Oct 1 2007

Protecting the ‘Surge’ With War ‘Critics’

When Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, came back to Washington in September to defend the current troop escalation, his path was smoothed in the media by two unlikely “critics.”

On July 30, Michael O’Hanlon and Ken Pollack of the Brookings Institution penned a New York Times op-ed headlined “A War We Just Might Win.” Two long-time advocates of the Iraq War declaring that they still support the war might not seem particularly newsworthy; but many U.S. media outlets presented the pair as war critics who had come to reconsider their opposition, and as a clear sign that progress was being made in Iraq.

ABC World News anchor Charles Gibson (7/30/07) introed a story on the op-ed:

A bit of a surprise today on Iraq. Two long and persistent critics of the Bush administration’s handling of the war today wrote a column in the New York Times saying that after a recent eight-day visit to Iraq, they find significant changes taking place.

Fox News‘ Brit Hume (Special Report, 8/1/07) referred to them as “liberal war critics Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollock of Brookings Institution.” Fox‘s Jennifer Griffin (Fox News All-Stars, 8/20/07) reported that “Brookings Institution war critics Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack…changed their views after seeing some of the military successes first-hand.”

CNN‘s John Roberts described the duo as “two fierce critics of the Bush administration’s prosecution of this war” (American Morning, 7/31/07). And CBS anchor Harry Smith (Morning News, 7/31/07) introduced O’Hanlon by saying, “Is the American troop surge working and should it be continued? You’d be surprised to hear what a longtime critic of American strategy in Iraq thinks.”

These assessments neglected to take into account Pollack and O’Hanlon’s actual records as supporters of both the invasion of Iraq and the troop escalation Pollack, in fact, published an influential book in 2002 titled The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq. O’Hanlon himself doesn’t accept the label applied to him by much of the press, telling Salon‘s Glenn Greenwald (8/12/07): “I was not a critic of this war…. I was a supporter.”

Still, CBS‘s David Martin reported (7/30/07) that “a critic like Michael O’Hanlon, who used to think the surge was too little too late, now believes it should be continued.” This despite his January 14 op-ed in the Washington Post, headlined “A Skeptic’s Case for the Surge.”

At times, media went out of their way to keep the authors’ record from exposure. A caller to Rebecca Roberts’ interview with Pollack on NPR (Talk of the Nation, 7/30/07) reminded the audience of Pollack’s hawkish resume:

Ken Pollack was the fellow you guys had on, on the eve of the Iraq War [All Things Considered, 11/10/02], who came on and said Saddam Hussein was, you know, just months or a couple of years away from attacking everybody with nuclear weapons. I’ve been furious with him and with NPR since that day…. He’s got no credibility with me, and I don’t see why the American people should believe anything from him.

Roberts quickly replaced the challenging remarks with a friendlier question: “Ken Pollack, outside of the personal issues of your credibility, do you think it’s gotten to the point where the American public is finding it awfully hard to believe any good news about Iraq?”

To the war effort’s advantage, everybody in this situation can be right without even trying: O’Hanlon and Pollack get the credibility of critics rather than supporters of a discredited war, while media can present high volumes of war propaganda (O’Hanlon and Pollack appeared in nine TV interviews the day following the op-ed’s publication) as fresh, surprising iconoclasm rather than tired official talking points.

And, predictably enough, the administration can use the “liberal” think tank voices for their own ends. Asked by CNN‘s Larry King (7/31/07) if he saw progress in Iraq, Dick Cheney said: “I believe so…. Don’t take it from me. Look at the piece that appeared yesterday in the New York Times, not exactly a friendly publication–but a piece by Mr. O’Hanlon and Mr. Pollack on the situation in Iraq.”

One can’t help but recall Cheney’s famous Meet the Press appearance on September 8, 2002, where he promoted the claim that Saddam Hussein was seeking to enrich uranium. Cheney’s evidence: an article by Michael Gordon and Judith Miller in that same day’s New York Times.