Fact Checking the Fact Checkers
File this away under “who will guard the guardians”, subfile “who will fact-check the fact-checkers.” Media Matters, the leftist advocacy group that “fact checks” the media for alleged pro-conservative, pro-Republican bias, complained about a recent Politico story. They took special exception to a point I made. The Politico story was about all the ways that ...
File this away under “who will guard the guardians”, subfile “who will fact-check the fact-checkers.” Media Matters, the leftist advocacy group that “fact checks” the media for alleged pro-conservative, pro-Republican bias, complained about a recent Politico story. They took special exception to a point I made.
The Politico story was about all the ways that President Obama seems to be getting away with activity that would have sent critics (critics like Media Matters, for instance) around the bend if President Bush had tried it. In the Politico story, the reporter quoted me saying that critics would have howled if Karl Rove and other political/communicator types had been as prominently featured in the strategy review that led to the Iraq surge as David Axelrod and the other Obama communicators are featured in Obama’s current (second) Afghanistan strategy review. I told the reporter I was worried that this would give the appearance that Obama was viewing Afghanistan narrowly through a partisan political lens and it would complicate an already delicate civil-military situation.
Up gotchas Media Matters to claim that Karl Rove really did participate in national security strategy reviews, citing a Washington Post story about the the White House Iraq Group (WHIG), which included Rove, Karen Hughes, and other communicators, as well as policy people such as Condoleeza Rice and Steve Hadley.
The problem with the Media Matters claim is that the WHIG was not involved in deciding national security strategy — what to do in Iraq (or Afghanistan) to protect our national security interests. Rather it was involved in deciding national security communications strategy — i.e., how best to explain to Congress, to the American public, and to the world what and why the President had decided regarding the national security strategy. In other words, the policy team advised the president on what should be done and the communications/political team advised the President on how to persuade the American people that he had decided correctly.
Both functions are appropriate and necessary, but under President Bush the policy came first and drove the communications/politics, rather than vice-versa. In short, Karl Rove did not sit in on the national security strategy meetings. If Media Matters has additional evidence, I would be interested in seeing it, but if all they can point to is the WHIG, then they need better internal fact checkers (and perhaps not trust everything they read or hear in the media).
Now a more interesting critique would claim President Bush had the political-military balance wrong. Perhaps President Obama is recognizing that his decision on Afghanistan is inescapably a political one, and that the choice of the right national security strategy hinges crucially on an assessment of what America’s domestic political system will support. In that case, it might make sense that Obama’s political team has a seat at the table.
I think there is something to this line of reasoning, but at least in the Iraq case I don’t think it would have altered the course of history much. I don’t think having the political team at the table during the Iraq surge debate would have changed the outcome — except, perhaps, to have hastened the surge decision slightly. According to Bob Woodward’s account of the surge, some of those who opposed it did so out of concerns for its political doability (would Congress support the surge and would the American people stand for it?). Perhaps having the political team to weigh in on that question would have settled the matter more quickly. Such hypotheticals are hard to pin down with certainty.
But some things seem pretty certain to me. If the Bush political team had been as prominently involved, the critics would have howled at the time. And because President Obama has involved his political team, he will have to answer the question: to what extent was this decision – whatever it turns out to be– driven by political considerations, especially election and re-election considerations?
NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images
Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.
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