David Brooks Through the Looking Glass

When David Brooks first began writing for The New York Times editorial page, I thought that a better selection could not have been made. Brooks is funny, cleaver and unorthodox1 — exactly the sort of conservative that should be writing for this country’s “newspaper of record.” As his output has begun to pile up, though, I have begun to think that he will need a star chart to locate the current state of debate.

His latest editorial, “Looking Through Keyholes” would be more aptly titled, “Through the Looking-glass.” He argues that D.C. commentators, rather than focus on the critical events in Najaf and Falluja, are a’chatter about the books and testimonies of Richard Clarke, Condoleezza Rice and Bob Woodward — all dealing with events prior to 2004. “This is like pausing during the second day of Gettysburg to debate the wisdom of the Missouri Compromise.” Time spent preparing for hearings and defending the administration against the myriad accusations is time not spent on solving the problems of Iraq. He dismisses criticisms of Bush as mere Washington conceit. “The first duty of proper Washingtonians is to demonstrate that they are smarter than whomever they happen to be talking about. It’s quite easy to fulfill this mission when you are talking about the past.”2

The fact is that for nearly two years now, Washington insiders have been trying — to no avail, but in the worst case, to their peril — to contribute to the debate over how to handle the situation in Iraq.

Regarding troop levels, General Tommy Franks initially planned to go into Iraq with a force comparable to that of the first Gulf War, but, under pressure from Rumsfeld, continually whittled it down. General Shinseki told congress that a few hundred thousand soldiers would be required in Iraq for up to five years. Retired military personnel voiced concern about troop levels.3 John McCain and even General Abizaid have both called for additional soldiers and for a more international force.4

Pentagon personnel were prohibited from, or reprimanded for, participating in CIA war games that simulated the disorder of the aftermath of invasion.5 In the Pentagon sponsored war games, those acting the role of the enemy were specifically prohibited from employing tactics similar to those used by Iraqi irregulars during combat. Hence Lt. Gen. William Wallace’s controversial remark, “The enemy we’re fighting is a bit different than the one we war-gamed gainst.”6

A parade of Iraqi exiles met with administration officials, including Bush, to warn about the dangers of a lapse in order.7 Reports by the Army War College, The Council on Foreign Relations and the James A. Baker III Institute for Foreign Policy also warned about the dangers of a breakdown in civil administration and the disbanding of the Iraqi army.8 French officials warned Rice about an insurgency and ethnic tensions.9 Former Central Command chief Anthony Zinni telephoned a general inside his old command to remind him of planning and simulations for an occupation of Iraq that Zinni had conducted in 1999.10 The State Department’s Future of Iraq project spent nearly a year producing a thirteen volume report11 and Powell circulated among the National Security Council a fifteen page memo on the history of U.S. occupations that argued that troop strength and postwar security would be critical factors.12

The administration was still maintaining that oil revenue would pay for Iraq’s reconstruction, when Lawrence Lindsey gave an interview to The Wall Street Journal in which he estimated that the cost of the war would be $100 to 200 billion.13 Throughout the FY2004 budget negotiations, Bush stuck to his original budget for Iraq despite close Congressional questioning. Even after the $87 billion had been authorized, the Chiefs of the Army, Marine Core and Air Force warned that it only covered about eight months of operations.14

The rewards for this diligency have been few. Shinseki was severely dressed down about his estimates with Wolfowitz calling his estimate “wildly off the mark” and Rumsfeld reiterating the same.15 Zinni has gone from special envoy to Israel and Palestine to personae non grata. Iraqi exile Kanan Makiya, whose book, Republic of Fear was closely read in administration circles, has gone the same way since voicing his concerns.16 Rumsfeld specifically told Jay Garner to disregard the Future of Iraq report and that the project’s chief, Thomas Warrick, was to be removed from his staff. Garner resisted the disbanding of the Iraqi army, but it went ahead after he was replaced. Lawrence Lindsey was fired for his forthrightness on the costs of the adventure in Iraq.17 Retired army personnel who spoke out on force levels were slandered as “Clinton generals,” “armchair generals” and the like.

Of course, I am skipping over the reams of excellent commentary in the media because, as Bush has said, “I rarely read the [news] stories.”18 One could have a bang-on solution for our problems in Iraq and may as well leave it tri-folded in one’s jacket pocket for all the impact it will have. Even interventionist extraordinaire Max Boot is saying that the administration is in “a political cocoon where they cut themselves off from outside criticism, just dismiss it as being naysayers.”19

But there is something more fundamental here. We live in a democracy and are approaching an election. The president is up for his quadrennial review. President Bush is continually saying, “I look forward to talking to the American people about why I made the decisions I made.”20 Conservative pundits defend Bush’s use of September 11th as a campaign issue saying “Sept. 11, its aftermath and the response…are central to deciding the fitness of George W. Bush to continue in office.”21 What people like Brooks who complain about the criticisms of Bush miss is that this is exactly what a discussion of Bush’s record looks like. All the hullabaloo that Brooks derides is about “deciding the fitness of George W. Bush to continue in office.” Brooks and other defenders of the administration are frustrated that the “discussion” is two sided, not merely the Bush campaign — sole owner of all information and opinion regarding its record — talking at a pliant audience.

I think Bush would agree with me that the presidential campaign ranks at least as high as our problems in Iraq, because after neutralizing (not solving) the Falluja problem, the man overburdened with Iraq jumped on a campaign bus for a tour of battleground states.

As for Brooks, despite the deployment of French culture as window dressing, he is merely repeating the Republican boilerplate of “You cannot criticize the president. He is a war president.” That sort of intellectual thugery has about as little place in the “newspaper of record” as Jayson Blair.


  1. Do you doubt me? Though some of his political writings for The Weekly Standard are perhaps more true to form, I judged him on the cultural work such as BOBO’s in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There. New York: Simon & Schuster. 2000; “The Organization Kid.” The Atlantic Monthly. April 2001. http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/2001/04/brooks-p1.htm; or “Patio Man and the Sprawl People.” The Weekly Standard. 12-19 August 2002. http://www.weeklystandard.com/Content/Public/Articles/000/000/001/531wlvng.asp
  2. Brooks, David. “Looking Through Keyholes.” The New York Times. 27 April 2004. http://www.nytimes.com/2004/04/27/opinion/looking-through-keyholes.html.
  3. E.g. Hoar, Joseph P. “Why Aren’t There Enough Troops in Iraq?” The New York Times. 2 April 2003; McCaffrey, Barry. “Gaining Victory in Iraq.” U.S. News & World Reports. 7 April 2003. p. 26; McCaffrey, Barry. “We Need More Troops.” The Wall Street Journal. 29 July 2003.
  4. Schmitt, Eric. “General in Iraq Says More G.I.’s are Not Needed.” The New York Times. 29 August 2003; McCain, John. “Why We Must Win.” The Washington Post. 31 August 2003. p. B7. Schmitt’s article was given a misleading title. Abizaid did say that additional American troops should not be sent, but because he worried about “the public perception both within Iraq and within the Arab world about the percentage of the force being so heavily American.” He did however say that more soldiers from other countries were needed and that the training of native Iraqi forces should be hastened.
  5. Fallows, James. “Blind Into Baghdad.” The Atlantic Monthly. January/February 2004. p. 58. http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/2004/01/fallows.htm.
  6. Kaplan, Fred. “War-Gamed.” Slate. 28 March 2003. http://www.slate.com/id/2080814.
  7. Brinkley, Joel and Eric Schmitt. “Iraqi Leaders Say U.S. Was Warned of Disorder After Hussein, But Little Was Done.” The New York Times. 30 November 2003.
  8. Fallows. p. 68; Elliott, Michael. “So, What Went Wrong?” Time. 6 October 2003. p. 34.
  9. Mann, James. The Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush’s War Cabinet. New York: Viking. 2004, p. 349; Burrougil, Bryan, Evgenia Peretz, David Rose and David Wise. “The Path to War.” Vanity Fair. no. 525. May 2004. pp. 288-289.
  10. Ricks, Thomas E. “For Vietman Vet Anthony Zinni, Another War on Shaky Territory.” The Washington Post. 23 December 2003.
  11. Fallows. pp. 56-58.
  12. Packer, George. “Letter from Baghdad: War After the War.” The New Yorker. 24 November 2003. pp. 61-62. http://www.newyorker.com/fact/content/?031124fa_fact1.
  13. Davis, Bob and David Rogers. “Bush Economic Aide Says Cost of Iraq War May Top $100 Billion.” The Wall Street Journal. 16 September 2002.
  14. Schmitt, Eric. “Service Chiefs Challenge White House on the Budget.” The New York Times. 11 February 2004.
  15. Schmitt, Eric. “Pentagon Contradicts General on Iraq Occupation Force’s Size.” The New York Times. 28 February 2003.
  16. E.g. Makiya, Kanan. “The Wasteland.” The New Republic. 5 May 2003. pp. 19-21. http://www.tnr.com/doc.mhtml?i=20030505&s=makiya050503; Makiya, Kanan. “Hopes Betrayed.” The Observer. 16 February 2003. http://observer.guardian.co.uk/iraq/story/0,12239,896611,00.html.
  17. An administration insider confirms that this was the specific reason for his firing. Allen, Mike, David Von Drehle and Jonathan Weisman. “Treasury Chief, Key Economic Aide Resign as Jobless Rate Hits 6 Percent.” The Washington Post. 7 December 2002. p. A1.
  18. Bush, George W. Interview with Brit Hume. Fox News Chanel. 22 September 2003. http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,98006,00.html.
  19. Boot, Max. Lou Dobbs Tonight. CNN. 30 April 2004. http://www.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0404/30/ldt.00.html.
  20. E.g. Bush told Tim Russert that he was “looking forward” to a discussion seven times. Bush, George W. and Tim Russert. Meet the Press. NBC News. 8 February 2004. http://msnbc.msn.com/id/4179618/.
  21. Krauthammer, Charles. “Why 9/11 Belongs in the Campaign.” Time. 15 March 2004. p. 100.

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