Did American Media Learn Anything From The Iraq Debacle?

Did American Media Learn Anything From The Iraq Debacle?

The press sure seems to love glorifying Republican presidents against the backdrop of possible war. 

Rushing in to get the behind-the-scenes telling of how Donald Trump decided to approve the drone killing of Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani, who was killed while traveling in a convoy near the Baghdad International Airport on January 2, CNN collected pleasing quotes from administration officials. Steering clear of any dissenting voices, the news outlet reported there had been  “serious debate within the administration leading up to the strike,” CNN stressed that Trump, who was “wary of war,” had been “defiant” on the day the kill order was given, and seemed to “be freshly aware of the gravity of his role and the power he wields.” Perhaps most importantly, the raid represented an “immediate victory” for Trump. 

Got that? Anti-war Trump was deeply engaged with advisers, at turns “defiant” and reflective while he scored a major “victory.” Left out of that GOP-delivered narrative that portrayed the president as a modern-day FDR, was the idea that Trump has no idea what he’s doing and with the rogue raid he represents a growing danger to America’s national security. 

Meanwhile, the first expert the New York Times quoted in the wake of the deadly strike was a conservative hawk, and the first column the paper published about the raid was from a conservative hawk. 

Elsewhere, “CNN is allowing a parade of Republican lawmakers to go on air and cheerlead for war with Iran, and barely bothering to ask any of them how the U.S. keeps the region safe or what the plan is,” writer Matthew Chapman noted on Twitter. “We’ve learned much less since 2003 than we should have.”

Indeed, for days it’s been hard to shake the “here we go again” feeling as news consumers are hit with lots of White House-friendly narratives about the unauthorized raid in Iraq. It’s impossible not to think back to how the mainstream media effectively co-sponsored the disastrous war in Iraq back in 2003. 

Battered by accusations of a liberal bias and determined to prove their conservative critics wrong, the press during the run-up to the war — timid, deferential, unsure, cautious, and often intentionally unthinking — came as close as possible to abdicating its reason for existing in the first place, which is to accurately inform citizens, particularly during times of great national interest. The press went out of its way to tell a pleasing, administration-friendly tale about the pending war.

In truth, President George W. Bush never could have ordered the invasion of Iraq — never could have sold the idea at home — if it weren’t for the help he received from the press, and particularly the stamp of approval he received from so-called liberal media institutions such as the Washington Post, which in February of 2003 alone, editorialized in favor of war nine times. By the time the invasion began, the de facto position among the Beltway chattering class was clearly one that backed Bush and favored war.

At least during the Bush years during the run up to the Iraq War, Republicans went to some lengths to produce the appearance of bogus intelligence to support its premise for an unprecedented pre-emptive war for the United States. Recall that then-Secretary of State Colin Powell was drafted by the White House to give a wildly hyped presentation at the United Nation just weeks before the invasion where he supposedly laid out the U.S.’s ironclad proof that Saddam Hussein posed a weapons of mass destruction threat to the world. And the media fell for it. “He persuaded me,” the Washington Post’s Mary McGrory announced. “And I was as tough as France to convince.”

In the end though, the entire presentation turned out be a mountain of lies and disinformation, which Powell himself eventually conceded. Today though, the Trump White House doesn’t even bother to put on a show. Instead, officials have simply told reporters that the assassination raid was done in order to fend off some vague looming threats against American troops in the region. There’s no documentation. There are no intel report, no photo surveillance, and no intercepted communications. It’s just the Trump White House, which lies about everything, making a hollow claim to cover for an unauthorized military strike. 

And note that the justification Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave, that Soleimani was planning future attacks on U.S. troops and therefore had to be killed, doesn’t make any sense since, obviously, those supposed plans to kill U.S. troops, didn’t die with Soleimani. I mean, there is an Iran military that could conceivably carry out those attacks. 

Yet for several news cycles the administration’s thin justification was treated as serious

CNN: “Pompeo: Strike on Soleimani disrupted an ‘imminent attack’ and ‘saved American lives'” 


USA Today: “Trump: Iran’s Soleimani was plotting ‘imminent’ attacks on diplomats, soldiers before US killed him”


ABC News: “US strike on Iran’s Soleimani saved hundreds of American lives, disrupted attacks in three countries: State Dept.”

When Pompeo appeared on the Sunday morning talk shows to defend the administration’s paper-thin justification for the assassination strike, he was met with mostly differential questioners who effectively tip-toed around the large elephant in the room: Trump and his lieutenants were possibly lying about everything in conjunction with the assassination. 

The good news is there is already far more media skepticism about Trump’s dangerous maneuver than there was during Bush’s rush to war, when the nation’s post-9/11 nationalist fever was still strong. That might be because Trump isn’t nearly as popular as Bush was at the time, and because Democrats are quickly standing up to Trump. 

Still, lots of warning signs remain that the Beltway press hasn’t learned enough lessons from its Iraq War debacle.

IMAGE: Former President George W. Bush and former Vice President Dick Cheney (left).


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