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A president ignores these warnings at our own peril

September 12, 2004|DAVID SHAW

Eight years ago, Mort Zuckerman, the owner of U.S. News & World Report, called Jim Fallows "the best journalist of his generation." Eighteen months later, Zuckerman fired Fallows as editor of U.S. News & World Report.

Zuckerman has a history of both lavishly praising and abruptly dismissing his top editors, but in Fallows' case, he may have ultimately been right in both cases. His praise was on target. If Fallows is not the best journalist of his generation, he is certainly in the top half-dozen, and he is just as certainly much better suited to his current job, as national correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly, than he was as editor of a newsweekly.

What sets Fallows apart from most other top journalists working today is that they -- Sy Hersh and Bob Woodward come immediately to mind -- have made their reputations largely as courageous and indefatigable investigative reporters breaking big stories (vide My Lai and Watergate), while Fallows has made his as an analyst, an intellectual, a scholar.

This is not to say that Fallows spins theories out of his own mind, without bothering to do any real, on-the-ground research. He, too, is a thorough, determined reporter, and his work is carefully grounded in that reporting. But because what emerges from that work is more explanatory than revelatory, his public profile has been much lower than those of either Hersh or Woodward. His journalism, however, has been no less valuable -- as witness his latest, 10,000-word article in the just-published October issue of the Atlantic.

"Bush's Lost Year" is the third lengthy exegesis Fallows has written for the Atlantic on Bush and Iraq. His first, "The Fifty-First State," published four months before the war on Iraq began, warned quite presciently of the dangers and difficulties the U.S. would encounter in the aftermath of that war.

The story won a National Magazine Award -- and contest judges said it "laid out the consequences and responsibilities created by conquest of another country and became the blueprint for discussion of how America must live up to those responsibilities."

Fallows' new article argues that in essentially spending the year 2002 gearing up for war in Iraq instead of reconstructing Afghanistan, dealing with "the threats posed by North Korean and Iran" and failing to mount a truly effective war on terrorism, the Bush administration squandered great opportunities, made the country more vulnerable to terrorists and undermined its standing with allies and potential allies abroad.

In early 2002, in the aftermath of 9/11, "the landscape seemed very open to different energy policies, different anti-terrorism strategies and different international initiatives," Fallows said when we spoke by telephone last week. "We had a rare opportunity to break 40 years of stagnation in our dealings with Saudi Arabia and the Israeli-Palestinian question and to reduce our fundamental vulnerability on Mideast oil."

The United States, he acknowledges in his article, began 2002 "shocked and wounded," but he says we had "tremendous strategic advantages," among them "strongly sympathetic" world opinion, a "superbly equipped, trained and prepared" military and a population "more closely united behind its leadership than it had been in fifty years.

"All that was required," he writes, "was to think broadly about the threats to the country, and creatively about the responses."

But the Bush administration was locked into what Fallows calls "Iraq monomania" and so "chose another path ... [and] placed all other considerations second to regime change in Iraq."

This "hampered the campaign in Afghanistan" after the ouster of the Taliban and forfeited the chance to capture Osama bin Laden, Fallows says. This strategy also meant turning "a blind eye to misdeeds in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan and to WMD threats from North Korea and Iran far more serious than any posed by Saddam Hussein."

By failing to commit "enough troops for a successful occupation" of Iraq, Fallows says, the Bush administration "saddled the United States with ongoing costs that dwarf its spending for domestic security. And by every available measure, it only worsened the risk of future terrorism.

"It is hard to find a counterterrorism specialist who thinks that the Iraq war has reduced rather than increased the threat to the United States."


Leaving out partisanship

Fallows says his story is based on two years' of interviews with more than 100 sources at "the working level of America's anti-terrorism efforts. Most are in the military, the intelligence agencies and the diplomatic service; some are in think tanks and nongovernmental agencies." He says he has "come to trust them because most of them have no partisan ax to grind with the administration ... and because they have so far been proved right."

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