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The media needs to push Biden harder on foreign policy

The discussion of media clashes with Jen Psaki and Ned Price over Syria and Russia show how limited our debate is.
Photo collage: Image of reporters raise their hands during a news conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House interspersed with close-up images of Joe Biden and Jen Psaki.
MSNBC / Getty Images

Many in the media patted themselves on their backs last week after viral exchanges between reporters and Biden administration officials showcased journalists' crucial role in scrutinizing government assertions, rather than parroting them. In both cases, officials deflected probing questions about events in Russia and Syria with demeaning trust-us-or-trust-America’s-enemies dismissals. But the self-congratulatory rhetoric of the media over these incidents risks obscuring the reality that it has, by and large, failed to question deeper assumptions about the government’s national security strategy.

NPR’s Ayesha Rascoe requested evidence last week that the children killed in a recent raid against the Islamic State terrorist group in Syria had died as a result of ISIS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi detonating a suicide bomb, and not as a result of U.S. bombs. White House press secretary Jen Psaki responded by asking whether skeptics think the U.S. military is "not providing accurate information and ISIS is providing accurate information." Psaki was essentially suggesting that requesting evidence was tantamount to siding with the terrorist group's account of the event.

Some introspection by the media is also warranted.

Later that day, Matt Lee of The Associated Press questioned State Department spokesman Ned Price about the Biden administration’s allegations of a planned Russian false flag operation aimed at setting the stage for Moscow's invasion of Ukraine. Once again, Price suggested that questioning the U.S. government narrative was akin to taking Moscow’s side in the conflict. “If you doubt the credibility of the U.S. government … and want to find solace in information that the Russians are putting out, that’s for you to do,” he told Lee. (Price later apologized to Lee).

Members of the media are justified in their criticism of the Biden administration’s treatment of journalists in the past week. The health of democracy will quickly deteriorate if power is not held to account, either by various branches balancing one another or the media questioning and investigating the government’s “official truth.” From the Vietnam War to the lies to sell the Iraq War to drones striking civilians in Afghanistan, the U.S. national security apparatus has earned the public’s healthy distrust. Journalists such as Lee and Rascoe should be commended for not backing down in the face of unwarranted questioning of their patriotism, whether by Trump administration officials or those on the Biden team.

But alongside the defense of the media’s responsibility to challenge government officials, some introspection by the media is also warranted. The questioning of specific intelligence, circumstances around particular incidents, are at the end of the day, only one part of the media's responsibility to critically examine, investigate and dig for the truth. Another part is to scrutinize the foundational premises of U.S. national security thinking. But not only does the media by and large fail to do this — what’s worse is that it often engages in the very policing of patriotism that it accuses Biden officials of doing.

It is far too uncommon for the media to consistently investigate and scrutinize the deep assumptions underpinning American foreign policy. For instance, does the strategy of global military dominance — the United States has more than 750 military bases worldwide, China has two — make America safer, or does it bring it into unnecessary conflicts while depleting its coffers? The answer to this question will have a profound impact on how the U.S. handles the rise of China, for instance. Why are military withdrawals, such as the withdrawal from Afghanistan or Trump’s earlier suggestion of getting out of Syria, always treated as demoralizing defeats, while America’s increasing diplomatic absence worldwide — from Biden’s inability to bring a diplomatic end to the war in Yemen to the ongoing diplomatic neglect of Latin America — not generate the same outrage?

The limited debate over policy toward Russia these days is a prime example of the American media’s failure to challenge the parameters of Washington’s conventional wisdom in favor of hawkish and confrontational approaches. Any questioning of the strategic sensibility of risking war with Russia over the theoretical possibility of Ukraine joining NATO is deemed “Russia-friendly.” Commentators opposing escalation face accusations of having "rationalized Russia’s aggression toward Ukraine and downplayed its relevance to U.S. national security,” as if the Biden administration’s assessment of Ukraine’s strategic value is an objective truth that simply cannot be disagreed with. The New York Times even questions Germany’s “reliability as an ally” for hesitating “to take forceful measures” against Russia.

Meanwhile, the typical assessment of the crisis is alarmist and verges on the hysterical: Politico warns, by way of hazy sources, that the defeat of Ukraine “could be just the first domino to fall in Eastern Europe,” falsely insinuating that a broader Russian invasion of Europe is in the making. Simultaneously the publication implies that any suggestion that the U.S. should be more concerned with protecting its own borders than defending Ukraine’s is a betrayal of America’s alleged role in “standing up for democracies that are under threat from authoritarians.” (Ask anyone from the Middle East about how they feel about America’s role propping up dictators in that region.)

The American public’s war fatigue has not dissipated — and is not likely to do so anytime soon.

This problem with uncritical default hawkishness extends far beyond Russia, and renders the U.S. blind to other pressing issues. For example, the media has failed to challenge the Biden administration on how it can define climate chaos as an existential threat, yet not shift its national security strategy accordingly by adopting a more constructive approach toward China, without whose collaboration we cannot save the planet. And when the Taliban swiftly took over Afghanistan as the U.S. withdrew last summer, it raised the question of why, by and large, did our media accept the government line on Afghanistan for two decades, instead of scrutinizing and unveiling the systemic falsehoods that enabled the war to become endless?

The media has largely failed to scrutinize hawkish narratives, but the American public has not. Polls show, for example, that the public is decisively unmoved by the coverage of the Ukraine crisis. Fewer than 1 in 6 Americans want U.S. soldiers deployed to defend Ukraine, according to a poll from Convention of States Action (COSA). Likewise, a YouGov poll showed that only 27 percent of Americans favor going to war with Russia over Ukraine.

The American public’s war fatigue has not dissipated — and is not likely to do so anytime soon. As a former Republican lawmaker told me this past week, even the “go get 'em crowd” in his state don’t want war.

The hard truth is that the endless wars that have given birth to the American public’s enduring war fatigue could not have come to pass without government deceit. But they could also not have happened without the media failing to systematically scrutinize the foundational assumptions of American foreign policy, rather than only occasionally asking tough questions about specific intelligence or particular events.

Given the public’s profound opposition to more war-making, both the government and the media should address questions about where U.S. vital interests begin and where they end without impugning the loyalty or patriotism of those who question the status quo.

However commendable the viral exchanges between journalists and government officials this past week were, they still only scratched the surface of what needs to be questioned.