On the morning of this day eleven years ago, in 2003, I happened to be sitting in the ballroom of the Fairmont Hotel in New Orleans waiting for Dick Cheney. This may sound like the beginning of a joke, perhaps with a musical or culinary kicker, but the punch line in this case is quite tragic.
I was covering a newspaper convention as editor of Editor & Publisher and the vice president had been scheduled weeks earlier as the featured morning speaker. We wondered if he’d show up: US forces had just entered central Baghdad and victory had been declared. Now, along with millions of others, I watched as locals, apparently acting on their own, toppled a giant statue of Saddam Hussein. I remember it well. There were two giant, if fragile, screens set up on either side of the stage where Cheney would soon appear—and just as the statue of Saddam was pulled down, live, the screen on the right also started to topple.
I should have known the worst was yet to come right there. Actually, unlike most in the mainstream media, I’d been warning about that for weeks, just the previous weekend on Bill Moyers’s PBS show.
A few minutes later, Cheney arrived and naturally hailed the events of the day. He also told us that critics of our conduct of the war were merely ”retired military officers embedded in TV studios.” Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, back in Washington, gushed, “The scenes of free Iraqis celebrating in the streets, riding American tanks, tearing down the statues of Saddam Hussein in the center of Baghdad are breathtaking. Watching them, one cannot help but think of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Iron Curtain.”
Okay, we expected nothing less from the architects of the war. But what about our media? Commentators suffered from premature ejaculations. Chris Matthews on MSNBC announced, “We’re all neo-cons now.” Joe Scarborough, also on MSNBC, declared: “I’m waiting to hear the words ‘I was wrong’ from some of the world’s most elite journalists, politicians and Hollywood types.”
Fred Barnes at Fox News said: “The war was the hard part. The hard part was putting together a coalition, getting 300,000 troops over there and all their equipment and winning. And it gets easier. I mean, setting up a democracy is hard, but it is not as hard as winning a war.” Dick Morris at Fox News: “Over the next couple of weeks, when we find the chemical weapons this guy was amassing, the fact that this war was attacked by the left and so the right was so vindicated, I think, really means that the left is going to have to hang its head for three or four more years.”
And William Safire in The New York Times:
Like newly freed Parisians tossing flowers at Allied tanks; like newly freed Germans tearing down the Berlin Wall; like newly freed Russians pulling down the statue of the hated secret police chief in Dzerzhinsky Square, the newly freed Iraqis toppled the figure of their tyrant and ground their shoes into the face of Saddam Hussein….
Even in the flush of triumph, doubts will be raised. Where are the supplies of germs and poison gas and plans for nukes to justify pre-emption? (Freed scientists will lead us to caches no inspectors could find.) What about remaining danger from Baathist torturers and war criminals forming pockets of resistance and plotting vengeance? (Their death wish is our command.)