May 1 2003

O’Reilly’s War

Any rationale—or none—will do

We hope you depend on us for the truth, because we’re going to report the situation in Iraq without an agenda or any ideological prejudice.

—Bill O’Reilly (O’Reilly Factor, 1/17/03)

Not so long ago, Bill O’Reilly had no particular interest in the threat Iraq posed to the world (2/16/01): “You know, I don’t take Saddam Hussein all that seriously anymore as far as a world threat. Maybe I’m wrong and naive here. Should we be very frightened of this guy?”

If the Bill O’Reilly of today were to meet the Bill O’Reilly of 2001, he’d denounce him as an appeaser, a coward or much worse. As he fumed to one skeptical guest, the case for removing Saddam Hussein was well-established (1/14/03): “We have gone through this and through this and through this for more than a decade with this man.”

It’s true that O’Reilly has often explained just why the U.S. needed to go to war with Iraq, but the reasons he offered were often mutually contradictory or based on falsehoods. O’Reilly told viewers that his show was the place to get “the best coverage of Iraq” (2/14/03), but it actually offered a parade of logical inconsistencies and bungled facts.

On the question of Iraq’s banned weapons–perhaps the core rationale for going to war– O’Reilly displayed remarkable flexibility. “I can’t, in good conscience, tell the American people that I know for sure that he has smallpox or anthrax or he’s got nuclear or chemical and that he is ready to use that,” he declared in December 2002 (12/6/02). “I cannot say that as a journalist or an American.”

But by February 2003 (2/17/03), he was confidently asserting, “According to the U.N., he’s got anthrax, VX gas, ricin, and on and on.” This assertion was soon simplified (2/26/03): “This guy we know has anthrax and VX and all this stuff.”

To make matters even more confusing, on ABC’s Good Morning America on the eve of war (3/18/03), O’Reilly was back to his original position: “Here’s the bottom line on this for every American and everybody in the world: Nobody knows for sure, all right? We don’t know what he has. We think he has 8,500 liters of anthrax. But let’s see.”

The reason hunt

Throughout the debate that preceded the war, O’Reilly was on the hunt for any pretext that might justify an invasion. “We basically feel that he is a danger to our oil supply there,” he explained to one guest (1/14/03).

O’Reilly presented a more palatable justification in Iraq’s response to weapons inspections–or so he thought. “Saddam Hussein can kiss his ass goodbye,” O’Reilly gloated on his January 9 broadcast. “Chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix told the United Nations Security Council today that Saddam will not let inspectors interview Iraqi scientists.”

Not exactly. As the L.A. Times reported (1/10/03), “Referring to efforts to speak to Iraqi scientists, Blix told reporters after the meeting that a lot of interviews have been carried out and a lot of information has been gathered when inspectors visit installations.” (Blix did raise questions at that briefing about the completeness of the list of scientists provided by Iraq.)

Another rationale O’Reilly offered for going to war with Iraq was September 11. When the host (10/10/02) questioned Rep. Diane Watson (D.-Calif.) if she would have pursued diplomacy instead of war with Japan or Hitler, and she reminded him that the Japanese had “struck Pearl Harbor,” O’Reilly responded: “Alright. And we got wiped out at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.”

O’Reilly had been suggesting an Iraq link to September 11 as early as September 14, 2001: “Saddam Hussein…I believe is involved with this World Trade Center and Pentagon bombing. I believe that you’re going to find out that money from Iraq flowed in and helped this happen.” No such evidence has emerged in the year and a half since the attacks.

“Read the treaty”

O’Reilly also presents the case for war in legal terms. “Number one, he has violated the Gulf War surrender terms,” he explained (9/10/02). “Just that alone means the USA has a right to oust him.” As he argued (10/10/02) to Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D.-Texas), “We do have the moral authority to remove him because he violated the Gulf War treaty. Surely you understand that…. We can go in and morally remove him…. Read the treaty, congresswoman…. If he violates his terms, we can then resume hostilities.”

The Gulf War ended with a permanent cease-fire when Iraq formally accepted U.N. Security Council Resolution 686 in March 1991 (Washington Post, 3/4/91). That resolution required Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait, pay reparations for the damage they caused there and grant access to POWs. Another resolution, 687, was adopted by the Security Council in April 1991 and declared that “a formal cease-fire is effective between Iraq and Kuwait and the Member States cooperating with Kuwait.” Iraq accepted this as the final cease-fire terms on April 7 (New York Times, 4/8/03).

Though this second resolution did require significant Iraqi disarmament, it did not give a blank check to the U.S. or any other nation to resume war against Iraq. As Columbia University law professor Michael C. Dorf pointed out (, 3/19/03), Resolution 687 “stated the Security Council’s intention ‘to take as appropriate all necessary measures’ to guarantee the inviolability of the Iraq-Kuwait border,” while on the issue of disarmament, the Security Council resolved ‘to remain seized of the matter and to take such further steps as may be required for the implementation of the present resolution and to secure peace and security in the area.'” Note that the resolution authorized the Security Council, and not individual states, to take any needed actions.

What about liberating the Iraqi people–which seems to be the main justification offered by war supporters, at least after the fact? It would be hard for O’Reilly to maintain that that was his reason for wanting to go to war, in light of his January 24 “Talking Points” commentary:

Talking Points is distressed to see some American reporters doing sympathetic pieces about the Iraqi people. What they don’t mention is that after the Gulf War in 1991 the Iraqi people had the opportunity to overthrow this terrible dictator. They did not. Now the American people must provide billions of tax dollars in order to remove him. Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t have a lot of sympathy for the Iraqi people.


“One Hand Behind Our Back”

Once the war began, O’Reilly was immediately frustrated by two things: “negative” media coverage that portrayed the invasion as anything less than a smashing success, and the “politically correct” war being conducted by the U.S. and its allies. The politically incorrect strategy O’Reilly called for was the complete destruction of Baghdad, a city of 4.5 million residents (3/26/03):

There is a school of thought that says we should have given the citizens of Baghdad 48 hours to get out of Dodge by dropping leaflets and going with the AM radios and all that. Forty-eight hours, you’ve got to get out of there, and flatten the place. Then the war would be over. We could have done that in two days…. You flatten Baghdad, you flatten all the troops, we know where they go, there’s nowhere to hide in the desert. We know where everybody’s moving. And you know as well as I do, this war could have been over in two days…. It’s just frustrating for everybody to know that we have been fighting this war with one hand behind our back.

And let there be no doubt about where the real responsibility for the safety of the Iraqi people lies: “Now after we know that the final battle is going to come to Baghdad, that the people who remain in Baghdad, the civilians, bear some kind of responsibility for their own safety. Am I wrong?” O’Reilly’s guests that night were in agreement.


Creeping Streisandism

Diplomatic niceties are seldom the order of the day on the O’Reilly Factor–especially when people aren’t there to defend their positions. Actor Sean Penn, who visited Baghdad prior to the bombing, “is an idiot,” according to O’Reilly (1/2/03). “He doesn’t know anything. He has no frame of reference. He has no idea where he is, and he was allowed to be used by Saddam Hussein.”

O’Reilly had a whole list of Iraq-related enemies: “France, Britain, Barbra Streisand and Congressman Jim McDermott…. Saddam Hussein must be very happy with all those guys,” he asserted (10/3/02), explaining that McDermott “showed up last night on Phil Donahue’s program to justify his giving aid and comfort to Saddam while he was in Baghdad.”

Even this limited tolerance for dissent evaporated as war approached (2/26/03):

Once the war against Saddam begins, we expect every American to support our military, and if they can’t do that, to shut up. Americans, and indeed our allies, who actively work against our military once the war is underway will be considered enemies of the state by me. Just fair warning to you, Barbra Streisand, and others who see the world as you do.