Last week brought the passing of a celebrated journalist and author, David Halberstam. His career got off the ground in the early 1960s, as he accurately pointed out the bad policies and the inaccurate portrayals of Vietnam. While politicians and military commanders spoke of our progress, Halberstam wrote of the realities of the war on the ground and how we were losing.
His death occurred just two days before Bill Moyers’ “Buying the War” special aired on PBS. The special highlighted the media’s failure to investigate and challenge the evidence the Bush administration used to justify a war with Iraq. Journalists should have questioned why the administration was looking at Iraq, when Sept. 11 was a clear attack from Al Qaeda.
They should have been skeptical of the Iraqi defectors making cases against Saddam Hussein; defectors, after all, often have a reason to be such. Many Iraqi defectors – whom both the administration and the press relied on for evidence against Hussein – were Kurds, the same people Saddam had used mustard gas on. Think they might have a reason to be upset with him?
Further, how would Kurds have any intelligence – let alone intimate knowledge – of Hussein’s weapons programs? Was Saddam giving tours one day? And why would Saddam put biological weapons factories under his homes? Would you put biological weapons underneath your house? The claims for the content and location of weapons were illogical, but largely went unquestioned by the press.
The failures of the press fall mostly on sources such as CNN, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and other mainstream media outlets. If the “liberal” New York Times was reporting the same information as the Bush administration, there was no need to argue over the truth of the information. However, reporting at the time involved less investigative work – you know, the thing journalists are supposed to do – and relied more on top White House officials and pundits. But officials obviously have a political agenda, and pundits debate issues but not the evidence supporting those issues.
Who else failed? Many Democrats. John Kerry and Hillary Clinton regularly repeated the claims from the White House, using the same information the White House gave them, which often came from Iraqi defectors with a clear political axe to grind. They can say now if only they had known, then they would not have voted for the authorization of force in Iraq.
The simple truth is, they should have known. They should have called experts to check the claims of the president. They should have looked to government reports.
Author and journalist James Fallows outlined much of the pre-war information in a series of articles for The Atlantic Monthly, as well as in his book, “Blind Into Baghadad.”
He highlights the Future of Iraq project, which was completed well before the Bush administration invaded Iraq. The report – thirteen volumes comprised of more than 2,500 pages – outlined areas the United States would need to concern itself with, including preserving cultural heritage and establishing a free media.
The project established the need to restore water and electricity as soon as possible. The New York Times had a piece Sunday about several reconstruction projects not operating today as they were designed to, some due to lack of electricity. Four years into the war, and many Iraqis do not have the power or water they had under Saddam Hussein. Some residents used to use generators for electricity, but they cannot do so now that gas costs five times more than it did under Saddam.
The Future of Iraq project also suggested we should purge the Iraqi military of Hussein’s henchmen, but without dismissing all soldiers. Instead, our policy was to disband the entire military; we took away the livelihoods of thousands and thousands of men, but were kind enough to let them go home with their weapons. Because that idea could never backfire.
The project also suggested turning authority over to Iraqis within six months, or risking a prolonged occupation.
The project was right in nearly all of its assessments, but was not touted by the administration. In fact, there was a lot of pre-war planning, but it was actively ignored. Rumsfeld prevented Department of Defense officials from participating in CIA war-game sessions. The sessions ultimately projected the United States would need 400,000 soldiers, the majority of whom would be necessary for occupation.
While Yale economist William Nordhaus predicted the war would cost $121 billion to $1.6 trillion, the administration predicted a cost of just $1.7 billion. The war to date has cost $421.5 billion according to costofwar.com, and is predicted to have direct and indirect costs of $1.2 trillion by the war’s end.
Those are the lessons from the past, however. We know the media failed, we know our government failed. All we can do now is use the information we have to avoid future calamities.
In the March 5 issue of The New Yorker, investigative journalist Seymour Hersh reported on the quiet decisions of the White House in regard to Iran. According to Hersh, Sunni groups battling Hezbollah (Shia) in Lebanon are being supported by Saudi Arabia and the United States. Those same Sunni groups have direct and indirect links with various Sunni extremist groups – known for their attacks on U.S. soldiers – in Iraq, as well as with Al Qaeda.
The money is not appropriated, and thus hard to track. However, the links between the Sunni groups in Lebanon and Iraq, as well as Al Qaeda, are well-established. As such, it is no stretch to suggest we are almost assuredly giving aid to the very people we are fighting, just through indirect channels.
On Feb. 25, New York Times columnist Frank Rich wrote of the growing threat of Al Qaeda. According to the former head of the CIA bin Laden unit Michael Scheuer, “Al Qaeda is regrouping in Afghanistan and Pakistan. If you want to address the threat to America, that’s where it is.”
Terror attacks around the world were up 29 percent last year, and that figure excludes attacks on U.S. soldiers. In Iraq, murders have decreased since the surge started in February, but “murders” refers only to bodies dumped in the street. It excludes car bomb deaths, which are responsible for most civilian deaths in Iraq; such attacks have increased since the surge.
We know Saddam had no ties to Al Qaeda; the Pentagon finally admitted this at the beginning of the month. We know we are giving money to groups that oppose Iran but are sympathetic to Al Qaeda. We know our military efforts in Iraq, valiant as they are, are not working; the evidence suggests our efforts are actually working against us, and causing hostility towards us. We know, as Frank Rich wrote, “Five years after 9/11… the system is blinking red once again.”
We know all this because of intrepid reporters, including Fallows, Moyers, Hersh, and Rich, and independent news sources, such as the McClatchy newspapers. Journalists have learned the trouble of blindly following and not doing independent investigation, and we as a citizenry benefit from this.
At this point, “Support the troops!” is irrelevant; this is about facing realities, and either rectifying past errors and finally getting it right, or continuing to make them in Iraq and with Iran and Al Qaeda.
If journalists understand this, why doesn’t the Bush administration?
Ryan Speaker is a senior history major. His column appears every Wednesday in the Collegian. Replies and feedback can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.