Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 September 2018

Media failed to ask right questions on weapons claims

The lesson the American media should learn from Iraq is not simply to question information offered by those in power, but to question the underlying assumptions of "pre-emptive" warfare.

Most of the US media knows it was wrong about Iraq, but it doesn't necessarily understand just what it got wrong.

The consensus among the liberal media outlets such as The New York Times that supported President George W Bush's 2003 invasion is simply this: They were misled - "like everybody else" - into believing that Saddam Hussein's regime held stocks of unconventional weaponry; they now realise that they were too hasty - "like everyone else" - in believing the tales of Iraq's WMD capability spun by Bush administration officials and self-serving Iraqi exiles. Next time, they promise, they'll do a better job of interrogating the information put out by those advocating the use of military force to counter "threats" such as the one ostensibly posed by Saddam.

The problem, however, is not simply that the liberal media accepted the wrong answers on Iraq, thereby generating widespread public support for the war; the problem is that the liberal media allowed the debate to be framed by the wrong questions.

Imagine, for a moment, that US infantry units rolling into Baghdad in April, 2003 had found a couple of warehouses full of VX gas and mustard gas component chemicals and warheads, or a refrigerator full of botulinum toxin. That would have been enough to "prove" the Bush administration's case for war - "pre-empting" the threat posed by Saddam.

But would proving that Saddam's regime had some unconventional weapons capability have made the Iraq war any less of a debacle?

That invading Iraq was an epic blunder is a commonly held view today in the US strategic establishment, and any discovery of stocks of WMD on Iraqi soil would not likely have altered that assessment.

The problems inherent in the case for war were obvious to anyone who cared to ask the more difficult questions. But the US media, by and large, was unwilling to do that in the climate of fear that followed the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

That meant that all the administration had to do was trot out circumstantial evidence that Iraq may have been maintaining a WMD programme. Then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice admitted that there was uncertainty over how close Iraq was to being able to build a nuclear weapon, but sought to close down discussion by warning: "We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud."

The real failure of the US media in the build-up to the war was its capitulation in the face of such demagoguery. Having allowed itself to be misled about the facts of Iraq's capabilities was only part of the problem.

More importantly, the media failed to question the assumption that if Saddam had certain categories of weapons, an invasion became necessary and beneficial.

Failure to critically examine the belief that once an adversary can be shown to possess certain categories of weapons, all rational discussion of strategic options must give way to a call to arms is particularly worrying, precisely because the exercise is being repeated over Iran.

President Barack Obama has been pressed to vow to start a war if that becomes necessary to prevent Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. This, we are told, is necessary because there's no way a nuclear-armed Iran could be contained through traditional deterrence - despite three decades of evidence that the Islamic Republic is guided more by unsentimental realpolitik than by revolutionary fervour in the pursuit of its national interests and regional influence.

Of course, Iran is not - by US intelligence assessments - currently building nuclear weapons, although it is steadily accumulating the means to do so. But the assumption is being unproblematically accepted that "surgical" US strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities could take care of the problem, as opposed to opening a new chapter of hostilities with unpredictable consequences.

The key question on Iran ought to be exactly the same one the US failed to ask on Iraq: will military action against Iran leave the US and its interests and allies in the Middle East in a more secure position or in greater peril?

States do not pursue weapons systems as ends in themselves; they seek them to protect, enhance or advance their own strategic position, by evening up the odds against more powerful (often nuclear-armed) rivals. The only durable solution to the problem of nuclear weapons proliferation is to address the conflicts that drive their pursuit, and raise the risk that they may be used.

An Iran bombed to destroy its nuclear power plants would likely be far more dangerous to the US and its allies over the next couple of decades - and would very likely immediately embark on a covert programme to build nuclear weapons, as Saddam did in 1981 after Israel bombed his Osirak reactor - than an Iran with the infrastructure necessary to build nuclear weapons, but under the continued monitoring of IAEA inspectors, might be.

The real lesson the US media should learn from Iraq is not simply to question information offered by those in power, but to question the underlying assumptions of "pre-emptive" warfare.


Tony Karon is an analyst based in New York

On Twitter: @TonyKaron