NEW YORK -– President Barack Obama, the fourth U.S. president in a row to drop bombs in Iraq, vowed Wednesday to destroy Islamic State militants there and in Syria, a country mired in a three-years-long civil war.
Under Obama's new strategy, the U.S. would strengthen the Syrian opposition, currently fighting both President Bashar Assad's forces and the Islamic State, while also working with an international coalition against the militants. Obama stressed the urgency of fighting the Islamic State, or ISIS, by noting 16 times that the extremist group presents a “threat” to U.S. or regional allies.
In scanning the New York Times front page in the two days since, a counter-narrative can be found: The U.S. doesn't need to act immediately to confront the Islamic State, and both America's Middle East allies and the Syrian opposition appear unwilling or unprepared to fight the militants on the ground.
The Times’ recent coverage of yet another U.S. military intervention in the Middle East has been markedly skeptical and a far cry from its credulous reporting leading up to the Iraq War -- a journalistic breakdown that has haunted the paper, and the U.S. media more broadly, for more than a decade.
Carolyn Ryan, the Times' Washington bureau chief, said in an email to The Huffington Post that “many of us were not here in the bureau during the buildup to the Iraq war.”
“But we have been struck, not only by the escalating rhetoric from the administration and outside analysts about ISIS, but also by the absence of a public debate about this mission,” Ryan said. “Taking the country to war is among the most consequential decisions a president can make, but there is no robust congressional debate about the wisdom of this path, and very little public debate, more generally.”
That skepticism is welcome amid what has been a general media frenzy over the Islamic State. For several weeks, elected officials and commentators have stressed the urgency of the threat on Sunday talk shows and cable news programs, even as the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and the National Counterterrorism Center have said there’s no imminent threat of an attack on U.S. soil.
On Wednesday night, the Times challenged the perceived severity of the threat in an article that also ran on the front page of Thursday’s paper.
“Some officials and terrorism experts believe that the actual danger posed by ISIS has been distorted in hours of television punditry and alarmist statements by politicians,” the Times reported, “and that there has been little substantive public debate about the unintended consequences of expanding American military action in the Middle East.”
Daniel Benjamin, a former top counterterrorism adviser under Obama, told the Times that the public debate has been a “farce," with top administration officials and military officers “describing the threat in lurid terms that are not justified.”
Ryan said that story “sought to examine [Obama’s] rationale and rhetoric.
“It pointed out that ISIS is less of a concern for some American counterterrorism officials than Al Qaeda and its affiliates, because, at this point, ISIS lacks the capacity to attack the United States.”
“The coverage,” she added, “is not a substitute for a broader public debate but the reporters here are determined to truthsquad the administration's claims.”
Friday’s Times led with a report on regional allies offering only "tepid" support for Obama's plan. The story included contributions from seven reporters in the region, including one in Raqqa, Syria, the de facto capital of the Islamic State. (The Times hasn’t named its reporter in Raqqa for security reasons.)
Joe Scarborough, a former Republican congressman and current co-host of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” held up the Times print edition on the air Friday and, pointing at the headline, said the lack of Arab support “makes a lot of us angry.”
Also on Friday, the Times ran a front-page story questioning the military readiness of the Syrian opposition in a fight against the Islamic State. Last month, Obama had dismissed the "fantasy" of arming those Syrian rebels, but his new strategy treats them as a key component in the effort to defeat the Islamic State. That won't be easy, the Times wrote, since the rebels are "riven by infighting, with no shared leadership and with hard-line Islamists as its most effective fighters."
The Times isn’t the only national media outlet that has run skeptical coverage this week. The Associated Press reported Wednesday that the Islamic State “is no unstoppable juggernaut” and that there “has been an inclination to exaggerate the group's capabilities.” The Washington Post, in a story leading Friday’s front page, wrote that the U.S. has not managed to eradicate al Qaeda or related terrorist groups since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and yet Obama now has pledged to “destroy” the Islamic State.
But the New York Times coverage is especially significant given its outsized influence in the Obama White House and its failure in the run-up to war during the George W. Bush years.
In 2002 and 2003, Times editors gave prominent space to now-discredited reporting bolstering the Bush administration's case for war, while downplaying reporting that questioned it. In one notable example, the Times held a story by James Risen -– headlined “C.I.A. Aides Feel Pressure In Preparing Iraqi Report” –- until after the U.S. invasion had begun (and then buried it far off the front page).
Risen, who reported for the Times “threat” story this week, has recently been on Twitter questioning the media drumbeat for war and pointing out that the intelligence community found "no threat to the US from ISIS."
And in a tweet recalling the media's failure a decade ago, Risen offered a “note to young journalists” this week. “You all complain about how pre-war intel was handled in 2002/2003,” he wrote. “So how are you going to be remembered?”