Daniel W. Drezner

Everything you despise about the U.S. foreign policy community in a single story — and why it’s not that big of a deal

As Blake Hounshell noted over at Passport, there was a story earlier this week in the Washington Post‘s Style section that’s just the perfect mix of everything that foreign policy outsiders loathe about foreign policy insiders.  The first reason for loathing it is that Bob Woodward wrote it.  Here’s the opener: Roger Ailes, the longtime Republican ...

As Blake Hounshell noted over at Passport, there was a story earlier this week in the Washington Post‘s Style section that’s just the perfect mix of everything that foreign policy outsiders loathe about foreign policy insiders.  The first reason for loathing it is that Bob Woodward wrote it.  Here’s the opener:

Roger Ailes, the longtime Republican media guru, founder of Fox News and its current chairman, had some advice last year for then-Gen. David H. Petraeus.

So in spring 2011, Ailes asked a Fox News analyst headed to Afghanistan to pass on his thoughts to Petraeus, who was then the commander of U.S. and coalition forces there. Petraeus, Ailes advised, should turn down an expected offer from President Obama to become CIA director and accept nothing less than the chairmanship of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the top military post. If Obama did not offer the Joint Chiefs post, Petraeus should resign from the military and run for president, Ailes suggested.

The Fox News chairman’s message was delivered to Petraeus by Kathleen T. McFarland, a Fox News national security analyst and former national security and Pentagon aide in three Republican administrations. She did so at the end of a 90-minute, unfiltered conversation with Petraeus that touched on the general’s future, his relationship with the media and his political aspirations — or lack thereof. The Washington Post has obtained a digital recording from the meeting, which took place in Petraeus’s office in Kabul.

McFarland also said that Ailes — who had a decades-long career as a Republican political consultant, advising Richard M. Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush — might resign as head of Fox to run a Petraeus presidential campaign. At one point, McFarland and Petraeus spoke about the possibility that Rupert Murdoch, the head of News Corp., which owns Fox News, would “bankroll” the campaign.

Read the whole thing.  Actually, listen to the whole thing — I’d say that the audio recording of McFarland and Petraeus’ conversation is more interesting than Woodward’s story.  The tape has everything:

1)  A media mogul displaying overt partisan bias;

2)  Petraeus "working the refs" as it were, as he’s done with think-tankers in the past. 

3)  McFarland pretty much admitting that Fox’s news coverage is guided by its target audience preferences rather than things like, you know, facts. 

4)  Petraeus’ allusions to the backscratching relationship between him and "the Troika" of Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Joe Lieberman;

5)  A high overall level of off-the-record coziness between McFarland & Petraeus as emblematic of the "clubbiness" between government, the media, and think tanks more generally. 

McFarland has responded to Woodward’s story in her own Foxnews.com column:

Though Bob is in possession of a secretly recorded tape of my conversation with the general, he was way off base to characterize it as a serious attempt to get him to run, or to give him political advice.

Petraeus and I were having fun. Having just told me definitively that he wouldn’t run, he suggested that maybe Ailes could run this non-existent campaign. It was not a serious conversation plotting General Petraeus’ political future; it was the kind of idle speculation that happens in every campaign season.  That’s why they call it the silly season.  I knew he was serious about not wanting to run, and he knew I wasn’t serious in pressing it.

I realize conspiracy theorists have used this off-the-record interview to claim it was some plot to put Petraeus in the Oval Office.  But it was little more than one defense analyst (me) trading some political gossip and laughs with one of the country’s most important military leaders (Petraeus). 

Now as someone who has been underwhelmed with McFarland’s foreign policy analysis in the past, I will say that the tone of the conversation seems consistent with her characterization of it.  I’m not a Beltway insider, but I’ve been around enough DC bulls**tting and puffery in my day to know it when I hear it.  Even if this took place in Kabul, the "Petraeus should run!" segment of the conversation has that BS feel to it. 

Furthermore, I can’t blame Petraeus for trying to work the refs — that’s part of a policy principal’s job in the 21st century.  I’d argue that McFarland’s side of the convo makes Fox look pretty bad. If one wants to be charitable, however, asking Petraeus where a news outfit is getting the story wrong isn’t intrinsically wrong, it’s perspective-taking.  It would only be wrong if, say, Fox News people failed to ask a similar question to other policy principals like Tom Donilon, Hillary Clinton or Leon Panetta.  I’ll let readers draw their own conclusions about whether Fox News does this due diligence. 

So this story is a supremely annoying conversation, and something of a confirmation of how Fox News operates.  But I’m not seeing Woodwardian-type scandal within the DC elite from this story.  I’m seeing standard Washington schmooziness.  This is not the most attractive thing to hear but also not nearly as important as the story suggests. 

It’s also worth putting things into perspective here.  Take a gander at Jonathan Ansfield’s story in the New York Times if you want to see a national political elite demonstrating truly world-class levels of corruption and exclusivity. 

Am I missing anything? 

 Twitter: @dandrezner
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