Exclusive: When President George W. Bush took aim at Iraq in 2002-03, the smart career play in the U.S. news media was to jump on the pro-war bandwagon and cheer on propaganda about WMD and other excuses for war. Belatedly, the New York Times’ Bill Keller admits that mistakes were made, writes Robert Parry.
By Robert Parry
In commemoration of 9/11, former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller penned a handwringing article in the Sunday magazine explaining why he supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq, while admitting that Iraq “had in the literal sense, almost nothing to do with 9/11” and recognizing that the war has resulted in untold death and misery of its own.
The article, “My Unfinished 9/11 Business,” is filled with rationalizations about his post-9/11 feelings and those of other members of what Keller dubbed the “I-Can’t-Believe-I’m-a-Hawk Club,” pundits and intellectuals who rallied to President George W. Bush’s conquest of Iraq as a more fitting response to 9/11 than simply occupying Afghanistan or hunting down al-Qaeda.
Yet what is perhaps most striking about Keller’s article is what’s not in it. There is not a single reference to international law, or to the fact that Bush undertook the invasion in defiance of a majority on the United Nations Security Council and in violation of longstanding U.S.-enunciated principles against aggressive war.
At the Nuremberg Tribunals after World War II, the chief U.S. prosecutor, Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson, called a war of aggression “not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”
Jackson also promised that the tribunals, in condemning Nazi officials and their propagandists for engaging in aggressive war and other crimes, were not simply acting out victor’s justice but that the same rules would apply to the nations sitting in judgment.
That, however, has turned out not to be the case. Though Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair undertook the invasion of Iraq without UN approval and under false pretenses, there has been no serious attempt to hold the invaders and their subordinates accountable.
Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and other former U.S. officials have even admitted to ordering acts of torture (such as water-boarding prisoners), again in violation of international law, with little or no expectation that they will be punished. Nor presumably do Keller and other pro-invasion pundits foresee any adverse consequences from their own propagandistic support for the war.
If the Nuremberg principles were to be fully applied to the United States and Great Britain, the propagandists would share the dock with the political and military leaders. But Keller and his fellow “club” members apparently believe their worst punishment should be writing self-obsessed articles about how distraught they are over the war’s unintended consequences.
For Keller’s part, his article offers excuses for his war support ranging from his desire to protect his daughter who was born “almost exactly nine months after the attacks” on 9/11 to his accompaniment in his pro-war propaganda by “a large and estimable” group of fellow liberal hawks.
His list included “among others, Thomas Friedman of The Times; Fareed Zakaria, of Newsweek; George Packer and Jeffrey Goldberg of The New Yorker; Richard Cohen of The Washington Post; the blogger Andrew Sullivan; Paul Berman of Dissent; Christopher Hitchens of just about everywhere; and Kenneth Pollack, the former C.I.A. analyst whose book, The Threatening Storm, became the liberal manual on the Iraqi threat.”
These “club” members expressed various caveats and concerns about their hawkishness, but their broad support for invading Iraq provided a powerful argument for the Bush administration which, as Keller noted, “was clearly pleased to cite the liberal hawks as evidence that invading Iraq was not just the impetuous act of cowboy neocons.”
Indeed, this “liberal-hawk” consensus further marginalized the few skeptics who tried to warn the American people that the WMD evidence was thin to non-existent and that occupying a hostile Arab nation was a fool’s errand that would start a new cycle of violence.
As the Iraq invasion was unleashed in March 2003 with all its “shock and awe” and the killing of young Iraqi soldiers and many civilians, Keller recalled his satisfaction in having taken the side of American military might.
When Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was driven from power three weeks later, Keller said he and nearly all other “club” members were “a little drugged by testosterone. And maybe a little too pleased with ourselves for standing up to evil and defying the caricature of liberals as, to borrow a phrase from those days, brie-eating surrender monkeys.”
Keller does allow that he and his “club” under-estimated the difficulties of installing “democracy” in Iraq and over-estimated the competence of Bush’s team. In retrospect, given the costs in blood and treasure among Americans and Iraqis, he acknowledges that “Operation Iraqi Freedom was a monumental blunder.”
But Keller seems to think that his engagement in this self-aggrandizing self-criticism is punishment enough, not only for him and his fellow “liberal hawks” but apparently for Bush, Cheney, Blair and others who waged this war of aggression.
The fact that Keller doesn’t even mention international law – let alone the harsh penalties set aside for those who engage in war crimes like aggressive war – suggests that he remains a member in good standing of the “We’re-So-Special-We-Can-Do-Anything Club.”
You may note that most of the “estimable” members of Keller’s hawk club remain highly regarded opinion leaders and some – like Friedman, Zakaria and Cohen – retain big-dollar perches in the major news media. Keller even got promoted to Times executive editor, arguably the top job in American journalism, after the case for war in Iraq was debunked.
Given that many worthy journalists have seen their careers ruined simply because they are accused of failing to meet some perfect standard of journalism – for instance, the late Gary Webb and his heroic reporting on Nicaraguan Contra drug trafficking – it is striking that almost none of Keller’s club members have suffered professionally at all.
It seems that if you offend the Establishment – as Webb did – you are held to the most rigorous rules and suffer humiliation and disgrace, deprived of your livelihood and denied employment. (Unable to find work in journalism, Webb eventually committed suicide.)
However, if you go with the flow – and are surrounded by enough “estimable” fellow-travelers – you are protected from serious consequences for making grievous mistakes, like falling for lies from ideologues and letting your personal feelings dominate your judgment.
In the months before and after the Iraq invasion, the major U.S. news media, including the New York Times and the Washington Post, were little more than conveyor belts for Bush’s pro-war propaganda. In his half-hearted mea culpa on Sunday, Keller admits that some of the Times’ pre-war reporting on Iraq’s WMD was “notoriously credulous.”
But Keller and the Times were essentially part of a bigger propaganda machine that did its best to first justify and then sanitize the war, at least in the early days.
Rather than troubling Americans with gruesome images of mangled and dismembered Iraqi bodies, including many children, the TV networks, in particular, edited the war in ways that helped avoid negativity and gave advertisers the feel-good content that plays best around their products.
Fox News may have pioneered this concept of casting the war in the gauzy light of heroic imagery, where Iraqi soldiers were “goons” and interviews with Americans at war were packaged with “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” as the soundtrack.
But MSNBC carried the idea to even greater lengths with Madison-Avenue-style montages of the Iraq War. One showed U.S. troops in heroic postures moving through Iraq. The segment ended with an American boy surrounded by yellow ribbons for his father at war, and the concluding slogan, “Home of the Brave.”
Another MSNBC montage showed happy Iraqis welcoming U.S. troops as liberators and rejoicing at the toppling of Saddam Hussein. These stirring pictures ended with the slogan, “Let Freedom Ring.” Left out of these “news” montages were any images of Iraqi death, destruction and despair.
In the conflict’s first days, the haste to kill Hussein led Bush to approve the bombing of a restaurant where Hussein was thought to be eating. Though Hussein wasn’t there, the restaurant was obliterated and the bodies of more than a dozen civilians, including young children, were pulled from the rubble.
“When the broken body of the 20-year-old woman was brought out torso first, then her head,” the Associated Press reported, “her mother started crying uncontrollably, then collapsed.” The London Independent cited this restaurant attack as one that represented “a clear breach” of the Geneva Conventions ban on bombing civilian targets.
But the civilian deaths were of little interest to the U.S. news media. “American talking heads, playing the what-if game about Saddam’s whereabouts, never seemed to give the issue any thought,” wrote Eric Boehlert for Salon.com. “Certainly they did not linger on images of the hellacious human carnage left in the aftermath.”
Hundreds of other civilian deaths were equally horrific. Saad Abbas, 34, was wounded in an American bombing raid, but his family sought to shield him from the greater horror. The bombing had killed his three daughters – Marwa, 11; Tabarek, 8; and Safia, 5 – who had been the center of his life.
“It wasn’t just ordinary love,” his wife said. “He was crazy about them. It wasn’t like other fathers.” [NYT, April 14, 2003]
The horror of the war was captured, too, in the fate of 12-year-old Ali Ismaeel Abbas, who lost his two arms when a U.S. missile struck his Baghdad home. Ali’s father, his pregnant mother and his siblings were all killed. As he was evacuated to a Kuwaiti hospital, becoming a symbol of U.S. compassion for injured Iraqi civilians, Ali said he would rather die than live without his hands.
For its part, the Bush administration announced that it had no intention of tallying the number of Iraqi civilians who were killed in the war. That has allowed Keller and other war supporters to use low-ball figures for the total – he wrote “at least 100,000” in his article – although other estimates of excess deaths attributable to the war run into the hundreds of thousands, if not one million or more.
The horrors that have been inflicted – and continue to be inflicted – on Iraq represent what Justice Jackson meant when he talked about the crime of aggressive war, the unpacking of all the other evils of war.
In that context, a belated half-apology from the likes of Bill Keller for what he calls the “monumental blunder” of the Iraq War rings hollow indeed.
[For more on these topics, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege and Neck Deep, now available in a two-book set for the discount price of only $19. For details, click here.]
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, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and 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.