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A Whole New Twist, Fraught with Risk: The Perils of an Anti-War Voice in a Talk Radio World

By Neal Shaffer
February 24, 2003

WBAL Radio (AM 1090, Baltimore) is not much different from most fifty thousand watt, big-city stations. It’s got excellent news and sports coverage, a mid-morning wacky-guy whose capabilities are suspect at best, Rush Limbaugh on the syndicated feed, and a virtual corner on the market. It is, like many news and entertainment sources, useful but often numbing. In a world chock full of impudent pundits—like Bill O’Reilly and the aforementioned Mr. Limbaugh—it’s hard to imagine such a local outlet having anything meaningful to add to the din. But unlike WBAL, other local stations don’t have Ron Smith.

For the past 18 years Smith, a 61-year-old ex-Marine with an impressive list of journalistic credentials, has occupied WBAL’s 3-6 p.m. slot. He is, like most radio talk show hosts, a conservative. But what defines him more than that is his approach—one that places a premium on a thorough reasoning of every idea and opinion he expresses. Whereas the tendency for most in his position is to use their post to mouth off on behalf of one special interest or another, Smith is seeking idea exchange on a higher plane. While it’s often easy to disagree with him, it’s never easy to pigeonhole him. And the standard he applies to his own ideas forces his listeners (those who are actually listening, anyway) to apply that same standard to theirs.

Oddly enough, it is this very approach that has lately been getting Smith in hot water. His willingness to think freely has led him to a conclusion that is as widely unpopular as any he has ever voiced (and he is no stranger to controversy): he is opposed to Bush’s impending invasion of Iraq. Needless to say, this does not sit well with his core fan base of conservatives who have, by and large, bought Bush’s Iraq line, and who can’t understand how anyone on the right—with them—could manage to not do the same.

"It puts me in a very, very stressful position ... it puts me at odds with an awful lot of my core audience who are patriotic Americans who believe what the government tells them." Smith says these words on a recent Monday, an hour before show time. He goes on to point out that the natural flow of ideas from authority figures in the media and the government has resulted in a large number of people on both sides of the political spectrum believing that Iraq is a threat, and that the only way to deal with it is war. These are not the usual thoughts of a conservative. But these are unprecedented times. Smith’s status as a conservative and his views on the Iraq war combine to epitomize a key element of our national crisis. Dissenting voices—whether they are simply anti-war or would merely like to see more evidence and better reasoning than what the Bush administration has supplied—are not being taken seriously.

Smith’s voice is, at the moment, the sort of voice that is most desperately in need of amplification. His critiques of the Iraq policy are simple, reasoned, and intelligent: that it is "needlessly risky," that the real reasons don’t jibe with the stated reasons, that it may not be in our best long term interests, that Iraq, in fact, poses no legitimate threat to U.S. interests, and that the hawks have simply not made a convincing case.

"After Sept. 11 it was absolutely proper that we track down those responsible for the attack on us. But to conflate this war against Iraq with the attack on us is just insupportable. There’s no evidence of it, there’s no likelihood of it as a matter of fact. All of the twisting and turning and distorting and insistence ... to the contrary ... every time they do this they can’t come up with any plausible evidence. So we’re just supposed to take it on faith, and I think that’s just not a very smart thing to do."

"The idea that we should blindly support a war against a nation-state that has never attacked us is bizarre. It’s a whole new twist, fraught with risk."

Smith’s history of military service and his past support for aggressive national policies such as the first Gulf War make him an odd addition to any anti-war movement. What that shows is the very different character of this conflict and the opposition to it. There are those who are anti-war for the simple sake of being anti-war, and their voices necessarily rise up whenever any military action occurs. What we’re seeing with this war is the development of an opposition movement characterized not by politics or even morals, but by a simple understanding that this particular war is ill-conceived and potentially dangerous.

Though it’s not his stated intention, Smith’s position highlights the hypocrisy of similarly situated members of the media on both sides of the aisle. The media is, by and large and at all levels, supportive of this war. Their drumbeat has propped up public opinion and freed Bush from his obligation (not that he would have fulfilled it anyway) to be forthright. While other pundits are hard at work finding ways to make their support sound unique and irrefutable, Smith stands alone in taking a skeptical approach.

In the few weeks since he spoke for this piece there have been two major policy events: Bush’s State of the Union speech and Powell’s speech at the United Nations. Smith remains unconvinced for the same reasons that he’s always been unconvinced, but the wrath of his callers seems to have increased. He is forced, day in and day out, to repeat his reasoning as if he’s on a loop that only a select few can hear. The impulse that drives people to accept Bush’s policies on faith is the same impulse that compels them to ignore or twist any contrary voice.

Which is why it’s important that he continues to do what he’s doing, and why it’s important for people to know that he’s doing it. There has to be, at least theoretically, a point at which a new impulse emerges, one that is driven by reason rather than faith. One that puts aside the emotions associated with an unsettled era and places a premium on measured thought. In that space is the ever-elusive common ground between left and right.

"These things all begin with the idea that they’re going to turn out in just such a way. But anyone with even a cursory knowledge of history knows that that’s the last thing that happens when you embark on a war."

To callers and critics who state that he is simply "wrong," Smith offers the very cogent response of "time will tell." It will, indeed, but in the meantime it is a worthwhile endeavor to do what we can to preempt the vengeance of history.