Symposium: From Iraq to Ukraine, has the media learned its lesson?
It’s been 19 years since the initial U.S.-led invasion of Iraq — the shock-and-awe event that splashed across cable and network news for days, beginning on March 19, 2003. It is clear today, like the policies and politics that led to that costly war (which is still ongoing, albeit on a smaller scale), that the media’s legacy in this war has been cloaked in something other than glory.
The mainstream media has been accused of being handmaidens for the war, briefing room stenographers, and cheerleaders for Washington. While journalists did risk their lives to cover the conflict on the ground, many were carefully managed by the military through their respective embed agreements — what General David Petraeus and others often referred to as part of the “information war.” Good soldiers in that fight on the homefront included cable news producers and executives, the pundit class, columnists, and yes, reporters.
As a result, an “all hands on deck” phenomenon seemed to efficiently steer public opinion in favor of the invasion, or at least in support of the preferred narratives of the Bush administration. Alternative views were sidelined, cast to the margins of indie websites and magazines. It would be years before the hive would recognize the folly of the war, and by that time, trillions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives would be spent.
So has the mainstream media learned these lessons? As Washington mobilizes its support for Ukraine and possible direct conflict with Russia, are they again falling into pro-government bias, building a massive echo chamber where dissenting views are flagged and flogged across social media, shut out of all polite discourse? We asked a truly ideologically diverse group of journalists and authors, many of whom were covering the war and politics 19 years ago from unique vantage points, how they see it.
We asked each of them:
Has the mainstream press learned its lessons from its performance during the Iraq war, and what danger signs, if any, do you see in today’s media coverage of the current Russia-Ukraine crisis?
Participants (in alphabetical order)
- Helen Andrews
- Jim Antle
- Andrew Cockburn
- Eric Garris
- Stephen Kinzer
- Kate Kizer
- Bonnie Kristian
- Noah Kulwin
- Daniel Larison
- Ray McGovern
- Nancy Okail
- Barbara Slavin
- Peter Van Buren
- John Walcott
Helen Andrews, editor, The American Conservative magazine
Media coverage of the Iraq War would have been very different if reporters in the moment had understood one simple fact that we now know in retrospect: the driving force behind the war was internal rather than external. That is, individuals in the Bush administration were thinking up plans for regime change in Iraq long before the attacks on September 11.
Every development in the run-up to war—every supposed revelation, every ultimatum, every escalation—should have been evaluated in light of that fact. These were not people responding reluctantly to events. They were pursuing an agenda.
Those pushing for American involvement in Ukraine also have their own motivations that predate the February 24 invasion. Yet reporters have not been much better about highlighting them than they were in the case of Iraq.
If one were interested primarily in the welfare of the Ukrainian people, one would throw American support behind a negotiated peace. If one were more interested in weakening Vladimir Putin, possibly by entangling his country in a years-long insurgency, one would make peace difficult by refusing reasonable compromises and encouraging President Zelensky to hope for imminent Western assistance.
Politicians are not always honest about their motivations. Reporters must try to discern them.
Jim Antle, politics editor, Washington Examiner
The lessons Beltway journalists learn from wars that end badly tend to be heavy on hindsight and light on improved foresight. Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan are all lamented as quagmires to be avoided in the future, yet the same habits of mind prevail when the next foreign conflict is debated.
Whatever wisdom the mainstream media gleaned from Iraq has been more than offset by its response to Russian disinformation. It’s a very real problem to which liberals in particular have heightened sensitivity after the 2016 presidential election, but the answer is not uncritical acceptance of U.S. government claims. This is more Judith Miller than Pentagon papers. Iraq should have taught us that Baghdad Bob’s absurd lies don’t make the well credentialed WMD forecasts true.
For every Matt Lee demanding the evidence behind Washington’s assertions there is another reporter asking the White House to draw red lines or ask what it would take for President Biden to commit boots on the ground. Any skepticism is at least suspected Russian disinformation. Prolonged wars against non-nuclear powers, however costly and futile, have if anything made us more cavalier about confronting a nuclear-armed state.
Andrew Cockburn, Washington editor of Harper’s magazine
The mainstream press has indeed learned lessons from its performance in the Iraq war. Unfortunately, they are very bad ones. Principally, the press has learned that so long as it sticks very close to the official U.S. government line, it runs absolutely no danger of any ill-consequence or sanction. After all, almost the entire official media (with the exception of the lonely dissenters at Knight-Ridder newspapers) spoke with one voice in endorsing George Bush’s illegal invasion. Following revelation that it had all been lies, one sacrificial lamb, the New York Times’ Judy Miller, was dispatched to career slaughter. And that was it. The most important lesson absorbed by a whole new generation of journalists was that war is good for the career, no matter how bad you are at reporting it.
Furthermore, just as the quick and bloodless (for Americans) 1991 victory in Iraq buried the Vietnam syndrome, at least for a while, so apparently proficient intelligence predictions regarding Putin’s plans for Ukraine may have buried the WMD syndrome — meaning a healthy skepticism regarding intelligence-sourced assertions, that had come to infect at least some mainstream reporters. As a result, “intelligence” will find a lot of unquestioning takers, at least until the next fiasco becomes impossible to conceal.
Eric Garris, co-founder and editor of Antiwar.com
Mainstream media coverage of the crisis in Ukraine makes it clear that no lessons have been learned from the Iraq war. During the Iraq war, while most mainstream coverage was biased towards supporting war, there was still room for dissenting opinions.
Today, mainstream journalists covering Ukraine are much more in lockstep in supporting U.S. intervention. Many favor military actions and sanctions on Russia. They ignore history, and often label those who give important contrary information as “traitors” and/or “puppets” of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Their bluster creates an especially dangerous atmosphere, given the stakes involved: direct conflict between the United States and Russia could lead to nuclear war.
The vast majority of mainstream journalists also report as unquestionable facts what are actually unverified claims by anonymous U.S. intelligence officials. Their reports played a significant role in priming the American public for the Iraq war and, in recent years, have helped turn public opinion in favor of U.S. intervention in multiple conflicts.
Foreign policy realists and anti-interventionists must double down with information and arguments for peace and diplomacy. We at Antiwar.com remain committed to that mission.
Stephen Kinzer, Boston Globe columnist, former New York Times foreign correspondent
In the runup to the Iraq war, patriotic hysteria enveloped the United States. Americans gobbled up the narrative that Saddam was a savage killer — another “new Hitler” — and that destroying him and his government would help pacify the Middle East. Those who dissented were considered near-treasonous. Nonetheless some did dissent. That’s not the case today. The mass hysteria and war frenzy that is now consuming the United States is beyond anything in living memory. Nearly everyone in Washington — and in the American press — seems to believe that it’s better to risk nuclear war than to accept a non-aligned Ukraine. Those who oppose flooding Ukraine with weapons are even more systematically excluded from public discourse than were critics of the Iraq war. Lamentably this reflects a clear trend in our media. Only pro-war perspectives are tolerated. Anyone who calls for diplomacy is shut out or attacked as an enemy stooge. We are back to the days when President Benjamin Harrison warned opponents of the Philippine War: “The home newspapers will, while you live, make you wish you had never been born. And when you are dead, they will now and then exhume your skeleton to frighten those who live after you.”
Kate Kizer, progressive foreign policy writer, strategist, and columnist
The mainstream media is repeating the same mistakes it made 20 years ago in the lead up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. It may be even worse given that traditionally hawkish conservatives are writing about how “careless” and “rote” Washington’s influencers sounded pushing militaristic solutions at the beginning of this year — even before there was a renewed invasion. It’s easy to forget in the fog of war now that the heroic, now-famed Ukrainian president — the one actually under threat of violence — had to go so far as publicly calling for everyone to calm down and stop creating hysteria about the situation in January.
When “serious” policy publications invite the likes of uber war hawks like John Bolton into their pages and tankie conspiracy theorists and those complicit in selling the invasion of Iraq onto our screens as legitimate, unbiased commentators, they actively warp the information that gets through to the average viewer. As usual when there’s the opportunity to inflate ratings, the media jumps on, quickly creating a narrative that war is inevitable, diplomacy is exhausted (before it even gets started), and being against militaristic U.S. or NATO solutions to the crisis is unpatriotic at best.
It’s not to say the media caused Putin to invade Ukraine or Bush to invade Iraq; these war criminals very much made those decisions on their own. The lesson that national American media outlets have failed to learn is that their critical role in our democracy is more than just questioning “official” narratives. It is also remaining critical, or even just acknowledging the confirmation bias produced by the corporate war racketeering in Washington that drives policymakers and the American public to think that our only choices in the face of insecurity and conflict are more war or doing nothing.
Bonnie Kristian, acting editor-in-chief at TheWeek.com
I don’t think there’s been media cheerleading for U.S. military intervention in Ukraine anything like what we saw for Iraq. The question is whether that’s about lessons learned or simply disparate circumstances. I think it’s too soon to answer with confidence but lean toward the latter explanation. The domestic political atmosphere is quite different, and there’s no attack on U.S. soil to use as pretext. At least as important, however, is the enemy. Contrary to its public claims, the Bush administration knew full well Saddam Hussein’s Iraq could not pose an existential threat to the United States. The same cannot be said of Vladimir Putin’s nuclear-armed Russia. Is everyone leaning more toward realism and restraint — or is it just that even hawks have a healthy fear of nukes? The general lack of professional consequences for commentators who pushed for other wars in the post-9/11 era makes me think it’s more about the nukes. That said, even if the media qua media didn’t learn lessons, I do think the media qua Americans who’ve lived through two decades of “forever wars” are, on balance, more circumspect and war-weary than we were in 2003, and that’s a good thing.
Noah Kulwin: co-host of Blowback podcast, contributing editor to Jewish Currents and The Drift:
The mainstream press was complicit in the planning, selling, and execution of the war on Iraq. The 2003 invasion was not the first military operation sculpted for mass media (not even the first U.S. invasion of Iraq timed for TV), and most of the lessons that journalists seem to have taken from Gulf War II were about how to more painlessly find heroes and villains. As we see in the present — like with the Ghost of Kyiv or the story of Snake Island — these characters need not be real nor the tales true.
This is what I find most ominous: the focus on arming “our” guys to counter “their” guys, the outright lust for conflict, with no concern at all about where escalation may lead and who will bear its cost. Fake stories in war carry currency because they blot out the grim, inhumane truth.
Daniel Larison, Responsible Statecraft columnist and editor of Eunomia
Almost 20 years since the U.S. invasion of Iraq, many American media outlets still fall into many of the same bad and dangerous habits that helped pave the way for war then. There is still the same overconfidence in military options and the same insistence that the United States take action, which almost always means military action. There is also the same tendency to dismiss obvious, foreseeable risks and pitfalls of aggressive policies. We saw some of this on display during the withdrawal from Afghanistan last year, but it has been even more pronounced in the last few weeks since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began. Advocates for irresponsible military options, including insane proposals for a no-fly zone over Ukraine, are still routinely given platforms on network and cable news programs, and the hosts of many of these programs tend to approach serious matters of war with an insouciant hawkish bias.
Fortunately, administration officials have been swatting away these aggressive proposals rather than promoting them, but it is clear that if the government’s position were in favor of intervention they would have a willing and eager cheerleading section in much of the media.
Ray McGovern, former CIA Presidential briefer, co-founder Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS)
From its unconscionable performance on Iraq, the media learned it was possible to escape any accountability as they “repeatedly presented intelligence as fact when in reality it was unsubstantiated, contradicted, or even non-existent” (per Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Jay Rockefeller on June 5, 2008, announcing the bipartisan findings of a 5-year study).
The war was “justified” by fraudulent claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and would give them to terrorists. The British were told by then-CIA chief Tenet on July 20, 2002, that the rationale for the attack would be “the conjunction of terrorism and WMD, [and] the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.”
On July 29, 2002, the New York Times’ David Sanger (and co-author Thom Shanker) “certified” the presence of WMD in Iraq as assumed fact several times in U.S. Exploring Baghdad Strike As Iraq Option. Sanger and colleagues are now doing a dangerous encore with their one-sided coverage of the war in Ukraine.
Nancy Okail, President and CEO of the Center for International Policy
Invading a sovereign country without a legitimate or just cause or backing from the United Nations is illegal under international law. This was true for the Iraq War, as it is today in Ukraine, which points to a kind of hypocrisy from many in the mainstream press who helped the Bush administration sell the Iraq invasion in 2003 but are now, rightly, condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The Bush administration framed the Iraq invasion — with the media’s help — on the grounds of ridding the world of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction and as a war for “freedom and democracy.” However, those falsehoods were soon exposed by the absence of WMD and through torture, killing civilians, and corruption scandals, in addition to the subsequent failures in state building. Today, the media is framing the war in Ukraine on this very same hyperbolic narrative — “it is a war to defend the free world.” This view does not hold when 13 million are starving to death in Yemen because of a war that the United States continues to support. The good-versus-evil narrative between great powers overshadows the struggles of Ukrainians. In doing so, many media outlets continue to miss the nuance within these complex battlefields and overlook the agency of the people most impacted by inter and intra- state violence.
Indeed, in 2003 the mainstream press was rarely challenged, particularly by alternative narratives that are seen on social media today. However, algorithmic “targeted messaging” in today’s digital media environment creates echo chambers, giving the false impression that all views are aligned. This element dilutes the impact of diverse perspectives in countering dominant mainstream narratives that lack nuance.
Barbara Slavin, former assistant managing editor Washington Times, diplomatic correspondent for USA Today.
It is human nature to see conflicts in black and white terms and to tilt coverage in favor of the perceived “good guys.” The U.S. media is certainly leaning into the Ukrainian narrative — and for good reason — but many reporters have also given adequate coverage to the rationale behind the Biden administration’s reluctance to become more directly involved in the war. There are few similarities with the coverage that preceded the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. There was a gradual buildup to that invasion that was based on hysteria over terrorism and WMD and what turned out to be manipulated and false intelligence. Russia, however, is an undeniable nuclear weapons state and that has given pause to even the most fervent hawks. There are other important differences as well. The Russian decision to go after Kyiv and to bombard many Ukrainian cities surprised many analysts who thought Vladimir Putin’s goals were more limited. Putin is not a defeated tyrant like Saddam Hussein but an active, nuclear-armed aggressor who is committing crimes against humanity in the present tense.
There is always a danger of mission creep, but the Ukrainians own bravery and resilience has so far obviated the need for a more robust U.S. response, beyond weapons supplies and multilateral economic sanctions against Russia. I think the United States and other Western media are doing their jobs skillfully and with great bravery.
Peter Van Buren, author, “We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People“
Lessons learned? No. La. Nyet. As a State Department officer in 2003, I watched in horror as the mainstream press acted not only as stenographers for government lies but amplifiers of those lies, employing anonymous sources at the expense of their own credibility to create and then service a narrative demanding war. When their true editor-in-chief George W. Bush stood up, a mix of Ben Bradley and Lou Grant, to proclaim “you were either with us or with the terrorists,” the media stifled dissent in their ranks nearly completely. In 2022 little has changed. The media again beats the drum for war, albeit this time as stenographers for the Ukrainian government’s propaganda. Almost all of the video and imagery out of Ukraine comes from their government and those anonymous sources of 2003 have been replaced by no real sourcing at all. Crushing dissent has caught up with the times, so voices for restraint are not just left off the New York Times op-ed page, they are canceled, deplatformed, and sent down the social media memory hole, unemployable as Putin-lovers.
John Walcott, former editor-in-charge for National Security and Foreign Affairs at Reuters and team leader for national security and foreign affairs at Bloomberg News
The primary lessons that reporters should have learned from the failure to challenge the Bush administration’s allegations about Iraqi WMD and support for al Qaeda were that:
1.) Journalists have an obligation to investigate whether government, corporate or other claims are true, and
2.) A source’s value often is inversely proportional to his or her rank or celebrity.
Many journalists and news organizations continue to do great and often courageous work, but both lessons sometimes have been lost in this age of information overload as journalists compete for scoops, attention, clicks, retweets, likes, followers, revenue and, yes, their own celebrity.
Consider, for example, the widespread failure last year to challenge the Biden administration’s naive claims about the durability of Afghan President Ghani’s government and security forces.
By last April and May, intelligence and military officers, and even some members of Congress, were warning the White House that the Afghan government could collapse in weeks — or even days. Still, many news organizations continued to report the story from the top down, rather than from the bottom up. As a result, there was little pressure on the administration to prepare for what became the disastrous American withdrawal from Afghanistan after 19 years.