7th Anniversary of Iraq War Passes -- But Myths Endure

Seven years ago The New York Times ran a prominent photo from a meeting of past Pentagon chiefs who had gathered at the White House for a discussion about 10 days into our invasion of Iraq. Victory still seemed assured but it was also becoming clear that we were not being greeted as liberators in most areas. The picture showed current Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld shaking hands with a past master, Robert McNamara.

That day I supplied what I imagined McNamara whispering: "What part of 'Vietnam' don't you understand?"

The seventh anniversary of the start of the Iraq War dawned with very little notice in the media, despite the huge (and ongoing) costs of the war, not the least of which are the nearly 4,400 dead US military personnel and at least 100,000 deceased Iraqi civilians. What we have heard from commentators, again, this year is that the United States went to war with the overwhelming support of the public and the press. Actually, this is a myth.

It's true that polls showed that Americans believed Saddam had WMD -- and no wonder, given the deceitful propaganda from the Bush administration -- and that they backed an invasion if it came to that. But most surveys also showed a clear split between those who wanted to go to war soon, and those who wanted to wait for more diplomacy or to give the United Nations inspectors more time to work (remember, they had found nothing and then were withdrawn by the president).

Another myth: the nation's newspapers on their editorial pages backed the invasion strongly.

You may be surprised to learn that in their final pre-attack editorials, at least one-third of the top newspapers in this country came out against President Bush taking us to war at that time. Many of the papers may have fumbled the WMD coverage, and only timidly raised questions about the need for war, but when push came to shove seven years ago they wanted to wait longer to move against Saddam, or not move at all.

"For apparently the first time in modern history, the US government seems poised to go to war not only lacking the support of many of its key allies abroad but also without the enthusiastic backing of the majority of major newspapers at home," Ari Berman and I wrote at Editor & Publisher on March 19, 2003. Berman had just completed his fifth and final prewar survey of the top fifty newspapers' editorial positions.

I had certainly been critical of overall press coverage of the war -- and the editorial writers and pundits largely backed the adventure for years -- but at least there was some sense of protest on the eve of the invasion.

Following Bush's forty-eight-hour ultimatum to Saddam Hussein on March 17, newspapers took their last opportunity to sound off before the war started. Of the forty-four papers publishing editorials about the war, roughly one-third reiterated strong support for the White House, one-third repeated their abiding opposition to it and the rest--with further debate now useless--took a more philosophical approach.

But in the end, the majority agreed that the Bush administration had badly mishandled the crisis. Most papers sharply criticized Washington's diplomatic efforts, putting the nation on the eve of a pre-emptive war without UN Security Council support--and expressed fears for the future despite an inevitable victory.

Once-equivocal editorial pages got straight to the point. "This war crowns a period of terrible diplomatic failure," the New York Times argued, "Washington's worst in at least a generation. The Bush administration now presides over unprecedented American might. What it risks squandering is not Americans' power, but an essential part of our glory."

Other papers were even more blunt. The Sun of Baltimore, consistently one of the most passionate dissenters on the war, began their editorial with the sentence, "This war is wrong. It is wrong as a matter of principle, but, more importantly, it is wrong as a matter of practical policy."

USA Today asked Bush to finally disclose risks, costs and democratic government estimates for Iraq, while the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wondered "what 'the peaceful entry' of 280,000 troops would look like." The Arizona Republic in Phoenix said that Bush and his "coalition of the willing," with prodding by the French, "have left the United Nations in tatters."

The Houston Chronicle said it remained "unconvinced" that attack was preferable to containment, and the Orange County Register of Santa Ana, California, declared it was "unpersuaded" that the threat posed by the "vile" Hussein justified military action now. The San Jose (California) Mercury News wrote, "War might have been avoided, had the administration been sincere about averting it."

Even a hawkish paper expressed criticism. "The war will be conducted with less support than the cause should have commanded," the Washington Post, in backing the attack, wrote. "The Bush administration has raised the risks through its insistence on an accelerated timetable, its exaggerated rhetoric and its insensitive diplomacy; it has alienated allies and multiplied the number of protestors in foreign capitals."

There was always in the run-up a group of roughly a dozen papers that strongly supported regime change as the only acceptable vehicle toward Iraq's disarmament. They included the Wall Street Journal, New York Post, New York Daily News, Chicago Sun-Times, and Boston Herald. They continued their praise of the president this week and celebrated the fact that "the regime of Saddam Hussein is doomed," as the Kansas City (Missouri) Star put it.

The majority of papers, however, remained deeply troubled by the position the United States found itself in. Even large papers such as the Los Angeles Times , the Oregonian in Portland, and Newsday of Melville, New York, which have long advocated (or at least accepted) using force to disarm Hussein, criticized their president as he prepared to send young men and women into battle.

"The road to imminent war has been a bumpy one, clumsily traveled by the Bush administration," the Buffalo News wrote. "The global coalition against terror forged after the atrocities of 9/11 is virtually shattered. The explanation as to why Iraq presents an imminent threat requiring immediate action has not been clear and compelling."

Many papers expressed hopes that a better world could prevail. "So the United States apparently will go to war with few allies and in the face of great international opposition," the said. "This is an uncharted path...to an uncertain destination. We desperately hope to be wrong in our trepidation about the consequences here and abroad."

Greg Mitchell's new blog for The Nation, Media Fix, will be launched next month. His Twitter feed is already up @MediaFixBlog. He is the author of nine books, including So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits and the President Failed on Iraq.