Six Questions for A.G. Sulzberger
by Andrew Bacevich
March 20, 2018
Dear Mr. Sulzberger:
Congratulations on assuming the reins of this nation’s — and arguably, the world’s — most influential publication. It’s the family business, of course, so your appointment to succeed your father doesn’t exactly qualify as a surprise. Even so, the responsibility for guiding the fortunes of a great institution must weigh heavily on you, especially when the media landscape is changing so rapidly and radically.
Undoubtedly, you’re already getting plenty of advice on how to run the paper, probably more than you want or need. Still, with your indulgence, I’d like to offer an outsider’s perspective on “the news that’s fit to print.” The famous motto of the Times insists that the paper is committed to publishing “all” such news — an admirable aspiration even if an impossibility. In practice, what readers like me get on a daily basis is “all the news that Times editors deem worthy of print.”
Of course, within that somewhat more restrictive universe of news, not all stories are equal. Some appear on the front page above the fold. Others are consigned to page A17 on Saturday morning.
And some topics receive more attention than others. In recent years, comprehensive coverage of issues touching on diversity, sexuality, and the status of women has become a Times hallmark. When it comes to Donald Trump, “comprehensive” can’t do justice to the attention he receives. At the Times (and more than a few other media outlets), he has induced a form of mania, with his daily effusion of taunts, insults, preposterous assertions, bogus claims, and decisions made, then immediately renounced, all reported in masochistic detail. Throw in salacious revelations from Trump’s colorful past and leaks from the ongoing Mueller investigation of his campaign and our 45th president has become for the Times something akin to a Great White Whale, albeit with a comb-over and a preference for baggy suits.
In the meantime, other issues of equal or even greater importance — I would put climate change in this category — receive no more than sporadic or irregular coverage. And, of course, some topics simply don’t make the cut at all, like just about anything short of a school shooting that happens in that vast expanse west of the Hudson that Saul Steinberg years ago so memorably depicted for the New Yorker.
The point of this admittedly unsolicited memo is not to urge the Times to open a bureau in Terre Haute or in the rapidly melting Arctic. Nor am I implying that the paper should tone down its efforts to dismantle the hetero-normative order, empower women, and promote equality for transgender persons. Yet I do want to suggest that obsessing about this administration’s stupefying tomfoolery finds the Times overlooking one particular issue that predates and transcends the Trump Moment. That issue is the normalization of armed conflict, with your writers, editors, and editorial board having tacitly accepted that, for the United States, war has become a permanent condition.
Let me stipulate that the Times does devote an impressive number of column-inches to the myriad U.S. military activities around the planet. Stories about deployments, firefights, airstrikes, sieges, and casualties abound. Readers can count on the Times to convey the latest White House or Pentagon pronouncements about the briefly visible light at the end of some very long tunnel. And features describing the plight of veterans back from the war zone also appear with appropriate and commendable frequency.
So anyone reading the Times for a week or a month will have absorbed the essential facts of the case, including the following:
* Over 6,000 days after it began, America’s war in Afghanistan continues, with Times correspondents providing regular and regularly repetitive updates;
* In the seven-year-long civil war that has engulfed Syria, the ever-shifting cast of belligerents now includes at least 2,000 (some sources say 4,000) U.S. special operators, the rationale for their presence changing from week to week, even as plans to keep U.S. troops in Syria indefinitely take shape;
* In Iraq, now liberated from ISIS, itself a byproduct of U.S. invasion and occupation, U.S. troops are now poised to stay on, more or less as they did in West Germany in 1945 and in South Korea after 1953;
* On the Arabian Peninsula, U.S. forces have partnered with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman Al Saud in brutalizing Yemen, thereby creating a vast humanitarian disaster despite the absence of discernible U.S. interests at stake;
* In the military equivalent of whacking self-sown weeds, American drones routinely attack Libyan militant groups that owe their existence to the chaos created in 2011 when the United States impulsively participated in the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi;
* More than a quarter-century after American troops entered Somalia to feed the starving, the U.S. military mission continues, presently in the form of recurring airstrikes;
* Elsewhere in Africa, the latest theater to offer opportunities for road-testing the most recent counterterrorism techniques, the U.S. military footprint is rapidly expanding, all but devoid of congressional (or possibly any other kind of) oversight;
* From the Levant to South Asia, a flood of American-manufactured weaponry continues to flow unabated, to the delight of the military-industrial complex, but with little evidence that the arms we sell or give away are contributing to regional peace and stability;
*Amid this endless spiral of undeclared American wars and conflicts, Congress stands by passively, only rousing itself as needed to appropriate money that ensures the unimpeded continuation of all of the above;
*Meanwhile, President Trump, though assessing all of this military hyperactivity as misbegotten — “Seven trillion dollars. What a mistake.” — is effectively perpetuating and even ramping up the policies pioneered by his predecessors.
This conglomeration of circumstances, I submit, invites attention to several first-order questions to which the Times appears stubbornly oblivious. These questions are by no means original with me. Indeed, Mr. Sulzberger (may I call you A.G.?), if you’ve kept up with TomDispatch — if you haven’t, you really should — you will already have encountered several of them. Yet in the higher reaches of mainstream journalism they remain sadly neglected, with disastrous practical and moral implications.
The key point is that when it comes to recent American wars, the Times offers coverage without perspective. “All the news” is shallow and redundant. Lots of dots, few connections.
To put it another way, what’s missing is any sort of Big Picture. The Times would never depict Russian military actions in the Crimea, eastern Ukraine, and Syria, along with its cyber-provocations, as somehow unrelated to one another. Yet it devotes remarkably little energy to identifying any links between what U.S. forces today are doing in Niger and what they are doing in Afghanistan; between U.S. drone attacks that target this group of “terrorists” and those that target some other group; or, more fundamentally, between what we thought we were doing as far back as the 1980s when Washington supported Saddam Hussein and what we imagine we’re doing today in the various Muslim-majority nations in which the U.S. military is present, whether welcome or not.
Crudely put, the central question that goes not only unanswered but unasked is this: What the hell is going on? Allow me to deconstruct that in ways that might resonate with Times correspondents:
What exactly should we call the enterprise in which U.S. forces have been engaged all these years? The term that George W. Bush introduced back in 2001, “Global War on Terrorism,” fell out of favor long ago. Nothing has appeared to replace it. A project that today finds U.S. forces mired in open-ended hostilities across a broad expanse of Muslim-majority nations does, I suggest, deserve a name, even if the commander-in-chief consigns most of those countries to “shithole” status. A while back, I proposed “War for the Greater Middle East,” but that didn’t catch on. Surely, the president or perhaps one of his many generals could come up with something better, some phrase that conveys a sense of purpose, scope, stakes, or location. The paper of record should insist that whatever it is the troops out there may be doing, their exertions ought to have a descriptive name.
What is our overall objective in waging that no-name war? After 9/11, George W. Bush vowed at various times to eliminate terrorism, liberate the oppressed, spread freedom and democracy, advance the cause of women’s rights across the Islamic world, and even end evil itself. Today, such aims seem like so many fantasies. So what is it we’re trying to accomplish? What will we settle for? Without a readily identifiable objective, how will anyone know when to raise that “Mission Accomplished” banner (again) and let the troops come home?
By extension, what exactly is the strategy for bringing our no-name war to a successful conclusion? A strategy is a kind of roadmap aimed at identifying resources, defining enemies (as well as friends), and describing a sequence of steps that will lead to some approximation of victory. It should offer a vision that gets us from where we are to where we want to be. Yet when it comes to waging its no-name war, Washington today has no strategy worthy of the name. This fact should outrage the American people and embarrass the national security establishment. It should also attract the curiosity of the New York Times.
Roughly speaking, in what year, decade, or century might this war end? Even if only approximately, it would help to know — and the American people deserve to know — when the front page of the Times might possibly carry a headline reading “Peace Secured” or “Hostilities Ended” or even merely “It’s Over.” On the other hand, if it’s unrealistic to expect the ever-morphing, ever-spreading no-name war to end at all, then shouldn’t someone say so, allowing citizens to chew on the implications of that prospect? Who better to reveal this secret hidden in plain sight than the newspaper over which you preside?
What can we expect the no-name war to cost? Although the president’s estimate of $7 trillion may be a trifle premature, it’s not wrong. It may even end up being on the low side. What that money might otherwise have paid for — including infrastructure, education, scientific and medical research, and possibly making amends for all the havoc wreaked by our ill-considered military endeavors — certainly merits detailed discussion. Here’s a way to start just such a discussion: Imagine a running tally of sunk and projected cumulative costs featured on the front page of the Times every morning. Just two numbers: the first a tabulation of what the Pentagon has already spent pursuant to all U.S. military interventions, large and small, since 9/11; the second, a projection of what the final bill might look like decades from now when the last of this generation’s war vets passes on.
Finally, what are the implications of saddling future generations with this financial burden? With the sole exception of the very brief Gulf War of 1990-1991, the no-name war is the only substantial armed conflict in American history where the generation in whose name it was waged resolutely refused to pay for it — indeed, happily accepted tax cuts when increases were very much in order. With astonishingly few exceptions, politicians endorsed this arrangement. One might think that enterprising reporters would want to investigate the various factors that foster such irresponsibility.
So that’s my take. I’m sure, A.G., that journalists in your employ could sharpen my questions and devise more of their own. But here’s a small proposition: just for a single day, confine Donald Trump to page A17 and give our no-name war the attention that the Times normally reserves for the president it loathes.
I’m not a newspaperman, but I’m reminded of that wonderful 1940 Hitchcock movie Foreign Correspondent. I expect you’ve seen it. Europe is stumbling toward war and Mr. Powers, head honcho at the fictitious New York Globe, is tired of getting the same-old same-old from the people he has on the scene. “I don’t want any more economists, sages, or oracles bombinating over our cables,” he rages. “I want a reporter. Somebody who doesn’t know the difference between an ism and a kangaroo.”
His rant requires deciphering. What Powers wants is someone with the combination of guts and naiveté to pose questions that more seasoned journalists trapped in a defective narrative of their own creation simply overlook.
So he pulls the decidedly unseasoned and spectacularly uninformed John Jones off the police beat, renames him Huntley Haverstock, sets him up with an expense account, and sends him off to take a fresh look at what gives in Europe. Haverstock proceeds to unearth the big truths to which his more sophisticated colleagues have become blind. Almost singlehandedly he alerts the American people to the dangers just ahead — and he also gets the girl. Terrific movie (even if, given Hitchcock’s well-documented mistreatment of women, it may be politically incorrect to say so).
Anyway, A.G., we need you to do something approximating what Mr. Powers did, but in real life. Good luck. I’m in your corner.