As key choices loom for President Barack Obama – from Afghanistan to the economy to health reform – a troubling question must be addressed: Is it possible for the United States with its existing political/media structure to make sound decisions?
At the center of this dilemma is the fact that many prestige journalists and respected political figures rose to their current preeminence during a three-decade era of ignoring reality, baiting those who spoke up for reason, and swaggering around as sideline warriors.
Though this pattern can be traced back to the rise of Ronald Reagan in the late 1970s, the nadir may have come in 2002-2003 when almost the entire Washington Establishment – politicians, journalists and think tank “experts” – rallied behind an aggressive war on Iraq justified by false claims about WMD and supposed links to al-Qaeda.
Yet, what happened after those falsehoods were exposed – and the Iraq War death toll soared – was even more remarkable. With only a few exceptions, there was no accountability. Which means that today, the prevailing wisdom of Washington is still being shaped by many of the same people who helped stampede the nation off the cliff and into Iraq.
Similarly, there has been little change among big-name business journalists, although they acted like courtiers for the Lords of Wall Street as those financial geniuses brought the global economy to its knees. Larry Kudlow and most of the CNBC crowd have made no adjustments to a free-market theology that still derides the evils of government regulation.
Yet, while these incompetents and ideologues have survived with their high-paying jobs, other honest individuals who dared go against Washington’s conventional wisdom have faced severe punishments for alleged errors or slight misjudgments.
Think, for instance, of San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb, who was hounded out of his profession for producing an important investigative series in 1996 that revived the scandal about CIA tolerance of drug trafficking by Reagan’s beloved Nicaraguan contra rebels during the 1980s.
Though the substance of Webb’s series was true, he was denounced by fellow journalists at the Washington Post, New York Times and Los Angeles Times – and then sold out by his Mercury News editors – for supposed imprecision in his articles.
Even after the CIA’s inspector general in 1998 confirmed the core points of Webb’s reporting and revealed many more cases of the spy agency’s tolerance of contra-drug operations, Webb’s reputation was never rehabilitated. [For details, see Robert Parry’s Lost History.]
Left as a journalistic pariah and unable to find decent-paying work, Webb committed suicide in 2004. As horrible as that was, another part of the injustice was that none of the reporters who had demonized Webb suffered any harm.
For instance, the Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz had mocked Webb for submitting a book proposal which noted that many contra leaders viewed the war as a business, not a cause. “Oliver Stone, check your voice mail,” Kurtz joked. [Washington Post, Oct. 28, 1996]
But Webb was correct, and Kurtz was wrong. In a March 17, 1986, message about the contra leadership, Rob Owen, then a White House emissary, wrote to his boss Oliver North: “Few of the so-called leaders of the movement ... really care about the boys in the field. THIS WAR HAS BECOME A BUSINESS TO MANY OF THEM.” [Capitalization in the original.]
Despite Kurtz's clear error – compounded by the fact that he used it to damage the reputation of a fellow journalist – no one in a position of power thought that Kurtz should be punished for being wrong, that he should be humiliated and denied a livelihood as Webb was for being right.
Kurtz wasn’t even expected to run a correction. Instead, he remained a prominent media critic for the Post and allowed to host a show about the news media for CNN.
This sort of double standard has come to pervade Official Washington. If you are part of the club, you can do no wrong. If you’re an outsider, you get hazed, marginalized or ignored, even when you're right.
So, perhaps, it should have come as no surprise that most of the journalists and strategists who misled the American people into the catastrophic Iraq War would escape any serious punishment.
The Washington Post’s editorial page editor Fred Hiatt remains in place as do most of the war enthusiasts on the Post’s neocon-dominated op-ed page. Yet, Hiatt not only oversaw an editorial section that was disastrously wrong about Iraq’s WMD but he continued his smearing of war critics for years after his own errors had become obvious.
Hiatt’s attacks on former U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson, an early critic of the Iraq War, were especially vituperative. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Plame-gate: Time to Fire WPost’s Hiatt.”]
Even today, most early Iraq War skeptics are excluded from elite opinion circles -- punished for being right -- while the usual suspects who helped sell the Iraq War can get a well-placed op-ed column with a wave of their hand.
Theirs are the views that now dominate the debate over Afghanistan, just as the free-marketeers remain powerful voices in the debates on health care, unemployment and financial reforms.
At the Washington Post, Hiatt’s editorial section is back marching almost in lockstep in favor of a major escalation of the Afghan War. Almost daily, Hiatt berates anyone daring to consider another course by suggesting that they may be blamed for “losing Afghanistan.”
On Oct. 6, the Post’s lead editorial was entitled “If We Lose Afghanistan,” with the subhead “Yes, al-Qaeda would return. But that’s just the beginning.” Much as they did regarding the Iraq War, the Post’s editors mock anyone who doubts that only a U.S. escalation can stop a cascade of horrors.
“The discussion often gets narrowed to the point of whether al-Qaeda, which is based in Pakistan, would gain a new haven in Afghanistan if the Taliban returned to power, so we’ll start there,” the editorial read. “We won’t, however, linger long, because for almost all military and civilian experts on the region the question is a no-brainer.”
Yet, what is striking about the Post’s editorial is that it reveals how these alleged “wise men,” who once considered Saddam Hussein’s possession of WMD a “no-brainer,” have constructed a narrative that conceals their long record of misjudgment.
For instance, the Post editorial boasted about how al-Qaeda has been “badly damaged” by U.S. offensive actions, including “its defeat in places such as Iraq.” However, the real history is that al-Qaeda had no real foothold in Iraq until the U.S. invasion in 2003 – and that al-Qaeda’s leadership saw its post-U.S.-invasion efforts there as a way to divert American forces so the terror group could rebuild its operations in Pakistan and Afghanistan. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Petraeus & the ‘Central Front’ Myth.”]
In other words, al-Qaeda’s “defeat” in Iraq was instrumental in its resurgence along the Af-Pak border, which was always the "central front" as far as al-Qaeda leaders were concerned. But that reality has no place in the Post’s rewriting of history.
Over the next two days -- Oct. 7 and 8 -- the Post weighed in again and again on Afghanistan, attacking a suggestion that the United States should forego a major escalation in support of a counterinsurgency program favored by Gen. Stanley McChrystal and instead focus on a counterterrorism strategy aimed at al-Qaeda’s leadership.
An Oct. 7 editorial entitled “Why Did Benazir Die?” chastised Obama for dishonoring the death of assassinated Pakistani leader Benazir Bhutto by even considering a shift in Afghan War strategy away from defeating the Taliban.
The Post saw only a cheap political calculation in this idea, saying the motive was to “excuse President Obama from having to anger his political base by dispatching the additional U.S. troops that his military commanders say are needed to stop the Taliban's resurgence in Afghanistan.”
On Oct. 8, another editorial, “Plan B for Afghanistan,” carried the subhead, “It looks a lot like the losing strategies of past years.”
The Post wrote: “The White House’s Plan B would mainly amount to refusing Gen. McChrystal most of the additional U.S. troops he has requested – thereby saving the president a decision that would anger his political base. ...
“Such a choice by Mr. Obama [would] repeat the strategic errors of the Bush administration – mistakes that left the mess the new administration is facing in Afghanistan and that brought Iraq to the brink of catastrophe three years ago.”
You see, in the Post’s historical narrative, the invasion of Iraq was a great idea, only to be faulted because President George W. Bush didn’t occupy the country with a sufficiently large expeditionary force, a mistake supposedly corrected by the “surge” of about 30,000 additional troops in 2007.
And, the Post suggests Bush also should have committed more troops to Afghanistan – and that Obama must correct that mistake with a new “surge.”
This narrative – what might be called the “myth of the successful surge” – now dominates Official Washington and thus influences the Afghan debate. But the reality is that Bush’s Iraq “surge” in troops only matched levels that had previously been in place and was only one relatively minor factor in the decline of Iraqi violence.
More significant factors, which predated or were unconnected to the “surge,” included the paying off of Sunni tribal leaders starting in 2006 and the ceasefire ordered by Shiite radical cleric Moktada al-Sadr, reportedly under pressure from his patrons in Iran. [For more Iraq factors, see Consortiumnews.com’s “The Rising Cost of the Iraq Surge.”]
This year, the further drop-off in Iraqi violence seems connected to the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq’s cities, thus tamping down nationalist anger over the presence of foreign occupiers. That factor, however, is ignored by the Post’s editorial writers, perhaps because it would buttress the argument of war critics that a U.S. drawdown would help, not hurt, Iraqi stability.
The Post ignores another lesson from the Afghan and Iraq wars – that is was Bush’s decision, supported by the Post, to divert U.S. military forces from Afghanistan to Iraq in 2002-2003, which bought the Taliban and al-Qaeda time to reorganize in the mountainous region on the border with Pakistan.
If Washington’s neocons had not prevailed in their preset plan to invade Iraq, U.S. forces might have succeeded in hunting down and eliminating the al-Qaeda leadership and possibly brought some stability to Afghanistan. Instead, with the Post’s blessings, the Bush administration jumped to Iraq.
Nevertheless, Washington policymakers are still being lectured by the Post’s editorial board about what to do now in Afghanistan.
Besides the renewed war-drum-beating by the Post’s editorials, there has been a steady thumping by pro-war Post commentators, too.
On Oct. 6, columnist Richard Cohen penned an opinion piece entitled “Does Obama Have the Backbone?” Cohen started by laughing at Obama’s “dumb move” in lobbying for Chicago as the site for the 2016 Olympics before questioning Obama's mettle as a war president.
“The war in Afghanistan is eminently more winnable than was Vietnam,” Cohen wrote. “Still, the war will require more than a significant commitment of troops and, of course, money. It will take presidential leadership, a consistent staying of the course – an implacable confidence that the right choice has been made despite what can be steep costs.”
Cohen, however, doubted that Obama is up to the challenge. [For more on Cohen, see Consortiumnews.com's "Is WP's Cohen Dumbest Columnist?"]
Similar anti-Obama themes were struck by conservative columnist George F. Will [“An Olympic Ego Trip,” Oct. 6] and by neocon thinker David Ignatius [“Testing Obama’s Doctrine,” Oct. 8].
This contempt for Obama spilled over into the Post’s commentary about health-care reform, too. Economic writer Robert J. Samuelson weighed in with a column entitled “The Health-Care Ego Trip,” which disputed the need for major reform and the motives of the reformers.
Samuelson suggested reformers were hyping the problem for egotistical reasons and quibbled with the methodology of a recent study that estimated that lack of health insurance contributed to 45,000 U.S. deaths a year.
While much attention has been focused on recent fabrications from Fox News personalities and other right-wing media voices, the Washington Post, CNBC and similar outlets of elite opinion may represent a greater threat to an informed national debate and to responsible decision-making.
The lack of any meaningful accountability for the U.S. news media’s failures on Iraq and – more generally – regarding the fawning press coverage of the Bush administration's early years has left the country vulnerable once again to misguided analyses based on false information from the same sources.
By refusing to correct a long litany of errors – and to purge the incompetent journalists responsible – the Washington Post and other prestige news outlets are again herding Americans toward the slaughterhouse of unnecessary war and status-quo economics.
Those policies may be just fine for Washington Post executives and other members of the elites, but they are clear and present dangers to nearly everybody else.
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. Or go to Amazon.com.
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This story was published on October 8, 2009.