March 17, 2006

The eternal sunshine of David Brooks's mind

Today David Brooks celebrates everything "the pundits" got right in the week of March 24, 2003.

Everybody denigrates pundits and armchair generals, but immediately the smartest of them recognized that something unexpected was happening: the U.S. was not in the midst of a conventional war, but was in the first days of a guerrilla war... Kelly predicted the war would be long and tough. David Ignatius in The Washington Post wrote that it was "time to shelve the rosy scenarios" for the war and face the fact that the U.S. was confronting a difficult battle against resistance fighters.... All of this, and a great pile of similar commentary, was written in the first few days of the ground war.... The debate shifted that week. If the U.S. was confronting an insurgency, more boots on the ground would be needed. Ralph Peters, a retired officer, wrote stinging op-eds in The New York Post and elsewhere savaging Donald Rumsfeld for not understanding that you can't prevent sabotage or ethnic cleansing without a large troop presence. The Weekly Standard, which had been bashing Rumsfeld for years for shrinking the Army, echoed Peters's argument on its Web page. Retired officers poured into TV studios, calling for more troops... Not everybody looks prescient in hindsight. The brilliant historian John Keegan doubted that there would be an insurgency. But when you look at the commentary — at least during that week — you are struck by how smart a lot of it was, and how the commentariat responded sensibly to facts on the ground.

Leave aside the obvious point that Brooks is clearly cherry picking to make his point. As we know, most of the punditocracy was actually popping champagne corks that week. The real question is, what was David Brooks saying that week? You'd think he'd at least give himself a pat on the back if he was among the armchair skeptics. Or, for the sake of intellectual honesty, offer a mea culpa if he wasn't. But instead he says nothing. Wanna guess why? It's not necessarily what you think.

Yes, Brooks was way more in the triumphalist camp than not. But he also wrote two columns about what the commentariat was writing about the war during that week. And neither one quite comports with what he says today. Or at all.

First, here's what Brooks had to say in the April 4 London Times about those members of the commentariat who had "responded sensibly to facts on the ground" in the previous week. Did he praise these skeptics for being smarter than Donald Rumsfeld? Um, not exactly. All emphasis added.

Let the over-exuberance recommence! Washington is in the grip of a series of mood swings. An insanely negative tone prevailed in the war coverage here at the beginning of this week, but now it is the hawks who feel justified in gloating.

If you had read the American press last Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, you would have thought the media analysts were covering Napoleon's retreat from Moscow. There were ludicrous Vietnam comparisons, rampant quagmire forebodings and learned deconstructions of What Went Wrong.

Of course the press is generally over-critical, as part of our constant and pathetic efforts to prove that we are smarter than whoever it is we happen to be covering. But in this case the pundits seemed shocked that the Iraqi Gestapo actually had the audacity to shoot back. And the gloom was reinforced by the anti-war sentiment that prevails in the press rooms. Every flaw in the war plan set off another round of we-told-you-so gloating.

But the media types were positively sober compared with the Pentagon bureaucrats.

Before 9/11, Donald Rumsfeld, the Defence Secretary, had offended many of them with his rough and sometimes hamfisted effort to modernise the military. Rumsfeld cut the budgets of certain units, especially in the army, to transfer money to high-tech weapons. With the war inexplicably not over in three days, these fuming desk jockey warriors took their revenge, filling The Washington Post and The New Yorker with anonymous quotations about how Rumsfeld was an idiot and the war planning had been botched. And they were not even as bad as the off-the-record snipers from the intelligence agencies, who wanted everyone to know that whatever the coalition confronted: "We warned them about this."

This defeatist tone in the press simply proved unsustainable day after day as the coalition forces seemed to be bungling their way straight into Baghdad. Iraqi crowds sometimes grew exuberantly pro-American as the Baath secret police vanished. An Iraqi civilian in Najaf exulted, "Democracy! Whiskey! And Sexy!" giving the war its first great slogan. Members of the commentariat began to realise that once again they'd gone off the pessimistic deep end.

So when Brooks says today that "everybody denigrates pundits and armchair generals," you know who he's talking about, even if he's had some work done at Lacuna, Inc. Meanwhile, what did Brooks think about all those brave retired officers who had the guts to "savage" Rumsfeld for shrinking the army and not having enough boots on the ground? Not what he thinks of them now. Here he is on the April 4 Newshour

I was appalled at the way the generals and officers in the Pentagon went leak happy to the New Yorker and to the Washington Post in particular. This goes back pre-9/11 to the transformation that Rumsfeld and people associated with him tried to do to the military, which hurt the army, helped some other parts. And he did it in a ham fisted way, which is his style, and he made a lot of people angry. That was submerged with 9/11 and then came up in this war as you had people rushing after two or three days simply because the Fedayeen had the audacity to shoot back at us, suddenly declaring this was a quagmire and that this was a horrible war plan. To me events have not vindicated that to you by a long shot there. But there was just a dismaying and unseemly start of leaking. The ironic thing about the way it ended up politically is a lot of he hawks in the administration were actually on the side of the army for what is called boots on the ground for a greater and larger force.But to me, the advantages of speed, and I'm glad I don't have to have military opinions, but to me just as a citizen, the advantages of speed and getting in there quickly maybe outweigh the weaknesses you suffer.

But that's not technically "the week of March 24." So what did Brooks write in that pivotal week. Curiously, in the March 31, 2003 Weekly Standard (which would have closed several days earlier) Brooks wrote a piece titled The Phony Debate, in which he marveled at how there was no commentary on the state of the war itself — in other words, he didn't even see any of the pieces he's now pretending were so prevalent. And, of course, he gloats about how well everything is going.

As I write, a couple of days into the war, the hawks are optimistic and the liberals are bracing to get beaten about with sticks. The hawks are optimistic because the Iraqi regime seems to be crumbling. None of the terrible things the doves predicted has yet come to pass: no mass riots on the Arab street, no coup in Pakistan or Jordan, no Scuds landing on Tel Aviv, no surge in oil prices, no fierce resistance from the Iraqis, either from the soldiers or the men in the streets...

The striking thing about the early commentary on the war is that very little of it is actually on the war...It is as if you had one prewar political debate about whether to go to war, and another debate on how to rebuild Iraq postwar, but the war itself is a political vacuum that only military analysts and retired generals are qualified to talk about.

That's too bad, because the conduct of this war is so strikingly political. Has there ever been a conflict in the history of man in which the one army strove so mightily to not kill the soldiers of the other army? Has there ever been a war that began, even before the enemy was engaged, with the secretary of defense issuing instructions on how the other side should surrender? One gets the impression that U.S. military dominance is now so overwhelming that the rules of conflict are being rewritten. And yet there was little discussion, at least at the outset, over exactly what this means...

Today, we could be just as wrong amidst this war as we were amidst [Gulf War I] [OK, this caveat is to Brooks's credit]. Or we could be entering the age of decapitating wars, in which the United States can change evil regimes without widespread loss of life. [Though this is what he clearly believed] Either way, the politics of warfare is being transformed, and someday we are going to sit back and marvel that we didn't pay more attention to the political considerations embedded in the conduct of this war itself.

Or we're going to pretend that we did, and that the administration didn't listen to us.

What else was Brooks saying that week (and immediately before and after). Let's listen in:

March 17, Daily Standard: "If the effort to oust Saddam fails, we will be back in the 1970s. We will live in a nation crippled by self-doubt. If we succeed, we will be a nation infused with confidence. We will have done a great thing for the world, and other great things will await."

March 21, Newshour: "I've been surprised by how it is all going. We have the secretary of defense negotiating surrender terms before we even engage the enemy. We have a military that is trying to scare the enemy troops but not kill them. To me, the striking thing about this whole week is how political it has been. The question is not will we win but how will we win... We have to win a war in a likable way. That sort of scares me because maybe you can do that. Maybe our power is so awesome that we can do that but maybe it is an illusion that you can't really do it. If the Iraqi regime does not crumble in the next few days and we have to fight a dogged bloody-minded war, that will be unpopular with the Iraqi people...

So why doesn't Brooks admit he was wrong? Because human nature doesn't work that way. How do I know. Because David Brooks said so in the April 9, 2003 Daily Standard: "I'm curious about how all the war opponents are going to react if things continue to go well... I suspect they will not even now admit their errors. I doubt the people of Europe will say: We were wrong. You really are the liberators of the Iraqi people. I doubt the Arab propagandists will say: We will never spread such distortions again. We will never again be so driven by resentment and dishonesty. Sad to say, human nature doesn't work that way. The rump 15 percent of Americans who still oppose this war may perhaps grow more bitter, lost in the cul-de-sac of their own alienation. But, however things shake out over the next months and years, this is the sort of day that represents what the United States is on earth to achieve. Thank God we have the political leaders and the military capabilities to realize the ideals that have always been embodied in our founding documents."

And also, thank God that we have Nexis and blogs.

Posted by Daniel Radosh


brooks is freakin intolerable. in fact, the times editorial page is too these days.

Daniel, somehow please, please, get this into David Brooks' hands.

What is so infuriating about him is his ability to present himself as eminently reasonable and non-partisan, and preempt the skewering he deserves by giving the impression he's always one of the sensible ones, when, if you look closer -- as you thankfully have done -- he's as wrongheaded as the rest. Just... sensible!

"this is the sort of day that represents what the United States is on earth to achieve"

I don't know which is more worrisome: that some people believe this is a valid statement to make about a country or that it may be true.

Personally I think Brooks is just a dope who got a column and tv spot on the basis of ill-researched but breezy books and essays and now all he cares about is lining his filthy nest and turning in the right number of words on time. For God's sake he's actually mouthbreathing in his own byline photo!

What Brooks said: None of the terrible things the doves predicted has yet come to pass: no mass riots on the Arab street, no coup in Pakistan or Jordan, no Scuds landing on Tel Aviv, no surge in oil prices, no fierce resistance from the Iraqis, either from the soldiers or the men in the streets..." remains true. The only thing that has happened is that elements of Saddam's regime plus al queda have mobilized against the Iraqis. Brooks remains more correct than you, Daniel or any of your commentators.

Two other Brooks quotes for you....

December 13, 2003: If the U.S. is going to right its foreign policy, it is going to have to rein in President Bush's tendency to be straightforward. It is going to have to acknowledge that honesty is a good thing when it comes to international affairs in theory...The men and women in this White House are exceptionally forthright...Sometimes you've got to be slippery to accomplish real good. The Bush administration has become addicted to candor and forthrightness.

April 10, 2004: Come on people, let's get a grip. This week, Chicken Littles like Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd were ranting that Iraq is another Vietnam. Pundits and sages were spinning a whole series of mutually exclusive disaster scenarios: Civil war! A nationwide rebellion! Maybe we should calm down a bit. I've spent the last few days talking with people who've spent much of their careers studying and working in this region. We're at a perilous moment in Iraqi history, but the situation is not collapsing.

Radosh - That was a great dressing down that was long overdue. Thank you and good job. Brooks' arrogance and smarmy Malkinism grates on me daily.

I'm going back to my "cul-de-sac of alienation" now where David Brooks is most unwelcome.

Even though Sam has his head up his ass, he did get me wondering about what I'd said back in March and April 2003. Turns out I didn't make a lot of predictions (wisely), though I did apparently believe that it was more likely that the US would install a puppet regime than that it would allow pro-Iranian Islamists to run the country. And I did have one desperate and fairly dopey idea about how to end the war before the inner-city fighting started. Otherwise, I'm pretty comfortable standing by my posts from that era, which are less doctrinaire than Sam would have you think. And I endorsed these Bob Wright predictions, which turned out to be spot on. Somebody please convince Wright to give up this bloggingheads.tv shit, which no one watches, and get back to writing. He is sorely needed these days.

This post may be the most important thing ever written about the pseudo-intellectual/faux sociologist that is David Brooks. God bless you, Radosh.

The other thing I hate about him is the way he (succesfully) flatters the NY Times readership, playing up the educated and cosmopolitan character of Blue State people.

Assured by David Brooks that they are more sophisticated than ignorant, working class republicans, Times readers happily assume the mantle of "the liberal cultural elite." Brooks teaches them to play the perfect role in his culture war pageant.

Thank you for writing this, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.
And thank you for being so astute and sincere.

Someone should pass this along to FAIR, if you haven't already done so.

And fukc it, might as well make it a pig-pile. From this blog's author himself, in his Media Moments column for McSweeney's:


"Thoughtful people are usually skeptical about broad generalizations about people's souls on the basis of what car they drive."

— David Brooks in Jan. 21 The Wall Street Journal.

"Buying an SUV is ... a way to connect imaginatively with a more inspiring life than the one you actually lead .... They're symptoms of a latent spiritedness, even in a sedate suburban world."

— Brooks, five short paragraphs later.

Hello, echo chamber? The point is not that you personally, Danny, were wrong, but that Brooks was right - and he was right in April 2004 that Iraq was not Vietnam. And the proper way to describe my views would be "wrong," and to show why, rather than to use a term of homophobic insult.
On the other hand, his pop sociology IS tiresome, isn't it?

Do gay people put their heads up their asses? Man, I thought gerbaling was weird!

Anyway, even Brooks no longer thinks he was right about everything in April '03. Yes, he was correct (and some critics incorrect) about certain things, scuds and so forth. If I'd wanted to be as dishonest as him, I could have left that sentence out of my excerpt, but I thought it was only fair to acknowledge that Brooks wasn't 100% off base three years ago. I find it strange to be criticized when I was precisely trying not to enforce an "echo chamber". However, where you have another man's penis in your mouth (damn! did it again!) is in writing off the obvious fierce resistence of Iraqis as a matter of no consequence. Yes, the insurgents are now attacking Iraqis more than Americans (as if that was something to celebrate) but that's only because US troops have largely gone into hiding.

And while everyone is bashing Brooks at my incitement, I should probably do the unpopular thing and admit that I actually enjoyed Bobos in Paradise a lot, even as I doubted some of its conclusions. I think Brooks's pop sociology is way better than his political punditry.

Very well done. I too wrote on his ridiculous column. Our Mr Brooks in fact said on 3/28/03 on NPR's "All Things Considered" that he "blame[d]the armchair generals who have been mercurial and bipolar" for the unwarranted negativity.

Without idiots like Brooks to compare yourself too, you just wouldn't feel quite as intelligent. But it it only makes it more frustrating when the evidence of what has occurred stares them in the face and they continue to tell us everything isn't as bad as it seems.

Sorry but I cannot STAND David Brooks' pyscho pop-sociobabble.

I think he is one of the most disengenuous columnists out there because he tries to strike the pose of a thoughtful moderate who speaks common sense.

In fact he is a partisan with better manners and a more modulated voice - and that's not a hard feat to pull off considering the company he is in these days.

Beyond that, his habit of turning a simplistic observation into a cultural trend based on something he witnessed at a Manhattan Starbucks is really maddening. I think it illustrates that like so many of his breathren, he is not really interested in facts or reality - he merely seeks out anything to back up his conservative world view.

Brooks: "has there ever been a conflict in the history of man where the in which the one army strove so mightily to not kill the soldiers of the other army?" I seem to recall from my education in the inept and satanic secular humanist public shools that a General Washinton once captured an entire Hessian division without killing anyone or even firing a shot on Christmas eve in Trenton New Jersey. It has been the mission of the Special Forces for over 60 years to co-opt and defeat insurgencies without killing them. And Sam, there has been a surge in oil prices, and while there have not been coups in Pakistan and Jordan, Hamas has been elected by the Palestinians and the Iran has elected a radical government; If there is "fierce resistance from the Iraqis" who has killed and maimed 20,000 of our soldiers since "the end of major combat operations?" Virtuallly everything predicted by the "doves" as well as the generals and pundits who opposed this war has come true. And nothing that Brooks, the hawks, or the Bush administration has played out as predicted.

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