David Ignatius: A National Security Wonk’s National Security Wonk


david ignatius charlie rose.jpgPolitico‘s Dylan Byers has written one of the fairest, most earnest reviews of another journalist’s work that I’ve read in some time, particularly when it is about a writer who enjoys enviably high degrees of access at the White House, CIA, State Department and Pentagon.  There is none of the cheap shot snark that invades too much of today’s punditry.

I am referring to Byers’ piece that just appeared today profiling the work of David Ignatius, who recently was given some insider access to Osama bin Laden files taken during the Navy SEAL Team 6 raid on bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad; and in general has been a valuable lead in the journalistic corps digging out detail on the Obama administration’s course that many others have been unable to do.

gty_osama_bin_laden_jef_111209_wg.jpgJust today, Ignatius continues his exclusive reporting on the bin Laden files in the Washington Post with a piece titled “A Lion in Winter.”  Here is an interesting excerpt from Ignatius article highlighting bin Laden’s lament about al Qaeda’s situation and fears about the state of his movement and the deaths of his key followers:

Bin Laden wanted to save what remained of his network by evacuating
it from the free-fire zone of Pakistan’s tribal areas. He noted “the
importance of the exit from Waziristan of the brother leaders. .?.?. Choose distant locations to which to move them, away from aircraft photography and bombardment.”

This evacuation order comes in the most revealing document I was shown, which is a voluminous 48-page directive to Atiyah Abd al-Rahman,
who served, in effect, as bin Laden’s chief of staff. Throughout this
document, bin Laden pondered the likelihood that al-Qaeda had failed in
its mission of jihad.

Bin Laden begins by recalling the glory
days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks when his al-Qaeda mujaheddin were
“the vanguard and standard-bearers of the Islamic community in fighting
the Crusader-Zionist alliance.”

But the al-Qaeda leader turns
immediately to a bitter reflection on mistakes made by his followers —
especially their killing of Muslims in Iraq and elsewhere. The result,
he said, “would lead us to winning several battles while losing the war
at the end.” Bin Laden ruminated on the “extremely great damage” caused
by these overzealous jihadists. Not only is the organization’s
reputation being damaged, he noted, but “tens of thousands are being
arrested” in Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

America and the World TWN.jpgI was pleased to see that Sally Quinn, wife of legendary Washington Post executive editor Benjamin Bradlee and editor-in-chief and co-founder with Jon Meacham of On Faith, credits the book America and the World: Conversations on the Future of US Foreign Policy with Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft as a pivot point helping to trigger Ignatius’ recent three year ascent to the top of national security columnists. 

Ignatius was the ‘interviewer’ in this book — which I put together with then Basic Books editor (now editor at Yale University Press) William Frucht as part of the New America Foundation/Basic Books series.  This book, which I think is still highly relevant to today’s geostrategic challenges was selected in 2008 as among New York Times book review editor Michiko Kakutani’s top ten favorite books of the year.

From Dylan Byers’ article:

090624_zbig-scow.jpgBut it is in the past three years, during the Obama administration, that Ignatius has really earned his reputation as perhaps the most important media voice in national security circles, particularly related to the Middle East.

Quinn, who says Ignatius is “at the pinnacle” of his career, believes he began to take off in 2008 with the publication of “America and the World,” a book of conversations between Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft moderated by Ignatius.

Clemons, who commissioned the book, agrees and recalls the book party in Sen. John Kerry’s backyard that marked a watershed moment in Ignatius’s career. “When Chuck Hagel and John Kerry did the book launch for us at John Kerry’s home, and Ignatius interviewed Scowcroft and Brzezinki in Kerry’s backyard, it was a signal to the national security community that David Ignatius had broadened his portfolio significantly.”

Ignatius is also respected among White House officials because of his nonideological approach to national security, which puts him at odds with the Post’s editorial page editor, Fred Hiatt.

“Fred sees himself as a liberal interventionist, which David definitely is not,” Clemons said. “David has a moral spine, but he is fundamentally a realist.” (Hiatt told POLITICO he wasn’t “big on labels,” but acknowledged his support for a foreign policy “founded on ideals, helping those who are striving for freedom and human rights.”)

During the George W. Bush administration, Ignatius wrote a piece profiling the then hardly-reported-on David Addington, titled “Cheney’s Cheney.”  He wrote this piece after an off-the-record salon dinner the New America Foundation had hosted with former top National Security Council lawyer and then Counselor to the Secretary of State John Bellinger — in which battles between Bellinger and Addington inside the administration about the legality and course of the Bush/Cheney’s anti-terror measures were beginning to surface.  It was a very important article at the time as Addington had largely escaped any media interest in his activities until then.

It’s in that spirit that I title today’s response to Dylan Byers’ good essay, “David Ignatius: A National Security Wonk’s National Security Wonk.”

— Steve Clemons is Washington Editor at Large at The Atlantic, where this post first appeared. Clemons can be followed on Twitter at @SCClemons

photo credit:  Charlie Rose Show


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