Just over eleven years ago, President George W. Bush held a widely watched televised press conference, as his self-imposed deadline for launching an invasion of Iraq neared.
Bush stated in his intro, “We will not wait to see what terrorists or terrorist states could do with weapons of mass destruction.” A couple of the questions from the press were sharp, but one of the many softballs—if you can imagine, on the brink of a war that would cost thousands of American and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives—asking about his religious strength gave him an opportunity to say, “My faith sustains me because I pray daily. I pray for guidance and wisdom and strength…. But it’s a humbling experience to think that people I will never have met have lifted me and my family up in prayer. And for that I’m grateful.”
It was the mood of the affair that was most disquieting.
Bush smiled and made his usual quips, and many of the reporters played the game and did not press him hard. This was how these press gatherings had gone throughout the run-up to war. When it was over, I felt the press had blown its last best chance to really put his feet to the fire, and along with Ari Berman (then an intern at my magazine, Editor & Publisher, later at The Nation), came up with a few questions we wished reporters had asked.
Two weeks later—on this day in 2003—the US indeed did invade Iraq. The following, the list of questions we came up with just before the war, appears in my book, published recently in an updated and expanded e-book edition, So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits and the President Failed on Iraq.
— Why is the U.S. threatening an optional war if 59% of Americans do not support a U.S. invasion without the approval of the U.N. Security Council, according to a Feb. 24-26 USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll?
— If our allies have the same information on WMD—and the Iraqi threat is so real—why do some of our friends refuse to take part in your coalition?
— You praise the Iraqi people, say we have no quarrel with them, pledge to save them from the dictator and give them democracy. Would you tell us how many of them are likely to die in this war?
— You say one major reason for taking this action is to protect Americans from terrorism. How do you respond to the warnings of CIA Director George Tenet and others that invading Iraq would in fact likely increase terrorism?
— Rather than make us wait for a supplemental budget request—after the war has been launched—to tell us what it (and its aftermath) will cost, don’t you think the American people, who will pay the bill, deserve to know the latest long-term estimates before the fact?
— You say Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction and is evil enough to use them. If not during an American invasion of his country, then when? How many deaths on our side do you expect?
— Why, if North Korea has the capability to produce six nuclear warheads by mid-summer, are you letting their very reluctant neighbors take the lead in deterring them while demanding that the U.S. take charge in confronting Saddam?
— With the economy shaken and deficits climbing, how do you respond to critics who say you’re ignoring domestic issues and the long-term economic security of this country by focusing so much of your time and resources on Iraq?
— Why did the U.S. edit the 12,000 page Iraqi weapons report (as recently revealed) to the U.N. Security Council, removing all names of U.S. companies that sold weapons materials to the Iraqis in the past?
— You claimed tonight that Iraq has started producing new missiles—but are these nothing more than less capable versions (fully permitted by the U.N.) of the missiles being destroyed now?
— How do you respond to reporter Daniel Schorr’s statement that the “coalition of the willing” is actually a “coalition of the billing?”
Greg Mitchell’s So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits—and the President—Failed on Iraq has just been published in an updated e-book edition.