LA Times column

Michael Ware speaks on CNN about President Obama’s plan to send more troops to Afghanistan.
(CNN / December 3, 2009)

Reporter crashes into the ranks of pundits James Rainey
December 4, 2009

All this talk about the couple who broke into the White House state dinner has been kind of interesting. But, for my money, the most fascinating gate-crasher this week on the Washington scene had to be Michael Ware.

I’m talking about the CNN foreign correspondent who, though invited, descended on the cable station’s otherwise temperate panels on Afghanistan like some feral creature from the vast, untamed Outback.

The unshaven, unruly and apparently unfettered Aussie appeared on seemingly every one of the cable station’s platforms in recent days, chiding President Obama for being unspecific, mocking the idea of anything like a clear “victory” in Afghanistan and warning of atrocities if America throws in with unsavory partners.

I’m told that news executives at the cable station quietly cheered Ware’s star turn after Obama’s Tuesday address on Afghanistan. I wouldn’t disagree that Ware’s brand of shock and awe — arguing with one colleague and returning repeatedly to the contradictory realities of war — made for great TV.

But what worries a few of Ware’s overseas colleagues, as one told me, is that the correspondent has morphed “from a really good, passionate reporter into a television personality.” In other words, Michael Ware, war correspondent, risks his considerable credibility the more he plays Michael Ware, political pundit.

He’s not the first and won’t be the last journalist on television who needs to be careful that his gifts as a reporter aren’t overwhelmed by the ratings-driven imperative to put on a better show.

I wrote not long ago about how a couple of other correspondents with substantial time in Iraq and Afghanistan — CBS’ Lara Logan and NBC’s Richard Engel — also risked their more powerful role as impartial witnesses by staking out positions on the Afghan war. (Logan favored Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s buildup, while Engel favored withdrawal.)

I tried but failed to reach Ware, who in previous interviews has revealed a connection to the wars that seems to have crossed from committed to obsessive. On returning to New York, he told a writer for Men’s Journal a year ago that he was struggling to adjust. “I don’t know,” he said, “how to come home.”

A native of Brisbane, Ware attended law school and played a lot of rugby, as evidenced by his wrong-way nose. He began writing for Time in 2001 and gained acclaim in Iraq as the rare journalist who reported from within insurgent encampments. Ware jumped to CNN three years ago.

Colleagues describe him as a daring and inquisitive reporter, garrulous and hard-drinking among the small fraternity of Western journalists abroad. His reputation grew after a fling with Logan and an alleged brawl with a rival suitor.

Going back several years, a fellow reporter said that Ware struggled to accept rotations out of the war zone that most correspondents craved.

“He looked forward to going. Then, when the time came to leave, he would already be talking about coming back to Baghdad,” said the associate, who asked not to be named lest he alienate Ware. “If he is not in a danger area, if he is not on television, then he believes he is a lesser person.”

In Afghanistan in September, Ware rode in an Afghan police truck that narrowly avoided an improvised explosive device. Now he’s based in New York and deployed to assignments around the world.

Sitting in the midst of one of CNN’s over-packed studio panels after Obama’s speech, Ware seemed not just interested but impelled to speak, intent on not having the prospects in Afghanistan romanticized.

He told host Anderson Cooper how crucial it was to engage not just the central government but also the far-flung warlords who control much of the country. Yes, some local leaders might fight the Taliban for cash, but that would present its own complications.

“If they say ‘There will be no Taliban in my district,’ then there will be no Taliban in their district,” Ware said. “And if they show up, they won’t just kill their wife and their father and their mother. They’ll kill their goats, their dogs and everything.”

A day later, Ware had tucked in his rumpled shirt and thrown on a sport jacket, but his picture of the war zone remained relentlessly unkempt realpolitik. “Bottom line, America did not go there to save Afghan women,” he said, “to educate Afghan children.”

Host Erica Hill seemed taken aback, arguing that many Americans would fight the notion they couldn’t do much to help average Afghans. Ware smiled and shrugged, responding: “It is what it is.”

You might think Ware’s rap would draw raves from the left, but he argued that Obama’s 30,000 troop buildup could help. The soldiers and Marines can’t “win” the way some conservatives imply, but they just might be able to clear enough space so the parties — including tribal leaders and the Afghan, Pakistani and Indian governments — can hammer out a political deal.

“With a couple of miracles and a sprinkle of luck,” he said, “it’s theoretically possible.”

I talked to several other war correspondents about Ware and, to a person, they admired his intelligence, bravery and reporting skills. They also wondered if he had become a little too enamored of his own persona.

Watching Ware, I was struck by competing impulses — charmed by this rough-hewn character, even as I wondered how much it has become studied; impressed by his repeated forays into danger but saddened at the thought he’s become a prisoner of his own compulsions.

He has many reasons to be impressed by his own knowledge but also should remind himself of what he can’t know.

“A lot of us can think we have spent so much time here that we see the big picture. But we don’t see the big picture,” said one reporter who worked with Ware in Iraq. “We were not in Washington or Brussels or wherever else the rest of the story was being told. We need to remember, no matter how much we learn, perhaps there are others who see the big picture better than we do.”

Copyright © 2009, The Los Angeles Times,0,11542.column