Memo to journalists: Take voices of peace seriously

Peace marchers in Canton in 2003. Photo: David Sommerstein

Peace marchers in Canton in 2003. Photo: David Sommerstein

America once again finds itself embroiled in a ferocious debate over war and peace.

Should we, as a society, commit acts of violence against a nefarious regime on the far side of the planet — particularly given Syria’s apparent use of chemical weapons against civilians?

Or should be step aside and allow the civil war there to unfold without American intervention?

This is a complicated, painful and fraught conversation, especially given that we got so much wrong in the build-up to the Iraq war.

During the build-up to that nightmarish, misguided conflict, journalists missed or ignored key voices.

In particular, we as a professional tribe minimized the voices of peace activists who might have offered crucial context about the risks and costs of going to war.

In hindsight, of course, it turned out that those faint, critical and skeptical voices were absolutely correct about many things.  The Iraq War was one of the great foreign policy blunders of modern times.

This isn’t to say that I think that opponents of military intervention in Syria are correct this time.

When Noam Chomsky argued this week that a US action would be tantamount to a “war crime” without authorization by the United Nations, that struck me as simplistic.

The UN is immobilized not because of moral qualms about armed aggression, but because Russia, one of Syria’s key allies and itself an aggressive imperial power, is blocking serious debate within that body.

Russia, it should be noted, has done nothing to reign in Syria’s brutal regime.

But Chomsky, like other “peace experts” deserves a central role in the discussion.  He should be questioned forcefully and thoroughly and skeptically, as should other knowledgeable policy advocates who oppose a strike.

We know from experience that the strong tendency is to fill the interview programs and news-hours with former generals, former military and intelligence professionals.

And we know from experience that those individuals, while informative and usually well-meaning, offer only a part of the picture.

We also know from experience that the tendency among journalist is to interview peace advocates only for their emotional energy, their protest chants, their broad-brush statements.

This time, we need a full, intensive and skeptical treatment of the views held on all sides.  It’s not okay to treat one side as the “grown-ups” and the other side as the noisy idealists.

It’s also not enough to allow peace activists to state broad ideological opposition to military action, without questioning them aggressively about what they view as alternatives in Syria, where civilians — including children — are suffering horribly.

Before we begin dropping bombs on another nation, we need to hear from the Cassandras among us who were ignored at great cost last time the drums of war were sounding.

They may be right or wrong, but their voices and doubts should be heard with respect – and it’s the job of journalists to make sure that happens this time around.

93 Comments on “Memo to journalists: Take voices of peace seriously”

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  1. Good piece. And this phenomenon illustrates a core problem of journalism today. National journalists are key parts of the establishment. They view access as the be all and end all, without regard to whether they do any sort of public service with that access. It’s no coincidence that much of the most truly groundbreaking reporting has come from outside the beltway scribes like Seymour Hersch and Matt Taibbi. Because national journalists’ lives revolve around the DC echo chamber, they have little clue what non-elite Americans believe.

    Small town journalists live and work amongst normal Americans but they have little influence on national debates because their work focuses on local and regional reporting.

    If there’s disquiet on Main Street about the war of the week, national journalists won’t know because they never leave K Street. This establishment echo chamber is killing journalism.

  2. Pete Klein says:

    I agree with not NCPR Brian but would add this.
    Back in the good old days when there still was the USSR, it created a balance lacking today.
    Now we find ourselves being the undisputed King of the Hill and presuming we need to be the policeman of the entire world. Trouble is, this causes us to often act like a bully. We have decided we are the “good guys” and we get to decide who the “bad guys are.”
    Problem here is (especially in the Middle East) many over there have decided we are the “bad guys.” No matter what we do or don’t do over there, we will be seen as the bad guys by many.
    What good did we accomplish by siding with the Taliban in their war with the USSR? What we ended up getting was the Taliban supporting and providing a safe haven for Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden.
    Are we about to make the same mistake is Syria?

  3. newt says:

    Yes, very good piece. I would make a clarification to one point Brian makes when he refers to “those faint, critical, and skeptical voices” against the invasion. The voices were only “faint” because the news media kept it that way. You may remember there were massive large rallies in many American cities, including a huge one in New York that were scarcely reported by the media. Even normally sensible people like Oprah played along, I recall seeing tape of her dismissively shushing an audience member who (correctly) challenged the premise and justification of the invasion.

    On the other hand, it seems like the public hysteria is trending the other way this time, with nobody but Obama and John McCain apparently wanting to risk a single American cruise missile, never-mind life, to punish the perpetrator of this horrendous crime.

    The media seems to be playing it straight and down the middle, so far.

  4. Paul says:

    One question is whether or not you have time to make a proper decision? Once you do a through analysis it is probably too late to act effectively to stop anything. Also, it is only people between the Noam Chomskys and Paul Wolfowitzs that can actually make an informed decision. People with those kinds of extreme views are all in or all out types. Personally their views are just a distraction.

    If you want to take out Syria’s capacity to gas its own people (or others outside Syria) then you have to take out those who made it possible. Russia and Iran.

    The media has been pretty clueless also. I heard a CNN person talking about Syria’s use of chemical and BIOLOGICAL weapons this weekend. When did they do that?

    The president foolishly drew his “red line” in the sand now he has to deal with it? It was an international chemical weapons issue now it is a US foreign policy issue.

  5. Mervel says:

    I would veer toward a more aggressive support for the forces fighting the regime.

    I don’t believe bombing makes much of a difference any more, but it does kill people. To me that would be unjust use of military force.

    It is odd that today the UN in general is the entity that will usually take the side of those committing genocide through doing nothing.

    Is this a Rwanda? I am not sure?

    I think the stupid Iraq war as mentioned above has totally screwed us up in the Middle East. I mean we spent 9 years there and we are now supposed to think a couple of days of bombing is going to make a difference in Syria? Plus the whole use of “data” to support our attack in Iraq is now bringing into question the data we have for the case about Syria.

  6. Peter Hahn says:

    I dont think anyone is proposing war (other than John McCain). The proposal is to punish the Syrians who used chemical weapons so they wont do it anymore. Also so others wont. There are all sorts of things that might go wrong which is why its good they are carefully thinking it through. No rush on this one.

  7. Will Doolittle says:

    This is the sort of event that destroys the credibility of the U.N. If the U.N. won’t act to stop a dictator from gassing the civilians in his country, then when will it act? What good is it? Unfortunately, the U.S. is in the position of feeling obliged to do what the U.N. should do. It’s not a bad thing to feel a responsibility, when you are able to respond to horrible massacres, in a way that might stop them, to try.

  8. Paul says:

    Peter, that is how it is described. Not sure how you “punish” the Syrians? It seems to me that the thing to do would have been to destroy the capability to use the weapons. That would be a punishment as well. If they have lots of time to move those assets next to Mosques and schools or into fortified bunkers then what do you do? Maybe they are already in fortified facilities. The world collectively, through the UN, has said that we will not tolerate the use of these kinds of weapons. It seems to me like now we will perhaps tolerate the use of these weapons. Of course we are sitting on our own huge stockpiles of WMDs here in the US and on our ships and bases around the globe?

    Always been more of a fan of the covert way of doing things? James Bond never needed to get the okay of parliament to do what needed to be done?? I mean M might have to make a quick call to number 10 downing street but that is all.

  9. Peter Hahn says:

    Brian – the media are also famously self-interested in war (not peace). War sells newspapers. CNN’s ratings go way up etc.

  10. Paul says:

    If Iran strikes at Israel like their kooky leaders are threatening you can kiss your 401K goodbye, again! We could also “punish” Russia by wiping out some of these munitions so they have to sell them to Syria again! It is a win-win for them. I would like the president and Putin to sit down together and work something out when they are at the G20. That would be a great accomplishment for the president.

  11. Paul says:

    Peter, that is for sure. My comment above about the CNN kook talking about biological weapons use by Syria was just because she was so excited and frothing at the mouth in her description!

  12. Pete Klein says:

    If you want to know why Iran would like to have a nuclear weapon, the answer is what the USA is threatening to do to Syria.
    It’s not that Iran would want to attack Israel. It’s that Iran knows the USA and Israel would leave them alone if they had nuclear weapons.
    Look around. Is there one country with nuclear weapons we are willing to attack no matter how they treat their people?

  13. newt says:

    We should take serious action against Assad’s regime, should there be proof-positive that he gassed his own people. By that I mean using air power to take out as much of his weaponry, command and control, and other as possible. We did this quite successfully in 1999, stopping the Serbians from doing to Kosovo what they had earlier done to Bosnia (genocide). We did it without losing a single troop. Likewise the Khadaffi regime, with admittedly mixed result, more recently.
    This may or more destabilize him, but it will sure be a lesson to him and his ilk Nobody in the Middle East will hate us more for it, as this is impossible.

  14. Will D’s point is correct and the solution to that is to give the UN a standing army so it can independently enforce Security Council resolutions, conventions and other aspects of international law. Except it’s precisely the 5 permanent Security Council members who are most strongly against this idea because the current setup gives them the most leverage. It means nothing to blame “the UN” without referring to the specific powers who run it.

  15. “I dont think anyone is proposing war”

    Nonsense. The US is proposing air strikes against Syria. Air strikes may not be an invasion but they are unambiguously an act of war.

    Do you honestly think the US would not respond military to Chinese or North Korean airstrikes against the East Coast? Do you think this wouldn’t be treated as war?

  16. Paul says:

    “It’s that Iran knows the USA and Israel would leave them alone if they had nuclear weapons.” It’s not really working for Pakistan?

  17. Paul says:

    What a nightmare. Can you imagine being attacked with chemical weapons from your own government that is supposed to protect you and your children? Do the Russian’s actually think that the rebels could have done this? Where did they get the weapons? Did they buy them from a traveling chemical weapons salesman that was selling the missiles ready to fire? How could they prepare them and use them given their capabilities? That must be the only alternative explanation the Russians have. Seems pretty hard to buy.

  18. Paul says:

    “By that I mean using air power to take out as much of his weaponry, command and control, and other as possible.” So much for moving closer to a balanced budget. To keep us on the right track I assume this will be paid for by moving funding for education and research into the pentagon budget. I assume that this war spending for president Obama will be a line item in the budget like he said it should be in the past. I assume he has to send a revised budget to the hill ASAP.

  19. An estimated 100,000 people have been in the Syrian civil war by conventional weapons (by both warring parties). None of this provoked an “international” (ie: western) response. Why should an attack that caused a tiny fraction of that carnage (1400) trump that?

  20. Peter Hahn says:

    Brian (MOYFC) not to quibble, but yes, Im sure the Syrians would consider any military act we undertake to be an “act of war”, but there wouldnt be much they could do about it. Only we could initiate a war. Our objective, as stated is only to convince them not to use chemical weapons anymore. Thats not a war. There is no winning territory or regime change or anything else.

  21. Peter Hahn says:

    Yes we are saying its ok to use other weapons to kill citizens. Rather I guess we are saying there is nothing we are willing to do about it.

  22. Jim says:

    Syria’s problems are their own and both sides hate us. Matters not what we do or don’t do but an act of war is a damn high price to pay to save a little political face. If our President hadn’t foolishly drawn his “line-in-the-sand” the idea of “punishing” Assad would be just that, an idea; something for the talking heads to hash over. The British Parliment got it right and I think that Sarah Palin hit the nail on the head when she said “let Allah sort it out”.

  23. Paul says:

    “Why should an attack that caused a tiny fraction of that carnage (1400) trump that?” Hasn’t the international community as a whole said that this is unacceptable? One is considered a war crime the other is not. That is a big difference. I guess Assad should have fired the rockets into a soccer stadium to get it to a higher level. I suppose that could be the next target if we as an international community want to let it slide.

    Neither one is okay but the use of chemical weapons (even against enemy soldiers) is different based on what we have decided as an international community. Sure we can ignore it now I suppose. But it does mean that those who have claimed that the UN is “irrelevant” are correct.

  24. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    We have a big problem in this country in remembering history, understanding history, and understanding why it is important to understand history. And not very many of us understand the underlying principles or philosophy of the use of force.

    So here is the real problem: the US doesn’t have a consistent foreign policy; we have 3 sets of foreign policies, the declared policy which is for domestic consumption, the semi-secret foreign policy that is for select foreign leaders, and the secret foreign policy that we only find out about years after the fact.

    Our trouble in the Middle East is not that other nations are unpredictable and war-like. Our trouble is that we are unpredictable and war-like. We say that we support democracy around the world and yet when Iran chooses Mossadegh or when the Palestinians choose someone we don’t like or when Egypt chooses a Muslim Brotherhood candidate we don’t have enough confidence in our own convictions to support the democratic process. It isn no wonder that Middle Eastern nations don’t believe us, because we do not do what we say. At some point we need to stop having secret policies and agendas.

    So, in the case of Syria we MUST commit to military force because we said we would. But that isn’t the end. A limited precision strike must be followed with a diplomatic plan. The plan must include a means of passing power from Assad to some government at some time in the future – there should be no rush – there must also be some means of repatriating refugees, and removing outside actors from the area, among many other things.
    Diplomacy is the only way to solve problems. Military force is only a tool.

  25. The Original Larry says:

    “This is the sort of event that destroys the credibility of the U.N.”

    Using the word “credibility” in reference to the UN left me speechless, but when I read:

    “…the solution to that is to give the UN a standing army…”

    I thought my head would explode. I need another drink.

  26. The Original Larry says:

    Our feckless President seems not to realize that he’s backed us into a corner from which there is no escape without dire consequences, not the least of which is that we look weak, confused, impotent and thoroughly ridiculous. Now that the clowns are running the circus no one takes us seriously, nor should they. Could anyone have imagined the spectacle of a President of the United States running to Congress crying, I can’t decide? Assad must be laughing his ass off. At least Bush got rid of Saddam.

  27. “Brian (MOYFC) not to quibble, but yes, Im sure the Syrians would consider any military act we undertake to be an “act of war”, but there wouldnt be much they could do about it.”

    Indeed, but that’s not the point of my comment. My very narrow point was to disagree with your silly notion that air strikes do not constitute war. Of course they do.

  28. Yes Original Larry, dictators do often laugh at how things work in constitutional democracies. But the latter is, as Churchill said, the worst possible political system except for all the others.

    And yes, the solution to the problem Will D complained about IS a standing UN army. You don’t agree with it because you don’t think that what Will D mentioned constituted a problem.

  29. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    It is just precious to hear conservatives complain that the President is going to Congress to gain approval for a foreign intervention as the Founders envisioned.

  30. Marlo Stanfield says:

    Since the end of World War I, we’ve been trying to find ways for countries to work together, avoid war, and make the wars that happen less atrocious. We haven’t done a very good job at it, but there’s a couple basic things that have kind of become accepted, and “no chemical weapons” is one of them. If someone’s not willing to enforce these rules, I don’t know how anyone could take them seriously. The next crazy dictator fighting a rebellion will be that much more likely to use chemical weapons because Assad suffered no consequences. There’s an important principle at stake here. Something has to be done.

    Larry, Congress voted to let Bush use force in Iraq.

  31. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Assad’s Syria, neighbor to Saddam’s Iraq, would have been a good vantage point to observe the use of chemical weapons Saddam unleashed on the Kurds during Reagan’s Presidency- something Reagan did nothing about. Did Reagan’s cowardice in confronting Saddam (or was it complicity?) lead to Assad feeling use of chemical weapons would be ignored by the US?

    And Chomsky is correct, our use of force would be a war crime, but this would be only one in a long line of war crimes that we have been involved in or instigated.

  32. hermit thrush says:

    re khl’s first 8:21 comment:

    well, if obama’s involved, then larry has to complain about something.

  33. Michael Greer says:

    We’ve been to Syria before, and in the long run, it didn’t work. We’ve been to lots of places and it pretty much never works, so why would we believe it would work this time? After our experience with the run-up to war in Iraq, I’ve become incurably skeptical…I don’t believe the story we’re being fed, and I don’t believe the story the other side is telling either.
    The only thing that’s undeniably true is that each Cruise missile costs upward of 1.5 million dollars and that every one we fire leaves another school district to fail.

  34. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    I whole-heartedly agree with the thrust of Brian M’s piece, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough in many points. Many journalists didn’t just miss or ignore key voices in the lead up to the Iraq War, many of them were cheerleaders for war and some were active propagandists for the war. Major media reported laughably contrived stories as fact – remember annotated diagrams of portable chemical weapons trailers that proved never to have existed? You guys actually printed that crap! And the worst perpetrators were the biggest media outlets. Thank God for McClatchy which actually checked some stuff out before they printed it but the NY/DC/LA bigshots ignored them.

    and how about this:

    “We know from experience that the strong tendency is to fill the interview programs and news-hours with former generals, former military and intelligence professionals.

    And we know from experience that those individuals, while informative and usually well-meaning, offer only a part of the picture.”

    “Informative”? “Well meaning”? Come on! It has been shown that many of those military commenters were plants, pre-fed the line of bull that the Pentagon and administration wanted out there. The media just wanted guys with shiny medals pinned to their chest to comment and look official. Much of the commentary proved to be inaccurate, poorly informed and not at all well meaning.

  35. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    The real question is: when will the media start going to the people who have been shown to be correct again and again and again as the first source and go to the people who have proven to be shills last?

    Look at NPR which waited to report on Occupy Wall Street until after even Fox News. NPR which struggled over Bradley Manning wanting to be called Chelsea. Finally the NYTimes decided “okay, we’ll call her Chelsea” and then it was okay for NPR to do the same. What the hell is wrong with you guys? Your reporters, editors and producers need to stop going to DC parties. Jian Ghomeshi on Q last night interviewed Ali Velshi who is the new business correspondent for Al Jazeera America. Veshi said he was going to stop the pattern of interviewing ministers, chairmen, executives, think-tank employees, etc first and go right to ordinary people to explore economic news. What a concept! Talk to the people who aren’t trying to push an agenda!

  36. mervel says:

    The case for not acting militarily in Syria needs to be both made and covered better.

    Why is it more ethical somehow to fire from a distance bombs that will kill civilians than it is to really look at fighting alongside the Rebels? I am against both, but if the choice is to randomly kill some people in Syria, for no good reason beyond we said we would do “something” if their leader used chemical weapons; or to really use military force to remove the Syrian regime, it certainly is more ethical to remove the regime.

    To me bombing to save this presidents self respect or the US’s self respect is the wrong thing to do. It is a bully move.

    But I think from the peace perspective even when I agree with many of these guys, when you put someone up there who basically hates the US and finds our whole history and our whole being as an idea and a country ;to be fundamentally flawed; I tune out.

  37. dave says:

    The only justification for military intervention by the international community, in my opinion, is if one nation attacks another without reasonable cause (see: Gulf War I)… or if atrocities are being committed against a population absent an active war (see: Rwanda)

    Civil wars are tragic. They are brutal. Lots of people die (so it goes). But they are internal conflicts and both sides are actively engaged. The international community should do everything it can, without contributing to the violence, to help find a peaceful resolution… but it absolutely should not be jumping in to assist one side kill the other, no matter how much we “disapprove” of the tactics that other side is using.

    That said, again in my opinion, the US (not the international community) should do whatever it takes if our national security is threatened… up to and including military intervention… but I don’t think anyone can make an honest case that our national security is really being threatened by a civil war in Syria.

    Regarding a standing army for the UN. How will that get around the fact that China and Russia would never authorize usage of such an army in many of the ways people seem to want to us such an army?

  38. Marlo Stanfield says:

    I think I hear what you’re saying Mervel. It is ethically troubling that, thanks to modern technology, we have the capacity to bomb countries and kill other people without having to wrestle with the more difficult questions that would arise if the only response would be to put soldiers on the ground. If our option was to physically invade and help the rebels, guaranteeing American deaths as well as Syrians, we’d be having a much different conversation.

    But that’s the power we have, like it or not. If we have it, we should use it for good, and I think we have the chance to do that here. If we weaken the Syrian military, that will help the rebels. I’m not familiar enough with either the Syrian military or our plans to say if that’s the effect it will have, but I hope that’s what they’re looking at.

  39. Walker says:

    So we need to kill us some Syrians to punish Assad for killing Syrians in the hope that that will keep him from killing more Syrians? What’s wrong with this picture.

    Assad has committed an international crime. We need to prosecute that crime, holding Assad personally responsible. It may not be quick, but if we want to end the use of chemical weapons by dictators, we need to make sure that those who use them end up in prison.

  40. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    We should not be using military force to help the rebels. We should be using military force as a tool to move a plan to end the conflict forward. We should be engaging Russia and attempting to engage Iran and other state actors to remove military assets from both sides in order to stop the conflict.

  41. Walker says:

    Do we really know how to end the conflict? Suppose we were willing to commit endless funds and lives to the proposition, would we know how to intervene in such a way as to produce a good result? What would a good result look like? I mean beyond Assad being gone. We’ve tried imposing democracy in the region, and it doesn’t work out real well.

  42. Two Cents says:

    we as the self appointed parent of the world should pull assad aside for a time out.
    children fight, and that has to be accepted, but when one child goes too far, a parent must stand in and remove the offender, the one who is obviously by any standards gone way over the line.
    he needs to be exiled to a rock in the middle of nowhere, he is no longer allowed to play with the other children.
    the country, and the rest of the children should not be bombed.
    assad wanted to play ruler, and he cheated. game done for him.

  43. Walker says:

    Easy to say, Two Cents, somewhat harder to do.

  44. Two Cents says:

    agreed, but the principle stands.

  45. Will Doolittle says:

    Jian Ghomeshi rocks. Even better than Terry Gross, maybe.

  46. Paul says:

    Knuck, the war powers resolution says this:

    “The War Powers Resolution requires the President to notify Congress within 48 hours of committing armed forces to military action and forbids armed forces from remaining for more than 60 days, with a further 30 day withdrawal period, without an authorization of the use of military force or a declaration of war.”

    Doesn’t this mean that he just has to tell Congress what he is doing and not do it for more than three months?

    Also, the constitution gives the congress the power to fund the military (already done in this case). The constitution gives the president the powers or Commander in Chief. He can tell the military what to do. The War Powers Act was a law (thought unconstitutional by many) that requires congress to authorized a declaration of war in some instances. I don’t think a short duration thing falls under the law? The WPA was basically passed since the constitution does NOT require authorization from congress for a declaration of war.

    He is not asking congress for authorization he is just asking them to weigh in on the idea of a military strike. He can do it either way.

  47. Sunshine says:

    Once again, I wonder where the female voice is in this discussion. I didn’t (couldn’t) read through all the above (and I’m sure some of it was thoughtful) but I want to hear the feminine side, too. How can we make this happen. Are women just not willing to take the time and energy to write their opinions knowing it will, most likely, be dismissed? Food for thought.

  48. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Walker, we have spent more effort stifling democracy in the region than we have in promoting it, see my post 9/3 @ 5:29.

    Paul, as you note, the Founders didn’t write the War Powers act.

    Sunshine, female, woman or feminine?

  49. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Will, did you know that Jian is a drummer and speaks Farsi? Just ask him and he’ll tell you.

  50. Paul says:

    I think that knuck is a woman? No? I am.

    Jian is also crazy about RUSH at least as a boy he was. What Canadian boy wasn’t.

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