Lessons from ‘shock and awe’ 10 years laterPublished 11:00pm Wednesday, March 27, 2013
Possibly you remember “Shock and Awe.” No, that’s not the title of a Rolling Stones concert tour, but of the United States’ bombs-over-Baghdad campaign that began exactly 10 years ago. American soldiers went pounding into Iraq accompanied by scores of “embedded” journalists seemingly eager to prove their patriotism and courage.
A skeptic couldn’t help but be reminded of spectators who rode from Washington in horse-drawn carriages to witness the battle of Bull Run in July 1861. They too expected a short, decisive conflict. Even on NPR, invading Iraq was treated like the world’s largest Boy Scout Jamboree, instead of what it turned into: arguably the worst military and foreign policy blunder in U.S. history.
Skepticism, however, was in short supply. Spooked by 9/11 and intimidated by the intellectual bullies of the Bush administration, American journalists largely abandoned that professional virtue in favor of propaganda and groupthink.
Among scores of examples, the one that’s stuck in my craw was allegedly liberal Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen. Reacting to Gen. Colin Powell’s anti-Saddam speech to the United Nations General Assembly — since repudiated by its author — Cohen wrote that, “Iraq not only hasn’t accounted for its weapons of mass destruction, but without a doubt still retains them. Only a fool – or possibly a Frenchman – could conclude otherwise.”
“War fever, catch it,” this fool wrote.
I added that to anybody capable of remembering past intelligence hoaxes, it wasn’t clear that Powell’s presentation answered any of the objections put forward by doubters like George H.W. Bush national security advisor Gen. Brent Scowcroft.
“To any skeptic with a computer modem, moreover, it became quite clear why Powell’s speech failed to convert many at the U.N,” my Feb. 5, 2003 column continued.
“Key parts of [his] presentation were dubious on their face. That alleged al-Qaida base in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq? If it’s what Powell says, why hasn’t it been bombed to smithereens? British and U.S. jets have been conducting sorties in the no-fly zone for months. Because it’s a dusty outpost not worth bombing, reporters for The Observer who visited the place quickly saw.
“The mobile bio-war death labs? Please. Even if [U.N. inspector] Hans Blix hadn’t told The Guardian that U.S. tips had guided inspectors to mobile food inspection facilities, anybody who’s dodged herds of camels, goats and sheep and maniacal drivers on bumpy Middle Eastern highways had to laugh. Bio-war experts told Newsweek the idea was preposterous. ‘U.S. intelligence,’ it reported, ‘after years of looking for them, has never found even one.’
“Then there was the embarrassing fact that key elements of a British intelligence document cited by Powell turned out to have been plagiarized from magazine articles and a California grad student’s M.A. thesis based upon 12-year-old evidence.”
I could go on. In fact, I did.
“This isn’t conservatism,” I concluded. “It’s utopian folly and a prescription for endless war.” Although the short-term outcome wasn’t in doubt and Americans could be counted upon to rally around the troops, it struck me as almost mad to imagine that the U.S. could convert Iraq into a Middle Eastern Switzerland by force of arms.
That was basically the Frenchman’s conclusion too. Conservative Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin said that although “We all share the same priority – that of fighting terrorism mercilessly,” invading Iraq without just cause would likely “exacerbate the divisions between societies, cultures and peoples, divisions that nurture terrorism.”
If it were up to me, the Post columnist’s byline would read like a prize-fighter’s robe: Richard “Only a Fool or a Frenchman” Cohen. However, there are no penalties in Washington journalism for being proven dramatically wrong.
The safest place during a stampede is always the middle of the herd.
My own reward was getting Dixie-Chicked out of a part-time teaching job halfway through a series of columns about Iraq. Supposedly, Hendrix College ran out of money to pay me. My most popular offering had been a course about George Orwell. Oh well.
But the purpose here isn’t to blow my own horn. (OK, maybe a little.) It’s to point out that not everybody got buffaloed. Many thousands of American and European citizens took to the streets to protest what they saw as imperialist folly.
I was also very far from being the only journalist to notice that the Bush administration’s case for Saddam Hussein’s imaginary “weapons of mass destruction” didn’t add up. Anybody reading the astringent dispatches of Knight-Ridder (now McClatchy) reporters Jonathan Landay, Warren Strobel, John Walcott and Joe Galloway couldn’t help but know the score.
(Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President”)