Press Box

Apple Turnover

The New York Times’ R.W. Apple Jr. never wrote a piece he couldn’t contradict.

Just 11 days ago, master gasbag R.W. “Johnny” Apple Jr. of the New York Times looked at the war images spraying out of his TV set and saw nothing but quagmire, Vietnam, Palestine, and Belfast, writing in the March 27 paper:

The war in Iraq is just a week old, but it is clear that Saddam Hussein has learned a lot since his forces were routed in the Persian Gulf war in 1991.

Apple’s piece prattles on and on about the tactical and strategic brilliance of the Iraqi military machine, citing three sources who had such courage in their convictions that they spoke anonymously. Yes, the coalition may well win the war, Apple ventures. But retrieving his moldy copy of The Little Red Book from the cellar, he cites the Great Helmsman on the long struggle ahead:

As Mao famously said, the populace constitutes the water in which the guerrillas can swim like lethal fish. In city after city, they are swimming.

I immediately identified Apple’s downbeat piece as the leading indicator of an impending coalition victory. After all, back in October 2001, Apple had prophesied “quagmire” in Afghanistan. Two weeks later, Kabul fell. I reckoned that if he equated Vietnam’s jungles and Iraq’s sandstorms, surely the coalition would depose Saddam and vaporize the Fedayeen in quick order.

Even Apple eventually embraced the predictive quality of his own copy. In his April 5 piece, “Dash to Baghdad Leaves Debate in the Dust,” coalition victory blooms like cherry blossoms in his prose. Apple dismounts from the Defeatist Express and joins the All-American war wagon, writing with no sense of irony or self-correction about the:

remarkable … transformation of the political landscape at home, and to a lesser degree, abroad. The dramatic, lightning-like thrust of the tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles, their way eased by the devastating application of air power to the Republican Guard, has taken the political heat off President Bush and his hard-nosed Pentagon boss, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

“What changed?” Apple asks. “It is too early to say with any certainty,” he answers, providing himself with enough wiggle room if he changes his mind and wants back on the Defeatist Express. “But so far at least, the vaunted Republican Guard has proved to be a washout for the second war in a row. Some units may yet fight fiercely, but many have melted like blocks of ice in the desert sun.”

Like those once-sturdy blocks of ice, Apple’s previous wisdom melts its way into the memory hole. No more talk of Mao’s lethal fish, Vietnam, Belfast, or the PLO. No more lectures about the many military lessons Saddam Hussein’s adaptive army learned during the first Gulf War and how they would come back to undo the United States. Without acknowledging that he himself painted the picture he’s dismantling, Apple pirouettes:

As this weekend begins, the picture has changed out of all recognition, if not necessarily definitively. Elements of the Third Infantry Division are encamped at the Baghdad airport, a cab ride from the nexus of Mr. Hussein’s power; other American troops stand at the gates of the ancient capital. They have arrived there faster than either critics or supporters of the war imagined that they could, after only episodically heavy fighting, suffering only relatively light casualties.

By April 6—a whole day later—Apple constructs new victory benchmarks for the coalition in “Allies’ New Test: How To Define Victory.” It’s not enough that the Americans and Brits have encircled Baghdad and subdued Basra in less than three weeks of fighting and eviscerated the Iraqi army and its irregulars. His impatient lede asks, “How and when, it seems worth asking, will the United States and its allies know they have won the Iraqi war?”

Apple doesn’t answer his own question directly but implies that the allies’ recipe for victory pie would have to include a new, democratic government in Iraq; the elimination of Saddam Hussein; the uncovering of his weapons of mass destruction; and the departure of U.S. troops—sooner rather than later.

By defining victory “up,” Apple subtly retreats to his original, March 27 position that nothing but quagmire, quagmire, quagmire awaits the United States in Iraq. Setting aside the failed metaphors of Vietnam and Belfast, he introduces a new one.

The Israelis have “won” every war against Islamic foes, but they are still engaged, after many decades, in combat against shadowy opposition.

There you have it. Iraq isn’t Vietnam, and it isn’t Northern Ireland. It’s Lebanon or Egypt or Syria. At least for today. Johnny Apple would happily flip positions tomorrow.

[Addendum, April 8: Slate colleague Will Saletan provides this kicker to my piece. “How will we know when the coalition has won the war? The day Johnny Apple says they’ve lost it.”]


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