Publisher's Note — April 18, 2013, 11:48 am

No Reward for Being Right on Iraq

Where were the voices of conscience on the tenth anniversary of the Iraq War?

What’s the use of being right, in journalism or politics? I gave a lot of thought to this question during the tenth anniversary of the American–British invasion of Iraq, and I’ve come to the conclusion that being right is not much use at all, at least as far as career advancement goes.

I feel I speak with some authority. Having described as early as October 2002 key elements of the Bush White House’s fraudulent portrayal of Saddam Hussein’s nuclear capability — and again in numerous published pieces and television and radio interviews right up until the bombardment of Baghdad began the following March — I’m struck by how little credit was accorded my fellow dissidents and how well, relatively, the wrongheaded hawks fared after President George W. Bush posed in front a sign declaring “mission accomplished.”

Setting the tone was the New York Times, which did so much to promote Bush’s (and Tony Blair’s) scam by publishing the “reporting” of Judith Miller and Michael Gordon. The headline of its March 20 story summed up America’s willful amnesia: “Iraq War’s 10th Anniversary Is Barely Noted in Washington.” So too was it barely noted in the Times — the article appeared on page A10, with no reference made to it on the front page.

But worse than the Times’s institutional indifference was its choice of “critics.” In this, the paper of record was on a par with other media, but it’s still remarkable that the principal opponents of Bush’s corrupt enterprise were almost nowhere to be found in U.S. retrospectives.

Where, for example, was Hans Blix, redoubtable leader of the U.N. inspection team that failed to find any evidence to support the White House fantasy that Saddam was on the verge of launching nuclear missiles at Tel Aviv, London and New York? Why didn’t we hear from Mohamed ElBaradei, former director of the International Atomic Energy Commission, who would not toe the Dick Cheney/Paul Wolfowitz/Donald Rumsfeld line? And what about Scott Ritter, the courageous former U.N. Special Commission inspector and ex-Marine, who tried his utmost to halt the rush to war armed only with fact and reason?

My copybook is blotted by decades of media criticism, so I didn’t expect to be invited on American talk shows to talk about Iraq and the failure of the press to counteract the propaganda campaign (though I did appear on a French radio program, Le Grand Bain). But where were Jonathan Landay, Warren Strobel, and ?John Walcott, the ace reporters for the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain, who separated themselves from the gullible pack and early on contradicted many of the major Bush fabrications? Why not publish recollections by Bob Simon and Solly Granatstein, who on the Dec. 8, 2002, 60 Minutes broadcast (on which I also appeared) permitted the physicist David Albright to demolish the fiction fomented by Judith Miller and Michael Gordon that aluminum tubes purchased by Iraq were destined for use in building nuclear weapons? I haven’t done an exhaustive search, but I’m not aware that any of these stellar citizens were given the time of day by the U.S. media.

In the Times news story we did encounter one critic of the invasion, an ex-Army lieutenant colonel named ?John Nagl, whose chief qualification for being interviewed by reporter Peter Baker seemed to be that he fought in Iraq (which evidently gave him moral credibility) and that his op-ed piece was published in the same edition on Page A23. But despite his posture as a “critic,” Nagl managed to find in the Iraq invasion a “silver lining” in the form of “three flickers of light that offer some hope that the enormous price was not paid entirely in vain.”

Among the “flickers” was the “enormous distinction” exhibited in the war by our all-volunteer military. With due respect to the poor soldiers sent on this mission impossible, and to their families, it will take a few more years of research and analysis before we can make such a grand generalization.

Nagl’s op-ed, “What America Learned in Iraq,” would have been better addressed by two Vietnam combat veterans, Andrew Bacevich and former senator Jim Webb, who served honorably in a war only slightly less pointless and self-destructive than Operation Iraqi Freedom. Bacevich’s and Webb’s sons both served in Iraq — the former’s died, the latter’s survived — so one would think they possessed sufficient prestige for the task. But instead of Bacevich or Webb, Fareed Zakaria hosted Wolfowitz on his CNN show to “discuss the human and opportunity costs of what the U.S. won and lost in Iraq.”

For the proponents of war and their press agents, I’d say life is pretty good. Wolfowitz might still be running the World Bank were it not for a scandal involving his girlfriend’s salary. Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld are enjoying peaceful retirements, apparently unburdened by excessive guilt. Colin Powell has expressed regret for his false testimony before the U.N. Security Council, but I’m not aware that he’s experienced genuine remorse as he shills for a Silicon Valley venture-capital firm. And Hillary Clinton, who voted in the Senate to authorize Bush’s insane project, is the choice of 57 percent of Americans to run for president in 2016, according to a Washington Post poll taken in December.

Meanwhile, the supposedly disgraced Judith Miller is doing just fine as a Fox News contributor, while Gordon continues to work for the New York Times. Jeffrey Goldberg, who promoted the phony Al Qaeda–Saddam connection in The New Yorker, seems to be thriving at the Atlantic. George Packer, everyone’s favorite liberal interventionist, is still shoveling received wisdom at The New Yorker, after publishing a commercially successful mea-culpa book about how wrong he was on Iraq.

And Scott Ritter? Well, Scott Ritter is doing one to five in the Laurel Highlands State Correctional Institution, in Somerset, Pennsylvania, convicted of trawling the Internet for underage girls. I don’t know if he was entrapped, as he claims, but I do know his interview last year with The New York Times Magazine is worth citing: “What’s the relevance of being right 10 years ago? I don’t know — talk about all the dead Americans. It’s relevant to their families, I would think. Talk about the tens of thousands of wounded Americans and the hundreds of thousands of dead and wounded Iraqis. . . . Everybody who lied about the war got rewarded because they played the game. Tell the truth about the war, you don’t get rewarded.”

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is the publisher of Harper's Magazine. This column was originally published in the Providence Journal.

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  • Henry Hughes

    What’s the use of asking rhetorical questions (in the very manner of the media being interrogated!) when the answers (to better questions) are staring us in the face? This is the problem with Harper’s Magazine and its apparently still-invested-in-career-advancement publisher. If he doesn’t know the answers to these facile questions by now, along with how his persistence in asking them contributes to an abiding naive credulousness on the part of his liberal-progressive readers, then, well, one is left to more eye-rolling and incredulousness at his ongoing participation in the ruse.

    All of this is quite sad and frustrating, especially considering much of the potentially radical content published by the magazine over the years. Why not toss all this out and get to a different starting place for the questions?

    • Pelu Maad

      I wish I could figure out what you’re trying to say. What “ruse” compares to the Bush/Cheney/Obama invasion/occupations….?????

      • Henry Hughes

        Your wish is my command.

        I’m trying to say that “what’s the use of being right, in journalism or politics?” is a facile question that is rhetorical at best, especially coming from the likes of John A. MacArthur. If he doesn’t long since know the answer–no use at all, in light of the narrow confines of “debate” in both arenas–then he has no business publishing a magazine that purports to engage these issues.

        Does MacArthur imagine, or expect his readers to accept, that if well-meaning folks just trumpet the truth (such as they can know it) again and again, the institutions that lick the asses capital and state will just bow down and admit what they’re up to? That they’ll cower before the stinging critiques that expose them?

        No, of course he doesn’t. So what’s with his standard-issue “journalistic” tossing off of such a question? We see them in the headlines each and every day. “Are Our Devices Distracting Us?” “Do Financial Interests Affect Corporate Responsibility?” “Is Sky Blue, Water Wet?” Gosh, I guess we’ll have to do more research!

        Why not start any discussion much further down the road toward what analysis has long since revealed to be the situation? Egads, Judith Miller has been rehabilitated and works as a pundit! Next MacArthur will shock us with the news flash that Bill Bennett still makes a living blathering on about beheading drug dealers. Tell us it isn’t so!

        Golly gee, what’s the use in being right? What’s the use, indeed, when asking that oh-so-tough question seems to be the action plan? Or one could decide that the use in being right might be in discovering that rhetorical-business-as-usual won’t cut the mustard; that in an age of catastrophic techno-industrial capitalism and lunatic discourse masquerading as reasoned debate, one might decide to actually stand and fight instead of whining about how our brilliant critiques aren’t carrying the goddamned day.

        • Pelu Maad

          Just make sure you fight for what’s right.

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