With polls showing growing opposition to the Iraq War and an increasing distrust for the White House, one might think that the press corps would be willing to re-examine how the threat from Iraq‘s supposed weapons of mass destruction was used to lead the country into war. But for many pundits, the origins of the Iraq War are old news.
As the Washington Post‘s David Broder argued on NBC‘s Meet the Press (11/27/05), there’s no point in raising such questions: “This whole debate about whether there was just a mistake or misrepresentation or so on is, I think, from the public point of view largely irrelevant. The public’s moved past that. The public wants to know what we’re going to do next in Iraq.” (The 44 percent of the public that wants to see a withdrawal from Iraq, according to a October 30-November 2 ABC-Washington Post poll, is out of luck, however; Broder added that Rep. John Murtha’s advocacy of withdrawing U.S. troops “certainly crystalized the debate about the possibility of an immediate withdrawal, but that was very quickly rejected.”)
When Sen. John Kerry accused Vice President Dick Cheney of making “misleading” arguments about the state of the intelligence on Iraq, U.S. News & World Report‘s Gloria Borger (12/5/05) was unimpressed: “Ah, ‘misleading.’ Didn’t we live through that argument already? In fact, wasn’t that in the Democratic talking points in the 2004 election? Are we still arguing over who lied or did not lie about WMD?”
Borger doesn’t explain why these old debates are worth nothing more than a roll of the eyes. She does, however, try to argue that her attitude conforms to public opinion: “Democrats and Republicans may not be over the finger-pointing, but the public has moved beyond the blame game–and is clearly growing impatient.” Her evidence: a poll that “shows that 51 percent of Americans would like to elect someone other than their current politicians to Congress.” How that demonstrates a public unwillingness to debate the pre-war Iraq intelligence is not clear.
Fox News Channel‘s Bill O’Reilly spun the issue in terms of politics (11/17/05): “You got to know that a lot of Democrats, particularly on the far left, far left, OK, are undermining the president’s position in the world, in the world, by calling him a liar, saying that he juiced up the intelligence, that he knew it was false, and invaded anyway. This hurts not only the United States everywhere in the world, but it hurts our military people as well.” But a Pew poll in early November (11/3-6/05) found that 43 percent of respondents believed the White House lied about Iraq’s WMD programs. Such poll numbers suggest that, by O’Reilly’s standards, more than two-fifths of Americans are on the “far left.”
O’Reilly’s colleague Brit Hume (Fox News Sunday, 11/27/05), on the other hand, took the position that public opinion, at least for now, is irrelevant: “The Iraqi forces and the U.S. forces are winning. Iraq is moving forward. This is all happening. It’s unfolding. And when it does and proceeds to its logical conclusion, this war will, for all intents and purposes, have been won. Iraq will not be a terrorist state, and the world will be better off and the public will, in the fullness of time, know that. You can’t expect the public to get it right every minute of every day at all times.” An odd stance to take for the main anchor of a news outlet whose slogan is, “We report, you decide.”
Newsweek columnist Fareed Zakaria at least acknowledged (12/5/05) that “why and how we got into this war are important questions,” before writing: “But the paramount question right now should not be ‘What did we do about Iraq three years ago?’ It should be ‘What should we do about Iraq today?'” This is more important, he writes, because the White House has a “political-military strategy for Iraq that is sophisticated and workable.” Zakaria–whose column is headlined “Panic Is Not the Solution”–writes that Democrats should not respond to the GOP’s partisan attacks, since “in responding in equally partisan fashion they could well precipitate a tragedy. Just as our Iraq policy has been getting on a firmer footing, the political dynamic in Washington could move toward a panicked withdrawal.”
With multiple reports of widespread torture and death squad killings on the part of the U.S.-backed government (New York Times, 11/28/05, Los Angeles Times, 11/28/05), with the former U.S.-installed Prime Minister Ayad Allawi comparing the current human rights situation in Iraq to conditions under Saddam Hussein’s regime (Observer, 11/27/05), and with a gathering of Iraqi leaders from all the major sects calling for a pull-out of U.S. forces (New York Times, 11/22/05), it’s hard to see how U.S. policy there can be described as being on a “firmer footing.”
While elite journalists argue that public debate is somehow incapable of tackling more than one important question at a time, their real concern may be that a robust discussion of pre-war intelligence could very well leave all sides–Republicans, Democrats and the mainstream media as well–looking culpable for the Iraq War. That could explain why some in the press have long been opposed to examining the White House’s record of deception. The Downing Street Memos, for example, leaked to the British press corps last May, were largely ignored by the U.S. press corps because the questions they raised about White House intelligence manipulation were already considered “old news.”
One can certainly understand why many in the media would be reluctant to revisit a period in which they and their colleagues failed to do the most fundamental job of the press, which is to serve as a reality check on government claims (see FAIR’s “Bush Uranium Lie Is Tip of the Iceberg“). To avoid such a look back, however, only prolongs their dereliction of duty.