Howie Kurtz has a piece today on the new conservative complaint that The New York Times is tossing aside whatever objectivity conservatives feel the Times has left to prevent a war against Iraq. The accused here, of course, is Times Executive Editor Howell Raines. I have no brief for Raines. His years of crusading against Bill Clinton from his perch as editor of the Times OpEd page makes my personal sense of him pretty much permanently negative. And I haven't paid sufficient systematic attention to the Times Iraq coverage to say definitively what tilt I think there might be. But this brouhaha over whether the Times distorted the position of Henry Kissinger to advance its own editorial line (portraying Kissinger as a critic of administration policy when in fact, say the conservatives, he was endorsing it) tells enough of the tale.
If you read the Kissinger piece and the Times article and you understand the terms of the debate you cannot help but conclude that the Times characterization of what Kissinger said is vastly more accurate than the characterization being peddled by conservative Iraq-hawks. In the Iraq debate, the attitude toward inspections is fundamental. The administration line -- emanating from the Pentagon and the Office of the Vice President -- doesn't believe in them at all. Neither tactically nor strategically. The fact that Kissinger says we should start by "propos[ing] a stringent inspection system that achieves substantial transparency of Iraqi institutions" makes him, by definition, a critic of administration policy on a fundamental point.
What you have here is the fun-house episode in which Charles Krauthammer and others are tendentiously misconstruing what Kissinger said and then simultaneously falsely accusing Times writers of doing what he has in fact himself just done.
At the end of the day, Kissinger dissents from Bush's policy while Krauthammer says he supports it. If there's a contest for distortions here Krauthammer wins easily.
(First, let's deal with a few other points. In fairness to everyone in this debate one has to point out that Kissinger's piece was, as John Judis noted last week in TPM, intentionally muddy and opaque. It lends itself not so much to misinterpretations as self-serving interpretation. A la Krauthammer, et.al. Another point: the Times article everyone is discussing is the Purdum and Tyler piece from August 16th. The piece the next day by Elizabeth Bumiller -- which the critics also mention -- does use a shorthand (putting Kissinger in a "a group of Republicans who were warning him against going to war with Iraq") which glosses over much of what he said. But to make too much of this line -- after the Times discussed the fullness of what Kissinger said the day before -- would be to fall into Krauthammer's mau-mauing trap, scrutinizing every line in every Times piece when his own column is filled with mistatements, tendentious misconstruals, intentional ignoring of awkward data, and so forth.)
Now another point: when I talked with Kurtz yesterday for his article I said I thought the Times was doing a good thing by reporting on all the downsides of going to war with Iraq. Frankly, no one else is. Tucker Carlson got himself in an embarrassing moment yesterday on Crossfire when he got out-argued by the editor of the Village Voice on this Kissinger question. But recently he's been saying that elected Democrats have abdicated their responsibility by basically sitting out the debate over Iraq policy. And on this I'm sad to say I think he's right. By and large they're just not saying anything. That's too bad. Because the Democrats could help themselves and their country by outlining a policy for regime change which is not as amateurish and ill-considered as the one the administration is currently pursuing.
Next up, why it makes sense to push inspections first if you're serious about getting rid of Saddam and why someone should be telling the public about all the dangers involved in a strike against Iraq -- something which most of the hawks want to ignore.