Media reaction to the recent foreign policy pronouncements of Barack Obama and Rudy Giuliani provides a case study in double-standards. While Obama received a hellstorm of criticism for his statements on attacking Al Qaeda bases in Pakistan and the use of nuclear weapons, the mainstream media has been essentially silent on the blatantly bizarre and downright dangerous national security vision Giuliani penned in the pages of Foreign Affairs.
The differing treatment of these leading Democratic and Republican candidates reflects the self-fulfilling nature of media conventional wisdom. In this telling, Obama's perceived missteps served to confirm the pre-existing story line of the Illinois Senator's supposed "inexperience." In stark contrast, Giuliani's surreal unilateralism and out-of-control bellicosity merely reinforced the self-proclaimed mayor of 9/11's determined, aggressive posture towards global terrorism. And despite Americans' belief to the contrary, bubbling below the surface is the media's national security subtext that only Republicans can be trusted to keep America safe.
To be sure, Barack Obama stumbled when it came to "strategic ambiguity" and "first use," two hallmarks of U.S. national security since the Korean War. As part of broad - and forceful - foreign policy speech on August 1, Obama rightly took the Bush administration to task for the failure of its "no safe havens" doctrine in Pakistan. Regarding the Al Qaeda sanctuary safely nestled along the Afghan border, Obama declared, "If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won't act, we will." The next day, a hesitant Obama back-tracked from a seeming pledge not to use nuclear weapons in the terrorism fight. On both counts, Obama seemed to violate that cardinal rule of the post Korea American presidency: never say who you would attack, never say who you would not defend, and never forswear the first use of nuclear weapons.
Reaction from the press was swift and severe. Article after article played up the "inexperience" meme and used quotes from Obama primary opponents Hillary Clinton, Chris Dodd and Joe Biden as well as the Bush White House to twist the knife. A quick Google search containing the words Barack Obama, Pakistan, nuclear and inexperienced produced 30,400 results. While the Obama camp has countered that it is judgment and not experience, new ideas and not conventional wisdom that matters, he clearly has an uphill climb in reversing the media consensus.
The contrast with the coverage of Rudy Giuliani's Foreign Affairs piece could not be more stark. Titled "Toward a Realistic Peace," Giuliani's screed was anything but realist. Combining Giuliani's now trademark brand of terror fighting with a neo-conservativism on steroids, the piece advocated both American strikes against Iran's nuclear infrastructure and opposition to a Palestinian state.
The saber-rattling towards Iran should come as little surprise, given one of the leading lights of the neo-conservative project (and author of "The Case for Bombing Iran") Norman Podhoretz is Giuliani's key foreign policy adviser. But Giuliani's hard line against the Palestinians would make Dick Cheney blush:
"Too much emphasis has been placed on brokering negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians -- negotiations that bring up the same issues again and again. It is not in the interest of the United States, at a time when it is being threatened by Islamist terrorists, to assist the creation of another state that will support terrorism."Giuliani's is a complete rejection of the decade old bi-partisan dual commitment of the United States to both ensuring Israeli security and guiding the creation of Palestinian state. The festering Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not merely a leading Al Qaeda grievance; it is unifying issue for America's friends and foes alike in the Middle East. Rather than improve on the Bush's administration's early refusal to commit its prestige and political capital to resolving that crisis, and its later tepid "Road Map" for Israeli-Palestinian peace, Giuliani would abandon the project altogether.
Giuliani's extremism and revisionist history hardly end there. The former New York mayor looks to the Vietnam War and invents an analogy to today's quagmire in Iraq. Sadly, the parallel isn't that the U.S. mistakenly fought the wrong war as a misguided part of a larger global struggle, or that Americans found themselves hopelessly bogged down in someone else's battle for national self-determination that the U.S. could not hope to "win". Instead, Giuliani argues, the U.S. gave up too soon, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory:
"America must remember one of the lessons of the Vietnam War. Then, as now, we fought a war with the wrong strategy for several years. And then, as now, we corrected course and began to show real progress. Many historians today believe that by about 1972 we and our South Vietnamese partners had succeeded in defeating the Vietcong insurgency and in setting South Vietnam on a path to political self-sufficiency. But America then withdrew its support, allowing the communist North to conquer the South...The consequences of abandoning Iraq would be worse."The blogosphere - both left and right - was quick to denounce Giuliani's dangerous incoherence. Steve Benen, Ezra Klein, Kevin Drum and Matthew Yglesias all weighed in, with Drum labeling Giuliani's tome "incoherent burblings of a national security naif" and Yglesias simply calling Giuliani "batshit insane." More damning is the vitriol from the right. Daniel Drezner grimaces, "Sweet Jesus, the Giuliani essay is badly written" and adds, "This is an unbelievably unserious essay."And Outside the Beltway blogger James Joyner concurs with Yglesias' assessment, adding:
"I think Giuliani is either a charlatan or a simpleton. Either he's lying to us and we therefore have no idea what his foreign policy will be or, worse, this is what he really thinks. Either way, it's not good."But from the mainstream media comes only the sound of crickets chirping. Reuters noted Giuliani's screed and the New York Times mentioned its discussion of Iran. In the Washington Post, Robin Wright merely elevates Giuliani's national security psychosis to the level of doctrine, dryly reporting that "Nearly six years after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, Giuliani's essay underscores how his global vision remains infused with waging a 'war on terrorism' -- militarily, diplomatically and economically." When it comes to the rest of mainstream media and the punditocracy, as Hamlet would say, the rest is silence.
And so it goes. In the press, Barack Obama's foreign policy speech gets him vilified for his "inexperience," whereas Rudy Giuliani's pathological focus on "radical Islamic terrorism" is ignored at worst and lauded at best for its "global vision."
But the media's conventional wisdom itself is a double-standard: they saw only what they expected to see.