Iraq: Andrew Sullivan and the consequences of thoughtful war cheerleading, Part II

The other day I wrote about why supporting the Iraq War was the smart career move in media circles back in ’02 and ’03. Dozens of our country’s top journalists and pundits got Iraq wrong–embarrassingly, cringe-worthy, stupendously wrong–and it hasn’t affected their professional stature. In fact, many have climbed to even higher spots within the media’s power structure, occasionally writing about how wrong they were, publicly documenting their intellectual melodramas. By now, they rarely look in the rear view. I didn’t feel the need to names names, as that’s not my style here. But last night I was sent an email with comments Andrew Sullivan made yesterday at the Aspen Ideas Festival that, rather melodramatically, proved my point.

I wasn’t in the “packed lunch-room,” so I’m just going off what Patrick Gavin at Politico reported. Here’s what Sullivan said:

“I supported [the war] like a teenage girl supporting the Jonas Brothers,” confessed Sullivan, who currently writes and blogs for The Atlantic. Sullivan would later admit that his support for the war was misguided and told the crowd that it wasn’t without its consequences.

“You lose all your friends,” said Sullivan. “You make enemies of everyone you used to hang out with. … My traffic went down by 60 percent when I denounced the war, but it went back when those on the left thought I was one of them.”

I’ll give Sullivan a pass on the Jonas Brothers remark. It’s a neat way to describe what’s usually called “war fever,” or what Slate’s Jacob Weisberg called “group think” to explain his support for Iraq.  It’s the deeply human reaction that occurs, en masse, when your nation state prepares to go to war. You can find examples of it in most conflicts; this powerful, hysterical force, that sweeps through the collective minds of citizens when blood is in the air. Governments rely on the Jonas Brothers-like effect of war to seduce the folks to go ahead with an act that almost always turns out to be way too costly and way too deadly.

In the next paragraph, though, Sullivan stepped into the land of heroic delusion. He described the “consequences” of his support, talking about it in terms of a) his personal life, and b) how it impacted his career. It’s another neat trick.

By saying he made “enemies of everyone” he used to “hang out with,” he’s managing to cast his pro-war views as courageous. My deeply held beliefs cost me my drinking buddies! Like he was standing, alone, on the edge of respectable opinion. This is clearly not true–most establishment outlets and writers supported the war, from op-eds in the New York Times (I Can’t Believe I’m A Hawk, ‘Suck On This’ etc.) to the New Republic to the Washington Post, the New Yorker, Newsweek, Time, Fox News, The National Review, the Weekly Standard, blah blah. Even his colleague at the Atlantic, Robert Kaplan, and Les Gelb–the head of the Council on Foreign Relations at the time, the establishment center of foreign policy thought–supported the war. So what friends did he lose? No more lunches with the staff of the Nation?

Then Sullivan goes on to cast his denouncement of the war as courageous. He lost web traffic (for a bit). It cost him page views. Was this in 2004 or 2005? I don’t know, but it wasn’t really that courageous to start criticizing the war after the invasion. Even John Kerry had the guts to do it. In fact, that’s what most of the war supporters did, to varying degrees and thoughtfulness. Oops, I was sort of wrong, here’s my excuse, let’s move on, please. Only the real neo-con diehards stayed true to the Iraq fantasy. But even then, the consequence of Sullivan’s conversion was only temporary. Sullivan’s web traffic started to go back up once left-wingers realized he was offering lively and entertaining writing that they could agree with. (Proving, once again, that sticking with the herd and being for the war was always the safe move, as you could change your mind later when the herd started to get restless.)

I’d really like to dismiss Sullivan and the rest of the American media-blogger-journalist punditocracy by saying they’re mostly full of shit, mostly folks who have strong opinions about things they know very little about. I’d like to be able to say, ‘Hey, no big deal, they’re just providing entertainment with a veneer of intellectualism. Hey, no big deal, if writing like this makes them happy, go for it.’ But, it turns out, ideas do have consquences. Ideas matter. And the consequences of the support that guys like Sullivan gave to the war will always be much more serious than friends who won’t text you back, or a dip in visits to a blog.  Twenty four Iraqi families, and four American families, just felt those consequences yesterday.


About michaelhastings

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8 Responses to Iraq: Andrew Sullivan and the consequences of thoughtful war cheerleading, Part II

  1. Brian In NYC says:

    Finally something we are in full accord on, I’ve never been a big Sullivan fan, his support of the war didn’t go a long way in changing that. Fareed Zakaria is another one who’s support of the war will forever cloud my opinion of him and his work.

  2. libtree09 says:

    All of these post war examinations by the journalistic cheerleaders miss one vital point. Of course there is war fever, a conditioned response of patriotism, but the Iraq war was one of choice, there was a national debate, even a cowardly one in Congress. It is not a Journalist role to jump on one side or another. A straight reporter reports the facts and a columnist or editorialist examines the facts. This requires research, this is Journalism 101, it is the ethical duty that the fourth estate has to the public. Do your friggin homework. Instead we, the citizens who pay and die in wars were subjected to an obvious flag waving public relations drive. There should be no pissing around the subject, they failed, all of them, yet I never hear, “I learned a lesson”. It is disgusting for them to wave some bloody shirt like they suffered for the truth. I never trusted Bush. Cheney and Rumsfeld had a record of misdeeds and in the land of Internet it was pretty easy to find reasons to suspect something foul was in the air.

    These are perilous times and I ask these people, “How can we put our trust in you again?

  3. Michael Hastings says:

    Lib, thanks for the insight. In my view, it’s actually quite important to examine the mechanisms that bring a society to war. In this case, it should have been the role of the media to step back from the war fever, not to play a part in it. I don’t know if that’s even possible, though. Alas, that’s why it’s such nasty fever–the people suffering from its symptoms don’t even know that they’re sick.

  4. Michael Peck says:

    Powerful piece, Michael. “Entertainment with a veneer of journalism?” I like that.

    Still, I think it’s important to remember that a lot of people, including the American public, believed Iraq had WMD because it seemed to make perfect sense. Saddam had used the weapons before, he had ample motive to build them, and he had enough money even with sanctions. Add in the “rally around the flag” effect and the fact that the government tends to have a monopoly of information when it comes to national security, and it’s not a surprise that Bush got his way.

    • Michael Hastings says:

      Michael, thanks for dropping in. I think I wrote “entertainment with the veneer of intellectualism,” but I like your tweak of the quote better than the original. A bit stronger, I think.

      My feeling is that there will always be “WMDs” when the government is making a case for war. Whether it’s “Remember the Maine” or the Gulf of Tonkin, or the sinking of that ship in WWI(too lazy to google for a comment), we’re pretty adept at finding convincing reasons to fight. Personally–and I’m on record about this elsewhere–I thought the WMD story seemed like a bunch of nonsense from the beginning, but even a blind squirrel catches a nut sometimes, as my grandma used to say.

      Now, before I get accused of being a pacifist, I think there are three things worth fighting for: to protect your family, your land, and your country, in that order. And by country, I mean when folks are actually invading my country, Red Dawn-style. Call me old school!

      Or, if our country does go to war(and I’m not endorsing this point of view, but I think it makes more sense then what we’re doing now)I’m part of the total annihilation, total war school. Blast them all to hell if that’s what we want to do, but doing it half-assed seems more trouble than it’s worth. Morality goes out the window either way, for the most part, so if we’re going to get blood on our hands, might as well let it gush over our fists and get it over with, rather than letting it trickle out from paper cuts in the fingers over a decade.

    • Brian In NYC says:

      “Still, I think it’s important to remember that a lot of people, including the American public, believed Iraq had WMD because it seemed to make perfect sense.”

      Because we were sold a bill of goods and anyone who disagreed was demonized and treated like unpatriotic scum. No matter how much anyone rationalizes what happen the basic truth is so many people believed because it suited their purposes and fed their lust for Arab blood.

  5. hidflect says:

    Sullivan has no “skin” in any game. He sits with feet up on the desk (as his cartoon avatar suggests), keyboard in his lap, milling back and forth from subject to subject like an idle housewife, milking his one great skill: sussing the best topic du jour so that he can always be riffing on the public’s meme of the day. The bored and lazy watch him do it.

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