During this past week on the 20th anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq and the ensuing war one fundamental question on many people’s minds is how it all started. For those who were either too young to remember, or those who were not paying attention at the time or who were not yet born the answer is pivotal in understanding the devastating war and its legacy.
In answering this important question, a panel discussion on March 22 was presented by the Quincy Institute and co-sponsorsed by the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University (GWU) and others, titled, “How the Media Marched Us to War in Iraq and Beyond.”
The panel was hosted by Breaking Points’ Kristal Ball and included journalists Peter Beinart, Institute of Middle East Studies GWU, Reuters’ National Security correspondent Jonathan Landay and Kelley Beaucar Vlahos of the Quincy Institute. In a statement promoting the discussion, the Quincy Institute succinctly answered the question by saying that “American mainstream media utterly failed its duty to the public in the lead up to the invasion of Iraq, largely opting to cheerlead (rather than question) the Bush administration’s arguments and plans for the war.”
Early on most tellingly among statements that a war with Iraq was looming, was that of President George W. Bush who famously whined at a political fundraiser in Texas when referring to Iraqi president Saddam Hussein by labeling him as “the guy who tried to kill my dad.”
America’s “War on Terror” with Iraq was centered on the Bush administration’s misuse of intelligence in creating various narratives for an invasion including as a payback for the attack on the World Trade Center by al-Qaida on September 11, 2001. Conceived around a rubric of a “good war” that would be beneficial to the Iraqi people by removing Saddam along with his weapons of mass destruction (WMD) the need for a war was deemed a patriotic duty. Installing a democratic government and freeing the Iraqi people was touted as a winning strategy. At least that’s what many people thought. But not everyone.
Only one component was missing to which few asked and went unanswered. And that was why a war on Iraq in part to avenge the 9/11 attack was justified when 15 of the 19 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia. The subject was seldom broached and barely discussed.
The answer to that great mystery of course is that you simply do not bomb the largest producer of oil in the world and expect the international financial system to survive unscathed. In this instance it was better to err on the side of profit by not holding them accountable.
But conveniently a better way to start a war was in vilifying a nearby tyrant in seeking a means to satisfy America’s desire for revenge and even more urgently so after “learning” that Saddam was manufacturing WMDs and had a nuclear program.
Describing the mood in the US at the time, journalist Jonathan Landay said we had “people driving around all over the country with bumper stickers of “Support our troops” and you had Bush going to the World Trade Center making that speech… The amount of flag waving ‘knee jerk nationalism’ was enormous.”
This hyper nationalism was stirred by mainstream media who in their usual non-stop coverage were making hefty profits on ad revenue with all the related news. Landry went on to say: “I’m not sure that other news organizations wanted to lose revenue particularly on TV by doing reporting that was going against the grain.”
To promote an invasion, reporters were being spoon fed “inside information” from “undisclosed sources” in disseminating narratives crafted to create a path to war. Stories about portable labs driving around Iraq manufacturing biological weapons along with Iraq’s purchase of aluminum tubes and “yellow cake” that were reported as being used in his nuclear weapons program were cause for great concern.
By lassoing reputable journalists like NY Times Judith Miller who published “Scoops” from Ahmad Chalabi as her main source, a bleak and diabolical picture of Saddam’s capabilities was painted. Those articles in turn helped create a narrative for the need of immediate intervention to counter that threat. They were soon widely disseminated through other media sources in a frenzy that allowed for the softening of public opinion for an invasion and war.
Landay, who was a reporter at Knight Ridder at the time, was among a small pool of journalists who resisted the shark feeding frenzy for a war with Iraq. His was a “voice in the woods” in an era before the internet when editors could kill a story by simply not publishing or broadcasting it. Unlike in today’s world where killing a story is useless as it can gain new life by being published on social media to a worldwide audience with just the push of a button.
Another reason he cited for many reporters not deeply questioning the reasons to go to war was “access journalism.” Washington political journalists are dependent on well-placed political operatives as sources and “you don’t want to go up against these sources” or you will be cut off.
As one opposed to the war based on contrary evidence and sources in expressing his own doubts in exclusives, he wrote questioning the need for war. Landy said it left him “extremely lonely” since media support for the war was so overwheming. Some of the 32 Knight Ridder newspapers even “refused to run our stories. “Why? because it wasn’t in the New York Times, or the Washington Post, or the LA Times, or the networks.” He related that one of the company’s major newspapers tasked two reporters to fact check his articles “to see whether or not we were being led down the path by our sources.”
Peter Beinart, a one-time Iraq war supporter turned leading media critic, said he “got it wrong and made a catastrophic error in judgement by supporting the war” while other journalists and publications got it right. “They were much wiser than I.”
He went on to correlate a pattern that “If you look at the history of American war-making you tend to find that America is more interventionist when we have a lot of money around. The government was flush with cash.” The inference being that war-making with no budget deficit creates greater hubris.
The outcome of the panel discussion should function as a precautionary tale as to how a nation can be led into war by the manipulation and dissemination of information and disinformation by journalists in mainstream and now in social media. The stirring up of fervent nationalism through planted leaks, “intelligence” and other misinformation crafted upon buttressing public opinion can be a disastrous combination that shapes our collective future.
Journalism carries an awesome responsibility. When it gets it right it serves the public interest and when it gets it wrong it can have dire consequences.
Photo: Phil Pasquini
(This article has previously appeared in Nuzeink.)
Phil Pasquini is a freelance journalist and photographer. His reports and photographs appear in the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Pakistan Link and Nuze.ink. He is the author of Domes, Arches and Minarets: A History of Islamic-Inspired Buildings in America.
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