Just imagine: You run a flagship national newspaper, the New York Times. It’s the fifth anniversary of President Bush’s catastrophic invasion of Iraq. Your own record of reportage in the period leading up to the invasion was not exactly sterling. So, for a change of pace, you decide to turn most of your double op-ed page in your Sunday "Week in Review" over to people who can look back thoughtfully on the misapprehensions of that moment.
But who? Now, that’s a tough one. You want "nine experts on military and foreign affairs" who can consider "the one aspect of the war that most surprised them or that they wished they had considered in the prewar debate." Hmm, sounds like an interesting idea. Of course, one option would be to gather together an involved crew who, even before the invasion began, saw that problems, possibly disaster, lay ahead. That would be a logical thought…
…But it wouldn’t be the Times, which this past Sunday chose to ask a rogue’s gallery of "experts" who led (or cheerled) us deep into the war and occupation what surprised them most. Leading off those pages were Richard Perle, nicknamed "the Prince of Darkness," L. Paul Bremer III, the former American viceroy of Baghdad, who so brilliantly disbanded the Iraqi Army and much of the country as well, not to speak of invasion and occupation cheerleaders Frederick Kagan, Danielle Pletka, and Kenneth M. Pollack. With the exception of Pollack, all of them unsurprisingly pointed the finger elsewhere or claimed they were really on the mark all along.
So, just in case the Times has a sudden urge on some future anniversary to ask a cast of characters who didn’t drive us into the nearest ditch to look back, it seems worthwhile to start a list for its editors. And that’s where Greg Mitchell, the editor of Editor & Publisher magazine, comes in.
He himself is a shining example of someone who exhibited foresight about the invasion and regularly dealt with issues that the mainstream media was slow to pick up. Just take this initial sentence he wrote on March 7, 2003, less than two weeks before Bush’s invasion, for a piece included in his new book, So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, The Pundits — and the President — Failed on Iraq: "Considering that we seem to be on the verge of a major war, with little firm evidence of the Iraqi WMD driving it, the questions for Bush at his final press conference before the war seems likely to start were relatively tame." Mitchell then asked 11 questions of his own, all more piercing than any posed on Sunday’s Times op-ed page five years later.
As his book makes brilliantly evident, you didn’t have to be wrong all the time to be an "expert" on Iraq. In his latest article, "Unsung Heroes and Alternate Voices," he begins the necessary acknowledgement of media figures, broadly defined, who were right, or did right, in these years. His tips of the hat range from former New York Times correspondent Chris Hedges, now with the Nation Institute, and Neil Simon (yes, an aging rock ‘n roller) to Mark Benjamin (once at UPI, now writing for Salon.com) and Lee Pitts of the Chattanooga Times — and don’t forget about Stephen Colbert!
His piece should encourage all of us to make lists and create our own walls of honor to go with the wall of shame the Times displayed Sunday.
My list would be long, but it would certainly include: the Knight Ridder (now McClatchy) reporters Warren Stroebel and Jonathan Landy in Washington, as well as Tom Lasseter, Hannah Allam, and others in Iraq who had no flagship paper to show off their work, but generally did far better reporting than the flagship papers; Seymour Hersh, who simply picked up where he left off in the Vietnam era (though this time for the New Yorker); Riverbend, the young Baghdad blogger who gave us a more vivid view of the occupation than any you could ordinarily find in the mainstream media (and who has not been heard from since she arrived in Syria as a refugee in October 2007); Jim Lobe who covered the neocons like a blanket for Inter Press Service; independents Nir Rosen and Dahr Jamail, as well as Patrick Cockburn of the British Independent, who has been perhaps the most courageous (or foolhardy) Western reporter in Iraq, invariably bringing back news that others didn’t have; the New York Review of Books, which stepped into some of the empty print space where the mainstream media should have been (with writers like Mark Danner and Michael Massing) and was the first to put into print in this country the Downing Street Memo, in itself a striking measure of mainstream failure; and Juan Cole, whose Informed Comment website was so on the mark on Iraq that reporters locked inside the Green Zone in Baghdad read it just to keep informed.
Maybe I’d throw in as well all the millions of non-experts who marched globally before the war began because commonsense and a reasonable assessment of the Bush administration told them a disaster — moral, political, economic, and military — of the first order was in the offing.