by Greg Mitchell
The Washington Post killed my assigned piece for its Outlook section this weekend which mainly covered media failures re: Iraq and the current refusal to come to grips with that (the subject of my latest book)–yet they ran this misleading, cherry-picking, piece by Paul Farhi claiming the media “didn’t fail.” I love the line about the Post in March 2003 carrying some skeptical pieces just days before the war started: “Perhaps it was too late by then. But this doesn’t sound like failure.”
Due to popular demand, I’m publishing below the assigned Outlook piece that I submitted to the Washington Post on Thursday. I see that the Post is now defending killing the piece because it didn’t offer sufficient “broader analytical points or insights.” I’ll let you decide if that’s true and why they might have rejected it.
The original appeared almost word-for-word at The Nation this weekend (there I added a reference to Bob Woodward and to Bob Simon). I had absolutely no plans to even mention that the piece was killed until late last night when I saw that Paul Farhi of the Post had written for Outlook a piece claiming that the media “didn’t fail” in the run-up to the Iraq war. That inspired me to write the post last night which has proved quite popular.
Here’s the original piece as submitted. For much more, see my new e-book.
For awhile, back in 2003, Iraq meant never having to say you’re sorry. The spring offensive had produced a victory in less than three weeks, with a relatively low American and Iraqi civilian death toll. Saddam fled and George W. Bush and his team drew overwhelming praise, at least here at home.
But wait. Where were the crowds greeting us as “liberators”? Why were the Iraqis now shooting at each other–and blowing up our soldiers? And where were those WMDs, bio-chem labs, and nuclear materials? Most Americans still backed the invasion, so it still too early for mea culpas–it was more “my sad” than “my bad.”
By 2004 it was clear that Saddam’s WMDs would never be found, but with another election season at hand, sorry was still the hardest word. But a few very limited glimmers of accountability began to appear. So let’s begin our catalog of the art of mea culpa and Iraq here.
PLAUSIBLE DENIABILITY President Bush and many others–including scores of Democrats–who once claimed “slam dunk” evidence on Iraq’s WMDs now admitted that this intelligence was more below-average than Mensa. But don’t blame them! They simply had been misled. Judith Miller of The New York Times, perhaps the prime fabulist in the run-up to war, explained that she was only as good as her sources–her sources having names like “Curveball” and “Red Cap Guy.”
But the news media, which for the most part had swallowed whole the WMD claims, was not facing re-election, so some self-criticism, at least of the “mistakes-were-made” variety came easier.
THE MINI-CULPA This phrase was coined by Jack Shafer of Slate after The New York Times published an “editors’ note” in May 2004, admitting it had publishing a few “problematic articles” (it didn’t mention any authors) on Iraqi WMDs, but pointing out it was “taken in” like most in the Bush administration. Unlike the Times, Washington Post editors three months later did not produce their own explanation but allowed chief media reporter Howard Kurtz to write a lengthy critique. Editors and reporters admitted they had often performed poorly but offered one excuse after another, with phrases such as “always easy in hindsight,” “editing difficulties,” “communication problems” and “there is limited space on Page 1.” One top reporter said, “We are inevitably the mouthpiece for whatever administration is in power. “
STONEWALLING As years passed, the carnage in Iraq intensified but accepting blame for this in America was still pretty much AWOL. President Bush and Vice President Cheney said that even if the WMD threat was bogus, they’d still do it again. Reason: They’d deposed a “dictator”–and would you rather have Saddam still in power?
Now let’s flash forward to this past two weeks, when Iraq (remember Iraq?) re-emerged in the news and opinion sections. But anyone who expected that hair shirts would come into fashion must have been sadly disappointed. The “mea culpas” would not be “maxima.” First, those who accepted some blame.
LIMITED HANGOUT STRATEGY David Frum, the former Bush speechwriter, wrote well over a thousand words at the Daily Beast describing multiple reasons for promoting the war before very briefly concluding, “Those of us who were involved—in whatever way—bear the responsibility.” While adding: “I could have set myself on fire in protest on the White House lawn and the war would have proceeded without me.” Jonathan Chait at New York offered regrets for backing the war but defended believing in Saddam’s WMD and recalled that “supporting the war was cool and a sign of seriousness.” And: “The people demanding apologies today will find themselves being asked to supply apologies of their own tomorrow.”
YOUNG AND DUMBER Ezra Klein apologized in a Bloomberg column, at great length, for supporting the war–when he was eighteen, and “young and dumb.” Charles P. Pierce at Esquire replied, “It is encouraging that he no longer believes in fairy tales.”
MEA (AND A LOT OF OTHERS) CULPA Stephen Hadley, Bush’s national security adviser, wrote at Foreign Policy: “It never occurred to me or anyone else I was working with, and no one from the intelligence community or anyplace else ever came in and said, ‘What if Saddam is doing all this deception because he actually got rid of the WMD and he doesn’t want the Iranians to know?’ Now, somebody should have asked that question. I should have asked that question. Nobody did.”
SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK Thomas Friedman, famous author and New York Times columnist, admitted that the U.S. had “paid too high a price” for the 2003 invasion (which he supported, but did not now mention) but, hey, there was still a decent chance that good would come from it–if only those ungrateful Iraqis would stop blowing each other up and form a stable democracy. David Ignatius at the Washington Post offered his regrets but observed that at least “the surge” worked and saved lives (although Rajiv Chandraskaran at the Post calls this a “myth”).
Now for those who accepted little or no blame:
WHO, MEA? Paul Wolfowitz, the former deputy Pentagon chief, in an interview fiercely denied he was the architect of the disaster. Afterall, “I didn’t meet with him [Bush] very often.” The New York Times in an editorial pointed fingers at the bad actors who helped get us into the war but somehow did not recognize any “me” in “mess.” (The Washington Post got around this by not publishing an editorial on the subject at all.) Peter Beinart at The Daily Beast blamed the war on American “hubris” but did not reveal that he (hubristically?) backed the war himself.
THAT’S MY STORY AND I’M STICKING TO IT Dick Cheney in a new Showtime documentary said he’d do it all again. “I feel very good about it. If I had to do it over again, I’d do it in a minute.” Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair concurred. Donald Rumsfeld tweeted (yes) about “liberating” 25 million Iraqis. He failed to recall when he said the war would last at most six months. Richard Perle, former chairman of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board, said that asking if the war was worth it was “not a reasonable question. What we did at the time was done in the belief that it was necessary to protect this nation.”
IF WE’D ONLY KNOWN! George Will on ABC: “If in 2003 we’d known what we know now — the absence of weapons of mass destruction, the difficulty of governing and occupying a society in which, once you lop off the regime, you’re going to have a civil war in a sectarian tribal society — the answer I think is obviously no.”
BLAME IT ON THE HANDLERS Kenneth Pollack of Brookings, one of the most influential proponents of the war, now says that he had a different war in mind and the occupation was handled incompetently, asserting, “it didn’t have to be this bad.”
Now let’s revisit my recent posts here on when probe in the Post itself by Howard Kurtz in 2004 showed that it failed big time. For one thing, Kurtz tallied more than 140 front-page Post stories “that focused heavily on administration rhetoric against Iraq”–with all but a few of those questioning the evidence buried inside. Editors there killed, delayed or buried key pieces by Ricks, Walter Pincus, Dana Priest and others. The Post‘s David Ignatius went so far as offering an apology to readers this week for his own failures. Also consider Bob Woodward’s reflections here and here. He admitted he had become a willing part of the the “groupthink” that accepted faulty intelligence on the WMDs.
Woodward, shaming himself and his paper, once said it was risky for journalists to write anything that might look silly if WMD were ultimately found in Iraq. Rather than look silly, they greased the path to war. “There was an attitude among editors: Look, we’re going to war, why do we even worry about all the contrary stuff?” admitted the Post’s Pentagon correspondent Thomas Ricks in 2004. And this classic from a top reporter, Karen DeYoung: “We are inevitably the mouthpiece for whatever administration is in power.“ See my review, at the time, of how the Post fell (hook, line, and sinker) for Colin Powell’s fateful U.N. speech–and mocked critics. Not a “fail”?
In Farhi’s piece, Len Downie, the longtime Post editor, is still claiming, with a shrug, hey, we couldn’t have slowed or halted the war anyway. Farhi agrees with this. Nothing to see here, move along.
Kurtz last week called the media failure on Iraq the most egregious in “modern times,” which echoes my book. This week neither the Post nor The New York Times published an editorial admitting any shortcomings in their Iraq coverage. Back in 2003, the Times at least called for caution in invading Iraq, in editorials. On the other hand, as Bill Moyers pointed out, in the six months leading up to the U.S. attack on the Iraq, the Post “editorialized in favor of the war at least 27 times.”