Iraq War Band Gets Back Together for the Beltway Media
One measure of the health of a nation’s discourse is how well it holds accountable its political and thought leaders. Do the men and women with a track record of getting things stupendously wrong ever have to face the music for their words and deeds? Do their arguments and opinions correspondingly suffer in the marketplace of ideas? Or do these same people keep getting free passes despite the sorrow they’ve sown? And do they continue to enjoy broad acceptance as serious, legitimate thinkers despite plenty of evidence to the contrary?
A brief survey of the US establishment press over the past few weeks is all it takes to get a clear answer on just how sclerotic, insular, and narrow-minded our country’s foreign policy discussions are. Ever since the ISIS-fueled insurgency started an unraveling of northern Iraq, mainstream news organizations have dredged up almost every neoconservative pundit and old Bush foreign policy hand still alive to pontificate on how Obama should fix, or has caused, this crisis. A crisis that, ironically, they helped to foment through an unnecessary, decade-long war based on false intelligence. Indeed, it has been mystifying, if not somewhat unsurprising, to watch how quickly the Beltway media has blithely rehabilitated the reputations of those responsible for the deaths of thousands of Americans and more than 100,000 Iraqis.
The past week, in particular, has felt like 2002 déjà vu. So many of the same old neocon faces marching to the same saber-rattling beat on the same news shows. The experience is almost reminiscent of those old, late-night K-Tel commercials selling compilation albums of songs by bands long since forgotten, and for good reason. I say almost because those commercials offered more historical context than most of the mainstream press does for these Iraq War neocons. After all, when was the last time you heard a talk show host or op-ed columnist even mention that Dick Cheney, Bill Kristol, and Paul Wolfowitz brought us such classic lines as “We will, in fact, be greeted as liberators,” “This is going to be a two-month war, not an eight-year war,” and, my personal favorite: “I think all foreigners should stop interfering in the internal affairs of Iraq.”
Last month, it was Robert Kagan who kicked off the No Accountability 2014 Iraq War reunion tour with an epic, 12,700-word essay: “Superpowers Don’t Get to Retire.” Covering almost the complete back catalog of neoconservative historical thought, Kagan’s overlong riff ran in The New Republic, a somewhat fitting evocation of the magazine’s infamous role providing intellectual cover to the pro-invasion left 12 years ago. Notably, though, discussion of the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq—which were supposed to be seminal triumphs of neoconservative foreign policy, remember—only amounts to a few grace notes in Kagan’s bloated opus. Even in those few lines where he does address the war, his treatment of it is laughably benign, criminally disinterested. War, what is it good for? Kagan’s answer: Eh, who knows?
“At the end of the day, George W. Bush’s decision to remove Saddam Hussein, whether that decision was wise or foolish, was driven more by concerns for world order than by narrow self-interest.” [emphasis mine]
While Kagan may be too much of a coward to admit the obvious, the American public isn’t—a majority now feel removing Saddam Hussein wasn’t worth the trillions of dollars and lives lost. But has this strong public sentiment, which also includes opposition to military intervention in neighboring Syria, translated into an uptick in anti-war viewpoints being presented in the news? One might think those few souls who defied the DC conventional wisdom and warned of the dire consequences wrought by invading Iraq would be hot media commodities today, with recent events having proven them right yet again. Think again. Instead, it’s neocons like Kagan who get almost unlimited space to repackage their militaristic policies for a new generation.
But that’s just where it starts. Last week, thanks to the sudden successes of the ISIS insurgency—which already seem to be fading—Kagan’s “much-discussed” essay begat a long, flattering profile in the New York Times. Though the Times does at least lump Kagan in with a group of “largely discredited neoconservatives,” the paper nonetheless expends the next thousand-plus words largely bestowing credit back upon him, his life, and his work. Indeed, the only critics quoted by the Times of Kagan’s neoconservative—or as he now prefers to call it, “liberal interventionist”—policies are, I kid you not, his father, who thinks his son is too easy on Obama, and his wife, who is portrayed as a demanding editor of his writing. Talk about the kid glove treatment. To be fair, one can’t accuse theTimes of engaging in false balance in this article.
Kagan, you may recall, was a co-author, along with Bill Kristol, of a seminal bit of war propaganda put out by the Weekly Standard back in the fall of 2002. Tellingly, its headline—as noted by the punctuation—was not a question: “What to Do About Iraq.” Similarly, Kagan and Kristol’s plan—“American ground forces in significant number are likely to be required for success in Iraq”—was not a solution. As for skeptics of their plan, the pair had little interest in hearing all their overly dire predictions:
“It is almost impossible to imagine any outcome for the world both plausible and worse than the disease of Saddam with weapons of mass destruction. A fractured Iraq? An unsettled Kurdish situation? A difficult transition in Baghdad? These may be problems, but they are far preferable to leaving Saddam in power with his nukes, VX, and anthrax. As for the other arguments, the effort to remove Saddam from power would no more be a "diversion" from the war on al Qaeda than the fight against Hitler was a "diversion" from the fight against Japan."
This damning paragraph—all of which has come to pass except, most notably, the existence of any WMDs—should have been enough to banish Kagan and Kristol and countless others from the op-ed pages and green rooms of Washington, D.C. for the rest of their lives. But never let it be said neoconservatives lack for hubris. For, this week Kristol and Fred Kagan, Robert’s brother, penned aWeekly Standard column that eerily echoed the one from 12 years ago, right down to its unquestioning, self-assured headline: “What to Do in Iraq.”
Once again, the neocon answer to instability in Iraq is “regular US military units, on the ground.” But the most outlandish part of this column comes in its conclusion. There, Kristol and Kagan try to skip past years of failed strategy in order to re-ignite the same old fear-driven military response:
“Now is not the time to re-litigate either the decision to invade Iraq in 2003 or the decision to withdraw from it in 2011. The crisis is urgent, and it would be useful to focus on a path ahead rather than indulge in recriminations. All paths are now fraught with difficulties, including the path we recommend. But the alternatives of permitting a victory for al Qaeda and/or strengthening Iran would be disastrous.” [emphasis mine]
Who would fall for such a transparent attempt by Kristol and Kagan at avoiding accountability for their mistakes while simultaneously advocating we repeat them? Turns out, most of the Sunday morning news shows, which played host to a plethora of Iraq War architects and cheerleaders, this past weekend. Back on the same old media stages folks like Kristol and Wolfowitz, John Negroponte and Ryan Crocker comprised a neocon chorus blaming the Obama administration for the Iraqi unrest and calling for a “muscular” response. As for contrition on their part? Not happening.
And it kept spreading. On MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” this past Monday, there was Paul Bremer, the man who summarily disbanded the Iraqi Army in 2003 in one of the biggest strategic blunders of the war, happily holding court and advocating for “boots on the ground.” Not to be outdone, POLITICO had the temerity to quote Doug Feith blithely lecturing Obama about how to execute foreign policy. Left out of the article—that Feith was the man most responsible for both manipulating the pre-Iraq war intelligence and botching the post-war planning. And lest we forget, Feith’s office in the Pentagon was also in charge of running Abu Ghraib prison. But yeah, let’s get their brilliant advice on what Obama isn’t doing right.
Senator John McCain, perennial seeker of foreign bomb targets and favorite DC media gadfly, also got plenty of press—OK, that’s not that unusual—when he called for the resignation of Obama’s entire national security team. It’s just the kind of click-ready headline that the Twittersphere eats up. What the press never bothers to mention is McCain’s hypocrisy here, since he not once called for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation during three-and-a-half years of gross negligence running the war. Oh well, it’s not like people were dying back then, right?
Don’t forget the throwback stylings of torture apologist Marc Thiessen either, who was writing speeches for Rumsfeld during the run-up to the Iraq War. On Monday, he too weighed in with an op-ed in the Washington Post unironically entitled “Obama’s Iraq Disaster.” However, Thiessen didn’t have to call in any special favors in the media to get his column published. That’s because, like many others in the Bush administration diaspora, he failed upward after leaving the White House, landing a high-profile gig in the media as a Post columnist. And like almost every other member from the Bush neocon glory days, Thiessen made a point of blasting Obama this week for “squandering” a supposed victory in Iraq. This he did while conveniently disappearing the years of quagmire that preceded Obama’s tenure as well as George Bush’s role in signing the Status of Forces Agreement that was actually responsible for removing all US forces from Iraq. It’s rank, right-wing revisionism: Iraq was so much older then, it’s younger than that now.
This matters to our foreign policy debate because it demonstrates that conservatives like Thiessen, Kristol, et al. aren’t really grappling with past mistakes or the current facts on the ground, they’re just recycling the same policies for the future. Rather than trying to learn from the painful lessons of Iraq, they’re still focused on applying the hammer of military force to the nail of whatever brown people they don’t happen to like at the moment. This kind of policy ossification is bad for our discourse, certainly, but it actually comes in handy for opinion page editors and cable show bookers who want to consistently offer up the pro-war side of the debate (with or without pushback from ideological opponents).
This interplay between neocon foreign policy and media exposure produces a self-reinforcing effect, argues Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and chairman emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, Leslie Gelb. As someone who also supported the Iraq War in its early stages, Gelb readily acknowledges an ugly truth: The only way to maintain credibility in the foreign policy establishment is to push for using military force. Pro-war pundits get more press, in other words, which further shifts the Beltway debate more toward war, which, in turn, creates a greater incentive for pundits to be more pro-war, so they can get more press…
In the end, the song remains the same. And it leaves our democracy at risk of revisiting the same foreign policy disasters. But as Andrew Bacevich argues in his eloquent rebuttal to Robert Kagan inCommonweal, the deafening silence of the neocons on their legacy in Iraq should be a disqualifying trait: “without accountability there can be no credibility.” It’s a standard that the media should hold itself and its sources to as well. The architects of the last Iraq War who are trying to ignite the next one need no platform and deserve no encore.
Reed Richardson is a media critic whose work has appeared in The Nation, Harvard University’sNieman Reports and the textbook Media Ethics (Current Controversies). Copyright © 2014 The Nation—distributed by Agence Global