When Defense Secretary Robert Gates told West Point cadets that you’d have to be crazy to commit U.S. troops to wars like those in Iraq and Afghanistan, media commentators quickly detected a slap at his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, who oversaw those conflicts.
But what about everyone else in the U.S. power structure who went along with those insane and bloody wars? Shouldn’t such people – whether they acted out of ideology or opportunism – be kept away from levers of authority that might get others killed?
For instance, what about the top editors at the Washington Post, the New York Times and a host of other establishment publications and TV outlets who hopped on the pro-war bandwagon and mocked anyone who suggested that negotiations or some less violent means might be preferable?
If even a long-time war hawk like Gates recognizes the obvious – that committing U.S. land forces to such conflicts is nuts – then what’s to be said about the Post’s editorial-page editor Fred Hiatt or the Times’ executive editor Bill Keller or a host of other senior media executives and pundits who endorsed the wars and have suffered no dents in their shiny careers?
These hot-shots got the biggest stories of their lives dead wrong – and countless thousands have paid with their lives, not to mention the $1 trillion-plus drain on the U.S. Treasury – yet they float along as if nothing happened. Amazingly, Keller even got a promotion to the top editorial job at the Times after he was bamboozled by President George W. Bush’s bogus case for invading Iraq.
In 2001, Keller had lost out in a corporate battle with Howell Raines for the job of executive editor and retreated to a post as a senior writer focusing on New York Times Magazine articles. There, he reinvented himself as a liberal second-thoughter regarding the use of American military might.
When the dogs of war were straining at their leashes in February 2003, Keller wrote an influential article in the Times magazine describing his proud new status as a member of what he called “The I-Can’t-Believe-I’m-a-Hawk Club.”
He boasted about the club’s distinguished membership, including “op-ed regulars at this newspaper [the New York Times] and The Washington Post, the editors of The New Yorker, The New Republic and Slate, columnists in Time and Newsweek.”
Keller was right about where many of the “smart” media types stood. For instance, after Secretary of State Colin Powell gave his dishonest United Nations speech justifying war with Iraq on Feb. 5, 2003, the next day’s Washington Post editorial and op-ed pages presented a solid phalanx of pro-invasion consensus.
Speaking for that conventional wisdom, the lead Post editorial judged Powell’s presentation as “irrefutable,” adding: “it is hard to imagine how anyone could doubt that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction.”
Keller also was wowed by Powell’s speech, which he hailed as a “skillful parsing of the evidence” on Iraq’s WMD. (Powell would later admit his speech was replete with falsehoods and was a “blot” on his record.)
Keller got pretty much every pre-invasion prediction wrong, too. He bet that President Bush would seek and win a second U.N. resolution authorizing the invasion of Iraq. Just weeks later, however, Bush realized the Security Council was prepared to reject that resolution so he pulled it and pressed forward with his “coalition of the willing.”
In his February 2003 magazine article, Keller also envisioned Al Jazeera being forced to broadcast scenes of unalloyed joy among Iraqis welcoming the U.S. invaders “as liberators.” Keller imagined, too, that “the illicit toxins are unearthed and destroyed” and that the Kurds and Shiites “suppress the urge for clan vengeance.”
History will record that events didn’t exactly play out that way.
Keller recognized, too, that he and his war-hawk colleagues were advocating violations of international law, even though they were uncomfortable with the full imperial scope of the muscular “Bush Doctrine.”
“Almost all of the hesitant hawks go out of their way to disavow Mr. Bush's larger agenda for American power even as they salute his plan to use it in Iraq,” Keller wrote. “What his admirers call the Bush Doctrine is so far a crude edifice built of phrases from speeches and strategy documents, reinforced by a pattern of discarded treaties and military deployment.
“It consists of a determination to keep America an unchallenged superpower, a willingness to forcibly disarm any country that poses a gathering threat and an unwillingness to be constrained by treaties or international institutions that don't suit us perfectly.”
What Keller acknowledges here is that he knows the Bush Doctrine involves “discarded treaties” and rejection of international standards “that don’t suit us perfectly,” but he gets in line anyway.
You might think that “opinion leaders” who were so completely gulled by the sophistry of the neoconservatives – or who perhaps simply went opportunistically along with a war that was an international crime – might suffer some negative consequences, like a demotion or a firing.
But that’s not the world we live in.
At the Washington Post, for instance, editorial-page editor Hiatt did grudgingly acknowledge that he’d gotten the key issue of Iraq’s WMD completely wrong.
Hiatt blithely told the Columbia Journalism Review that “if you look at the editorials we write running up [to the war], we state as flat fact that he [Saddam Hussein] has weapons of mass destruction. If that’s not true, it would have been better not to say it.” [CJR, March/April 2004]
Yes, it is a rule of thumb in journalism that if something is false, it’s best not to state it as “flat fact.”
But now eight years later, who is still the editorial-page editor of the Washington Post? Fred Hiatt. He still presides over an editorial section which publishes many of the same misguided columnists who fawned over Colin Powell’s speech and backed Bush’s invasion of Iraq.
If anything, Keller’s case is even more telling.
Remember that when he announced his membership in the war-hawks club, he had been passed over for the top job as executive editor. But the guy who beat him out, Howell Raines, stumbled into a journalism scandal in spring 2003 when a Times reporter, Jason Blair, was caught lying in some news articles.
Raines became the fall-guy and resigned. To replace Raines, Times management turned to Keller, giving him the newspaper’s top editorial job, a position he holds to this day.
In other words, the consequences for getting hoodwinked by a reporter – career termination – but the result of buying into lies that get hundreds of thousands of people killed and help bankrupt the U.S. government – promotion to your dream job.
With such a screwed-up system of rewards and punishments is there any doubt why the U.S. news media (and political process) are so out of whack.
It’s also may strike some Americans as a touch disingenuous when these same news outlets lecture governments in the Middle East about not using violence against political enemies.
While we can all agree that Khadafy and other Arab tyrants should restrain their police forces, it is odd to see such moral pronouncements coming from U.S. editors and political leaders who saw no problem of unleashing hell on the heads of Iraqis and Afghans.
And those double standards continue to this day. Even as the U.S. government urged non-violent responses to political disorders sweeping the Middle East, the U.S. military continued to slaughter Afghans suspected of being pro-Taliban militants.
In one case on Feb. 20, Gen. David Petraeus reportedly shocked Afghan officials when he suggested that Afghans caught up in these air strikes were burning their own children to put the blame on the United States. Meanwhile, in Iraq on Friday, some 20 Iraqis were killed when U.S.-backed Iraqi forces fired into political protests.
Which brings us back to Gates’s address to the West Point cadets also on Friday, when he offered his belated recognition that the United States should have found another way to deal with its concerns about Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003.
Gates said: “In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it.”
And one must assume that if such an adventure is crazy today, Gates is suggesting that it was crazy back in 2001 and 2003. Indeed, he clearly was reflecting on those bitter experiences in reminding the cadets of Gen. MacArthur’s foresight.
But the worrisome fact remains that many of America’s opinion leaders and politicians, who needed to have their heads examined last decade, have never been forced to sit down with a psychiatrist.
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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