more principled (and, as it happens, liberal) voices that were ignored, thwarted, or driven out. And now, in a fit of principle, they consult with Newsweek about the administration’s “arrogance, mistrust and failure.”

No surprise, then, that once more, for the nth time, Richard Armitage and Colin Powell are wheeled out to offer the real deal.

Powell, for one, thinks Bush simply wasn’t prepared to deal with a regime he thought should not be in power. As Secretary of State he met fierce resistance to any diplomatic overtures to Iran and its ally Syria. “My position in the remaining year and a half was that we ought to find ways to restart talks with Iran,” he says of the end of his term. “But there was a reluctance on the part of the president to do that.” The former secretary of state angrily rejects the administration’s characterization of efforts by him and his top aides to deal with Tehran and Damascus as failures. “I don’t like the administration saying, ‘Powell went, Armitage went … and [they] got nothing.’ We got plenty,” he says. “You can’t negotiate when you tell the other side, ‘Give us what a negotiation would produce before the negotiations start’.”

Nowhere in the tattletale piece, in fact, are we given quotes or details about the Bush administration’s supposed “characterization of efforts by him and his top aides to deal with Teheran and Damascus as failures.”

The implication is that Newsweek calls up Powell and Armitage, relates to them something said by one of Newsweek’s supposed unnamed administration sources critical of both, and then starts taking down quotes as they fire back.

Then we also get the de rigueur cry of the heart from the “former” NSC staffer who at ground zero confirms our worst Powellian fears about what the nefarious “some” in Team Bush “secretly” are conjuring:

Some view the spiraling attacks as a strand in a worrisome pattern. At least one former White House official contends that some Bush advisers secretly want an excuse to attack Iran. “They intend to be as provocative as possible and make the Iranians do something [America] would be forced to retaliate for,” says Hillary Mann, the administration’s former National Security Council director for Iran and Persian Gulf Affairs.

A student in Journalism 101 would not earn a “C” on a storyline that is framed as “some view,” then clarified by “at least one,” and concerns what “some” advisors “secretly want.”

After Secretary Powell’s U.N. speech on WMD, or Richard Armitage’s confession that he leaked the name of Valerie Plame and then kept silent while Mr. Libby was serially accused of the same, it is not clear that either is an altogether unbiased source.

Tacky Effects

Then there is Newsweek’s psychodramatic and serial use of the upper case self-referent — as in “An Iranian diplomat admits to NEWSWEEK…” — as if capitalization implies gravitas. But usually it suggests the opposite, as anyone can attest who receives the weekly hate-mail typed in similar glaring block letters.

More importantly, if a source near the center of this scoop just happens now to work for NEWSWEEK, then what? He can hardly remain anonymous; at the same time, the article cannot make him culpable. Thus Michael Gerson ends up neither, in a sad sort of “she did it” or “he did it” exculpation.

One of the themes of the article is how Bush & Co. needlessly “knocked back on their heels” Iranian reformers by, among other things, caricaturing Iran as part of an “Axis of Evil.” But NEWSWEEK’s Gerson actually helped to draft that controversial presidential speech. So how is this embarrassing NEWSWEEK moment handled?

Barely a week after the Tokyo meeting, Iran was included with Iraq and North Korea in the “Axis of Evil.” Michael Gerson, now a NEWSWEEK contributor, headed the White House speechwriting shop at the time. He says Iran and North Korea were inserted into Bush’s controversial State of the Union address in order to avoid focusing solely on Iraq. At the time, Bush was already making plans to topple Saddam Hussein, but he wasn’t ready to say so. Gerson says it was Condoleezza Rice, then national-security adviser, who told him which two countries to include along with Iraq. But the phrase also appealed to a president who felt himself thrust into a grand struggle. Senior aides say it reminded him of Ronald Reagan’s ringing denunciations of the “evil empire.”

These are unhappy times of photoshopped Reuters pictures, concocted AP stories cobbled together from Middle Eastern stringers, presidential candidates who fudge and prevaricate about what they said and voted for in October 2002, and amnesiac columnists whose present vehemence against the war matches their past saber-rattling.

But what is missing is a little humility, some tiny notion that in a time of difficult war, the police themselves often need to be policed. We saw that irony again recently with poor Tim Russert in court, stumbling under oath, not unlike his own television guests, when the roles are reversed and a probing attorney plays himself — to himself.

Newsweek’s new tale about how we missed a chance at peace with the Iranians and are hell-bent on war may or may not be accurate. But given both the magazine’s recent history, and its flawed methodology, we will never know — just as we can’t any more trust the pictures we see, the memos that are read on the air, or the media inquisitors who are themselves cross-examined.

All we are left to remember in these dark days of self-righteous indignation is the old advice of the scripture: “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”

©2007 Victor Davis Hanson

Share This