The NYT's New Pro-War Propaganda
No need to wait until September. It’s already obvious how George W. Bush and his still-influential supporters in Washington will sell an open-ended U.S. military occupation of Iraq – just the way they always have: the war finally has turned the corner and withdrawal now would betray the troops by snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
At one time, the Iraq story line was how many schoolrooms had been painted or how well the government security forces were doing. Now there are new silver linings being detected that will justify a positive progress report in September – and the U.S. news media is again ready to play its credulous part.
President Bush signaled the happy-news judgment of his hand-picked commander, Gen. David Petraeus, in a round of confident public appearances over the past two weeks. With his effusive praise of “David,” as Bush called the general at a White House news conference, the President acted like a smug student arriving for a test with the answers tucked in his pocket.
Another key element of the coming propaganda campaign was previewed on the op-ed page of the New York Times on July 30 as Michael E. O’Hanlon and Kenneth M. Pollack of the Brookings Institution portrayed themselves as tough critics of the Bush administration who, after a visit to Iraq, now must face the facts: Bush’s “surge” is working.
“As two analysts who have harshly criticized the Bush administration’s miserable handling of Iraq, we were surprised by the gains we saw and the potential to produce not necessarily ‘victory’ but a sustainable stability that both we and the Iraqis could live with,” O’Hanlon and Pollack wrote in an article entitled “A War We Just Might Win.”
Yet the authors – and the New York Times – failed to tell readers the full story about these supposed skeptics: far from grizzled peaceniks, O’Hanlon and Pollack have been longtime cheerleaders for a larger U.S. military occupying force in Iraq.
Indeed, Pollack, a former CIA analyst, was a leading advocate for invading Iraq in the first place. He published The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq in September 2002, just as the Bush administration was gearing up its marketing push for going to war.
British journalist Robert Fisk called Pollack’s book the “most meretricious contribution to this utterly fraudulent [war] ‘debate’ in the United States.” (Meretricious, by the way, refers to something that is based on pretense, deception or insincerity.)
Neocon ‘Full Monte’
Pollack’s influential book offered the “full monte” neoconservative vision for remaking the Middle East, with the Iraq invasion as only the first step in the transformation. Ousting Saddam Hussein “would sever the ‘linkage’ between the Iraq issue and the Arab-Israeli conflict,” Pollack wrote. “It would remove an important source of anti-Americanism.”
But Pollack was wrong in his predictions. If anything, the Iraq War has deepened Arab-Israeli animosities while enflaming the region’s anti-Americanism.
Also, in Fisk’s view, “Pollack’s argument for war was breathtakingly amoral. War would be the right decision, it seemed, not because it was morally necessary but because we would win. War was now a viable and potentially successful policy option.
“It would free up Washington’s ‘foreign policy agenda,’ presumably allowing it to invade another country or two where American vital interests would be discovered. [Pollack’s] narrative – in essence an Israeli one – is quite simple: deprived of the support of one of the Arab world’s most powerful nations, the Palestinians would be further weakened in their struggle against Israeli occupation.” [See Robert Fisk's The Great War for Civilization]
After the U.S. invasion of Iraq failed to locate the promised weapons of mass destruction – and a stubborn Iraqi insurgency emerged – Pollack offered an apology for his high-profile role in promoting the war.
In fall 2004, Pollack told an interviewer for the New York Times magazine, “I made a mistake based on faulty intelligence. Of course, I feel guilty about it. I feel awful. … I’m sorry; I’m sorry!” [NYT Magazine, Oct. 24, 2004]
But now Pollack – having re-positioned himself from war booster to war critic – can reinvent himself again as a grudging convert to the wisdom of Bush’s war strategy, without either him or the Times editors alerting readers to this reverse metamorphosis.
This idea of a critic reluctantly admitting the wisdom of a neoconservative strategy has long been one of the neocons’ favorite propaganda tactics dating back to the Cold War days of the 1980s.
Then, a common neocon refrain was that “even the liberal New Republic” supported the Nicaraguan contra rebels. That endorsement supposedly lent the contra cause greater weight because the New Republic had a historic reputation as a leftist magazine.
In reality, however, the New Republic had been taken over by neocon Martin Peretz in the 1970s, and he had turned it into a home for neocon and right-wing pundits, such as Charles Krauthammer and Fred Barnes.
Yet, if Americans didn’t know those details, they could be influenced by an out-of-date impression, much as many people still recall Brookings as a “liberal” think tank, an image that Brookings has worked quietly to shed since it started moving rightward in the 1980s, bringing in more centrist, center-right and neoconservative analysts.
In 2002-03, Pollack’s Brookings colleague, O’Hanlon, was more skeptical about the Bush administration’s case for invading Iraq than Pollack was. For instance, O’Hanlon correctly doubted the evidence of links between Hussein’s secular government and the Islamic extremists of al-Qaeda.
But O’Hanlon carefully covered all his bases, arguing that “there is a case for overthrowing Mr. Hussein if we cannot re-establish and improve the inspections and disarmament process in Iraq. But it has more to do with the region’s security than with any unlikely Hussein-al-Qaeda link.” [Baltimore Sun, Sept. 26, 2002]
Since the failure to find WMD stockpiles and the stumbling occupation, O’Hanlon and Pollack have constructed reputations as critics of Bush’s war strategy not by objecting to its imperial impulses or the immorality of invading a country at peace but by hitting the administration for an inadequate commitment of troops and resources.
In other words, they have fit themselves in with many Washington insiders who still maintain that the invasion was a fine and noble idea; the only problem was the incompetent occupation.
Along those lines in early 2007, O’Hanlon emerged as a defender of Bush’s plan to send more than 20,000 additional U.S. troops to Iraq. On Jan. 14, he published a Washington Post op-ed entitled, “A Skeptic's Case For the Surge.”
O’Hanlon’s chief pro-surge argument was to hoist Iraq War opponents on their own petard – their supposed complaint that Bush’s failure was in not sending enough troops and not giving the military the necessary tools.
“On the military surge itself, critics of the administration’s Iraq policy have consistently argued that the United States never deployed enough soldiers and Marines to Iraq,” O’Hanlon wrote. “Now Bush has essentially conceded his critics’ point … It would … be counterintuitive for the president’s critics to prevent him from carrying out the very policy they have collectively recommended.”
While perhaps a clever debating point, O’Hanlon’s argument is disingenuous. It is not accurate to say that war critics “collectively” wanted Bush to invade with a larger army and then to throttle Iraq with a bigger occupation force.
Many – indeed probably most – war critics opposed any invasion and any occupation, basing their objections on legal and moral grounds, noting that international law prohibits aggressive wars and that Iraq was not threatening the United States.
It’s also disingenuous today for O’Hanlon and Pollack to present themselves as harsh critics of Bush’s Iraq War when, in fact, they either advocated the invasion (in Pollack’s case) or eagerly promoted the surge (as O’Hanlon did). At minimum, they should have given a fuller accounting of their past positions.
To read their op-ed in the New York Times, an unsuspecting reader would get the impression that these two hard-boiled anti-war skeptics have finally been won over to Bush’s wisdom by the strength of the evidence. That simply isn’t the case; they were predisposed to Bush’s position to begin with.
The reality appears to be that these two on-and-off war supporters were given an administration-sponsored tour of Iraq with the expectation that they would return to Washington with glowing reports about the war’s progress, made all the more believable by them playing up – or puffing up – their credentials as war critics.
In that case, Mission Accomplished.
[For other examples of the U.S. press corps’ misleading coverage of Iraq, see our new book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush.]
While one might yawn about the predictability of the Bush administration and its mouthpieces misleading the public once again, readers of the New York Times might reasonably expect that – given the newspaper’s role aiding and abetting the march into this disastrous war five years ago – that the editors at least might insist on a more accurate ID for these two “experts.”
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there.
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