London Calling : Bye-bye Judith Miller. Could You Take Tom Friedman With You?

At least Judith Miller had the decency to wait a while before making it official, and going public with her relationship with the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank.

To me, this most recent chapter of the Miller story has the tawdry feel of one of those celebrity break-ups where everyone knows that the reason she left her mate (the NYT) was because she was having an affair (with the neo-cons).

But rather than be honest and admit that and move right in with her new lover, Miller waited for a few months to pass, enough time to convince the gullible that maybe this is a relationship that started after her departure from the Times.

A little bit like Brad, Jennifer and Angelina.

At the Manhattan Institute, Miller says "I hope to continue writing about how best to enhance national security and public safety."

Head for the hills. The last time she wrote about those things, for the Times, she helped start a war.

We should all be grateful that the institute's publication, City Journal, only comes out four times a year. That, and its relatively small circulation, ought to limit the damage Ms. Miller can do in her new position.

And here's hoping that Judith and her friends at the M.I. have saved some space in their bed, and perhaps a pillow or two, for Thomas Friedman.

Because Ms. Miller and her former NYT colleague Mr. Friedman have a lot in common. And I'm not talking Pulitzers.

Much has been written about the sorry performance of the Washington press corps post 911 and pre-Iraq War. Reporters and pundits in DC have been accused of everything from naiveté to complicity, as well as succumbing to intimidation and jingoism.

It would be easy, but wrong, to lump all of them into the same category.

However, two people who certainly ought to be put in the same boat and never allowed near a keyboard again (restraining order, anyone?) are Miller and Friedman.

What sets these two hawks apart is that, unlike most of the stenographers and scared rabbits who were covering the White House and the Pentagon pre-Iraq, Miller and Friedman had spent considerable time in the Middle East.

Simply put, they knew better.

Judith Miller first traveled to the region as a college student, spending time in Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon. In 1983, she was assigned to Cairo for the NYT and spent four years reporting across North Africa and the Middle East. She eventually wrote two books on the region.

Thomas Friedman's first posting in the Middle East was in Beirut, for UPI, in 1981. He was then based in Lebanon and Israel, for the NYT, from 1982 to 1988. He wrote a book, From Beirut to Jerusalem, which was well received.

The quality of their respective work overseas resulted in Friedman's elevation to a NYT op-ed columnist position, and in Miller landing a senior role in the Times' Washington bureau.

So, come 2002, and the Bush administration's sales pitch on the Iraq War, unlike most of the DC press corps, which had never been based abroad, Judith Miller and Thomas Friedman would have been equipped with the knowledge required to shoot down the administration's lies.

They would have known, for instance, that the idea of a collaboration between the fundamentalist al Qaeda and the relatively secular Saddam Hussein was preposterous.

They would have known that in post-Saddam Iraq, given the country's ethnic make-up, we'd be looking at Yugoslavia, the Sequel.

They would have known that the Shiite majority would rise up against their former Sunni rulers and inevitably tilt toward Shiite-ruled Iran, the way it tried to do in 1991.

In short, they would have known all the things that Bush Sr. took into account when he wisely decided not to carry on to Baghdad in '91 (as was recently and helpfully articulated by Dick Cheney in that 1994 C-SPAN clip).

Yet Miller's reporting and Friedman's opining helped the Bush administration take the US to war.

Compare, for a moment, Miller and Friedman's CVs with some of the other prominent hawkish voices in US journalism.

William Kristol was born into the neo-con movement that his father helped found. He has never been based overseas.

Fred Barnes arrived in DC in 1979 and hasn't wandered much past Baltimore since.

Brit Hume was born in DC, ventured all the way to Virginia for university, then went back to Washington where he has spent the rest of his career.

None of them has been based abroad; none has the credentials to claim expertise in foreign policy.

I'm not suggesting that these right-wing pundits, had they actually been assigned to the Middle East and got to know the region, would have been urging caution on Iraq. They are ideologues. And there will always be ideologues, on both the right and the left.

However, what is needed in the news media at critical times, and what American journalism has traditionally provided, is balance.

That comes from other voices. In foreign policy matters, those voices tend to belong to journalists who have had experience overseas. The knowledge and perspective they gain abroad often counter the urges of the political right, and put the brakes on foreign misadventures before they happen.

But rather than report on what they knew and put the lie to the Bush administration's arguments on Iraq, Miller and Friedman gave the White House, and probably the NYT, what they wanted: support for the war.

In their case, it wasn't ignorance or, as some contrite editors have since put it, "getting the story wrong."

They knew what was happening and still went with the dominant, White House narrative.

That is not to say that the many cheerleaders who populated the Washington press corps in 2002-03 should be pardoned for their supine approach to their jobs, and the devastating consequences that followed.

Just because most of them had limited experience outside the Beltway, and little knowledge of the region that would bear the brunt of the war they helped allow to happen, does not excuse them.

Ignorance of the facts is no more valid a defense in journalism, than ignorance of the law is in court, because the facts are out there. They're available.

But a lot of those reporters can, at least, cop the ignorance plea.

Miller and Friedman cannot. They knew better. They set their knowledge aside, along with their consciences, and jumped on the White House's Iraq bandwagon.

And a bandwagon, as the people of Iraq and the families of American soldiers have since learned, is no place for a journalist to be.