Never Apologize, Never Explain

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Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman

In order to support the Bush administration's case for war against Iraq, it was necessary to believe, as Chicago Tribune columnist Steve Chapman wrote at the time, "Here in America, there is general agreement that we are right and everybody else on Earth is wrong." Yet as much of the nation has learned to its chagrin, not only were we not "right," we were deliberately misled about the most foundational aspects of the administration's case. As the respected intelligence analyst Thomas Powers recently concluded in The New York Review of Books, "In the six months since the President declared an end to major combat in Iraq not a single one of the factual claims about Iraqi weapons and links to al-Qaeda has been robustly confirmed, and in most cases there has been no confirmation of any kind whatsoever."

Add this to the fact that we now know that not only did the Bush administration mislead the nation and the world about its reasons for war, it also failed to do any remotely competent planning for the postwar aftermath — which remains a scene of unending chaos. And one would think those honest analysts who placed their faith in the administration's arguments for war and its ability to carry out a successful plan for Iraqi reconstruction would rethink that support as a result. This would be particularly true, one would imagine, for the editorial voices of America's major newspapers, whose roles in their respective communities –to say nothing of their charges under the First Amendment—depend on their established record for honesty and clear-sightedness. Alas, based on a thorough examination of the arguments of the editorial pages of four major U.S. newspapers by the journalist Chris Mooney in the new issue of Columbia Journalism Review, those newspapers that supported the Bush administration not only failed their readers during the run-up to the war; they have failed them ever since it ended as well.

Charles J. Hanley, an Associated Press reporter, subjected Powell's claims to detailed scrutiny in light of what was known at the time as well as later revelations and discovered that almost none of it was still standing; Powell misrepresented evidence, confused various organizations working in different parts of Iraq with those under Hussein's control, and did not submit what evidence he had to anything like the kind of scrutiny he pretended to. Meanwhile Gilbert Cranberg, former editorial page editor of the Des Moines Register, has published a study of the credulity of the newspapers' assessments of that speech that raises questions about their ability to submit the administration to any kind of scrutiny at all. In his study, he pointed out that Powell had "cited almost no verifiable sources. Many of his assertions were unattributed. The speech had more than 40 vague references such as "human sources," "an eyewitness," "detainees," "an al-Qaeda source," "a senior defector," "intelligence sources," and the like." Nevertheless, surveying the coverage of an allegedly skeptical media from some 40 papers from all parts of the country, we find the following:

"a massive array of evidence," "a detailed and persuasive case," "a powerful case," "a sober, factual case," "an overwhelming case," "a compelling case," "the strong, credible and persuasive case," "a persuasive, detailed accumulation of information," "the core of his argument was unassailable," "a smoking fusillade… a persuasive case for anyone who is still persuadable," "an accumulation of painstakingly gathered and analyzed evidence," "only the most gullible and wishful thinking souls can now deny that Iraq is harboring and hiding weapons of mass destruction," "the skeptics asked for proof; they now have it," "a much more detailed and convincing argument than any that has previously been told," "Powell's evidence… was overwhelming," "an ironclad case… incontrovertible evidence," "succinct and damning evidence… the case is closed," "Colin Powell delivered the goods on Saddam Hussein," "masterful," "If there was any doubt that Hussein… needs to be… stripped of his chemical and biological capabilities, Powell put it to rest."

Mooney's case focuses on just four newspapers and finds much the same story. The Washington Post, for instance, termed Powell's case, "irrefutable." Even the antiwar New York Times opined that Powell "may not have produced a 'smoking gun,'" but his speech left "little question that Mr. Hussein had tried hard to conceal one."

Most egregious in virtually every case was the behavior of the Wall Street Journal editors. Not only were they made to look like gullible rubes by the administration they so eagerly trusted, they seemed to think anyone who was not as easily fooled as they were did not deserve to be allowed even to debate the topic= Its editors termed Powell's false representation of the Iraqi threat to be "persuasive to anyone who is still persuadable," going so far as to buy into the demonstrably false charge that Hussein and Osama bin Laden were "brothers under the skin." In an editorial titled "Saddam and the Next 9/11," Mooney notes, the Journal dived in off the deep end to speculate that Hussein had ordered the October 2001 anthrax attacks.

It continued in this vein, castigating anyone with the intelligence and journalistic sense to question the administration's most outlandish assumptions. Comically, it denigrated the report of U.N. Weapons Inspector Mohammad El Baradei that demonstrated the falsity of so many of the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld/Wolfowitz/Rice/Powell claims, as a "public fuss … about one British-U.S. claim that turns out to have been false." In fact, Mooney notes, "El Baradei had challenged the entire notion that Iraq was seeking nuclear weapons, not 'one British-U.S. claim,'" but no matter. When, in February, Bush made a speech to the American Enterprise Institute promising that all in postwar Iraq would be wine and roses, the Wall Street hicks pronounced that this now forgotten Pollyannaish proclamation "made instantly irrelevant a forest of columns demanding to know, 'What about after the war?'" If anyone has any contact info for these editors, please pass it along to this columnist. I have a bridge in Brooklyn that I'd be willing to part with at an extra-special price.)

The Chicago Tribune was hardly any different, complaining of the "hysterical French," and the "axis of appeasement" that opposed the Bush administration rush to war. Mooney is quite a bit more generous to the editors of The Washington Post, but I think he is mistaken here. During the debate over the war, the paper adopted the McCarthyite tactic—much in favor at the Journal as well—of accusing those who thought Bush's war plans to be "standing with Saddam." Mooney is correct to credit the paper's editors with being more willing than the rest to reconsider their position in light of new evidence — though even Powell has gone on record saying he is hardly certain that he would have supported the war given what we now know — but in doing so, it has moved the ball well beyond its own prewar arguments.

Remember, the Post termed the war to be "an operation essential to American security" and even endorsed Powell's shaky claims of an alleged connection between Iraq and al Qaeda claims. It too, mocked the careful investigation of El Baradei that destroyed many of the administration false assertions as a "diversion."

Today, Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt tells Mooney, "Success or failure in the effort to stabilize Iraq under a reasonably representative government that poses no threat to the world will provide the ultimate answer to the question of whether the war should have been undertaken." But of course that was not why they said they supported the war in the first place. Back then, Hussein was a threat we could not allow to continue for another day, no matter whether the entire world said we were wrong. Well, we were wrong, and it doesn't seem to matter to those who staked their reputation on it. Iraq posed no threat to the United States until we invaded it. Perhaps the war can be defended as a purely humanitarian intervention—as Bush occasionally tries to do and as a few misguided liberals did before it began–but given everything that the alleged wise men and women of the nation's editorial pages claimed to help the administration make its case on national security grounds, somebody sure has some 'splainin' to do. We're still waiting.

Eric Alterman is a senior fellow of the Center for American Progress and the author of the books, What Liberal Media? The Truth about Bias and the News and The Book on Bush: How George W. is (Mis)leading America.

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