On March 16, 2003, just days before bombs began to fall on Baghdad, Vice President Dick Cheney appeared on Meet The Press, offering his assessment of Saddam Hussein’s activities in Iraq and making his case for war. “We know he’s been absolutely devoted to trying to acquire nuclear weapons, and we believe he has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons,” Cheney insisted.
Beginning with Condoleeza Rice’s infamous and implausible invocation of an atomic “mushroom cloud” rising over the United States, the fear-mongering used to goad the American public into war was seemingly limitless. Such rhetoric would not have been so effective without the acquiescence of leading media figures.
Abdicating their roles as government watchdogs, most mainstream news organizations, pundits and analysts failed to seriously challenge government claims. Indeed, many of the most zealous ideologues in the media appeared to take up the mantle of overt propagandists for the state.
Today we can see the horrific consequences of this cynical manipulation by the media. Hundreds of thousands dead, millions of refugees, and a strategic blunder; the Iraq War – built on lies and hyperbole – was arguably the worst U.S. foreign policy disaster in a generation.
The expected response to an entirely man-made catastrophe such as this should involve some type of accountability. Most appropriately, this would come in the form of criminal investigation. At a bare minimum, a healthy meritocracy would see those individuals most responsible for disseminating misinformation face career repercussions. Regrettably, it would seem that those most responsible for the egregious bloodbath in Iraq have not only managed to escape unscathed, but also continue to exert enormous influence on both public opinion and policy.
Frum, Here to Eternity
Among media figures of the time, David Frum was a seemingly tireless proponent of bombing and invading Middle Eastern countries. Beyond being responsible for coining the term “Axis of Evil,” Frum was among the most rabidly zealous advocates of military action against Iraq. In criminally delusional comments from March 24, 2003 – five days into the invasion of Iraq – Frum outlined his grandiose vision of impending revelations and attendant vindication:
When the Iraqi archives fall into Allied hands, we will learn about the complex structure of international terrorism over the past three decades. We may learn something too about the flow of money from Iraq into France and Germany — not only to French and German corporations, but very possibly to individuals, including senior political figures. We will learn the full horror of what went on inside Iraq…. Perhaps — is this too much to hope for? — the Arab intellectuals who kept silent about Saddam’s cruelty will be shamed out of nationalist pride into moral awakening; a moral awakening that will at last discredit terrorism and open the way to peace with Israel.
It is telling that such ideological myopia had virtually no impact on Frum’s continuing ability to project yet more propaganda into the public sphere. Unchastened by the horror of the Iraq War he helped engineer, Frum today pushes the same hawkish line with Iran.
He is not alone.
Charles Krauthammer, another outspoken neoconservative intellectual, wrote in 2002:
Iraq is Hitlerian Germany, a truly mad police state with external ambitions and a menacing arsenal.
Despite the bloody chaos resulting from Iraq’s supposed “liberation,” Krauthammer has remained unrepentant. Even after the outright lies about Iraq’s non-existent Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) were exposed, Krauthammer remained steadfast:
The inability to find the weapons is indeed troubling, but only because it means that the weapons remain unaccounted for and might be in the wrong hands. The idea that our inability to thus far find the weapons proves that the threat was phony and hyped is simply false.
Krauthammer has, unsurprisingly, staked out a prominent place for himself in the public debate about Iran.
This dangerous lack of memory and remorse extends beyond overtly neoconservative media figures as well. Jeffrey Goldberg, a purportedly “liberal” writer for the The Atlantic who, in his formative years, served as a prison guard in the Israeli Occupation Forces, is one such example.
While the truth of his liberalism may be suspect, Goldberg has managed to escape public opprobrium for championing the invasion of Iraq and continues his hawkish advocacy for new conflicts unabated. In 2002, Goldberg pontificated :
In five years…I believe that the coming invasion of Iraq will be viewed as an act of profound morality.
While Goldberg’s tactics for drumming up support for war were perhaps more nuanced than his peers, they were arguably even more cynical and dishonest. From long, emotive retellings of past Iraqi war stories to “subtle” invocations of broad-based regional alliances of evil, Goldberg tirelessly promoted pro-war propaganda.
Unlike some of his fellow journalists, Goldberg never issued a mea culpa after his myriad lies – notably his 2002 “reporting” on possible ties between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda – were exposed. In fact, he has chosen to remain utterly unrepentant, even flippant, in response to the incalculable suffering he helped bring to the people of Iraq, as well as thousands of American soldiers and their families.
Canadian author and political philosopher John Ralston Saul has argued compellingly that collective memory is a necessary attribute of functioning, healthy democracies. The ability to learn from historical errors and avoid them in future is a fundamental element of good governance which, in this most grievous of cases, appears to have been discarded
In the aftermath of an easily avoidable humanitarian and strategic disaster, it is difficult to contemplate how those neoconservative and so-called “liberal” figures who facilitated the war propaganda machine still manage to preserve such prestigious positions in the public sphere. Moreover, it is utterly contemptible that such individuals can continue to advocate the same policies today for Iran, which led to such gross destruction of human life in Iraq.
As the United States navigates its present standoff with Iran, it is worth remembering who not to listen to: those deeply embedded journalists whose cynical and crudely manipulative war propaganda has resonated more with tactics employed by fascist regimes of times past than with 21st century liberal democracies.