I read a great essay by James Bowman this morning that is on the Wall Street Journal's Opinion Journal website. It is titled "Getting it Right" and among other things, it discusses the role of the late David Halberstam in how journalism has changed over the last 40 years and where it is today. There are individual journalists to whom his criticism doesn't apply, but overall I think it's a fairly accurate description of journalism today. It's a pretty long essay and I suggest that you read the whole thing, but one section really stood out to me:
After noting how, since Halberstam, it has become part of the romance of being a reporter to question the bona fides of America's leaders, Ambassador Holbrooke added: "But everything depended on David getting it right, and he did." This strikes me as being equally revealing. "Getting it right" is of course an admirable ambition for a journalist, but it is an exercise that has little in common with what generals and politicians must do, which is to lead others through situations of mortal peril with appallingly incomplete and inaccurate information to guide them. Getting it wrong is a given. That's what the romance of the Halberstamian example has made journalists--and not only journalists!--forget when they try to apply his lesson from Vietnam to the Iraq war. For the man who must act and not just observe, the only question that matters is how quickly he can recognize and recover from his mistakes and how strong is his will to keep fighting in spite of them and the inevitable setbacks they cause. On the first of these tests, the Bush administration has done rather badly, I think; on the second it has done rather well. But part of the reason for its failures has been that the mind of the media remains obsessed with the question only of its prescience--as if "getting it right" were the only thing that mattered and getting it wrong a fatal disqualification for leadership.
This odd prejudice may be partly owing to the huge social premium we put on intelligence in the era of the cognitive elite. People who have no idea on earth what to do about the war or any of the problems we face as a nation think it is some kind of program to ridicule the intelligence of the President. Even the political opposition has fallen into this trap by making mere perspicacity in the anticipation of evils rather than the determined effort to combat them its test of political success. Thus in Sen. Jim Webb's reply to the president's State of the Union Address in January, he had no alternative to suggest to the measures for dealing with Iraq that had been proposed, but he was full of indignation on the grounds that the mistakes of the administration had been foreseeable. He knew that they were foreseeable because he himself had foreseen them. The implication was that he was much cleverer than President Bush--as if that was all that need be said to the credit of the former and the discredit of the latter.
The fact that the opposition and the media frame the debate in this way means that much of the administration's energies have to be expended in defending itself against endless second-guessing, which in turn means that it is even less inclined to recognize and correct mistakes. This is infantile politics. Meanwhile, on the question of what is now to be done about the mistakes, no one seems to know any better than Sen. Webb, whose policy amounts to saying that we ought not to have made them in the first place. This is also the view of much of the Democratic Party, and almost all of the media, who repeat mechanically that we need a "change of course" in Iraq but never get around to telling us what they would change--short of surrendering, which is now becoming the default option. In April, Sen. Harry Reid finally bowed to the logic of his own position by acknowledging that the war was already lost. At any rate it had better be, if he wants to preserve the reputation for shrewdness and sagacity that he, like so many others, have cultivated by being wise after the event.
My apologies to the author for excerpting so much, but I didn't want to hack that up and I think he is dead-on about how the debate on Iraq and many other issues has been framed. I disagree, to some degree, with his take on how Bush has performed in recognizing and recovering from his mistakes, but that's something that reasonable people can debate about. My take is that history will be much kinder to Bush than those who are hyper-critical and so damned partisan today.
That's not to say that Bush, or the government, or the military do not deserve criticism at times. I've grown pretty weary though of people who snipe from the sidelines without offering realistic plans of their own or who ignore historical perspective regarding large, complex, and difficult tasks. It's one thing when that kind of behavior takes place debating farm subsidies or transportation bills. It's a whole different thing when it happens about a war while we have troops fighting in the field. That's a damn disgrace.