Eric Alterman Warns: Pundits and Partisans Are Up to Old Tricks in Iraq

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(Top left-clockwise) Paul Bremer; Bill O'Reilly with Charles Krauthammer; Paul Wolfowitz and Bill Kristol.
(Top left-clockwise) Paul Bremer; Bill O'Reilly with Charles Krauthammer; Paul Wolfowitz and Bill Kristol.

In a column entitled “Bush’s toxic legacy in Iraq,” terrorism expert Peter Bergen writes about the origins of ISIS, “the brutal insurgent/terrorist group formerly known as al Qaeda in Iraq.”

Bergen notes that, “One of George W. Bush’s most toxic legacies is the introduction of al Qaeda into Iraq, which is the ISIS mother ship. If this wasn’t so tragic it would be supremely ironic, because before the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, top Bush officials were insisting that there was an al Qaeda-Iraq axis of evil. Their claims that Saddam Hussein’s men were training members of al Qaeda how to make weapons of mass destruction seemed to be one of the most compelling rationales for the impending war.”

There was no al Qaeda-Iraq connection until the war; our invasion made it so. We have known this for nearly a decade, well before the murderous ISIS even appeared.

There was no al Qaeda-Iraq connection until the war; our invasion made it so. We have known this for nearly a decade, well before the murderous ISIS even appeared. In a September 2006 New York Times article headlined “Spy Agencies Say Iraq War Worsens Terrorism Threat,” reporter Mark Mazetti informed readers of a classified National Intelligence Estimate representing the consensus view of the 16 disparate spy services inside government. Titled “Trends in Global Terrorism: Implications for the United States,’’ the analysis cited the Iraq war as a reason for the diffusion of jihad ideology: “The Iraq war has made the overall terrorism problem worse,’ said one American intelligence official.”

The Bush Administration fought to quash its conclusions during the two years that the report was in the works. Mazetti reported, “Previous drafts described actions by the United States government that were determined to have stoked the jihad movement, like the indefinite detention of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay and the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal.” Apparently, these were dropped from the final document, though the reference to jihadists using their training for the purpose of “exacerbating domestic conflicts or fomenting radical ideologies” as in say, Syria, remained.

At the beginning of 2005, Mazetti notes, another official US government body, the National Intelligence Council, “released a study concluding that Iraq had become the primary training ground for the next generation of terrorists, and that veterans of the Iraq war might ultimately overtake Al Qaeda’s current leadership in the constellation of the global jihad leadership.”

On the one hand, it is impressive how well our intelligence agencies were able to predict the likely outcome of the Bush Administration’s foolhardy obsession with invading Iraq. On the other, it is beyond depressing how little these assessments have come to matter in the discussion and debate over US foreign policy.

As we know, Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and the other architects of the war did everything possible to intimidate, and when necessary, discredit those in the intelligence agencies who warned of the predictable consequences of war.

As we know, Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and the other architects of the war did everything possible to intimidate, and when necessary, discredit those in the intelligence agencies who warned of the predictable consequences of war. Cheney and his deputies made repeated trips to Langley to challenge professional intelligence work and used pliant members of the media — including Robert Novak of The Washington Post and Judith Miller of The New York Times, among many, many others — to undermine the integrity of people like Joseph P. Wilson and Valerie Plame lest the truth about the administration’s lies come out. Rather incredibly, they even went so far as to ignore the incredibly detailed planning documents, created over a period of a year at a cost of $5 million by the State Department, that had a chance of providing Iraq with a stable postwar environment. Instead, they insisted on creating an occupation that generated nothing but chaos, mass murder and the terrorist victories of today.

One of the many horrific results was the decision to support Nouri al-Maliki as a potential leader of the nation. Maliki’s sectarian attacks on Sunni Muslims on behalf of his Shiite allies are the immediate cause of the current murderous situation. And his placement in that job, as Fareed Zakaria aptly notes, “was the product of a series of momentous decisions made by the Bush administration. Having invaded Iraq with a small force — what the expert Tom Ricks called ‘the worst war plan in American history’ — the administration needed to find local allies.”

One could go on and on (and on and on and on) about the awful judgment — the arrogance, the corruption, the ideological obsession and the purposeful ignorance — by the Bush Administration that led to the current catastrophe. As Ezra Klein recently noted, “All this cost us trillions of dollars and thousands of American lives.” And this is to say nothing of the destruction of our civil liberties and poisoning of our political discourse at home and the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who died, the millions of refugees created, the hatred inspired in the world toward the United States.

But to focus exclusively on the administration begs an obvious question. How did they get away with it? Where were the watchdogs of the press?

Much has been written on this topic. No one denies that the truth was available at the time. Not all of it, of course, but enough to know that certain catastrophe lay down the road the administration chose to travel at 100 miles per hour. Top journalists, like those who ran the Times and The Washington Post, chose to ignore the reporting they read in their own papers.

As the Post itself later reported, its veteran intelligence reporter Walter Pincus authored a compelling story that undermined the Bush administration’s claim to have proof that Iraq was hiding weapons of mass destruction. It only made the paper at all because Bob Woodward, who was researching a book, talked his editors into it. And even then, it ran on page A17, where it was immediately forgotten.

Buying the War (2003)
As former Post Pentagon correspondent Thomas Ricks later explained, “Administration assertions were on the front page. Things that challenged the administration were on A18 on Sunday or A24 on Monday. There was an attitude among editors: ‘Look, we’re going to war, why do we even worry about all this contrary stuff?” The New York Times ran similarly regretful stories and its editors noted to its readers that the paper had been “perhaps too intent on rushing scoops into the paper.” (Bill Moyers’ documentary special “Buying the War: How Big Media Failed Us tells the story, and in conjunction with that Moyers report, you can find an Interactive Timeline as well as post-March 2003 coverage of Iraq.)

Many in the mainstream media came clean, relatively speaking, about the cause of their mistakes when it turned out that they had been conduits for the Bush administration lies that led to catastrophe. But what they haven’t done, apparently, is change their ways.

As my “Altercation” colleague Reed Richardson notes, the very same people who sold us the war are today trying to resell us the same damaged goods: “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. 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.”

Among the most egregious examples of this tendency has been rehabilitation of neoconservative thinker Robert Kagan and his frequent writing partner, the pundit and policy entrepreneur William Kristol. Back in April 2002, the two argued that “the road that leads to real security and peace” is “the road that runs through Baghdad.” In an article entitled “What to Do About Iraq,” they added that not only was it silly to believe that “American ground forces in significant number are likely to be required for success in Iraq” but also that they found it “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.”

Recently, Kristol could be heard on ABC’s idiotically named “Powerhouse Roundtable” explaining that the problem in Iraq today was caused not by the lousy decisions for which he argued so vociferously but “by our ridiculous and total withdrawal from Iraq in 2011.”

Both men made this argument over and over, and especially in Kristol’s case, often in McCarthyite terms designed to cast aspersions on the motives and patriotism of their opponents and those in the media. For his spectacular wrongness Kristol has been punished by being given columns in The Washington Post, The New York Times, and Time magazine, not to mention a regular slot on ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.” (These appointments came in addition to a $250,000 award from the right-wing Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation; an occasion that inspired this collection of a just a few of his greatest hits.)

Recently, Kristol could be heard on ABC’s idiotically named “Powerhouse Roundtable” explaining that the problem in Iraq today was caused not by the lousy decisions for which he argued so vociferously but “by our ridiculous and total withdrawal from Iraq in 2011.” (Surprise, surprise, he did not mention that our 2011 withdrawal from Iraq was the product of the 2008 “Status of Forces” agreement negotiated by none other than President George W. Bush.)

Similarly, last month, Kagan was given 12,700 words for a cover essay in the (still hawkish) New Republic entitled “Superpowers Don’t Get to Retire,” which he used to make many of the same sorts of unsupported assertions that underlay his original misguided advice. As a result, he found himself not only celebrated in a profile in The New York Times that all but glossed over his past record, but also called in for consultations by the current President of the United States.

One often reads analyses these days that grant the no-longer ignorable fact that American conservatives, especially those in control of the Republican Party, have become so obsessed by right-wing ideology and beholden to corporate cash that they have entirely lost touch both with reality and with the views of most Americans. As the famed Brookings Institution analyst Thomas Mann recently wrote in the Atlantic Monthly, “Republicans have become a radical insurgency — ideologically extreme, contemptuous of the inherited policy regime, scornful of compromise, unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of their political opposition.”

This tendency was the focus of the coverage of the shocking defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in his local primary by a man with no political experience and little money, who attributed his victory to “God act[ing] through people on my behalf,” and warns that unless more Americans heed the lessons of Jesus — as he interprets them — a new Hitler could rise again “quite easily.” These right-wing extremists have repeatedly demonstrated their contempt for the views of most Americans whether it be on economic issues, environmental issues, issues of personal, religious and sexual freedom or immigration, to name just a few, and Americans are moving away from them as a result.

This is no less true, it turns out, with regard to the proposed adventurism in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East by those who sold us the first false bill of goods back in 2003. A strong majority of Americans now agree that removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq was not worth the trillions of dollars and lives lost. Barely one in six want to go back in. There is also strong opposition to military intervention in neighboring Syria. And yet not only do the same armchair warriors continue in their demands for more blood and treasure to be sacrificed on the altar of their ideological obsession with no regard whatever for Americans’ desire to do the exact opposite, they remain revered by the same mainstream media that allowed them to get away with it the first time.

The conservative foreign policy establishment, it needs to be said, is no less out to touch with reality — and democracy — than the tea party fanatics who control the Republican domestic agenda (and are fueled by the cash of the Koch Brothers and other billionaires who stand to profit from their victories). That so many in the media pretend otherwise, after all this time, all this death and all this money wasted, demonstrates not only contempt for their audience but utter disdain for knowledge itself.

The views expressed in this post are the author’s alone, and presented here to offer a variety of perspectives to our readers.

Eric Alterman is CUNY distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College, media columnist for The Nation, a senior fellow of the Center for American Progress and the author of nine books.
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  • Anonymous

    Not to worry. The American people will not support boots on the ground. We were out for payback when we backed the war in 2003 so the beat of the war drums worked. The average American could care less about the sufferings of the Iraqi people and feel no responsibility. America is falling apart and as much as I fear for my kids, I believe it is well deserved karma.

  • Questor1

    First mistake – conferring great importance upon a little-known group, Al Quaeda, as if they were an enormous threat worthy of an all-out response by our massive military might. Coupled with our failure to quickly eradicate them, we ended up fueling a growing resentment against all the US stands for. Psychologically, this defines our enemy as our near-equal in power, instead of as a nuisance to cope with by other means.

  • Edward Rink

    There was never really any difference really between moderate Republicans and the Tea Party. They’ve stewed long enough together in the same pot of venomous bile that each tastes as awful as any other.

  • Anonymous

    Hey gang, I just thought of a “great Idea”……let’s go back to the draft!!!! I was drafted in 1966, …..remember what was going on at that time?

  • Edward98

    Seriously, we need to go after these pundits and partisans. The U.S. needs to adopt the same credo as Anonymous. We do not forgive, we do not forget.

  • NotARedneck

    The right wing corporate trash got Uncle Sam to squander $1 trillion in Iraq to get their hands on about $100 billion in Iraqi oil. A good “investment” for them, now jeopardized by recent developments. “Help!” scream their supporters.

  • OHDisqusNSA666100

    Would guys like George Bush and Dick Cheney be subject to a draft?
    On which planet?

  • Anonymous

    “Cheney … used pliant members of the media —
    including Robert Novak of The Washington Post and Judith Miller of The New York Times, among many, many others — to undermine the integrity of people like Joseph P. Wilson,,,.

    WHY are the “many, many others” (who are being mentioned only obliquely in numerous articles) not exposed BY NAME ??

  • Pete Joachim

    These war mongerers understand one big thing – the American masses are too self-absorbed in their daily lives – their daily obsession with attaining their piece of the forever shriveling American pie – to give a dam.

  • Bob Anderson

    Amen! That’s all I have to say.

  • pointofgrille

    Reinstating the draft would be the best thing to actively motivate the American public to begin resisting the marching of our young citizens off to be maimed and killed, for the sole reason of protecting the assets wannabe Oligarchs.
    War has become trivialized, in the minds of many, since they can be secure in the knowledge their loved ones will not be put in jeopardy unless they volunteer.

  • Butcher

    Newsflash: Michael B. Oren is a former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Do you really think he’s capable of objectivity?

  • Art

    I was too young for the draft. Only eligible in the final year of the sadness named Vietnam. My number was 3– something. Saved.
    I would support a draft with these conditions:
    ■ No exemptions except for chronic poor health/disability.
    (With a hardship clause)
    ■ Draft Boards staffed only by parents of serving draftees.
    ■ Draftees could choose between military, Peace Corps, AmeriCorps (or whatever its called now),
    Work in Federal government agencies like FEMA, Health and Human Services, or some agency working on behalf of people who need help. Regenerate the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration and open those as other choices.
    ■ For every year in service, a person would receive one year of college/university.

    It’s time to teach people service to the nation. Run each group like the old CCC, with all draftees living and working together, learning a craft and receiving an education at the end of it.
    Moreover, people would learn about other people, new ideas, and sharing a common purpose.
    Finally, it would help inoculate people against anti-government propaganda. Nothing in my life helped teach me about getting along with people than the time in the Navy when I was assigned to shipboard sea duty. Not only did we work together, we trained, ate, showered, and slept in the same places. I met people from almost every state, as well as from the Philippines. My best friend on one ship was born in Ecuador.
    So national service can help repair our infrastructure, spur economic activity, empower people by teaching a trade, invest people with a sense of accomplishment, and allow people the opportunity to learn more about other people, and maybe restore a respect for public service.
    And in return for their service, free higher education.
    Let’s build a sense of national service upon more than just a militaristic obligation. Service in defense of the nation, but more than that: service to individuals and communities. The rewards would far outweigh the costs.
    If anyone doubts that, look at the flag draped coffins still returning, and the broken bodies and minds still returning. And then cast your gaze to the East. From North Africa to Central Asia the world is in flames because of our invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Not to mention the hundreds of thousands of civilians we’ve killed or who have been killed because we destroyed those societies.
    Then look at the equipment we’ve lost and left behind. Have we all seen ISIS riding our old Humvees and Strykers rushing to capture the next village, the next town, or city?
    Bring back the draft, by all means, but let’s redefine what it means to serve.

  • Anonymous

    Art, your solution would provide to many loop-holes. I’d rather keep it to military service only.

  • Anonymous

    Yes, the “George Bushies” and the “Dick Cheneyies”, would indeed be subject to a draft!! And, for those who dodge or “duck” the draft with the help of their rich families would be exposed as hypocrites

  • Trumbull Desi

    Dick Cheney is a traitor and a soldier for Halliburton. He’s a disgrace to this country.

  • George Edward Morey

    You nailed it!

  • George Edward Morey

    All neocons!

  • Anonymous

    Several media tools, IE” Faux. are part and party to the lies of the Bush White House, and should be singled out as conspirators, and tried as war criminals, along side cheney, bush, rumsfeld and rice.

  • Skeletonman

    The Bush-Cheney Axis of Evil needs to be frogmarched to The Hague for trial for war crimes

  • Skeletonman

    I’d just add that he is a really crappy hunter, especially with bird shot.

  • Skeletonman

    Novack committed treason when he outed Valerie Plame.

  • Skeletonman

    Venture capital from the US Treasury. Risk free. Unless you happen to be a ground pounder or an Iraqi.

  • Skeletonman

    I would suggest that the draft become active after 90 days of combat (or the first stop-loss order).

    Also, a graduated war tax be levied according to the above timeline.

    Make it a Constitutional Amendment.

  • http://supdntk.blogspot.com William Tatum

    Along with the entire congressional leadership that signed off on it all numerous times, that includes Obama, Clinton, Reid, Pelosi, etc. The Republicans deserve the lions share of the blame to be sure, but there were more than a few hawkish democrats who enabled them in the Congress.

  • txlakedude

    Believe it was Karl Rove, who outed Plane to Novack, but no one had the guts to prosecute Rove.
    The mastermind of force and corruption, in the current politics state.

  • txlakedude

    They went after Hitlers camp guards, to prosecute, why not these pundits?
    They are coconspirators of the War Criminals.
    America, never forget these crimes against humanity, until they are prosecuted.

  • Mark Davis

    The invasion and occupation of Iraq along with creating chaos was hardly an accident. The only way that the multinationals could take control of Iraqi oil was to get rid Saddam Hussein’s Baath party along with the police and army because they were intensely nationalistic and wouldn’t have permitted that. Meanwhile taking Iraq’s oil offline and stopping Saddam from undercutting the spot price of oil doubled the cost at the pump. As you can see from this chart of gas prices by year there had been a decade long slide before Saddam’s removal which could only have been accomplished by our armed forces. http://www.energytrendsinsider.com/2012/03/14/charting-the-dramatic-gas-price-rise-of-the-last-decade/

  • TheOldMan

    Richard Armitage, not KR.

  • IMB Seventy

    Why keep it to military service only? What about people who’d never think of serving in the military, like me?

  • Anonymous

    IMB Seventy, I’m not sure I understand your point “….about people who’d never think of serving in the military….” The question I have for you is…WHY? You’ve never seen or heard in your entire life…. “Uncle Sam Wants You”? The invitation has always been there.

  • IMB Seventy

    You said you want the draft back, I asked why?

  • IMB Seventy

    I’m not sure what the use of this would be? Conscription just at best makes young people do this work reluctantly for no reason.

  • Anonymous

    Oh, so it’s ok for the “other slobs” to go and die for you and “…alongside many others…” That’s right, guys like you set back and enjoy the safety and comfort of this crazy, silly and tea-party divided country. I didn’t want to go into the military either. I was drafted and I did my duty….and, I was scared as hell.

  • Stuart

    Come on, people. All this is just an Obama plot to distract us from Benghazi.

  • IMB Seventy

    Um…I’m anti-military and don’t believe in the wars. Do explain why I should have to join the military and even worse, fight in a war I don’t believe in? And I wouldn’t do the military any good since I’m anti-authoritarian. Let’s keep the military all volunteer.

    So you were drafted during the Vietnam war I assume?

  • Arianna_NL

    Not news to me. I read it for what it was, a historical treatise on American involvement in the Middle East. Qhen, why and how “we” decided it was in our interests (usually economic) to muck in other nations business.

  • Anonymous

    To try to explain why you should have to join the military is like my trying to explain to someone there’s a God. You believe or you don’t. And, yes I was drafted during the Vietnam war.

  • IMB Seventy

    Being that I don’t believe in “God”, I can only guess that means you don’t have a factually based argument behind your contention.

    Why would you want anyone to repeat your horrible experience?

  • NotARedneck

    The Tea party represents the racists, bigots, gun nut and fundamentalist imbecile side of the party. The so called “moderates” represent the tax evaders, financial scammers and rural welfare queens.

  • NotARedneck

    “hose who dodge or “duck” the draft with the help of their rich families would be exposed as hypocrites”

    Unfortunately they not only have no shame but buckets of money to cover their tracks and attack their detractors.