How great it was. By most accounts — that is, what one sees on television and reads in the mainstream press — the war in Iraq was a resounding success. Iraqis are rid of Saddam Hussein, which is great, and only a few score Americans are dead. (The Iraqi dead from sanctions and the two wars are not part of the calculation, having never really counted — or been counted.)
Those in the media also see themselves as winners. “We had total freedom to cover virtually everything we wanted to cover,” NBC’s Chip Reid told The Associated Press. CBS News President Andrew Heyward put it this way: “This really has been, not just a quantitative change, but a qualitative change in war journalism.” Say what?
Yes, embedded journalists had a turret’s eye view of the war. But from that vantage they seemed only able to see the sand, not the desert — not the administration’s empty and arid rationale for war. One only has to read opinion polls to know how woefully ill-informed Americans have been by the information warriors. Small wonder. The mainstream media have, by and large, been content to parrot any administration pronouncement, beginning on September 12, 2001, when the Defense Department’s Paul Wolfowitz blamed Iraq for the attack.
As the war in Iraq progressed, news reached Americans, via the embedded media, of another Iraqi threat revealed, atrocity committed or attack thwarted.
On March 20, U.S. military spokesmen announced that banned “scud-type” missiles had hit Kuwait. Three days later, with much less fanfare, U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal issued this correction: “So far there have been no Scuds launched.”
On March 27, at a joint news conference with President Bush, Prime Minister Tony Blair said Iraq had executed two British soldiers. “If anyone needed any further evidence of the depravity of Saddam’s régime, this atrocity provides it. It is yet one more flagrant breach of all the proper conventions of war.” A spokesman for the prime minister later said there was no “absolute evidence” that the British servicemen had been executed.
As for the weapons of mass destruction, every other day it seemed reports came out of their possible discovery. All turned out to be false. None have been used. Nor have any been found. But those weapons must be in Iraq, because that’s why the Bush administration went to war. Isn’t it?
No better symbols sum up what this war was about – – and who waged it – – than two Baghdad monuments: The Ministry of Oil, where U.S. soldiers protected every paper clip from the get-go, and the Iraqi National Museum, which was looted of civilization’s most ancient treasures, including the largest library of the first written words. How far we have come since 1800, when Napoleon’s troops defaced the Sphinx for target practice.
For Bush and friends, Operation Iraqi Freedom worked so well that the administration is mulling over what country to next preemptively “free” – – embedded journalists in tow. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has mentioned North Korea.
Whatever the target, Newt Gingrich, a Rumsfeld adviser, is attempting to pre-empt any interference from diplomatic types that infest the State Department. Speaking to the American Enterprise Institute, Gingrich said: “The last seven months have involved six months of diplomatic failure and one month of military success. … Despite a pathetic public campaign of hand-wringing and desperation, the State Department publicly failed to gain even a majority of votes on the U.N. Security Council. … Now the State Department is back at work pursuing policies that will clearly throw away all the fruits of hard-won victory.” To wit, he mentioned Secretary of State Colin Powell’s overtures to Syria and his stand on the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.
How little we have learned since 1953, when Iran’s democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, a man who had the temerity to insist that Iranians should control Iran’s oil wealth, was overthrown in a CIA-sponsored coup. America installed a puppet monarch, the Shah, and Iranians have suffered from a lack of freedom ever since.
The lesson: Régime change is most successful when it begins at home, be that in Iraq, Cuba or the United States.
Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.