Media Matters

Getting Iraq Wrong, Again

Hindsight is no clearer for the paper of record.

By 7.20.04

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NEW YORK -- It is admittedly an exercise in tautology to point out that the New York Times' editorial page is, on occasion, disingenuous. All the same, the paper's Friday editorial merits special attention, illustrative as it is of that distressing failure of our center-left cognoscenti to come to terms with what are arguably the two defining foreign-policy issues of our times: the Iraq war specifically, and the concept of preemptive war generally.

The Times, which from the start came down against the war, now wants its readers to know that it had been insufficiently clangorous in its opposition. In this spirit, the paper proceeds to enumerate the reasons for its continued discontent.

Topping the list is what the Times terms the Bush administration's "misleading the American people about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction and links with Al Qaeda." What is immediately striking about this charge is not that it is wrong, which it is, but that as much would be obvious to anyone who had cast even a cursory glance at the paper's own coverage -- in particular its coverage of the Senate intelligence panel and Thom Shanker's reporting on Iraqi intelligence documenting potential Iraq-al Qaeda collaboration in Saudi Arabia, both of which belie the paper's insistence that the Bush administration was misleading on either point.

Ignorance, however, is not the sin of which the Times convicts itself; rather, it is its lamented lack of omniscience:

"As we've noted in several editorials since the fall of Baghdad, we were wrong about the weapons. And we should have been more aggressive in helping our readers understand that there was always a possibility that no large stockpiles existed."

How the Times would have made such a case in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary is not explained. Likely, this is because the editors recall that the American public, reeling from the most devastating attack on American soil in half a century, was unwilling to give the benefit of the doubt to a tyrant with the globally acknowledged means to act on his unabashed anti-Americanism. After all, if Saddam Hussein did in fact dispense with his weapons of mass destruction, why then did he submit to the U.N., in December 2002, a transparently bogus weapons declaration? Why, for that matter, were weapons inspectors denied access to sensitive weapons sites? And what are we to make of the more than 70 Al-Samoud 2 missiles, and the more than 50 warheads, all illegal, discovered in Iraq before the war? Or the scores of hidden weapons depots and the stray chemical warheads that continue to surface in Iraq each month?

EVEN IF WE DISMISS the latter as hindsight, the Times' case against the war is scarcely strengthened since, as it admits, the paper originally opposed the war because of what it calls the failure to secure "broad international support." This was unconvincing then, and it remains so today. Especially when considering the more than three dozen nations currently fielding troops in Iraq. It is a painful fact that a disproportionate number of these troops are American. Yet it is a fact and, given the reluctance of EU nations to seriously expend resources on the military, it will remains one in any future military mission the United States will assume. It was true in the "international" effort in Kosovo, where American forces made 80 percent of the combat operations, and where the U.S. contribution to the air campaign exceeded by far the combined contribution of all the other NATO countries, and it will be true in future military campaigns. No need to press this point, though, because the Times has yet another reason to oppose deposing Saddam Hussein:

"There were, and are, equally brutal and potentially more dangerous dictators in power elsewhere."

Of all the tired tropes that the anti-war crowd deals in, I find this the most irritating. Is it really true that there was someone to rival Saddam's brutality? And if there was, why won't the Times name him? The reason, I suspect, is that Collins and Co. do not consider brutality or the potential dangerousness of dictators as reasonable grounds for pre-emptive war. To name someone would be to imply that there was another, more urgent war we ought to be fighting. This the Times desperately does not want to do -- a particularly infuriating form of pacifism, because it pretends to be something else. And yet it's clear: From the Times' perspective, not one of Saddam Hussein's considerable missteps, short of an attack on the U.S., would justify a preemptive war. Indeed, the paper admits as much.

"Saddam Hussein was indisputably a violent and vicious tyrant, but an unprovoked attack that antagonized the Muslim world and fractured the international community of peaceful nations was not the solution."

One can only speculate what the Times would consider provocative. A few planes nose-diving into 42nd Street, perhaps? How about Iraq's refusal to abide by a Security Council resolution stipulating that such a refusal would be answered with military action? Either my dictionary is wrong in defining provocation as "to provide the needed stimulus for" or the Times has its own vernacular. Which may well be the case, since the paper waves off the notion that Saddam Hussein posed any threat:

"Saddam Hussein and his rotting army were not a threat even to the region, never mind to the United States."

Agreed, the Baathist Revolutionary Guard was not exactly the U.S. Marines. When faced with strife, rather than fight for life, they duly lost their nerve, to adapt that great hymn great hymn. But from this it does not follow that Iraq posed no threat to the region. It may be remembered that, throughout the Iran-Iraq war, Iran's army was riven by internal feuding between the Khomeinist revolutionary militia, the Pasdaran, and the Shah's officer class, while its most effective weapon comprised 12-year-old kamikazes on bicycles. Limited military capabilities, however, did not prevent the fundamentalism-fueled Islamic Republic from setting its sights on the region at large -- a threat that was taken seriously enough that the entire world, with the lone exception of Syria, pitched in for the Iraqi side.

As for prewar Iraq, the evidence shows that even Saddam Hussein's abject expulsion from Kuwait didn't dampen his ambitions for the region. As much was confirmed by David Kay, the leader of the Iraq Survey Group, who recorded that there was "a lot of evidence" Iraq was regenerating its banned missile program, and pointed out that Iraq had three missile programs that violated U.N. sanctions, each one devoted to the production of missiles with ranges greater than 93 miles. The slight nuisance of international sanctions notwithstanding, Saddam clearly intended to prove that antique aphorism: where there's a will, there's a way.

BUT LET'S SAY PREEMPTIVE war was the wrong solution to Iraq. What does the Times suggest instead? Well, it doesn't. The paper refuses even to venture an answer. Beyond a reflexive disdain for the Bush administration, the world's most influential newspaper can summon nothing in the way of a solution. It is this utter lack of moral seriousness that ultimately discredits the anti-war Left. How ironic that for all its fanciful notions about the ubiquitous devilry of the "neocons," a term that today includes just about anyone who supported regime-change in Iraq, the Left's fundamental flaw should be a lack of creativity.

In fact, there were several alternatives to preemptive war against Iraq. One could contend, as the realists did, that the international sanctions adequately contained the Baathist regime. Considering the host of illicit weapons programs recently uncovered in Iraq, as well as last week's confirmation by Britain's Butler report that Saddam had the "strategic intention of resuming the pursuit of prohibited weapons programs, including if possible its nuclear weapons program," that seems to me like wishful thinking. As well, it ignores the very real likelihood that these sanctions where headed for an imminent collapse, thanks to assiduous lobbying by Baathist proxies in France and Russia.

One could also take a cue from the isolationist Right, reprising John Adams's admonition admonition against going out "in search of monsters to destroy," while insisting that Iraq was better left to its own devices. There are two powerful arguments against this view: First, it seriously misunderstands the obligations, both voluntary and involuntary, of the world's solitary superpower. Second, it ignores the fact that prewar Iraq was becoming a homestead for Islamist terrorists, while the increasingly disenfranchised Iraqi Shiite majority and Kurdish minority made civil war a dangerous probability. Say this for the isolationists though: they are advancing a solution; a stupendously irresponsible one, to my mind, but a solution nonetheless.

The Times' editorialists can't muster even this much. This is unfortunate. By offering little more than reflexive objections to the preemptive war against Iraq, the Times effectively writes itself out of the most important debates of our times. In the process, the paper does itself, and its readers, no service.

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About the Author

Jacob Laksin is a writer in New York City.