Washington the Unaccountable
May 7, 2004
What is perhaps most striking about the Iraq debacle what distinguishes it from almost any other geopolitical disaster in modern history is the lack of accountability so far from those in government who dreamt up the policies and those in the news media who played along.
Throughout American history, leaders who screwed up on the battlefield, in particular, paid with their careers. Abraham Lincoln went through a revolving door of Union commanders who were blamed for the Civil Wars early defeats. John F. Kennedy shook up the Central Intelligence Agency after the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Ronald Reagan fired subordinates implicated in the Iran-Contra Affair. But now a perverse system of rewards and punishments has taken hold in Washington, protecting those who get it wrong and banishing those who get it right.
People who raised early questions about the Iraq War, such as former weapons inspector Scott Ritter, were subjected to ugly attacks before the war and now have largely disappeared from view although their skepticism proved prescient. Conversely, government officials who smugly marched American troops off to war and journalists who bought the government's lies, to date, have flourished. The only accountability so far is being directed against lower-level military personnel who committed individual abuses, such as the guards at the Abu Ghraib prison and their immediate superiors.
At the top, George W. Bush has turned his refusal to apologize for his own mistakes almost into a political fetish, a stubbornness that has made him even more beloved by many of his supporters. Only grudgingly, in the face of an international firestorm, did he say Thursday that he "was sorry for the humiliation suffered by Iraqi prisoners" at Abu Ghraib. As of the writing of this article, Bush has dug in his heels and refused to hold any of his senior political-military people accountable.
CIA Director George Tenet has kept his job despite presiding over two of the biggest intelligence blunders in modern U.S. history: the failure to prevent the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the false analysis on Iraqs alleged weapons of mass destruction. Bush says, too, he retains confidence in Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld despite his bungled war planning that left U.S. forces stretched far too thin and despite the Iraq prison abuse scandal.
Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz remains in place although he led Bush administration officials into Iraq with visions of a flower-strewn cakewalk dancing in their heads. More recently in congressional testimony, Wolfowitzs estimate of U.S. casualties missed by a couple of hundred the correct number of dead U.S. soldiers in Iraq.
Its approximately 500, of which I can get the exact numbers approximately 350 are combat deaths, Wolfowitz said at a budget hearing on April 29. The exact numbers actually were 722 U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq, with 521 listed as combat fatalities, an error margin for Wolfowitzs guesstimate of about 30 percent. Wolfowitzs inattention to the number of Americans killed carrying out his policies led New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd to observe that this administration is the opposite of The Sixth Sense. They dont see any dead people. [NYT, May 2, 2004]
Secretary of State Colin Powell is another tarnished official who stays in office, although he now is letting it be known through surrogates that he was uncomfortable with his role hyping and even lying about U.S. intelligence on Iraqs alleged WMD during a speech at the United Nations in February 2003. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said in an interview with GQ magazine that the speech was a source of great distress for the secretary. [Washington Post, May 6, 2004]
Not only did Powell let his prestige be used to give credibility to questionable WMD analysis but he embroidered intercepted quotes from Iraqi officials, adding words to the transcript to make their comments seem to prove that the Iraqis were removing illegal weapons before a U.N. inspection.
Powell read from the supposed transcript of one Iraqis words: We sent you a message yesterday to clean out all of the areas, the scrap areas, the abandoned areas. Make sure there is nothing there.
What the full State Department transcript said, however, was: We sent you a message to inspect the scrap areas and the abandoned areas. There was no order to clean out all of the areas and there was no instruction to make sure there is nothing there. [Powells apparent fabrication of the transcript was first reported by Gilbert Cranberg, a former editor of the Des Moines Registers editorial pages.]
Powell, a favorite of Washington insiders, has continued to defend his U.N. testimony.
In the U.S. news media, theres also been little or no accountability for journalists who swallowed the administrations propaganda whole.
Some cable news channels, such as MSNBC, wrapped themselves in the American flag while silencing vocal critics of Bushs case for war. Eager to reposition itself ideologically more in line with Fox News, MSNBC canceled Phil Donahues program, which was one of the few national shows to give a voice to Iraq War critics. Then, MSNBC promoted story after story pounding out a pro-war theme, including repeated remotes from one diner that had renamed French fries "Freedom Fries." During the early phases of the war, MSNBC broadcast upbeat tributes to U.S. troops under the title Americas Bravest.
On the print side, a few columnists, such as Richard Cohen, have admitted that they didnt show enough skepticism before the war, but their lapses in professional standards have had no serious repercussions. These columnists have simply adopted a more critical tone now as that posture has become safer amid the obvious shortcomings of Bushs Iraq policy.
As Mickey Kaus once observed, among Washington insiders, "theres no honor in being right too soon." A corollary to that observation is that there is no danger in being wrong too often as long youre in step with the citys dominant conventional wisdom. In other words, in Washington, its always safer to run with the herd, while there are almost no rewards for going off in a different direction.
Events, however, can redirect the herd as has been apparent during the surge in U.S. combat deaths in April and the prison abuse scandal of May. Some prominent columnists have slid quietly from war backers to war critics.
For one, the erudite conservative commentator George F. Will finally has had enough of the shoddy or wishful thinking that has passed for policy analysis over the past three years. In a May 4 column, Will singled out Bushs use of the race card against critics as particularly offensive.
Will quotes Bushs Rose Garden remarks of April 30: Theres a lot of people in the world who dont believe that people whose skin color may not be the same as ours can be free and self-govern, Bush said as he stood next to Canadas prime minister. I reject that. I reject that strongly. I believe that people who practice the Muslim faith can self-govern. I believe that people whose skins arent necessarily are a different color than white can self-govern.
Its unclear whom Bush meant by the lot of people with this racist attitude. But Bushs point presumably was that liberals are hypocritical when they disagree with his strategy of imposing democracy on Iraq by force. So he has caricatured their doubts about feasibility and cost in human life into an assumption that they are racist against Muslims.
Will sees Bushs race-card argument as antithetical to true conservatism: What he [Bush] suggested was: Some persons perhaps many persons; no names being named, the smear remained tantalizingly vague doubt his nation-building project because they are racists. That is one way to respond to questions about the wisdom of thinking America can transform the entire Middle East by constructing a liberal democracy in Iraq. But if any Americans want to be governed by politicians who short-circuit complex discussions by recklessly imputing racism to those who differ with them, such Americans do not usually turn to the Republican choice in our two-party system. [Washington Post, May 4, 2004]
Another Iraq War supporter, New York Times international affairs columnist Thomas L. Friedman, also has begun expressing doubts in the wake of the Abu Ghraib scandal. We are in danger of losing something much more important than just the war in Iraq, Friedman wrote. We are in danger of losing America as an instrument of moral authority and inspiration in the world. I have never known a time in my life when America and its president were more hated around the world than today. [NYT, May 6, 2004]
As much as these subtle shifts in the punditocracy may signal political dangers for the Bush administration, readers might wonder why they should heed the commentary of opinion-leaders who have let them down so often in the past when the conventional-wisdom winds were blowing in a different direction.
Though the major news media often disdains the irresponsible Internet, more journalistic skepticism was apparent at some Web sites (including our own Consortiumnews.com) than was on display at major news organizations.
Like other outlets that went against the grain in the past two years, we received our share of hostile e-mails questioning our patriotism or our sanity. But many of our early stories have stood the test of time. [As examples, see Consortiumnews.coms The Politics of Preemption; Misleading the Nation to War; Bay of Pigs Meets Blackhawk Down; and Bush's Iraqi Albatross.]
One can argue that the reason smaller U.S. news outlets as well as foreign media could lead the way in questioning the Bush administrations version of reality is that they have less to lose. The bigger outlets and their talking-head commentators could face a major loss of income if they wandered too far afield.
Media corporations could lose advertising or face a public backlash from Bush supporters. TV news personalities could find themselves out in the cold rather than sitting by the warmth of their six- and seven-figure salaries. They could be the next Phil Donahue, who had to face not only a loss of income but the humiliation of an abrupt cancellation.
While no heads have rolled among commentators who bought into the administrations bogus WMD claims, one could only imagine how quickly the ax would have fallen on the likes of Scott Ritter if WMD caches had been found. Even after Ritters skepticism was vindicated, commentators on Fox News were still demanding that he be investigated for possible treason. [For details, see Consortiumnews.coms Why U.S. Intelligence Failed.]
In other words, standing up to the Bush administration has huge downside risks and virtually no upside, a dynamic that has come to represent a serious threat to Americas democratic institutions. Until that imbalance is addressed possibly requiring new well-funded and honest media outlets that put the rewards and punishments back in some rational order the pressure to cave in can be expected to continue.
Disney Corp., for instance, has shied away from distributing Michael Moores Fahrenheit 911, a documentary critical of Bushs handling of the Sept. 11 attacks and highlighting the Bush familys close ties to the Saudi royal family. Disney officials denied that they were afraid of retaliation from the Bushes.
Instead, Disney cited possible concern among customers who might be offended by Disneys role in distributing a film critical of the president during an election year. Disneys position is similar to the pre-war stance of MSNBC and other news outlets that went out of their way not to offend Americans who supported Bush.
The supposed theory is that by demonstrating national unity and pushing dissent to the margins the news media is helping protect American interests and save American lives (while presumably boosting ratings, too). The tragic reality, however, is that by throttling debate and making war an easier option, these outlets may have put U.S. interests in greater danger and put U.S. soldiers at unnecessary risk.
The shortsightedness of the earlier censorship should be apparent given the events in Iraq over the past several weeks. The danger of a drawn-out occupation should have been more carefully evaluated, both because of the dangers inherent in an emerging nationalistic insurgency and the likelihood that eventually some American troops would engage in wrongdoing that would discredit the entire operation.
While the national debate now turns to how best to extricate U.S. forces from this bloody debacle and how severely to punish U.S. reservists for committing abuses at Abu Ghraib prison, some attention should be paid to other lessons to be learned. The recent painful experiences -- the deaths of scores of American soldiers and the world's loss of respect for the United States -- are what happen when a powerful nation rushes to war without a full airing of the justifications.
The bodies of American soldiers that Paul Wolfowitz has lost count of and the anti-American hatred that Thomas Friedman encounters wherever he travels are the byproducts of a dysfunctional political/media system in Washington, one that not only ignores accountability but has turned the concept on its head.
While reporting for the Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s, Robert Parry broke many of the stories now known as the Iran-Contra Affair. He is working on a new book about the role of secrecy and privilege in the rise of the Bush Dynasty. (If you wish to help support that project, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to the Consortium for Independent Journalism.)
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