The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's biting Dan Bice often offers up a tasty column on politics, but sometimes his right brain gets way too creative at a time when readers need some clear-headed, left-brain thinking. Witness Bice's column today on a debate dust-up between Tammy Baldwin and Tommy Thompson. In effect, Bice extends and corrects Thompson's remarks, while not bothering to share any real information about the actual political policies involved. It's not journalism so much as it's info-tainment.
The column (URL below) focuses on Thompson's botched attempt to portray Baldwin as some kind of unwarranted peacenik because an advocacy group opposing economic sanctions against Iran has supported her. Never mind that a.) the Obama administration has long since imposed tough sanctions on Iran, mooting this issue, or b.) that Baldwin has on occasion voted for such sanctions or c.) that she and many others including foreign policy experts think the sanctions are actually counterproductive in thwarting what might be Iran's nuclear weapons ambitions. Nope, this is all about rhetoric and mere implication. Read along and we'll share the actual, underlying policy issue that no one else seems interested in reporting.
Bice focused on how Thompson cited a group supporting Baldwin but screwed up its name, eventually settling on "Council for a Living Earth." But let Bice tell it his own way:
At a crucial point in the debate, Thompson suffered a case of brain lock, giving Baldwin the opportunity to dodge the issue. First, he couldn't come up with any name for the organization, calling it just "a company," which it is not... .
The organization is actually called the Council for a Livable World - a swishy title almost as fatuous as the Council for a Living Earth. Since 1998, the left-of-center foreign policy group has endorsed Baldwin eight times, including this year.
First off, the council's name is ... swishy and fatuous!? Hmmm. Well, it's no more so than the names of some conservative organizations, including Freedom Works, Restore the Dream (actually, based on historical evidence, an outfit that should be called Trying to Re-Live the Nightmare), Americans For Prospertiy (I mean, who would belong to a group calling itself Americans For Poverty?), Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays, and others. I don't see anything fatuous about promoting thoughtful public policies that lead toward a planet that is, ahem, livable. The council's name says what the organization's efforts are about -- which is just as functional as any headline over Bice's column. Colorful writing, perhaps, but basically a cheap shot from Mr. Bice.
Far more important, when Bice and other journalists report little more than sizzle on this and too many other campaign issues, they give voters -- already in too many cases low on actually useful information -- almost no real meat to chew on. The unreported distinction between the positions of Baldwin and Thompson arguably comes down to this: On complex foreign policy issues, Baldwin has a history of being thoughtful, preferring diplomacy, avoiding war and voting to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. Whereas, Thompson is pandering; he employs short, simplistic phrases that do not reflect international reality, nor an actual, well-thought-out position that will truly matter to American national security and, another ahem, world security.
In the case of Iran, the issues have been analyzed and discussed for years and consensus (from a pragmatic and logical perspective) attained. Just to take one example of how nuanced the idea of sanctions can get, look at this piece from the East Texas Review, a January 2010 analysis by Laicie Olson, senior policy analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Non- Proliferation:
In an effort to force Iran to give up its nuclear program, the House of Representatives recently approved legislation that would place sanctions on foreign companies providing that country with gasoline. If also passed into law by the Senate, these sanctions threaten to complicate diplomatic efforts by encouraging anti-American propaganda and undercutting the very people the United States wishes to support.
Unfortunately, the Iranian government isn’t that vulnerable to gasoline sanctions. Under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran has both increased its refining capacity and enacted a more effective rationing program. These moves have significantly decreased its need to import petroleum products.
Instead, gasoline sanctions would inflict widespread economic hardship on the Iranian people, including those who took to the streets last year to protest what they said was Ahmadinejad’s rigged re-election. If our country forces regular Iranians to pay more for the gasoline they use every day, it won’t, as some suggest, cause a further rift between the people and their government. Rather, gasoline sanctions would inflame anti-Americanism that the regime can then exploit to further its own anti-democratic interests... .
In fewer words: Doing the wrong thing for the right reason doesn't often lead to good outcomes. No matter how good it feels, or how well it plays politically. Wider economic sanctions obviously hurt Iranian civilians in even broader ways, and arguably diminish that country's internal political reform movement while not doing much to actually dissuade the Iran government's military aspirations. But hey, it sure sounds tough; almost as tough as starting a war and blowing up stuff. No, the real hard work in foreign relations is sitting down with your adversaries and reasoning with them. Beyond that, all options remain on the table, as both Obama and even Baldwin have averred.
No need, Mr. Bice, to thank Uppity for supplying some badly needed and actually useful context. If American politics seems too often these days to be running on vapors, so, too, does a lot of what passes for modern journalism.