In large part, that’s because the politicians and
the pundits have come to recognize that they face virtually no career
risk if they stick with or fawn over the Bush administration’s Middle
Indeed, possibly the most troubling commentary on
today’s U.S. political/media system is that screwing up on the Iraq War
has become almost a rite of passage to better jobs and higher honors.
It’s as if the elite circles of Washington have come to operate by the
rules of George W. Bush’s business career: as long as you stick with the
in-crowd, you fail up.
During Campaign 2004, it often appeared that the
news media was much tougher demanding a coherent war plan from
Democratic challenger John Kerry than from the Republican president who
had led the nation to war under the false pretenses of Iraq’s weapons of
mass destruction and supposed ties to al-Qaeda.
Reporters didn't even challenge Bush when he would
rewrite the pre-war history to claim that Iraq’s Saddam Hussein had
refused to let the U.N. arms inspectors in, when the reality was that
Bush was the one who had forced the inspectors out. [See
on the Ballot.”]
Since the election, even mild skeptics, such as
Secretary of State Colin Powell, have been shown the door, following on
the heels of Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, counter-terrorism
specialist Richard Clarke and intelligence advisory board chief Brent
Scowcroft, who all argued against invading Iraq.
Meanwhile, moving on up have been the Bush
loyalists – Condoleezza Rice from national security adviser to Secretary
of State; Alberto Gonzales from White House counsel to Attorney General;
Elliott Abrams from a National Security Council staff job to deputy NSC
adviser; Paul Wolfowitz from deputy defense secretary to a nomination to
head the World Bank; and on and on.
Even those who quit after presiding over key
failures in Iraq are honored. Getting the Presidential Medal of Freedom
were former CIA Director George Tenet (who oversaw the bogus
intelligence on Iraq’s WMD), Gen. Tommy Franks (who failed to anticipate
the intense Iraqi insurgency), and Iraq administrator Paul Bremer (who
tried to impose an unrealistic economic reform plan that contributed to
Similarly, in the Washington news media, it seems
as if swallowing White House propaganda about Iraq is a guarantee of
permanent job security. Today, the Op-Ed pages and the TV chat shows are
dominated by many of the same pundits who led the pro-war “groupthink”
In particular, the influential Washington Post
opinion section is still run by Iraq War hawk Fred Hiatt and features
the same tough-talking neoconservatives and mealy-mouthed centrists –
from Charles Krauthammer to David Ignatius to Richard Cohen – who did
more cheerleading than fact-checking on Iraq before the war. They now
hail Bush’s wisdom at every sign of Middle East progress, no matter how
fragile or unrelated to Iraq. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Neocon
Amorality” and “Bush’s
It remains almost unthinkable in Washington to
suggest that any government official or pundit who misjudged Iraq should
be held accountable by, say, getting unceremoniously cashiered.
While nods of approval followed the CBS decision to
humiliate Dan Rather and to fire four producers for not adequately
checking out a purported memo on Bush’s National Guard duty, there would
be only shaking of heads over the notion that supposed foreign policy
experts, such as the Post’s Hiatt or the New York Times’ Thomas L.
Friedman, should be tossed out onto the street for their Iraq errors.
In the run-up to war, Hiatt’s Post editorials
treated the question of Iraq’s WMD as a settled fact, not an issue in
dispute. After the failure to discover evidence supporting the
administration’s pre-war WMD claims, Hiatt acknowledged that the Post
should have been more careful.
“If you look at the editorials we write running up
[to the war], we state as flat fact that he [Hussein] has weapons of
mass destruction,” Hiatt said in an interview with the Columbia
Journalism Review. “If that’s not true, it would have been better not to
say it.” [CJR,
The CJR article praised Hiatt’s “candor” as
“admirable,” but it would seem to be the most basic rule of journalism
that it is wrong to present something as fact when it is not true or if
the truth is in doubt, especially when lives are in the balance. [For
details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Washington’s
Ricky Proehl Syndrome.”]
For his part, Friedman was a longtime advocate of
attacking Iraq, summing up his advice in 2001 with the clever motto,
“give war a chance.” [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Giving
War a Chance.”] Four years later, assessing the consequences of his
cavalier recommendation, he admitted that the war hadn’t turned out as
he had expected.
With the U.S. death toll rising to about 1,500 in
early March 2005, Friedman started a New York Times column with a
self-pitying tone. “The last couple of years have not been easy for
anyone, myself included, who hoped that the Iraq war would produce a
decent, democratizing outcome,” he wrote. [NYT, March 3, 2005]
But the idea of relieving these two foreign policy
“experts” – and other failed pundits – of their jobs never seems to
cross anybody’s mind. Instead, they are left in place as they try to
assemble new arguments to justify their earlier mistakes.
By contrast, those who were right in their
skepticism not only were punished in 2002-2003 but remain either
marginal or disdained figures to this day.
As the war clouds built two years ago, remember how
MSNBC fired invasion critic Phil Donahue to better position the network
for a pro-war ratings boost; how radio and TV chat shows regularly
accused WMD-skeptic Scott Ritter of treason; how France and Germany were
mocked as the “axis of weasels” for seeking more time for U.N. weapons
inspectors; how Bush supporters drove trucks over Dixie Chicks CDs
because one of the singers dared to criticize the commander-in-chief;
how Iraq War critics were accused of “hating America” and worse.
Given Washington’s up-is-down
rewards-and-punishment system, it shouldn’t come as a surprise,
therefore, that the diversity of opinion is at least as narrow today as
it was in those heady pre-war days.
Both then and now, the Washington “winners” have
been those who got the facts about the Iraq War wrong, while the
“losers” were those who correctly assessed the dangers and recognized
the factual holes in Bush’s case.
But by far, the biggest losers have been the
American soldiers who were sent to fight and die for the perverse logic
of a dysfunctional Establishment – along with the people of Iraq who
have suffered tens of thousands of deaths and the devastation of
neighborhoods and even entire cities.
As Washington’s politicians and pundits continue to
avoid accountability and refuse to think creatively about a possible
shift in policy, both U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians can look forward
to many more months – and possibly years – of bloodshed and disorder.