In an extraordinary full-length editorial, the New York Times has called for an end to the U.S. military occupation of Iraq, a step that some anti-war Americans may praise as a turning-point while others will be left wondering why it took the nation’s leading newspaper more than four years – and scores of thousands of dead – to figure this out.

To its credit, the Times does acknowledge that its previous pro-occupation positions – favoring rebuilding what the U.S. invasion had destroyed and worrying about the dire consequences that might result from a U.S. withdrawal – were faulty.

The Times concedes that whatever horrors might follow the end of the U.S. military occupation, they are not likely to be avoided by an indefinite continuation; that it is time to admit that a grotesque mistake in U.S. national security policy was made in 2003 and readjust strategy to make the best of it.

“It is time for the United States to leave Iraq, without any more delay than the Pentagon needs to organize an orderly exit,” the editorial states.

Many anti-war Americans are sure to welcome the belated support of a newspaper whose own credulous reporting about Iraq’s mythical weapons of mass destruction played a key role in opening the path to war. The editorial also is certain to be denounced by the dwindling members of George W. Bush’s political cult as surrender or treason.

But a deeper question, which the United States eventually must face, is why so many of its leading journalistic institutions performed so badly in the run-up to the Iraq War and what can be done about it.

Why were small, under-funded news outlets, like our own Consortiumnews.com, able to get these big stories mostly right, both before and after the invasion, while the prestige news organizations got the stories almost completely wrong – in both their reporting and opinion columns?

In 2002 and 2003, Consortiumnews.com was even operating on a part-time basis – because we had run out of money in 2000. But simply by filtering out the nonsensical propaganda and doing some old-fashioned reporting, we were able to avoid many of the pitfalls of the Times, the Washington Post and the major networks.

For instance, near the start of the U.S. invasion, I contacted a number of my old military and intelligence sources, who voiced near unanimous concern about the WMD rationale behind the war and the rationality of a U.S.-British-led conquest of an Arab nation.

The only hope for meaningful success, these sources felt, was the unlikely possibility that Iraqis indeed would welcome the Americans as liberators and that WMD stockpiles would be discovered, thus justifying the invasion in the world’s eyes. In the opening days of the invasion, however, it became clear that neither eventuality was likely.

Iraqi Resistance

The unexpectedly strong Iraqi resistance despite the overwhelming firepower of the U.S. invasion force was an early warning sign of what was to come. Also, the absence of any Iraqi counterattack with chemical or biological weapons underscored how hollow the Bush administration’s alarmist rhetoric was.

So, only 10 days into the invasion, I compiled the doubts of my sources, along with the early reality of the invasion, into a Consortiumnews.com article entitled “Bay of Pigs Meets Black Hawk Down,” which asserted that the war was already effectively “lost” and that the wisest course would be to start looking for an early exit strategy.

But the Bush administration propagandists and the compliant U.S. news media were not finished misleading the American people.

When the invading forces ousted Saddam Hussein’s government in April 2003, the American press corps continued to collaborate with the Bush administration’s image-manipulators by making a handful of Iraqis helping to pull down Hussein’s statue look like a massive public uprising. The trick was accomplished by showing only close-ups, not a wide-angled look at the small knot of people actually participating.

Then, not wanting to challenge the post-statue-toppling public opinion polls, the U.S. media shifted into full triumphal mode, hailing Bush as some kind of conquering hero and fawning over his P.R. stunt of a tail-hook landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln, where he declared victory under a giant “Mission Accomplished” banner.

Amid this premature euphoria, the warning signs of impending disaster were missed. When the evidence kept growing of the emerging calamity, even pre-war skeptics like the New York Times editorial writers offered arguments for why the United States must now succeed in Iraq.

A favorite battle cry during this middle period was “failure is not an option,” although I noted in one article in August 2005 that “no one in Washington has made a convincing case that failure is not at least a strong possibility.”

Though widely ignored by the U.S. news media, the evidence actually pointed to an al-Qaeda desire for the Americans to remain bogged down in Iraq as a way for the terrorist organization to attract new recruits, raise more money and rebuild its organizational infrastructure along the Afghan-Pakistani border.

According to one key intercepted al-Qaeda document, the view of the senior leadership was that “prolonging the war [in Iraq] is in our interest.”

Al-Qaeda’s greatest fear in Iraq was that the United States would withdraw its forces quickly, depriving the terrorist group of its chief recruiting pitch, causing many of its young recruits to go home, and prompting nationalist Iraqis to root out al-Qaeda operatives trying to establish an enclave. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Bush Is Losing the War on Terror.”]

Contrary to Bush’s claim that al-Qaeda’s plan was to oust U.S. forces from Iraq and then “follow us home,” the terrorist group’s actual strategy appears to be: trap the Americans in Iraq indefinitely, harden a new generation of terrorists, and exploit Muslim anger about the Iraq occupation to justify terrorist strikes against the West.

In its July 8 editorial, the New York Times finally has come to grips with this reality. The tragedy is that the Iraq War already has claimed the lives of more than 3,500 American soldiers and possibly hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.

Before the war is finally brought to an end, the total death toll is likely to put George W. Bush in the Pol Pot category of mass butchers.

But what historical infamy should fall on the heads of the major U.S. news organizations that were the handmaidens to the slaughter? And what can Americans do to ensure that a similar catastrophe never befalls the nation?

Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest 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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