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I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

David Brooks, National Spokesman for "Americans"

(updated below - updated again)

One of the most common tactics among pundits of all types, but particularly Bush-supporting and pro-war pundits, is to take whatever their own personal opinion happens to be, and then -- rather than stating that opinion and providing rationale or documentation for it -- they instead preface it with the phrase "Americans believe" or "most Americans think," thereby anointing themselves as Spokesman for The American People and casting the appearance that they speak on behalf of the Silent, Noble American Majority.

Not only do they make these assertions about what "Americans believe" and what "the country wants" with no empirical evidence of any kind, but worse -- especially now that "Americans" have come to overwhelmingly reject them and their belief system -- they equate their own views with what "Americans want" in the face of mountains of empirical evidence which proves that the opposite is true. John McCain, as but one example, does this almost every time he speaks about Iraq and what "Americans think" about the war.

David Brooks is one of the leading practitioners of this tactic, fancying himself as the vessel through which the majority of good, common Americans express themselves. His New York Times column today is based exclusively on one of the most egregious and misleading instances of this tactic.

His column is headlined The Iraq Syndrome, R.I.P., and in it, he simply asserts, over and over and over, that "Americans" -- in the wake of the Iraq disaster -- have not drawn any overarching lessons about U.S. foreign policy, as they did with Vietnam, but instead, Americans want (exactly, coincidentally enough, as Brooks wants) for the U.S. to continue to rule the world -- and particularly the Middle East -- with its mighty, dominant military power:

After Vietnam, Americans turned inward. Having lost faith in their leadership class, many Americans grew suspicious of power politics and hesitant about projecting American might around the world. . . .

Today, Americans are disillusioned with the war in Iraq, and many around the world predict that an exhausted America will turn inward again. Some see a nation in permanent decline and an end to American hegemony. At Davos, some Europeans apparently envisioned a post-American world.

Forget about it. Americans are having a debate bout how to proceed in Iraq, but we are not having a strategic debate about retracting American power and influence. What’s most important about this debate is what doesn’t need to be said. No major American leader doubts that America must remain, as Dean Acheson put it, the locomotive of the world. . . .

This is not a country looking to avoid entangling alliances. This is not a country renouncing the threat of force. This is not a country looking to come home again. The Iraq syndrome is over before it even had a chance to begin.

To demonstrate what Americans really think, Brooks cites what he calls the "masterful book" by Robert Kagan -- brother of Fred, the AEI's "surge" architect -- which argues that Americans want to assert as much power as possible in the world, and that they seek to use military power as part of our "efforts to spread freedom."

The debate over Iraq is not resulting in a diminished desire to start wars, claims Brooks, but is merely "another chapter in [America's] long expansionist story." So anyone who thinks that an attack on, say . . . . Iran, is less likely because Americans oppose the war in Iraq should think again. Iraq is only about Iraq. Americans still crave the "dominant role in the world."

Brooks' entire column purports to summarize what Americans believe and don't believe about U.S. foreign policy and the U.S. role in the world. There does exist empirical evidence (beyond Robert Kagan) as to what "Americans" believe. That evidence is called "polling data." Yet such evidence is missing entirely from Brooks' column proclaiming what Americans think -- not a whisper about such data -- and it is not hard to understand why.

Polls demonstrate that Brooks' entire column is false, that the opposite of what he claims is true. The neoconservative fantasies of David Brooks and Robert Kagan and John McCain and company for glorious U.S. world domination through military adventures are increasingly repudiated by Americans. As but one example, the Pew Research Center issued a report accompanying new polling data on isolationism in American, dated February 3, 2006, entitled Bush's Concern Over Isolationism Reflects More Than Just Rhetoric. It documented:

When President Bush delivered a strong warning against isolationism in Tuesday's State of the Union address, he was speaking to a recent and dramatic turn in public opinion. A recent Pew Research survey found a decided revival of isolationist sentiment among the public, to levels not seen since post-Cold War 1990s and the post-Vietnam 1970s. Moreover, one of the main pillars of Bush's argument in favor of global engagement – the need to promote democracy around the world – has not struck a chord with the public. Support for that objective has been consistently tepid, even among members of Bush's own party.

Specifically, the notion that the U.S. should use military force to topple foreign governments and "spread freedom" -- the centerpiece of the Brooks/Kagan/McCain neoconservative worldview which Brooks claims is the mainstream -- is, in reality, about as fringe of a sentiment as one can find in the realm of foreign policy:

Of thirteen foreign policy priorities tested in Pew's October survey, "promoting democracy in other nations" came in dead last, rated as a top priority by fewer than one-in-four Americans. Despite its lowest favorability rating in two decades, more Americans see strengthening the United Nations as a top priority than promoting democracy. And in contrast with public opinion on most foreign policy questions these days, there is no partisan divide – Republicans and Democrats agree that this goal should not be a major foreign policy priority.

It is true that the Pew poll, taken almost a year ago when dissatisfaction with Iraq was not as intense as it is now, found that 42% of Americans agree with the proposition that the U.S. "should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own." But, directly contrary to Brooks' entire column, that sentiment is rapidly increasing, and the notion that Americans share the neoconservative desire to spread democracy through military force is simply false.

Writing in The New Republic in November, 2005, John Judis -- unlike Brooks -- examined actual polling data rather than his own desires about what Americans should think, and concluded, in an article entitled Isolationism is Back:

Under the impact of the administration's failure in Iraq, the public has become wary of American involvement overseas. It increasingly rejects both a liberal internationalist and a neoconservative approach to foreign affairs. Instead, its attitude is similar to the prevailing outlook of the 1920s and '30s and to the worldview held by many Americans in the '90s. Voters, in short, are becoming more isolationist. This change in mood will likely affect the elections of 2006 and 2008; and more important, it could affect how future American administrations conduct themselves in the world.

Precisely because of the towering tragedy of our invasion of Iraq, Americans are rapidly growing to despise the militarism of David Brooks and -- as Judis points out -- of John McCain: "The presidential candidate who is probably most out of step with these trends in public opinion is John McCain, who favors sending additional troops to Iraq . . . ." And, all of that data was from late 2005 and early 2006. It is almost certainly the case that those anti-intervention trends have intensified as the situation in Iraq has collapsed.

In August, 2006 -- in the middle of the Israel-Hezbollah war, as Brooks' former colleague Bill Kristol proclaimed that to be "our war" (meaning the United States) -- The Washington Post and ABC News conducted a poll which asked: "As part of a cease-fire agreement, would you support or oppose the United Nations sending a peacekeeping force to southern Lebanon?" A solid majority (67-30) favored a U.N. force.

But even among those who supported such a force, a clear majority (38-59) said "no" when asked: "Do you think the United States should or should not send U.S. troops as part of that peacekeeping force"? Americans simply do not want increased U.S. involvement in more Middle East conflicts and wars, even where -- as was the case for Israel's war in Lebanon -- the conflict involves a group which Bush supporters endlessly refer to as "international terrorists."

David Brooks has his own crystal clear opinions about U.S military force -- the more the better, especially in the Middle East. He believes we should be continuing more projects like Iraq, with the only difference being that we should do it better next time. "This is not a country renouncing the threat of force," he proclaims.

But rather than honestly admit that the disaster in Iraq which he urged is causing Americans to reject Brooks' neoconservative and militaristic worldview, he instead dishonestly denies (really just ignores) the empirical evidence and clear trends and simply asserts that "Americans" agree with him on the fundamental questions of U.S. foreign policy. In doing so, he displays what really is the defining attribute of the Bush-supporting neoconservatives -- a willingness, even eagerness, to ignore empirical evidence, deny reality, in order to affirm what one wants to be true rather than what is true.

In reality, these pundits have complete disdain for American public opinion, because the American masses too frequently have the audacity to deviate from, and outright reject, the superior wisdom handed down by Brooks and Kagan and John McCain and the AEI and the rest. Like everything else -- U.S. soldiers, the Constitution, the concept of "America" -- what "Americans believe" is merely a prop to be used or exploited in order to advance their war-making and liberty-infringing agenda. So when American public opinion contradicts that agenda, they simply ignore it or distort it and claim -- even though it is so plainly false -- that those noble, silent "Americans" share their quest for neoconservative glory or whatever other radical view they happen to be pushing.

The fact that Americans are increasingly rejecting the militarism which lies at the heart of the neoconservative worldview does not, of course, prove that that worldview is wrong. But the fact that Bush-supporting pundits and presidential candidates like John McCain continue to claim the mantle of Spokesmen for "Americans" even though their views are increasingly relegated to the fringe does reveal much about their character and credibility. The next time David Brooks goes to write a column in which he masquerades his own personal, fringe views as the "belief of Americans," perhaps his editors should suggest, or require, some proof to accompany that claim.

UPDATE: One additional point: Brooks grounds his assertion about the ongoing American desire for Middle East hegemony in the claim that such a desire is shared by "the leaders emerging amid this [Iraq] crisis" -- Giuliani, McCain, Hillary Clinton, and John Edwards. Leaving aside the obvious grounds for contesting the accuracy of that assertion, the fact that certain presidential candidates endorse Position X is hardly proof that Position X is shared by "most Americans."

One of the tragic flaws of our current political system is that presidential candidates have to please numerous constituencies other than the American voter. One is the large donor base which funds their campaigns. The other is the Beltway media and political elite, which can single-handedly destroy a candidate with tactics having nothing to do with the candidates' actual views (ask Howard Dean, or Al Gore). That leading presidential candidates share Brooks' desire for further military adventurism in the Middle East -- even if it were true -- is hardly proof that most Americans share that view. The "views of most Americans" is knowable by examining what "most Americans think," which is precisely why Brooks studiously avoids the only data relevant to the issue about which he is opining.

UPDATE II: For those requiring still more proof that Bush supporters like David Brooks do not believe in the founding principles and values of our country, note that Brooks goes out of his way to proclaim that "this is not a country looking to avoid entangling alliances." Brooks issues as express a repudiation as can be of the central warning issued by George Washington in his 1796 Farewell Address. Of course, the Founders -- along with the Constitution they enacted and the principles they embraced -- were very, very pre-9/11, and their views are thus wholly inapplicable, even dangerous, in light of our current predicament.

For Brooks and company, the real meaning of the 9/11 attacks was that we have to abandon the wisdom of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington and the foundations of the country and replace all of that with the updated (and wholly contrary) views of Dick Cheney, John Yoo and Bill Kristol.

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