Saying Nothing, Making Page One Anyway

When the Secretary of Defense says we'll do something, reporters sometimes hear more than was intended.

The Washington Post peaked our interest this morning by fronting a story headlined, “U.S. Sets Plans to Aid Iraq in Civil War.”

Was the administration admitting that the sectarian violence of the past few weeks was going to evolve into all-out civil war? Were more troops being committed to stem this possible eventuality? Or maybe Iraqi troops were going to be declared ready to stop the fighting on their own?

None of the above.

As it turns out, the headline and its placement were much more dramatic than anything new that had happened. It referred to hearings in front of the Senate Appropriations Committee at which the administration was asking for $65 billion more in emergency funds for the war. The hearings featured the indefatigable Donald Rumsfeld, the secretary of defense (and press critic wannabe), and the most dramatic thing Rumsfeld had to say was this: “The plan is to prevent a civil war, and to the extent one were to occur, to have the … Iraqi security forces deal with it to the extent they’re able to.”

That is a plan?

To its great credit, the New York Times, placing the story on A10 where it belonged, described the hearings thusly: “[I]t was more or less a recitation of the administration’s standard formulations on Iraq.”

No kidding. Not only does Rumsfeld’s formulation fail to amount to a “plan,” it fails to amount to news. Now maybe - just maybe — if the Democrats on the committee had actually forced some questions upon Rumsfeld, we could imagine the encounter rising to the status of newsworthy. But, as Fred Kaplan at Slate points out, they missed every good opportunity to press the secretary. In his stated “plan,” Kaplan writes, Rumsfeld even left “an opening in his reply—Iraqi security forces will deal with it, ‘to the extent they are able to‘—that any high-school debater would have plowed through with gusto. ‘To what extent are they able to?’ would have been one decent follow-up (especially since U.S. officials in the field have noted that many of these security forces have stronger allegiances to ethnic factions than to a central government).”

But our concern is not so much that the Democrats let Rumsfeld get away without saying anything substantive. It’s that the Washington Post would deem this exchange worthy of such prominence.

If the opposition party can’t get it together to sharply question a secretary of defense spouting boilerplate, then, at a minimum, the press can at least cease pretending that anything other than the usual unquestioned bushwah went on.

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Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.