David Ignatius

David Ignatius Has His Ear to the Ground in Washington’s Foreign Policy Circles

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WATERTOWN — David Reynolds Ignatius is one of the best known journalists writing on foreign affairs in the United States. Called “one of the wise men of Washington” by a New York Times columnist, the 73-year-old Ignatius remains at the pinnacle of his long and eminent journalistic career and has also been quite suDccessful in a parallel career as a prolific novelist who primarily writes on espionage. His 2007 novel Body of Lies was made the following year into a film directed by Ridley Scott and starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe. His syndicated column for the Washington Post appears twice a week in scores of newspapers around the world and Ignatius is known for his access to well-informed insider sources.

David Ignatius speaking at a National Association for Armenian Studies and Research event in 2019

Covering Foreign Affairs

In an interview last week, Ignatius said that in effect, his opinion column is usually just reporting about foreign affairs. He declared, “The paradox for me is that I am an opinion columnist, but I don’t often have strong opinions. I am much more driven by reporting. What I like to do in every column is to tell you something that you don’t know…relevant to what is going on.” He gave the example of a recent column on the Gaza fighting: “I just got fascinated by tunnel warfare, a very exotic sphere of warfare that turns out to have all kinds of specialists, weapons and lore….I ended up writing a column that tells you more than you would have ever dreamed you’d want to know about tunnel warfare.”

He said that he tries to present US foreign policy based on the best sources he has, and sometimes does not reveal their names. He said, “I trust that my readers will assume that if I am writing it, it is true, and they will assume that if I am saying it is the top level of the Pentagon or NSC [National Security Council], that I have a reason for saying that…I try never to write something that I am not confident is accurate.”

Having access at the highest circles of power and government can also create some challenges, which Ignatius realizes. He said, “You do have regular contact with the most powerful people in the country, and it is heady. They turn to you and they want you to give a speech and moderate a program, and, hey, how are you, David. It is too congenial. It is a struggle to remind yourself that in terms of your readers you should be an outsider, not an insider. It is a constant struggle and I am not sure that I always do it well. I recognize that.”

It also can narrow your point of view. Ignatius explained, “I think the hardest thing for a columnist like me, who is trying to write an inside informed account of what is going on, is the danger of writing for your sources. By that I don’t just mean that I am trying to keep them happy …It is that you are writing about the particular issues, sometimes narrow ones, that they are thinking about and not standing back and thinking about the issues that the country as a whole is thinking about.”

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In other words, he ruminated, while covering the US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan for some many years, it was easy to report some new three-point plan a general offered for progress over 18 months, as opposed to seeing whether the broader approach made any sense.

He did not feel that he has been deceived by his sources often, because, he said, efforts at manipulation on a particular subject are fairly obvious. He said, “I think the problem is different. The problem is really red teaming yourself, thinking about the ways something could go wrong, and working back to where you are.” In other words, “I think the big mistakes are the ones that are just in the air that you are all breathing in common.”

He does still take trips to examine certain international situations personally. He has traveled to Ukraine during the current war with security professionals. Early in the Syrian war, he went with smugglers across the border to Aleppo. He said, “It was just exceedingly dangerous and could easily have ended very badly, as happened to other American journalists who, as we remember, were captured by ISIS with terrible consequences. I think that is the last time I do something quite as crazy as that. My wife still hasn’t forgiven me.”

On the other hand, he said, “You could stumble walking down the steps of the Capitol. I think the final thing for me is that you never know what could happen. You just make sure that what you are doing is worthwhile for readers. If it is, then some risk is appropriate and warranted. What I don’t like to see in our business is people taking big risks for very low payoff for readers.”

When asked about his world view or ideology, he said, “I think that in my writing I am always struggling between two tendencies that are both very much part of me: one is idealism that is American – I want to say Armenian – dreaming of a better world. I have been in favor of using American power to try to help people achieve that better world. So if there is an idealistic strand in our foreign policy I have it also.”

However, he continued, “I have a more pragmatic realist side. Having seen so many disasters, having made so many mistakes in judgment of my own, I increasingly [say], when people say, let’s give Ukraine X weapon, what the heck. I think we need to be careful about the risk of getting into a war with Russia. We need to understand what our national interests are and why they are not identical with those of Ukraine. I think I am balanced sometimes awkwardly between the two, but that is probably where I think people should be.”

Ignatius has around 136,000 followers on X (formerly Twitter) but deliberately has asked the Washington Post not to reveal to him the numbers of readers of his columns, He said that if he has written about something, he did it because it was important, and therefore does not want to be influenced by the metrics. When pressed, he admitted drolly, “Often my column is the most widely read opinion piece in the Washington Post. Beyond that, in terms of my inbox and comments, I do have a sense that I am widely read and widely disliked on all sides. It’s humbling to know how many people don’t like what you write.”

Conspiracy Theories and the Political Establishment

Ignatius has served both on the Trilateral Commission and the Council on Foreign Affairs. There have been all kins of outsized rumors about their influence in the world. Ignatius said, “I have only attended one meeting of the Trilateral Commission, and it wasn’t very interesting. I think the Trilateral Commission is just an object of conspiracy.” He said he attended once because his friend Zbigniew Brezinski, with whom Ignatius had written a book in 2008, was one of its founders, but he does not go to meetings and has not paid his dues.

On the other hand, he said that he has been a member of the Council on Foreign Relations for some forty years, and at their best, organizations like the Council are connection points for a conversation about American foreign policy and issues that matter for the world. They sponsor events with speakers.

Moreover, for nearly 20 years, Ignatius was a trustee of the German Marshall Fund, which is an NGO which seeks to encourage civil society networks across Europe, from Eastern Europe into the former Soviet Union. He commented on this and the aforementioned organizations: “These organizations I am sure are easily characterized as the foreign policy establishment. I am sure there are ways in which they are limiting. For me on balance I think it has been enriching. I have learned a lot more, I have taken more than I have put in. I am embarrassed about that. They always gave me a range of people who were thinking about a big issue that I didn’t know much about.”

When asked whether he could consider himself a political actor in some ways, he definitively responded: “No, I don’t. I truly don’t. I see myself really as a reporter/columnist, but in no way as a political actor. And I should say, I see myself, when I fall asleep at night, as a novelist. I am really proud of the books I have written. It was a kind of accidental second career, but I think they will probably last a lot longer than my journalism.”

President Biden

Recently Ignatius wrote a column stating that it was time for President Joe Biden to think about whether somebody else could do better in beating Donald Trump in the upcoming presidential elections. When asked whether this column achieved the desired effect, he chuckled and said, “I think the only effect it had was to make him double down and say, ‘No, I am the guy who can beat Donald Trump and I am not going anywhere.’”

Ignatius said that throughout the summer, he had been going to social events at which prominent Democrats, including members of the cabinet and Congress as well as governors, would talk about Biden’s prospects. He said that it bothered him that he was not writing about what so many people were discussing, while time was running out for changes. Though the article has not led to any new Democratic action, Ignatius said, “I felt that even though it infuriated a lot of people I had a responsibility to write it.”

Attraction to Journalism, Falling into Love with Foreign Affairs

Journalism appealed to Ignatius from a young age. He said, “Journalism really was the thing I was best at.” He wrote for his high school newspaper, took summer jobs writing for other newspapers, and when he went off to Harvard College, studying political theory, he immediately joined the college newspaper, and freelanced for regional papers. He started writing for the Washington Post while studying economics in a graduate program at Kings College in Cambridge (United Kingdom).

He applied for journalism jobs and after his first job at the Washington Monthly magazine in 1975, got a new position in 1976 covering the steel workers union for the Wall Street Journal. He exclaimed, “If at that time there was a less likely person to cover the biggest industrial union in the country than me, I would like to know who it was. But I loved it. I fell in love with the job.” He said he began to get scoop after scoop about the union and just knew this was his calling.

However, it took some years to solidify this belief. Ignatius recollected, “Through my 30s and early 40s, I used to say, I wonder if it is too late to go to law school. I thought journalism is not really a profession. Some day you will grow up. All of a sudden it was too late.”

After the union, Ignatius covered industry, but moved on to the Defense Department and then the US Senate. He said, “I had a classic apprenticeship as a journalist.” In 1980, the Wall Street Journal asked whether he would like to switch and cover the Middle East.

Ignatius recalled, “I said I have never been there. I don’t speak any of the languages. I don’t know anything about it. … The editor said, in a classic ‘Front Page’ [classic newsroom comedy film] way, ‘that’s perfect. That is just what we want.’ So I took off and did it and I fell in love with it again.” He became more and more interested in foreign affairs, and he said that this interest was solidified when as editor for the International Herald Tribune, he moved with his family to Paris for not quite three years (2000-2003).

Family Background

Ignatius has an illustrious family background. His mother, Nancy, an environmental activist who passed away in 2019, was a descendant of Cotton Mather, a Congregrational minister known in connection with the Salem witchcraft trials in the 17th century.

His father Paul has just turned a vigorous 103. He was born in Glendale, Calif. in 1920, while his own father, a native of Agn, was among the first Armenians to settle in Glendale in 1911. Paul has achieved the highest rank in the US government of all living Armenians, having served as Secretary of the Navy, as well as Assistant Secretary of Defense, during his long career (his only rival being Thomas Corwin, Secretary of the Treasury back in the mid-nineteenth century).

Paul Ignatius also for two brief years, was president of the Washington Post, but he did not get along with its publisher at the time, Katherine Graham, and was let go. David said, “I do think that was a burr under the saddle for me – you know, motivation. Ben Bradley [Post executive editor] used to kid me about that when I worked for him.”

More significantly, said David, “What I got from my dad was the passion and interest in foreign affairs, and increasingly, national security issues, something we talk about every night when I am with him. I try out ideas. I have stolen many ideas from my dad. It is like a running seminar.”

The family pride and love is evident. David exclaimed, “I will just be honest. He is an inspiration to me as he should be to everybody that deals with him. He is turning 103 and he is still going strong.” David’s accomplished siblings are just as proud, including sisters Sarah B. Ignatius, a lawyer, writer and novelist who until recently was the executive director of the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research and Amy L. Ignatius, a judge in the Superior Court of New Hampshire, and Adi Ignatius, editor-in-chief of the Harvard Business Review.

. Starting second from left, bottom row, David Ignatius, Paul Ignatius, Sarah Ignatius and Adi Ignatius with Armenian Assembly of America Board at September 26, 2023 event honoring Paul Ignatius in Washington D.C. (courtesy Armenian Assembly)

David’s Armenian identity is no secret. He said, “In the Middle East, where everybody knew my background, I was often referred to as the Armenian.” In fact, when he went to Lebanon for the first time in 1980 he said that something just clicked and he felt an intense commitment to the story, the place and the people. He said, I felt there was some odd resonance to me. Was it cultural? Was it ethnic? I couldn’t figure it out…I just feel certain that there was something about the Armenian sensibility that I grew up with from my father, my grandfather – maybe something in the blood mysteriously that led to that connection.”

David reminisced, “I feel lucky to have the Armenian-American heritage…Although I didn’t grow up learning to speak Armenian, and we didn’t go to the Armenian Church, the Armenian part of my life was something that was present.” Every Sunday his father would typically make an Armenian meal and tell stories about his friend William Saroyan, and his eccentric family. These, David said, were “stories that I will never forget, the characters of my youth.”

His father Paul was very much an assimilated person, who didn’t learn to speak Armenian because his own father wanted him to live an American. David said, “His service in Pentagon is illustrative of that commitment to America, but we’re lucky that he gave us – and I tried to give my own children – a taste of some of this wonderful richness and sometimes silliness. There were stories that still make me laugh when I think of them. That is the way I remember growing up.”

As an adult, Ignatius has been attracted to the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative, founded by Vartan Gregorian, Ruben Vardanyan and Noubar Afeyan with the slogan “gratitude in action,” because, he said, “for me as an Armenian American, it offered a way to look forward to an Armenia in the future, rather than always to 1915 and the past. It gave a positive Armenian identity. Armenians were not the victims but in general people who succeeded and wanted to give thanks for other people helping humanity in the same way that people saved our ancestors.” Starting some six years ago, he said that he would go to Yerevan every year for the event and try to be as active as he could, though the Artsakh issue has recently overwhelmed the effort (especially with the arrest of Vardanyan in Artsakh).

Journalism as an Armenian American

Ignatius was the moderator of a 2009 Davos World Economic Forum panel discussion with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Secretary of the Arab League Amr Moussa, at which Erdogan, attacked ferociously by Peres, stalked off angrily after Ignatius told him he was out of time to talk. While this may not have been directly connected to Ignatius’s Armenian background, it complicates relations.

“The Turks certainly haven’t forgotten it,” Ignatius said. Nevertheless, “I do when appropriate stop by the Turkish embassy to visit the ambassador, who is often helpful. I talk to other people in the government when there are issues on which I think I need to get a Turkish perspective. Despite that famous incident, the work of being a journalist doesn’t stop.”

The same approach holds true on Armenian issues. “When I write about Artsakh, I try to reach the Azerbaijani ambassador. That is just what we do,” Ignatius observed.

Ignatius recalled that when he first started working at the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post, the prevailing journalistic ethos was to check all personal luggage at the door, meaning all personal political beliefs. Journalists were not supposed to go to political demonstrations or sign petitions, and some did not even vote.

“So, he said, “I have tried to find over the years ways to write about Armenia and Armenian issues that still felt journalistic, so that I could look a Turkish colleague in the eye and say, I am writing about this because it is important. I am writing about this as an analyst of foreign policy. Yes, I am an Armenian American but you should not just discount what I have to say just for that reason.”

“Is this the right approach?” he wondered. “I think about it a lot and I think it is a question, but it is something that the Armenian community needs to understand. Armenian-American journalists are journalists, and they feel they do need to live by their professional rules much as if they were doctors or lawyers. There are all these rules that make people do different things than what activists might want them to do.”

Armenia/Artsakh Current Events

Ignatius evaluated the coverage of recent events in Armenia and Artsakh by US media as “fair to poor – I am tempted to say, poor to awful.” As to why, he said, “The suffering of Armenians does not seem as immediate and emotional to American readers and the journalists who write for them as that of other people. It is a mystery as to why that is so. Part of it is, I think, that Armenia is remote. The Caucasus is a region that people don’t know much about.” Moreover, Armenia has been under the aegis of Russia, and before that, the Soviet Union, for so long, that people see it differently, he said. There are also few resident correspondents in Yerevan working for any international media outlet, so it is typically covered from Moscow, though it is quite distant from it.

David Ignatius at a 2018 event of the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative, with Mount Ararat in the background

Another factor, he said, was that “the Artsakh/Karabakh fight has been going on for so long that there has been a sort of journalistic fatigue. People have trouble remembering what the underlying issues are. I also think it hurt Armenia that the status of Artsakh/Karabakh legally remained Azerbaijani, controlled by an Armenian majority.”

He said he admired Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan for acknowledging that he should have had the courage to push for negotiations back when the Armenians were in a stronger position b this was unpopular.

A way to improve US media coverage in the long term would be to have journalism schools provide more background information so as people prepare for careers as foreign correspondents, they understand that this is an issue worth covering. Correspondents who are based in Turkey also could routinely include Armenia and the Caucasus as part of their beat, he said. He remarked that “I think Armenians sometimes made a mistake in their understandable insistence on focusing on 1915 and the Genocide, so that this [current] conflict to readers sometimes seems frozen in the past.”

He did not think that demonstrations, like that in front of CNN in Los Angeles during the 2020 war, help much, though he also said, “I have to admit that over the years, covering the Arab-Israeli dispute, the pressure that was brought to bear by organized groups on both sides that sometimes was quite intense for newspapers and media companies did make a difference. It made us careful, made us understand that this was important, that each word was going to be read very carefully.”

As far as the recent events themselves in Artsakh and Armenia, Ignatius said, “as I wrote in one column, this teaches you the truth of what Mao Tse Tung said, that all power flows out of the barrel of a gun. If you don’t have the weapons, you are at the mercy of your friends, and Armenia’s history is a long lesson in the unreliability of your friends. We just had another chapter of that.” In other words, Armenia must make itself stronger.

It also needs to change its approach to foreign affairs, Ignatius declared. He said: “I would like to see some different security arrangement for Armenia. What exists now clearly doesn’t work.”

If, as this may imply, Armenia leaves the Russian orb for the US one, it would have to also deal with regional US allies. Ignatius noted, “Turkey is an old member of NATO. It is hard to imagine the US doing something in that part of the world entirely in defiance of Turkey. Azerbaijan is very close to Israel, an ally of the United States. Somehow, we have to get our minds around a security zone that has Armenia less dependent on Russia and more dependent on a group of nations led by the United States.”

He continued: “I know that there is a lot of thought that has gone on in the State Department. I try to write about it whenever I have a chance. They [State Department officials] don’t have answers but they are asking the right questions. I think the Armenian community needs to understand that and not lecture them, [but] help them.”

Future of Newspapers

Newspapers are still facing dire straits in the United States and many other countries as the aftereffect of the Internet revolution, which made information easily accessible online and initially without cost. However, Ignatius noted, “I have believed that as sources of information about our communities, about any subject, become less reliable, more like drinking from a stream that is polluted, people will pay more money to be assured that they are not consuming information that is wrong. The best example obviously is financial information. If you are trading in the financial markets you need to know that the information is accurate. You will pay a lot for it. You will pay a lot for the Wall Street Journal.” This should be true about information in any field.

At the same time, society and politics have also changed. Consequently, Ignatius said, “The problem is that people’s media tastes have moved from wanting reliable information that challenges them to wanting information that tells them they are right about their biases. As long as that continues, we are going to have the media that we deserve. If people want to be told that their heroes are really good guys and that the other side is really worse than they thought, they are going to get more and more of that media.”

Ignatius said that the Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos is absolutely right in demanding that newspapers like the Washington Post must be profitable: “If you are not producing stuff that people will put out money for, you have a problem.” The Post has lost around 500,000 subscribers since the end of 2020 and is set to lose $100 million in 2023, according to The New York Times.

The Post like a lot of the media got on a Trump jagg of sorts, Ignatius said, meaning that for some years people would constantly look to the papers to see the latest inflammatory thing the president had said. This perhaps excessive interest, boosting newspaper readership, is over.

While he said it was hard to praise a competitor, he pointed to the New York Times as knowing exactly who its readers are and drawing them in with both fun and useful features (e.g. Wirecutter or various puzzles, along with traditional news). The Washington Post, he said, will offer a different collection of things, as “we have to provide a package about every aspect of life that is just so compelling that you just want to buy it.”

The recent cutting of jobs at the Post this October is part of the process. He said, “These layoffs are getting us to a reasonable cruising speed, and while we are doing this discovery, we will not lose a ton of money.”

Ignatius had a few words of comfort for the Mirror-Spectator too: “Your newspaper has a specific mission. It has a community. Its community wants the news that you provide. I don’t know how you finance it but I do know that you have a mission that is not likely to go away. It has lasted nearly 100 years, and I can imagine it lasting 100 years more in different forms because you know what your job is… You have a brand that people trust.”

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