Retired Generals and Wartime Sales Jobs

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Retired Army General Barry McCaffrey, who lost access to Pentagon briefings after he criticized the Iraq war effort

Finally spent some quality holiday time reading the Defense Department’s IG report into the New York Times’ 2008 charges that the Rumsfeld-era Pentagon basically plied retired generals with special access to insider stuff so they would promote the Iraq war — while gleaning information helpful to their post-Pentagon careers with assorted defense contractors.

Too much reporting in the national-security arena doesn’t pass what I like to call the “human nature” test. Reporters like to concoct legitimate-sounding conspiracies that explain the “secret” and “hidden” way things – like wars – are “sold” to a gullible public. (In fact, the Times’ original story was headlined: Behind TV Analysts, Pentagon’s Hidden Hand.) There are folks primed to believe this kind of stuff (UFOs, Alger Hiss, Oswald, Obama’s birth certificate), and, in the instant case, just enough military ham-fistedness to give it a patina of plausibility. But it rarely adds up. It didn’t in this case.

The Pentagon IG concluded that the retired-generals outreach program was within bounds. But, as Michael Kinsley pointed out long ago, it’s not what’s illegal in Washington that’s dismaying – it’s what’s legal. The right is hailing the IG report as vindication, the left is decrying it – and warning it could happen again.

The IG’s conclusion doesn’t mean the Pentagon should get a free pass. After all, the U.S. military is charged with fighting wars, not selling them. That’s the White House’s – and Congress’s — job. Just because our elected officials are more Willy Loman than Steve Jobs is no reason for the military to peddle the nation’s wars – or to declare them worth fighting.

The folks running the U.S. military are, for the most part, just like you and me. They lack special powers of persuasion, and many of the strings they so ardently pull aren’t connected to anything at all.

Most importantly, an informed citizenry is not going to be sold a war like a car.

That was the amazing part about the Times’ effort.

First of all, the Times helped whipped up war fever in the U.S. with its reporting on Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction and the aluminum tubes he was supposedly using to build nuclear weapons. Those were sanctioned leaks by officials inside the U.S. government, and the Times allowed itself to be used, willingly and gladly. The newspaper loved that kind of special access, and the career boost such access gave its reporters (at least until the war turned sour).

Beyond that hypocrisy, it’s perplexing that the Times apparently thought so little of the American people’s judgment — and believed so much in their hickish vulnerability to hype — that the newspaper had to step in to throw a flag. The length of the original story (at 7,500 words, it was three times the length of the main story on the 9/11 attacks that appeared in the Times on September 12, 2001) telegraphed the Times’ belief that this was a big story and important news. But there was no need to inflate background briefings into some insidious, war-making monster.

In reality, it was simply part of a long-standing, albeit dubious, tradition of the military trying to enlist public support for a war Congress had declined to declare. That’s the real scandal.