One of the "smartest people" Fareed Zakaria knows?

“Deadly hawks come in many styles. Some have polished talons.” – Norman Solomon

by Brad Jacobson

Fareed Zakaria debuted his new show for CNN this past Sunday. Introducing his program, called Fareed Zakaria GPS (as in Global Public Square, not Global Positioning System, though the latter might also apply), he explains:

FAREED ZAKARIA, HOST, “GPS”: Welcome to the very first edition of “Global Public Square.” I’m Fareed Zakaria. For the last 20 years, I’ve been writing about the world. And now I have an opportunity to bring all of you along with me on what has been a fascinating adventure.

I know that right now to a lot of people, the world looks like a grim place. Almost every day you’re bombarded with frightening headlines, stories of out-of-control governments and terrorists who want to kill you.

But beyond those headlines, the picture is actually much brighter. Economic growth and technology are raising people out of disease and poverty every day.

On this program, we’ll try to understand the new forces shaping our world, both the good and the bad. And I’ll talk to some of the world’s great thinkers and doers — people like former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who will be joining me in a few minutes.

So, let’s get started on what’s going to be a hell of a ride.

My “built-in bullshit detector,” to borrow Ernest Hemingway’s phrase, was triggered by the words “some of the world’s great thinkers and doers — people like former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.” But nothing could prepare me for what followed.

FAREED ZAKARIA: At water coolers across this country, people are talking about the American presidential election. But our strange drama is also gripping the rest of the world.

I gathered some of the smartest people I know to talk about this subject, and China, and Iran and anything else that comes up.

Hmm, can’t wait to meet the panel.

FAREED ZAKARIA: Joining me are Christiane Amanpour, CNN’s chief international correspondent…

Oh, Amanpour. I’m intrigued. And?

FAREED ZAKARIA: the European Union’s ambassador to the United States and the former prime minister of Ireland, John Bruton…

Tell me more…

FAREED ZAKARIA: Minxin Pei, one of the world’s top China scholars…

Hey, this might actually be a substantive geopolitical confab. Of course, no true progressives, anti-globalists, human rights representatives or anti-war activists but this is still CNN. Let’s be realistic. At least, however, there’s no knee-jerk sycophantic Bush lackey either. No mindless “fair and balanced” framework, where inane and dangerous ideas – many often already discredited – are given equal weight. So I’m interested. I’ve reserved my judgment. I’m ready to go along with Zakaria on this “hell of a ride.” And I’m eager to hear who rounds out this more promising-than-usual panel.

FAREED ZAKARIA: …and Douglas Feith, former undersecretary of defense, one of Donald Rumsfeld’s key lieutenant’s in President Bush’s first term.

Cue the spit-take. (I actually did nearly spit my coffee across the room.) Feith?! Douglas Feith. One of the “smartest people” that Fareed Zakaria knows?

Donald Rumsfeld’s under secretary of defense for policy? One of the primary architects of the occupation in Iraq and point man on circumventing the Geneva Conventions so torture and holding detainees indefinitely without charge or recourse was “legal”? The one who oversaw both the Counter Terrorism Evaluation Unit, which issued the bogus pre-war report linking Saddam Hussein with al Qaeda that helped sell the invasion, and the Office of Special Plans, which was in charge of the disastrous post-war planning? The schmendrick that former US Army General Tommy Franks, who led the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, called “the dumbest fucking guy on the planet” for his sparkling ideas? Whose work on Iraq former CIA chief George Tenet called “total crap”? The level-headed global strategist who Jay Garner, a former American administrator in Iraq, believes is “incredibly dangerous” and “a smart guy whose electrons aren’t connected?” About whom Larry Wilkerson, Colin Powell’s former chief of staff, said “Seldom in my life have I met a dumber man”?

The brilliant man who, as Chris Suellentrop wrote in Slate:

…[as reported by The New Yorker] intentionally excluded experts with experience in postwar nation-building, out of fear that their pessimistic, worst-case scenarios would leak and damage the case for war. In the Atlantic earlier this year, James Fallows told a similar story: The Pentagon did not participate in CIA war games about the occupation, because “it could be seen as an ‘antiwar’ undertaking” that “weakened the case for launching a ‘war of choice.’ ” The State Department’s Future of Iraq Project, an effort that accurately predicted some contingencies that the Pentagon overlooked, was dismissed by Feith and company out of hand.

That guy?

The same schmo who’s said:

  • “The main rationale [for invading Iraq] was not based on intelligence.”
  • “I am talking about myself in the following sense: expertise is a very good thing, but it is not the same thing as sound judgment regarding strategy and policy. George W. Bush has more insight, because of his knowledge of human beings and his sense of history, about the motive force, the craving for freedom and participation in self-rule, than do many of the language experts and history experts and culture experts.”
  • “The common refrain that the postwar has been a disaster is only true if you had completely unrealistic expectations.”
  • Regarding diplomatic agreements with adversaries: “If we had mutual trust and real security, you wouldn’t need these agreements, and if you need these agreements, then it is an illusion to say that you have mutual trust and security.”
  • “The surprising thing is not that there are so many Jews who are neocons but that there are so many who are not.”
  • “We certainly understood that these are the things that might happen. That’s why we wrote them down.” (Feith’s response in a recent 60 Minutes interview to Steve Kroft reading him portions of Rumsfeld’s pre-war “Parade of Horribles” memo, which detailed what might go wrong in Iraq: “‘The United States could become so absorbed with its Iraq effort that we pay inadequate attention to other serious problems; the war could cause more harm and entail greater costs than expected’ – obviously it has; ‘that it would not go on for two to four years but eight to 10 years; terrorist networks could improve their recruiting and fundraising as a result our being depicted as anti-Muslim; Iraq could experience ethnic strife among Kurds, Sunnis and Shia; it could damage our relationship with our allies and our reputation in the world community.’ Did you think that one or two of these would happen?” “One of the things that is reflected in this memo,” said Feith, “is secretary Rumseld’s deeply held view that it’s foolish to try to predict the future.” Kroft replied, “Well, as it turned out, he was pretty good at anticipating problems because virtually all of these things have happened.”)

Yes, that Douglas Feith, who is not only a disastrous foreign policy thinker with no regard for domestic or international law, but a dangerous propagandist whose views have been roundly discredited and whose reputation, in the minds of most sentient beings, has been irrevocably tarnished by his thoughts and deeds.

So the question remains: Why would Fareed Zakaria include this man in a circle of “some of the smartest people I know,” inviting him to take part in his new program’s inaugural panel discussion on global issues?

Zakaria’s strong support for the invasion of Iraq is no secret. And though he morphed into a staunch critic of the Bush administration’s prosecution of the war, he’s never said the initial aim, the act of invading a sovereign country and implementing democracy at the barrel of a gun, was a bad idea. Similarly, Feith’s current justification for the invasion – not WMD, what he and the administration presented to the American people and the world, but rather the hope of remaking the Middle East into a democracy – appealed to Zakaria.

In fact, Zakaria attended a little known (and little reported) November 2001 meeting, convened by then deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz, to help craft a PR narrative for the war in Iraq. Bob Woodward detailed this secret gathering in his 2006 book State of Denial. As The New York Times reported in October 2006:

What was more unusual, Mr. Woodward reveals, was the presence of journalists at the meeting. Fareed Zakaria, the editor of Newsweek International and a Newsweek columnist, and Robert D. Kaplan, now a national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, attended the meeting and, according to Mr. Kaplan, signed confidentiality agreements not to discuss what happened.

Mr. Zakaria, who was not told that the meeting would produce a report, takes issue with Mr. Woodward’s account.

“I thought it was a brainstorming session,” he said. “I was never told that there was going to be a document summarizing our views and I have never seen such a document.” (Mr. Woodward wrote that the report, which supported the invasion of Iraq, caused Mr. Bush to focus on the “malignancy” of the Middle East situation.)

While members of policy research groups often dispense advice to administration officials, journalists do not typically attend secret meetings or help compile government reports. Indeed, many Washington journalists complain that the current administration keeps them at an unhealthy distance.

Mr. Kaplan said much of the meeting was spent drafting and reworking the document, on which Mr. Zakaria’s name did not appear, and was “a forceful summary of some of the best pro-war arguments at the time.” Could any of the participants have been unaware there was a document in the making? “No, that’s not possible,” he said.

The Times later appended a correction to this article. (Incidentally, the article had been buried in the Business section, an added twist of irony after recent news, broken by The Times, about the networks, unwittingly or not, allowing some TV war analysts to shill directly for the Pentagon and the Bush administration). The correction simply “confirmed” that: “Mr. Zakaria was not told that the meeting would produce a report for the Bush administration, nor did his name appear on the report.”

A rather odd and dubious correction that doesn’t refute a) Zakaria signed a confidentiality agreement “not to discuss what happened,” b) he was in attendance and played an active role, c) Woodward’s belief and The Times’ agreement that it was “unusual” for journalists to attend such a meeting, or d) provide any evidence why we shouldn’t believe Kaplan’s assessment that Zakaria had to have known he was contributing to a document with “a forceful summary of some of the best pro-war arguments at the time.”

Moreover, it’s easy to forget just how wrong Zakaria got it.

On February 3, 2003, he wrotea Newsweek article titled “Looking on the Bright Side,” which was not only woefully myopic and misguided but stunningly cavalier about invading a country that did not attack us. While Zakaria noted there “are legitimate concerns” and the “risks are real,” here are some of “the potential benefits…of a successful war in Iraq” he put forth:

  • A major producer of weapons of mass destruction would be eliminated. […]
  • The Iraqi people would gain liberty. No matter what comes after Saddam, it will be better than his totalitarian regime. […]
  • The Iraqi people would get on the road to economic well being. […]
  • Political and economic reform would quicken around the Arab world. […]
  • The cause of radical, violent anti-Westernism—the one ideological trait that is shared by both Saddam and the Islamic fundamentalists—would be dealt a severe blow. Osama bin Laden once said that when people see a weak horse and a strong horse, they naturally want to side with the strong horse. No one will want to side with a dead horse.
  • The oil cartel would break down. […]
  • If oil prices stay low, over time the pressures for reform could build even more. The regimes of the Middle East—most of which are nondemocratic and nonperforming—will find it increasingly difficult to stay in power if they don’t open up. In short, if oil goes to $10 a barrel, the Saudi monarchy goes to Majorca. […]

Even his caveat was deeply, and tragically, flawed:

Not all of this will happen. In fact, most of it will probably not happen. But not all of the bad things people predict will likely happen, either. And even if a few of the forces described above are unleashed, they will have lasting positive effects on the region and the whole Muslim world.

Of course, not everyone would be helped by a successful war. The ruling elites in the Middle East—particularly those that remain stubbornly set in their old ways—will be challenged, threatened and eventually overturned. For these potentates and their courtiers it would mean the end of one of the richest gravy trains in history. That is why they will fight change as fiercely as they can. But for the people of the Middle East, after the shock of the war fades, it could mean a chance to break out of the terrible stagnancy in which they now sit.

There are always risks involved when things change. But for the past 40 years the fear of these risks has paralyzed Western policy toward the Middle East. And what has come of this caution? Repression, radical Islam and terror. I’ll take my chances with change.

I’ll take my chances. Ponder the haughty recklessness of those words for a moment in context to war and death in general, and in context to this particular war’s mass number of deaths. I’ll take my chances. Thanks for your sacrifice, Mr. Zakaria. But “after the shock of war fades,” the reality of it continues to multiply body counts more than five years later. Zakaria rather blithely flipped a coin with hundreds of thousands or millions of lives. Rational foreign policy experts, who are not hawks, might call that irresponsible, even barbaric.

And as late as March 2005, in another Newsweek article titled “What Bush Got Right,” with the subtitle, “Freedom’s march: The president has been right on some big questions. Now, if he can get the little stuff right, he’ll change the world,” Zakaria was still spinning utter nonsense in an attempt to defend Bush’s war and his own flawed ideas:

The other noted political scientist who has been vindicated in recent weeks is George W. Bush. Across New York, Los Angeles and Chicago—and probably Europe and Asia as well—people are nervously asking themselves a question: “Could he possibly have been right?” The short answer is yes. Whether or not Bush deserves credit for everything that is happening in the Middle East, he has been fundamentally right about some big things.

From the same article comes this unintended comic gem:

People have often wished that the president had traveled more over the years. But Bush’s capacity to imagine a different Middle East may actually be related to his relative ignorance of the region. Had he traveled to the Middle East and seen its many dysfunctions, he might have been disheartened. Freed from looking at the day-to-day realities, Bush maintained a vision of what the region could look like.

Thus, it’s clear why Zakaria desires to rebrand Feith as one of the “smartest people I know”: in doing so, Zakaria simultaneously absolves, or disappears, his own pre-war bungling, a stain to which a more forthright and less arrogant journalist who specializes in foreign affairs would confess, not only to repair his credibility but also to avail himself of the ability to hold other people’s global ideas and actions under the full light of the facts, both current and historical.

In a recent interview on The Daily Show, JonStewart laid bare why Feith is now selling this particular bit of revisionism:

JON STEWART: I guess the difference in my mind is if you knew the perils but the conversation that you had with the public painted a rosier picture. How is that not deception? That sounds like…when you’re selling a product…( applause ) what it sounds like for me. Sorry. The fact that you seem to know all the risks, takes this from manslaughter to homicide. It almost takes it from, like with the cigarette companies. If they come out and say, “No, our products I think are going to be delicious.” You go back and you look and they go, well, they actually did talk about addictiveness and cancer. Isn’t that deception?

In the end, for Feith and other culpable Bush administration officials, it’s a fine point that might mean the difference between prosecution and getting away with murder.

CNN should be commended for both green-lighting a Sunday talk show that focuses on world events and letting a Muslim Indian-American host it. But if Zakaria’s program genuinely strives to bring the world into sharper focus, rewriting the recent history in Iraq is an egregious first step.

Cross-posted from MediaBloodhound.

11 replies »

  1. Damn. This is one of the more thorough take-downs I’ve read in awhile.

    I think it’s also a good example of what’s wrong with the corporate/legacy media’s commitment to “balance.” These days, if you’re going to have a program that talks about anything political, you have to have somebody representing the Bushies, and that usually means a token idiot.

  2. I had the same (although not nearly as well expressed) sentiment watching the inaugural GPS. Well done, Brad.

  3. Pingback:
  4. Doug Feith is the person for whom the term “ass-hat” was practically invented. I’ve seen Zakaria on “The Daily Show” and read his Newsweek articles, believing him to be a smart guy. Either Feith was foisted upon him with no opportunity for decline, or else Fareed’s not as smart as I thought. Either way, in my mind his rating has just declined 75%.

  5. Thanks, Brad, for the greatest hits list of Feith. And for doing the dirty work of poring through Zakaria’s output. Especially for reminding readers of that meeting. When I first read about it, I knew I could never take him seriously.

    Zakaria is kind of like Thomas Friedman, David Brooks and Christopher Hitchens. Nine out of ten columns infuriate. The tenth is so brilliant, you think what an asset to the media they could be if they weren’t so vain or whatever their problems are.

  6. Thanks for your kind words, folks. Russ, there’s a telling Kevin Drum quote on Zakaria that didn’t make it into this piece:

    “Zakaria is a smart guy, but he’s also a person who’s good at putting his finger to the wind — and then getting credit for leading the way when he anticipates an imminent shift.”

  7. Well written and informative. Thanks for giving me greater insight into why some of Zakaria’s articles seem so out of character.

  8. This is my first visit to your site and if this piece is any indication of the quality of work that I may find here I will gladly be back to visit many times. Thank you.

  9. Thanks, Brad, for the Drum quote. Enjoy his work at Washington Monthly.

    PMorlan: Thanks and please visit often.

  10. i’m not familiar with zakaria’s newsweek articles — people still read that rag? i recognized it as wastepaper over 25 years ago.

    but i am familiar with zakaria from his former program on pbs. he was even then clearly a shill. despite his ethnic background, he aligned himself a long time ago with people who could enhance his career, not his understanding and knowledge.

    his “new” program is a perfect example of why i gave up cable four years ago and look forward to losing broadcast tv in february 2009. don’t encourage these people by listening to them.

  11. How to revive your clever musical “Baracula–the Musical” On a par with Second City!. More of these,pleas dick j. croton on hudson, ny