The Magazine

The Immutable Laws of Maureen Dowd

A guide to reading the New York Times columnist.

Oct 14, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 05 • By JOSH CHAFETZ
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When confronted with a passage like that, it's hard to know where to begin, but we must be brave. First, notice how she trivializes not only Saddam's violation of U.N. sanctions but even the massacre at Halabja, by including them on "the usual laundry list" along with a joke about being a stingy tipper. Second, notice how she leaves out a few of the more important "laundry list" items--like the fact that Saddam continues to stockpile and build weapons of mass destruction and the fact that he funds terrorism. Finally, observe that she tells us there is "no compelling new evidence" without telling us why the old evidence--"the usual laundry list"--is insufficient. To do that would require considering policy arguments and offering alternative ways to combat Saddam's litany of abuses. Into such territory, Dowd is loath to stray.

And she did almost exactly the same thing during the Afghanistan campaign. On October 28, 2001, she asked "Are we quagmiring ourselves again?" Of course, she didn't offer an answer or any suggestions as to how to get out of a quagmire, if, indeed, we were in one. A week later, on the strength of a single misstep (the murder of CIA-friendly Abdul Haq), she wrote, "We're sophisticated; they're crude. We're millennial; they're medieval. We ride B-52's; they ride horses. And yet they're outmaneuvering us." No doubt spurred into action by Dowd's prod, American-backed forces captured Mazar-i-Sharif five days later, and Kabul fell four days after that. Just over a month after Dowd informed us that we were being outmaneuvered, the Taliban's last stronghold, Kandahar, fell.

THE THIRD IMMUTABLE LAW OF DOWD: It is better to be cute than coherent. Along these lines, Dowd's favorite rhetorical device is parallelism. For example, from her June 12 column: "The Islamic enemy strums on our nerves to hurt our economy and get power. The American president strums on our nerves to help his popularity and retain power." And from August 18: "[Bush Sr.]'s proudest legacy, after all, was painstakingly stitching together a global coalition to stand up for the principle that one country cannot simply invade another without provocation. Now the son may blow off the coalition so he can invade another country without provocation." Her phrasing is so cute that the outrageous moral equivalence she's drawing almost slips by unnoticed: She just compared the president of the United States to the September 11 terrorists and to Saddam Hussein.

Of course, the parallels are total nonsense. The administration's terror warnings to the public (the subject of the first quote) may not have been handled perfectly, but their goal is hardly to terrorize the American public. Officials have to walk a fine line between scaring people too much and too often and not telling them enough (Dowd has repeatedly criticized the administration for withholding information). And Bush's desire to attack Iraq is hardly "without provocation": Baghdad is in violation of U.N. sanctions; Iraq takes regular shots at U.S. and British planes patrolling the no-fly zones; and there was the little matter of attempting to assassinate a former U.S. president. And that's not to mention the justifications on preemptive and humanitarian grounds.

But the worst example of Dowd's favoring cuteness over coherence comes from her August 21 column (yes, the same one featured under the First Law--it was quite a column). "We used to worry about a military coup against civilian authority," she wrote. "Now we worry about a civilian coup against military authority." Now, of course, Dowd is just being cute. Presumably she knows that civilian control over the military is one of the necessary conditions for democratic government, a condition that makes the very concept of a civilian coup against military authority incoherent. But she's using this bit of cuteness to make a point every bit as nonsensical as a literal reading of it. She's trying to argue that because several current and former military officers are distinctly less hawkish than some of the civilian leadership . . . well, it's not quite clear what, since she doesn't tell us where she stands on the issue (see the Second Law, above). But she thinks it ought to give us pause. She writes that Bush "signaled his civilian coup" by telling an AP reporter that he was reading Eliot Cohen's "Supreme Command." She gives a one-line summary of the book (it "attacks the Powell Doctrine and argues that civilian leaders should not defer to 'the fundamental caution' of whiny generals on grand strategy or use of force"), and then drops the matter. Actually addressing Cohen's point, it seems, would require too many words--words that wouldn't be nearly as cute as "Whack-Iraq'ers."