Sullivan on Iraq War, Sept. 1, 2002
There has been no accountability for all the war hysteria whipped up by media pundits and politicians about Iraq in the year before the U.S. invaded. Although it is true that Doug Feith’s various special offices in the Pentagon, and VP Dick Cheney’s politburo of Scooter Libby and John Hannah, along with Ahmad Chalabi and others fed false and misleading information to the government and the press, many talking heads were pitifully gullible.
Let’s start with Andrew Sullivan, who, at the beginning of the September before the war, published in the London Times a vicious tongue-lashing of the New York Time’s Howell Raines for not being on board with the program. I present excerpts below:
Sunday Times (London), September 1, 2002
The liberal cheerleader getting a bad name
“At the beginning, few readers noticed any change. The new executive editor of The New York Times, Howell Raines, took over last September and was immediately embroiled in the biggest New York story in decades. The coverage of the 9/11 massacre was superb, detailed and thorough – exactly what the American elite demands of its paper of record.
“And then the rot set in. The New York Times has gone from being America’s most reliable (if sometimes PC) compendium of news to being one of the most suspect media entities around . . .
“Why on earth should anyone care? The answer is, in fact, a critical one in assessing the current American debate about war against Iraq. Since September 11, polls have shown that a hefty majority of Americans favour a military effort to prevent weapons of mass destruction being used by Saddam and his allies against American allies and the homeland itself . . .
“Beginning in July, [Raines] used America’s most authoritative front page to run inflammatory non-stories about the impending conflict. On July 30, the Times detailed how war “could profoundly affect the American economy”. Duh.
Cole: Note that Sullivan dismisses the argument that the war could have a deep impact on the US economy as a commonplace. But in fact, Bush administration officials consistently low-balled the American public about the cost. It was to be $60 billion. Iraq’s oil would pay for reconstruction. There would be no long-term impact on oil prices. Raines was right and the Bush administration officials were wrong. Sullivan here calls the prediction that the war would have a big impact on the US economy an “inflammatory non-story” (which by the way is a meaningless phrase and therefore bad writing. A non-story cannot be inflammatory. What he presumably means is that Raines ran inflammatory stories about the economic impact that were inaccurate. But they almost certainly underestimated the economic impact of the Iraq war, the full dimensions of which we can now only begin to guess.)
“After the first day of Senate hearings on Iraq, the headline was: “Experts warn of high risk for American invasion of Iraq”. In fact, the hearings had been dominated by defectors’ tales of Saddam’s imminent nuclear capacity. Every other major outlet led with that troubling news. The Times buried it.”
Cole: Sullivan here castigates Raines for not swallowing the crock of shit that Saddam had an imminent nuclear weapons capacity. No serious analyst thought Iraq had an imminent such capacity. At this point in time, Ambassador Joe Wilson had already demonstrated to the CIA and Cheney that Iraq had not bought yellowcake uranium from Niger. The defectors’ tales were fairy tales. Sullivan not only swallowed this crock whole, he licked his lips, asked for more, and beat up on Raines for not wanting any.
“It was slowly becoming clear that Raines was intoxicated with the power of his position – and you can see the temptation. The Times has influence beyond its reach as a paper for the most influential people in the most powerful country on earth . . .”
Cole: Not content to question Raines’s journalistic judgment, Sullivan now goes for the jugular of character. What is the explanation for Raines’s puzzling reticence about the case for an Iraq war? Why isn’t he buying the stories of a menacing Saddam, sitting atop massive stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction and within a year or two of having a nuke, plotting to strike the United States? Is it possible that Raines just can’t see reliable sources for such tales, corroborated by other, unconnected reliable sources? Is it possible that there is an honest difference of opinion here? No, Raines must be a megalomaniac, drunk on power.
Whenever a writer replies to an argument with an attack on his opponent’s character, calling him “immoral” or “unscrupulous” or “full of pride,” you are in the presence of propaganda. The reasoned response to an argument is a counter-argument. It is not always inappropriate to call someone unscrupulous. I have long felt that the unscrupulous deserve the epithet. But an argument made by an unscrupulous person can nevertheless be correct, and would need to be refuted on its own merits even after one was done with the name calling.
“Why would the Times risk its reputation as a liberal but fair paper of record to lurch to the left of The Guardian? Since Raines won’t speak to the general press, it’s hard to know for sure. Part of it, perhaps, is to do with his generation of liberals. Scarred by Vietnam, they see every war as a replay of that hell and assume war critics always have the moral edge over war supporters. Raines is also a white liberal from Alabama, eager to prove that he isn’t a Southern bigot. He won a Pulitzer for a guilt-ridden memoir of his black nanny when he was a child. So he overshoots.”
The lessons progressives drew from the Vietnam War were that it is unwise for the US to become embroiled in an Asian land war, that Asian nationalism is a potent force that Washington consistently underestimates, that wars cost innocent lives and brutalize those who prosecute them, and that you should not go into a war without an exit strategy. The chief post-Vietnam strategic thinker on these issues was Colin Powell, by whose guidelines the Iraq war should not have been fought. How Raines’s alleged white liberal guilt could possibly have an impact on this argument is beyond me, but I guess when you are libelling someone mercilessly, you may as well throw in the kitchen sink.
“But there is also a paranoid hatred of the president among the paper’s chief columnists. Almost universally, they hate Bush in the way that some extreme conservatives once hated Clinton. Payback, perhaps. These major voices are not simply anti-Bush for good, defensible reasons. They have entered the realm of conspiracy theories, knee-jerk suspicion and profound cynicism about an administration thrust into one of the most dangerous national security crises in decades . . .”
Cole: Yes, it was quite wrong of Raines to be in any way suspicious of the Bush administration. Why, it would not try to scare us with a reference to nuclear purchases in a State of the Union address that the CIA refused to validate, now would it? It wouldn’t keep dropping hints about Saddam and al-Qaeda that were wholly unsubstantiated by the president’s own admission, would it? It would not keep things secret from the American public, would not violate the Geneva Conventions on a massive scale, would it?
In actual fact, most Democrats gave the Bush administration far too much credit for sincerity, and allowed themselves to be duped into confusing the addled, weak Saddam with Dr. Strangelove.
“More conservative voices have been purged. After criticising the new direction of the Times, I was told that Raines had barred me from contributing to the paper. That’s his prerogative, of course, But it helps reveal the closed mind running the most influential paper on the planet.”
I just am too embarrassed to comment on this paragraph.
“Recently, there have been signs of improvement. Two weeks ago, the man who lost out to Raines in the race to be editor, Bill Keller, penned an op-ed all but chastising his boss. “The three Republican foreign policy luminaries who have been identified in the press as sceptics – Mr (Brent) Scowcroft, Lawrence Eagleburger and Henry Kissinger – spend much of their time courting well-paying clients who would rather not rock boats in the Middle East,” wrote Keller.”
Cole: It is true that Kissinger was misunderstood by the Times’s reporter. But Scowcroft and Eagleburger had legitimate cautions about the rush to war that now seem quite prophetic, if insufficiently pessimistic in retrospect. Keller turns out to have been wrong and Raines was right. But here Sullivan slams Raines (and Scowcroft and Eagleburger).
“The real opponents of the war in America, therefore, are outside the elected political branch and are threefold: The New York Times, the men who left Saddam Hussein in power in 1990 and are thus partly responsible for the current crisis (Scowcroft, Colin Powell), and gun-shy military brass, who also opposed the first Gulf war. The three have worked together during the dog days of August to prevent a war. And they have made great headway, as polls have shown a slow decline in public support. But so far this has been a phoney war – between newspaper ideologues and security has-beens defending their own complicity in Saddam’s survival.”
Cole: Note that Sullivan again resorts to character assassination to undermine Scowcroft, Powell and others. They are not sincere, he says, and he does not even bother to recapitulate their arguments or try to refute them. Since they are abject human beings, he implies, he does not have to engage them at that level. In other words, he uses propaganda. Powell (who was later bamboozled into presenting false intelligence to the UN) had actually fought in a war. I suspect Sullivan has not, nor has he in all likelihood even lived in a war zone for any extended period of time. He had no standing to launch a vicious attack on the officer corps of the United States Army and Marines, accusing them of cowardice (I take it that is the meaning of “gun-shy.”)
“Soon, the real debate will take place. The president will speak. Congress will vote. And the war, despite Raines’s hysteria, will, barring unforeseen events, almost certainly follow.”
Cole: An accurate prediction, even though actual debate was forestalled by a campaign of misinformation and intimidation. However, the blame for “hysteria” is placed on entirely the wrong party. It was ol’ “Yellowcake Bush” who played chicken little.
Ironically, the NYT later acquiesced in the hysteria, and alowed Judith Miller to act as stenographer for Ahmad Chalabi’s lies on the front page. That is grounds for slamming the New York Times. Sullivan’s rant was wrong-headed from beginning to end.
By the way, I think that despite this particular shocking instance of lack of elementary journalistic judgement and knowledge of Middle Eastern society, Andrew Sullivan can’t simply be dismissed as “unreliable” or “hopelessly biased.” I find his arguments for gay rights cogent and persuasive, for instance. You can refute and dismiss an argument. It is harder to dismiss an entire human being.
Muslim mystics attribute to the Imam Ali, the Prophet’s son-in-law, the saying that “And you think that you are a but a tiny body, while in fact an entire universe is enfolded within you.” That’s true of each of us.
Truth in advertising: Sullivan attacked me on his weblog Thursday as having lost all “moral compass” because I dared to point out that the US Department of Defense and its allies are now killing Marsh Arabs around Kut, Amara and Majar al-Kabir–the very Marsh Arabs Mr. Wolfowitz said he was invading Iraq to protect from Saddam, who also used to kill them. In those days they were called the Iraqi Hizbullah. Many of them now are allied with Muqtada al-Sadr. There is an enormous difference in scale between what Saddam did to them and what the Coalition has done since the beginning of April. But it is early days, after all. And in issues of ethics and hypocrisy, scale is less important than principle.
I take it as a compliment that the Right is so afraid of this observation (the recent fate of the Marsh Arabs is not being discussed anyplace but the much-maligned Guardian) that they feel it necessary to resort to character assassination (“unreliable,” “no moral compass”) in my regard, in hopes of marginalizing me quick before the observation gains traction.
“Saving” the Iraqi Shiites was maybe the last rationale for their war that hadn’t been discredited. Since April 2 they haven’t been saving them any more. They have been killing them.