Joe Klein and Beltway seriousness

Responding to my post this morning, the Time pundit defends our political elite's understanding of their own seriousness.


Glenn Greenwald
July 26, 2007 9:25PM (UTC)

(updated below - updated again)

Joe Klein today responds to my post from earlier this morning -- regarding Joe Lieberman, John Hagee and Seriousness -- without expressly acknowledging that he is doing so. He all but quotes my post at length and says he is responding to the use of the word "serious" as an epithet in "certain precincts in the blogosphere."

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In this morning's post, I referenced what has become the most common and vapid Beltway rhetorical device -- namely, the use of the term "Serious" to bestow with respectability the people who furrow their brows and show great reverence for government and military leaders and reflexively support American wars and believe that muddled compromise and principle-free "moderation" is the Ultimate Good, while demonizing as "unserious" those who have actual convictions -- such as the belief that war is a horrific option that should never be pursued unless absolutely necessary for self-defense and the belief that government leaders should have their claims subjected to real scrutiny and they themselves should be subjected to investigation and punishment when they break the law.

In defending himself as one of the "Serious" Beltway analysts, and in defense of what he understands as "Seriousness," this is what Klein wrote:

And now, among certain precincts in the blogosphere -- those prohibitively clever sorts who opine daily and endlessly about journalism without doing any reporting (or much thinking) about it -- a new epithet: serious. This is meant to convey disdain for those of us who grant undue credibility to people in positions of authority or people of moderate political views. The critics have a point: There is no credible moderate position on issues like torture. And those people in positions of authority who gave Bush the benefit of the doubt on the war in Iraq -- including my singular and momentary lapse on Meet the Press -- failed the test of being truly serious. But, all things considered, I'm not ready to surrender that very valuable word to the cynics and will continue to use "serious" as I always have, unironically. Usually.

To my mind, being a "serious person" means the following: you study the facts on the ground, you study the history, you take into account opinions on all sides -- not just your side -- and then you come to a conclusion. Essentially, that's what I try to do, and also the people I admire across the political spectrum (including many who reside in the blogosphere). I don't always succeed, of course. Sometimes, instant opinions offered on TV shows (see above), can seem deeply unserious and ill-considered the moment they escape one's lips. And various serious people I know have momentary or long-term lapses, sometimes very serious ones, on this issue or that. I can disagree with someone profoundly -- as with John McCain on Iraq -- and still value their opinions on other issues (immigration, fiscal responsibility and so forth).

First, the good news: Klein seems to admit, for the first time, that he supported the invasion of Iraq. Up until now, he had been falsely denying it. I would say that a pre-requisite to being Serious is being honest about whether you supported or opposed a war before it began.

But note how odd -- and unserious -- Klein's confession is. He actually seems to be saying that he accidentally supported the invasion of Iraq as the result of a "singular and momentary lapse" on television whereby a pro-war position "escaped his lips" -- almost like it was an involuntary outburst or seizure of some sort -- and he argued that we ought to militarily invade another country. To the viewer, Klein's advocacy of attacking Iraq might "seem deeply unserious and ill-considered the moment [it] escaped [his] lips," but he is still Serious.

Presumably, Klein also suffered the same sort of "singular and momentary lapse" when he went on national television and suggested that we might want to launch a first-strike nuclear attack on Iran -- that we might drop an atomic weapon on that country even if we are not attacked. Apparently, Serious People sometimes are prone to go on television and start urging wars and even nuclear attacks on other nations when they don't really mean it.

In any event, the problem with the self-anointed "Serious" Beltway elite is not, contrary to Klein's self-flattery, that they study too much information or take too many views into account. Nor is the problem with their vaunted Seriousness concept that it places too much of a premium on compromise and agreement, nor that it grants too much respect for those who hold different views.

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The actual problem is that the term "Serious" when wielded by Beltway denizens is nothing more than a cheap and manipulative tactic to demonize those with non-Beltway-approved views without actually doing the work to demonstrate that those views are wrong. Beltway "Seriousness" has nothing whatever to do with the studious and careful methods one uses to reach conclusions. It has everything to do with the ideologically correct nature of the beliefs and, much more importantly still, the Authority and Place in the Beltway Court of those who are expressing them.

That is how, prior to the invasion of Iraq, Howard Dean and other war opponents became so terribly "unserious" while Bill Kristol, Peter Beinert, Jonah Goldberg, Charles Krauthammer, the Brookings Institution, Joe Lieberman, Newt Gingrich and Dick Cheney were Very Very Serious -- despite the fact that Dean expressed more wisdom about Iraq every time he sneezed than all of the Serious National Security People managed to compile in all of their millions of words about Saddam's mushroom clouds and the Evil Labs of Dr. Germ and Mrs. Anthrax.

Klein thinks that he is mocked as "Serious" because he does too much work studying ideas and information. Actually, the opposite is true.

The "Serious" mockery stems from the fact that his views are unaccompanied by any such work and are devoid of any critical thought. Klein, for instance, famously defended the President's NSA lawbreaking by admitting his Bush defense rested in blissful ignorance: "People like me who favor this program don't yet know enough about it yet. Those opposed to it know even less -- and certainly less than I do."

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That is what a Serious Person does -- blindly trusts the President even when he breaks the law, and demonizes as Unserious those who object to presidential lawbreaking, exactly what Klein did when he scorned Unserious Nancy Pelosi in the pages of Time because she said that George Bush should not commit felonies when spying on Americans. Klein called objections to Bush's lawbreaking "civil-liberties fetishism" and said "these concerns [i.e., that Bush broke the law] pale before the importance of the program."

Klein also warned that if Democrats continued to object to illegal eavesdropping, "they will probably not regain the majority in Congress or the country," because "liberal Democrats are . . . far from the American mainstream" on this issue. The hallmark of Beltway Seriousness is the inability to do anything other than spout authority-worshipping conventional wisdom ("you better revere the President even when he breaks the law, and stop investigating him so much, or else you will lose elections") which is wrong time and again, while branding as "Unserious" anyone who challenges Beltway orthodoxy and, especially, who opposes too strenuously the High Beltway media and government priests. That is the essence of Beltway Seriousness.

Several days ago, I referenced a Joe Klein post from January in which he called Paul Krugman an "ill-informed dilettante" and said Krugman made "a fool of himself" when Krugman argued against the Surge. Illustrating the Virtues of Beltway Seriousness, Klein complained that Krugman failed to study the Complex, Important Issues surrounding the Surge, unlike Serious Analysts like himself, Bill Kristol and Fred Kagan:

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As for [Kristol and Kagan], Krugman's right: they've been wrong about Iraq. But at least they've taken the trouble to read the doctrine and talk to key players like Keane and General David Petraeus. Liberals won't ever be trusted on national security until they start doing their homework.

After I posted that, I received an email from Krugman pointing out that -- directly contrary to what Klein accused him of -- Krugman had written a column months earlier, entitled "Arithmetic of Failure," discussing the military doctrine of counterinsurgency, and explaining why it was impossible for the U.S. military to succeed with this strategy. Vincent Rossmeier, a journalism student at NYU who works with me on various projects, reviewed Klein's accusations and Krugman's column and then wrote:

Krugman is completely right concerning Klein's unfounded accusation. In the "The Arithmetic of Failure", Krugman cites what he calls "The classic analysis of the arithmetic of insurgencies", a 1995 piece written by James T. Quinlivan, an analyst at the Rand Corporation entitled "Force Requirements in Stability Operations". He found that "Mr. Quinlivan's comparisons suggested that even small countries might need large occupying forces".

He then goes on to argue that in a country as large as Iraq, with as much chaos and sectarian animosity as it currently has within its borders, the US would probably need at least 500,000 soldiers on the ground to ever subdue the competing factions. Krugman concludes that there's no way this is possible given our current military capacity. In the end, Iraq is just too big of a job for the US to handle.

Krugman wrote this in October 2006, before President Bush had adopted his surge policy (perhaps before it had even been publicly disseminated) and therefore he's definitely right to feel irate that Klein, who continually has been wrong in his predictions and analyses about the Iraq War, would accuse him of not doing his homework. As is so often the case with Klein, he asserted his own personal opinion as fact, whereas Krugman relied on a well-respected study to come to the conclusion that he did.

Krugman finishes his article by arguing how we have a much better chance of succeeding in Afghanistan than Iraq. He points out that if we transferred in troops from Iraq, they'd be much better utilized and achieve greater progress towards our military objectives than they ever could in Iraq. The situation in Afghanistan, despite the recent deterioration in conditions, is still less chaotic than the civil war raging in Iraq. Krugman postulates that we were at a tipping point in Afghanistan (proven correct by the recent security and terrorist threat analysis documenting the reemergence of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban there and on the Pakistan border). In short, everything Krugman predicted has come to pass and Klein is, as per usual, the one whose claims have no basis in reality.

Joe Klein and his fellow "Serious" People in the Beltway have given this country George Bush, Dick Cheney, the invasion of Iraq, ongoing support for the four-year occupation with no end in sight, a public that overwhelmingly believed that Saddam planned the 9/11 attacks, a complete assault on our Constitution with barely a peep of protest, a chronically lawbreaking government with no consequences, virtually absolute government secrecy, the collapse of America's moral standing around the world, and a new war with Iran that is just a small provocation away. Beltway Seriousness, know thee by the fruits you bear.

UPDATE: Atrios notes a classic examples of the use of Seriousness, from NBC News' David Gregory on Chris Matthews' show this weekend:

Mr. GREGORY: I think Hillary Clinton -- her sister soldier [sic] moment is going to be telling the left that they have to sort of move beyond their hatred over Iraq, for Bush, and think about how they're going to engage the war on terror in a very serious and tough way.

As Atrios says: "I'm not quite sure how David Gregory imagines The Left is supposed to be engaging with the war on terror. . . . But, clearly, those people who oppose Bush's little war and think that getting out of Iraq is a good idea are very unserious indeed."

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Gregory's comment is just devoid of meaning -- "the left" needs "to engage the war on terror in a very serious and tough way." What does that even mean? Nothing. The Beltway stars who endlessly dole out the Seriousness sermons really never do anything other than spout the most meaningless platitudes grounded in mindless, crusty, decade-old Washington media conventional wisdom. Hence: the Democratic candidate needs to "Sister Souljah" the Left and the Left needs to get "tough and serious" with the Terrorists, says the Serious Washington Journalist who can think only in slogans and cliches.

UPDATE II: Klein responds to this post here. I don't have the time right now to reply further to it, and I'm not sure there is much to address even if I had the time, but -- completely independent of whether his responses have any merit or are even actually responsive in any meaningful way -- I will give Klein credit for at least attempting to address criticisms of this sort.


Glenn Greenwald

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