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'Failing Up' in the Iraq War

By Robert Parry
March 19, 2005

At the second anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, one poll found that 70 percent of Americans viewed the war’s casualties, including 1,500 American dead, as an unacceptably high price. Yet most U.S. politicians and pundits appear ready to plunge ahead toward the next 1,500 U.S. soldiers dying in Iraq.

In large part, that’s because the politicians and the pundits have come to recognize that they face virtually no career risk if they stick with or fawn over the Bush administration’s Middle East policies.

Indeed, possibly the most troubling commentary on today’s U.S. political/media system is that screwing up on the Iraq War has become almost a rite of passage to better jobs and higher honors. It’s as if the elite circles of Washington have come to operate by the rules of George W. Bush’s business career: as long as you stick with the in-crowd, you fail up.

During Campaign 2004, it often appeared that the news media was much tougher demanding a coherent war plan from Democratic challenger John Kerry than from the Republican president who had led the nation to war under the false pretenses of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and supposed ties to al-Qaeda.

Reporters didn't even challenge Bush when he would rewrite the pre-war history to claim that Iraq’s Saddam Hussein had refused to let the U.N. arms inspectors in, when the reality was that Bush was the one who had forced the inspectors out. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Reality on the Ballot.”]

Washington ‘Groupthink’

Since the election, even mild skeptics, such as Secretary of State Colin Powell, have been shown the door, following on the heels of Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, counter-terrorism specialist Richard Clarke and intelligence advisory board chief Brent Scowcroft, who all argued against invading Iraq.

Meanwhile, moving on up have been the Bush loyalists – Condoleezza Rice from national security adviser to Secretary of State; Alberto Gonzales from White House counsel to Attorney General; Elliott Abrams from a National Security Council staff job to deputy NSC adviser; Paul Wolfowitz from deputy defense secretary to a nomination to head the World Bank; and on and on.

Even those who quit after presiding over key failures in Iraq are honored. Getting the Presidential Medal of Freedom were former CIA Director George Tenet (who oversaw the bogus intelligence on Iraq’s WMD), Gen. Tommy Franks (who failed to anticipate the intense Iraqi insurgency), and Iraq administrator Paul Bremer (who tried to impose an unrealistic economic reform plan that contributed to the chaos).

Similarly, in the Washington news media, it seems as if swallowing White House propaganda about Iraq is a guarantee of permanent job security. Today, the Op-Ed pages and the TV chat shows are dominated by many of the same pundits who led the pro-war “groupthink” in 2002-2003.

In particular, the influential Washington Post opinion section is still run by Iraq War hawk Fred Hiatt and features the same tough-talking neoconservatives and mealy-mouthed centrists – from Charles Krauthammer to David Ignatius to Richard Cohen – who did more cheerleading than fact-checking on Iraq before the war. They now hail Bush’s wisdom at every sign of Middle East progress, no matter how fragile or unrelated to Iraq. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Neocon Amorality” and “Bush’s Neocons Unbridled.”]

Unthinkable

It remains almost unthinkable in Washington to suggest that any government official or pundit who misjudged Iraq should be held accountable by, say, getting unceremoniously cashiered.

While nods of approval followed the CBS decision to humiliate Dan Rather and to fire four producers for not adequately checking out a purported memo on Bush’s National Guard duty, there would be only shaking of heads over the notion that supposed foreign policy experts, such as the Post’s Hiatt or the New York Times’ Thomas L. Friedman, should be tossed out onto the street for their Iraq errors.

In the run-up to war, Hiatt’s Post editorials treated the question of Iraq’s WMD as a settled fact, not an issue in dispute. After the failure to discover evidence supporting the administration’s pre-war WMD claims, Hiatt acknowledged that the Post should have been more careful.

“If you look at the editorials we write running up [to the war], we state as flat fact that he [Hussein] has weapons of mass destruction,” Hiatt said in an interview with the Columbia Journalism Review. “If that’s not true, it would have been better not to say it.” [CJR, March/April 2004]

The CJR article praised Hiatt’s “candor” as “admirable,” but it would seem to be the most basic rule of journalism that it is wrong to present something as fact when it is not true or if the truth is in doubt, especially when lives are in the balance. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Washington’s Ricky Proehl Syndrome.”]

For his part, Friedman was a longtime advocate of attacking Iraq, summing up his advice in 2001 with the clever motto, “give war a chance.” [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Giving War a Chance.”] Four years later, assessing the consequences of his cavalier recommendation, he admitted that the war hadn’t turned out as he had expected.

With the U.S. death toll rising to about 1,500 in early March 2005, Friedman started a New York Times column with a self-pitying tone. “The last couple of years have not been easy for anyone, myself included, who hoped that the Iraq war would produce a decent, democratizing outcome,” he wrote. [NYT, March 3, 2005]

But the idea of relieving these two foreign policy “experts” – and other failed pundits – of their jobs never seems to cross anybody’s mind. Instead, they are left in place as they try to assemble new arguments to justify their earlier mistakes.

Upside Down

By contrast, those who were right in their skepticism not only were punished in 2002-2003 but remain either marginal or disdained figures to this day.

As the war clouds built two years ago, remember how MSNBC fired invasion critic Phil Donahue to better position the network for a pro-war ratings boost; how radio and TV chat shows regularly accused WMD-skeptic Scott Ritter of treason; how France and Germany were mocked as the “axis of weasels” for seeking more time for U.N. weapons inspectors; how Bush supporters drove trucks over Dixie Chicks CDs because one of the singers dared to criticize the commander-in-chief; how Iraq War critics were accused of “hating America” and worse.

Given Washington’s up-is-down rewards-and-punishment system, it shouldn’t come as a surprise, therefore, that the diversity of opinion is at least as narrow today as it was in those heady pre-war days.

Both then and now, the Washington “winners” have been those who got the facts about the Iraq War wrong, while the “losers” were those who correctly assessed the dangers and recognized the factual holes in Bush’s case.

But by far, the biggest losers have been the American soldiers who were sent to fight and die for the perverse logic of a dysfunctional Establishment – along with the people of Iraq who have suffered tens of thousands of deaths and the devastation of neighborhoods and even entire cities.

As Washington’s politicians and pundits continue to avoid accountability and refuse to think creatively about a possible shift in policy, both U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians can look forward to many more months – and possibly years – of bloodshed and disorder.


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His new book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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