[originally published on CJR.org, the Web site of the Columbia Journalism Review]
Tim Russert, as is his wont, went to politics before policy with Democratic Senator Jim Webb of Virginia. He began with what he called the "political questions" of 1) his neutrality, so far, between Obama and Clinton, and 2) rumors that he is a plausible vice presidential candidate. Webb ducked: If Obama or Clinton asked, "I would highly discourage them," and "I'm not that interested."
Russert then turned to the mind-numbingly ignorant incident of the week, President Bush's words to the Israeli Knesset on "the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history." Russert offered Webb a chance to elaborate on this passage in his new book, A Time to Fight:
It is clearly in our national interest to confront authoritarian regimes around the world and to attempt to change their practices. But refusing to engage them is actually tantamount to ignoring the circumstances that we supposedly condemn.
Webb responded with a different analogy, in which engagement was part of the policy:
If President Bush were to use the right historical example, he probably should be looking at China in the 1970s [rather than the situation in Germany in the 1930s], where we had a rogue regime with nukes, with an American war on its border that was spouting all of this hostile rhetoric and was not a part of the international community. And by aggressive diplomacy -- at the same time that we kept all of our other options on the table, and maintained all of our other alliances -- we were able to arguably bring China into the world community.
It would have been nice if Russert had asked a substantive follow-up about this example, such as: "Bush offered one historical analogy, you offered another, so is this a 1-1 tie?" or "Do you have other examples?" to which Webb might have added a word on the containing of Stalin, and on the multiple incapacities of Ahmadinejad's Iran. Russert might have asked further, "What is the evidence that Ahmadinejad speaks for the Iranian regime? Or is it more likely, on the other hand, that he is a vicious rogue trying to smother opposition by trotting out Israel-hating bravado?"
But questions like this would have descended too deep into the central considerations affecting war and peace in our time, into the logic and illogic of Bush's views. So Russert lurched quickly into his usual routine, and tried unsuccessfully to nudge Webb into saying that he was at odds with Democrat orthodoxy about veterans and Iraq.