At AAEC Confab, Cartoonist and Columnist Debate the Fate of Wrong-on-Iraq Pundits

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By: Dave Astor

The issue of whether newspaper pundits who were wrong on Iraq should face consequences came up in very direct fashion Thursday while David Ignatius was addressing Association of American Editorial Cartoonists (AAEC) convention attendees.

“Given how wrong they were about the war, should David Brooks and Thomas Friedman keep their jobs?” asked Ted Rall, the AAEC president-elect who does editorial cartoons for Universal Press Syndicate, during the Q&A session following Ignatius’ talk.

Ignatius, whose column is syndicated by the Washington Post Writers Group, first responded: “You’d have to add me to that list” with the two New York Times columnists as far as not getting things right about Iraq several years ago. Then he added that Brooks and Friedman — who he described as “friends” — should keep their jobs.

“People are still interested in reading them,” said Ignatius. “And they do try to learn from their mistakes. I think people should be fired if they’re not honest; if they don’t tell the truth. I don’t think this is the case with them.”

To which another audience member — editorial cartoonist Clay Bennett of the Chattanooga (Tenn.) Times Free Press and Washington Post Writers Group — responded: “Then you favor the impeachment of George W. Bush!”

When asked if he favored the firing of Brooks and Friedman, Rall said, yes. “If you’re a pundit, you’re supposed to be able to predict the outcome of invading a country and the deaths of maybe a million people if you’re going to help push the United States into a very bad decision.”

During his speech, Ignatius offered mixed views about the war. The columnist, who has traveled to Iraq numerous times, said: “After completely screwing it up, we have in fact begun to do a better job.”

Ignatius said the surge has reduced violence in the country, and that America’s “Provincial Reconstruction Teams” are helping to improve things on a local level in some parts of Iraq.

He also said if U.S. troops on their second and third tours have managed to survive the stress of their prior times in Iraq, they might be doing a better job because they’re more experienced and more knowledgeable about the country.

“I don’t want to paint too rosy a view of what’s still a nightmare,” the columnist added. “But there has been a learning curve.”

And Ignatius said that while many people in Iraq and Afghanistan don’t want the U.S. occupying their countries, they also don’t want al-Qaeda around.

As for what Barack Obama or John McCain might do about Iraq as the next president, Ignatius thinks voters will be disappointed. Obama will not be able to get the U.S. out of Iraq as quickly as his supporters hope, and it’s unlikely McCain will win a “victory” in Iraq as some of his supporters hope, according to the columnist.

And George W. Bush? Ignatius said he’ll be quite a subject for future biographers given his Iraq-related mistakes and his lack of public remorse about those mistakes.

“With LBJ, you could hear the anguish in his voice about Vietnam,” commented Ignatius. “He was a tormented man. You don’t get that feeling with Bush.”

Clay Bennett said Bush’s apparent lack of remorse and failure to take responsibility “seems frightening and twisted and sick to me.”

Ignatius said “it’s disturbing how the U.S. has become habituated to lying” from politicians in recent years.

Thanks to the Bush administration, “it’s scary to see how angry people in other countries are with the U.S.,” added Ignatius. “That could be our biggest national security problem.”

J.P. Trostle, news editor of the AAEC’s site, asked Ignatius if there should be prosecutions of people and “war-profiteering” companies involved in the Iraq mess.

The speaker replied that maybe there should be “some looking in the rear-view mirror,” but “I do worry about endless recriminations. At some point, it’s time to move on.”

Ignatius is also a novelist, former Wall Street Journal reporter, and former International Herald Tribune editor who joined The Washington Post in 1986. One of his strongest early Post memories was meeting Herblock and being thrilled that he became one of the people the editorial cartoonist would show his sketches to.

But one day Herblock showed Ignatius a cartoon idea in which King Hussein of Jordan was depicted in a very nasty way. “That’s a little rough,” said Ignatius — and Herblock never came to him with a sketch again.

Speaking more generally of editorial cartoonists, Ignatius said he and other columnists are a little jealous of them. “You guys get to be caustic, irreverent, and crusading. We’re pundits and, if we’re in Washington, we’re Beltway insiders. We use layers and layers of words. We wish we could be as quick and clean.”

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