MY NAME is David Frum, and I am a blogger. Every day I post some hundreds of words of commentary at the National Review website-often (to fulfill the clichŽ) while still wearing my pajamas. But I am also a proud, suit-wearing member of the foreign-policy community, with my very own office in a think tank to prove it.
There is no avoiding the sad truth that my two communities despise each other.
The foreign-policy community (henceforward, “FPC”) values moderation of views and modulation of tone. It insists upon formal credentials, either academic or bureaucratic (ideally both). It respects seniority, defers to office, mistrusts overt self-promotion and is easily offended by discourtesy.
As for the bloggers-well, theyÕre pretty much the opposite, arenÕt they?
Here, for example, is the popular left-of-center blogger known as Atrios complaining that:
[Presidential] candidates are judged by the rather arbitrary rules of the “foreign policy community” which demand they engage in these absurd rhetorical dances so they can fit themselves into the Grand Foreign Policy Community Consensus. Anyone who just tells them to shove it is doing the right thing.1
And hereÕs another left-of-center blogger, Matthew Yglesias, quoting a third, Steve Clemons:
“People like me,” [Clemons] says, “were being fed quite a bit of inside information from people who were every bit as horrified” [about Iraq] but very few people said anything. And itÕs true-alongside the famously pro-war elements of the establishment, thereÕs a shockingly large number of people at places like Brookings, csis, the cfr, etc. where if you try to look up what they said about Iraq it turns out that they said . . . nothing at all.
His perspective, he says, is that Washington is “a corrupt town.” From that perspective, he says that “the political-intellectual arena is essentially a cartel”-a cartel thatÕs become extremely timid and risk-averse in the face of a neoconservative onslaught-and “blogs allow smart people to break the cartel.” That all seems very true to me, and IÕm not sure what I have to add.2
Finally, here is Glenn Greenwald at Salon.com:
The Foreign Policy Community . . . is not some apolitical pool of dispassionate experts examining objective evidence and engaging in academic debates. Rather, it is a highly ideological and politicized establishment, and its dominant bipartisan ideology is defined by extreme hawkishness, the casual use of military force as a foreign policy tool, the belief that war is justified not only in self-defense but for any “good result,” and most of all, the view that the U.S. is inherently good and therefore ought to rule the world through superior military force.3
Such criticisms-so personal, so rude and so imperfectly grammatical-elicit only countervailing scorn from their targets.
In the summer of 2007, The Economist invited Gideon Rose to guest host their blog, Democracy in America. Rose is the managing editor of Foreign Affairs, and thus ex officio a member in highest standing of the FPC, or at any rate, its recording secretary.
He responded at considerable length to accusations like those of Atrios, Yglesias, Clemons and Greenwald. HereÕs just a bit:
The lefty blogosphere . . . has gotten itself all in a tizzy over the failings of the “foreign policy community.” The funny thing is…hell, IÕll just come out and say it: the netrootsÕ attitude toward professionals isnÕt that different from the neoconsÕ, both being convinced that the very concept of a foreign-policy clerisy is unjustified, anti-democratic and pernicious, and that the remedy is much tighter and more direct control by the principals over their supposed professional agents.
The charges the bloggers are making now are very similar to those that the neocons made a few years ago: mainstream foreign-policy experts are politicised careerists, biased hacks, and hide-bound traditionalists who have gotten everything wrong in the past and donÕt deserve to be listened to in the future. . . .Back then, the neocons directed their fire primarily at the national security bureaucracies-freedom-hating mediocrities at the cia, pin-striped wussies at the State Department, cowardly soldiers at the Pentagon. Now the bloggersÕ attacks are generally aimed at the think-tank world.4
Because the “neocons” are regarded as public-enemy number one by both lefty bloggers and most of the FPC, RoseÕs words put the cat among the pigeons. For all their ferocity, the bloggers as a group are intensely sensitive to criticism. They crave the very thing for which they vilify the FPC: respectability. Nothing infuriates them more than its withholding. With shrewd intuition, then, members of the FPC go out of their way to make clear their lack of regard-that is, on those rare occasions when they deign to take notice of the bloggers at all.
Here, for example, is a marvelous demonstration of the mutual torment practiced upon each other by the bloggers and the FPC.
On August 14, 2007, Brookings Institution scholar Michael OÕHanlon was asked on a radio show about Glenn GreenwaldÕs lengthy and highly personal attacks upon him. He replied,
Well, I donÕt have high regard for the kind of journalism that Mr. Greenwald has carried out here. IÕm not going to spend a whole lot of time rebutting Mr. Greenwald because heÕs had frankly more time and more readership than he deserves.
This put-down was featured on the left-leaning website CrooksandLiars.com and provoked 71 responses, including this one:
Dear Michael OÕHacklon, Armstrong Williams wants his job back, the one that you are currently occupying. . . .Anyway, there never seems to be a shortage of your special brand of treasonous frauds running around. Enjoy the ride while it lasts.
And this one:
Oh my goodness Mr. OÕHanlon, so sorry the caviar was not up to your supreme standards. WeÕll have the beluga beaten immediately.
And this one:
two words for you oÕhanlon: f— you (sorry for the language C&L)
glenn greenwald is a true patriot, working to ensure the continued viability of our ever-so fragile democracy. and, ohanlon? nothing but a blowhard caught in inaccuracies and, like armstrong williams and gannon/guckert, a tool of the administration. the question i have for oÕhanlon is just how much money it took for you to sacrifice your integrity.
good job mikey, you have done serious damage to the brookings institute. from now on any ÔfindingÕ or opinion stemming from this now-compromised “think” tank will be followed by an asterisk, saying: beware, some brookings fellows spew govt propaganda and try to pass it off as independent conclusions. . . .5
Bitter! And also strange. Michael OÕHanlon, as readers of The National Interest will know, is the editor of the Iraq Index, a source relied upon by people of almost all points of view. He served in the Congressional Budget Office during the last Democratic majority and has strongly criticized the Bush Administration almost from Inauguration Day. What makes him such a detested target?
To find the answer, revert for a minute to a key point in Gideon RoseÕs above-quoted paragraphs: The bloggersÕ attacks are generally aimed at the think-tank world. Which is to say: at members of the FPC who are currently out of power. Which is to say: at Democrats. Especially at moderate Democrats, internationalist-minded Democrats, Democrats who in 2002-2003 expressed support for the Iraq War. The bloggers hurling the invective are Democrats too, usually more liberal Democrats.
The blogosphere of 2007 is a predominantly liberal and Democratic place. This was not always the case: As recently as 2005, former Vice President Al Gore castigated “digital brownshirts” who bullied and intimidated critics of George Bush. He would have no such complaint today. Today, it is the critics of George Bush who do the brown-shirting.
Thus, the generally liberal journalist Joe Klein complained in June 2007 of the
fierce, bullying, often witless tone of intolerance that has overtaken the left-wing sector of the blogosphere. Anyone who doesnÕt move in lockstep with the most extreme voices is savaged and ridiculed-especially people like me who often agree with the liberal position but sometimes disagree and are therefore considered traitorously unreliable.6
While online readership surveys are notoriously unreliable, such data as exists suggests that the liberal site Daily Kos outdraws Rush LimbaughÕs website. Traffic on participatory conservative sites like Free Republic and Red State has plunged, and as this election cycle opens, one senses greater energy and sees more comments on big liberal blogsites like TalkingPointsMemo.com and the WashingtonMonthly.com than on their conservative counterparts. Technologically, liberal sites like the HuffingtonPost and MediaMatters seem a generation ahead of counterparts like Drudge and the Media Research Project.
So when we talk about the antagonism that has arisen between bloggers and the FPC, we are really talking about liberal bloggers and the Democratic half of the FPC. This is a family feud, one that bears more than a passing resemblance to the great Democratic schism over Vietnam.
Back then, it was the partyÕs intellectuals who revolted against its regulars; J. K. Galbraith, Richard Goodwin and Arthur Schlesinger against George Meany and Richard Daley. This time, it is the regulars who are rebelling against the intellectuals.
Then as now, the incumbents belittled the influence of the insurgents. John Roche, serving in the Lyndon Johnson White House, dismissed critics of the Vietnam War as a “bunch of Upper West Side Jacobins.” (The journalist to whom he issued the dismissal, Jimmy Breslin, unfamiliar with French history, transcribed the word as “jackal bins.” The next day, the story goes, half the Upper West Side found itself wondering, “What the hell is a jackal bin?”)
Now as then, however, the insurgents are slowly shifting the incumbents. Just as the post-1968 Democratic Party came to look more like Eugene McCarthyÕs movement than Hubert HumphreyÕs coalition, so todayÕs liberal FPC is gradually adopting not only many of the actual views, but much of the tone, style and manner of the left blogosphere.
FEW PRESIDENTIAL candidates have drawn more support from the liberal FPC than Barack Obama. Obama has been endorsed by former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski and advised by Harvard professor Samantha Power, Clinton counter-terrorism czar Richard Clarke and even George W. BushÕs former NSC Senior Director for the Middle East, Bruce Riedel. Compared to ObamaÕs, Hillary ClintonÕs foreign-policy team looks a little like a gala performance in Branson, Missouri: all the names you remember from decades ago. (“Madeleine Albright is still fabulous!”)
And yet as Obama has struggled to come from behind in Iowa and New Hampshire, this once-irenic candidate now hurls accusations with the brio of a blogger on the Daily Kos.
Here is Obama on the SenateÕs Kyl-Lieberman amendment, a non-binding “sense of the Senate” resolution urging the administration to designate IranÕs Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization, a resolution that won the votes of a majority of Senate Democrats:
Why is this amendment so dangerous? Because George Bush and Dick Cheney could use this language to justify keeping our troops in Iraq as long as they can point to a threat from Iran. And because they could use this language to justify an attack on Iran as a part of the ongoing war in Iraq.
Three years ago, Barack Obama was willing to contemplate outright war against Iran. Running for Senate in 2004, he told interviewers that he regarded an Iranian nuclear bomb as a “worse” outcome than air strikes against Iran. Now, though, he has been pushed toward the blogger view that war is not to be contemplated, period. And he has adopted the blogger habit of attributing deceit and bad faith to anyone who disagrees with him-or even to anyone who agrees today with the positions he used to hold yesterday.
THE BLOGOSPHERE exerts its influence in two ways-one as hard as cash, the other as whispery as a mirage.
In two consecutive presidential election cycles, the Internet has proven itself the most effective fundraising technology since the advent of direct mail. The last cycleÕs Internet darling, Howard Dean, raised money at the fastest pace ever seen: a million dollars a week, almost all of it in very small gifts, in the second two quarters of 2003. In the first quarter of 2007, Barack Obama matched Hillary ClintonÕs astonishing fundraising totals by tapping almost twice as many donors: 100,000 against her 50,000. On November 5, 2007, Ron Paul used the Internet to raise the largest one-day total in the history of political fundraising, $4.5 million.
Any medium that lucrative is bound to hold the attention of politicians. And bloggers look very much like the custodians of the political Internet.
The more whispery power comes from the strange echo-chamber effect of the Internet. The blogosphere links people all over the planet. It can generate volumes of comments and email that feel like a tidal wave to those accustomed to the milder responsiveness of the print medium. When I worked on the opinion page of The Wall Street Journal, then the largest circulation newspaper in America, a very provocative article might have elicited as many as a hundred letters to the editor. Today, an exciting post on a major blog can generate thousands of posted comments and emails. Few people possess the internal fortitude to stand up to a seeming barrage like this. (Joe Klein, whom I cited above as a special target of the left blogosphere, has retreated under pressure into something very like the party-line liberalism he once disdained.)
For those who participate in it, the blogosphere takes on the scale and reality of an alternative world-a world whose controversies and feuds are so absorbing, whose alliances and enmities burn with so much passion, that only the most level-headed of the participants ever seem to remember that somewhere between 97 and 98 percent of American voters have never looked at a blog in their lives.
THE VIRTUAL-REALITY quality of the blogosphere accounts for one of the most puzzling traits of the left-wing bloggers: their ability to believe simultaneously in a) the supreme importance of winning elections for Democrats and b) the supreme importance of moving the Democratic Party to the left-”Running as a progressive will lead to victory”, predicts Matt Stoller, one of the left blogosphereÕs leading voices-in flat contradiction of four decades of post-1968 experience that running as a progressive leads Democrats only to disaster.
But if everyday progressives sustain themselves in a hothouse atmosphere of positive feedback-if any murmur of doubt or skepticism is met with a barrage of abuse-if all the human instincts toward tribe and clan are harnessed to a partisan cause, then such things as historical experience or cautionary opinion polls can easily be shrugged aside.
Or anyway, shrugged aside up to the point where reality becomes undeniable.
And perhaps it is the power of undeniably adverse reality that prevents the right blogosphere from using the kind of force and power on foreign policy that its left counterpart exerts.
Any Republican attuned in any way to current events knows that the party faces grave difficulties and dangers going into 2008. Republicans cannot afford to indulge the illusions with which progressives can entertain themselves this cycle. (I should say: most Republicans. There is the countervailing example of the Ron Paul fanatics, who have convinced themselves that their man can sweep to victory on a platform that last won a presidential election in 1836.) For this reason, the Republican field is led by two men, who each in their way offer a new centrism.
The conservative blogosphere scored its last great triumph in 2005, when it led the rebellion that forced the withdrawal of the Supreme Court nomination of Harriet Miers. Its next great cause-exposing the pervasive faking of images in the 2006 Israeli-Hizballah war and the probable forgery of the video purporting to show the shooting of Muhammad al-Dura-has not achieved anything like such success. One Reuters photographer was caught in the act and forced to resign, but the creation of doctored images, like the al-Dura video, continues to command wide acceptance even in the West.
THE BLOGOSPHERE is a place of anger and enthusiasm. In 2007, Republicans are less angry and enthusiastic than Democrats, and so their share of the territory is both smaller and less energetic. That will not always remain true. If Democrats do less well in 2008 than they now anticipate, some in the party will blame the blogosphere for pushing the party too far to the anti-war extreme. Alternatively, if Democrats capture the White House, the left blogosphere may well lose the energy of opposition, as conservative talk radio did after Bill Clinton left office.
Yet there is reason to think that the gravitational effect exerted on the liberal FPC by the left blogosphere will extend across party lines-and beyond the current political cycle.
Through the twentieth century, the management of American foreign policy has time and again been snatched away from the mandarins who regard themselves as its proper custodians. A populist eruption thwarted the hopes of the liberals around Woodrow Wilson in 1919-20. After the defeat of the Versailles Treaty, public interest waned-and Republican presidents were left free to conduct “dollar diplomacy.” Another populist moment deterred Franklin Roosevelt from responding to the rise of Hitler in the 1930s, until Pearl Harbor put the experts back in control again. There they stayed until Korea and Joe McCarthy dethroned them-and back onto the throne they scrambled again during the “thinking the unthinkable” years from 1955 to 1965. And so it has continued into our own time. The frustrations over Iraq have triggered a reaction very similar to that generated by the stalemate in Korea, creating an audience for similar kinds of explanations-with “neocons” this time taking the part once assigned to the “striped-pants boys” in the State Department, and the high-toned Professors Stephen M. Walt and John J. Mearsheimer reinterpreting the role formerly played by William Knowland and Senator McCarthy.
Yet on each round of the cycle, the spread of education and the improvement of communications have raised the level of debate. The populist protesters of 2007 are far more informed and far more sophisticated than their predecessors of 1973, who were in turn a major improvement over those of 1950, 1935 and 1920. And the foreign-policy community that guided U.S. foreign affairs in the 1990s was a much larger and more diverse group than the corresponding elites that wielded power in the quiet days of the 1950s, who were in turn a less cloistered club than that of the 1920s.
It is, as was famously predicted by Yeats, a widening gyre. And it can safely be predicted that when todayÕs controversies simmer down, and the blogging energy turns to health care or climate change or issues as yet unforeseen, the “foreign-policy community” that reassumes its former ascendancy will likewise be an expanded and enlarged community. The expertise and sophistication of the FPC at its best will always be needed by a country whose natural tendencies are inward-looking and isolationist. And that expertise and sophistication can only be enhanced when todayÕs FPC is reinforced, as surely it will be, by young people who gained their first introduction to foreign affairs when they were inspired by 9/11 to join the military or enter academia or learn a foreign languageÉor (why not?) start a blog.
In the interest of fair disclosure, I should add here that Gideon RoseÕs piece includes some indirect criticism of me personally. I did not notice this criticism until after I had finished work on the above article. The criticism did not influence my thinking, and I did not alter the text after reading it.
That said, I might add here that the criticism was tendentious. Rose complained that unnamed persons “expelled” Iraq War dissenters from the conservative movement. He then linked to an article by me in National Review that explicitly welcomed debate over the Iraq War-but that criticized those conservatives whose radical alienation from their country had led them to oppose the entire War on Terror from its very inception after 9/11. One suspects he had not actually read the piece to which he linked-a very bad blogging practice!