A simple question for the president of the United States: If you don’t read the newspapers, how can you criticize the media coverage of Iraq?
A few weeks ago, George W. Bush noted during an interview that while he glances at newspaper headlines, he “rarely” reads the actual articles because “A lot of times there’s opinions mixed in with news.” So where does he get his info? Bush said he prefers to be briefed by White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. “The best way to get the news,” he explained, “is from objective sources. And the most objective sources I have are people on my staff who tell me what’s happening in the world.” Lately Bush also has been warning the American public not to pay attention to other sources, such as journalists who report that all is not going well in the land of occupation. “We’re making good progress in Iraq,” Bush said. “Sometimes it’s hard to tell when you listen to the filter.” The filter is Bushspeak for the media.
With American troops being killed with tragic frequency in Iraq, security there still a mess, Congress uneasy over the latest occupation bill ($87 billion), and the United Nations and U.S. allies far from eager to join in the adventure by sending troops or cash, Bush has adopted the stance often embraced by up-the-creek politicians: blame the media. This comes as no surprise. But what is alarming is that Bush’s view is so thoroughly shaped by Rice (one of his “most objective” sources), for in the past few weeks she has been presenting a version of reality that could cause one to wonder if she is living in her own (newspaperless) bubble.
A few examples:
In a speech to the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, Rice defended the war in Iraq by saying, “When the president went to the United Nations in September 2002, there was little controversy about the nature of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein.” Actually, there was much debate. The threat from Iraq depended on what weapons Hussein possessed. Bush was then arguing that Iraq had massive WMD stockpiles; others were questioning that assessment. Isn’t that controversy? Rice also said, “Let there be no mistake: Right up to the end, Saddam Hussein continued to harbor ambitions to threaten the world with weapons of mass destruction and to hide his illegal weapons activities.” Ambitions to threaten? Before the war, Bush, Rice and Co. had not asserted that Hussein was a danger because of his desires. They claimed he was a threat because of the weapons he supposedly had in hand. And the issue was not “illegal weapons activities,” but actual weapons. Had that slipped her mind?
Moreover, during a post-speech Q&A, Rice was asked to explain Bush’s doctrine of pre-emptive war, and she provided a confusing and self-contradictory explanation: “It’s actually just kind of common sense. You’d like to get them before they get you. That’s all it means . . . Now, the Iraqi situation, I would argue, was hardly a case of pre-emption . . . We were hardly in a state of peace with Iraq. This was an outlaw regime that had been repeatedly sanctioned by the international community . . . It was finally time to take action before the threat grew any graver.” Huh? Isn’t that pre-emption? When the national security adviser doesn’t get this right, it’s reason for worry.
Weeks earlier, Rice appeared on The O’Reilly Factor and noted, “The president took the American people to war because this is a dangerous tyrant who had used weapons of mass destruction before. Three administrations, every intelligence service in the world, the United Nations knew that he had those weapons.” Rice was engaging in wishful revisionism. Bush’s justification for war had not been Hussein’s use of chemical weapons against Iranian troops and Kurdish civilians in the 1980s — which was before both the Gulf War and the U.N. inspections severely limited Hussein’s WMD capabilities. And not every “intelligence service in the world” knew Hussein had those weapons. The Defense Intelligence Agency — the Pentagon’s own intelligence service — produced a classified assessment in October 2002 that concluded, “There is no reliable information on whether Iraq is producing or stockpiling chemical weapons, or where Iraq has — or will — establish its chemical warfare agent production facilities.”
And in early September, Rice tried to deflect the criticism that the Bush administration had not prepared adequately for the postwar occupation. “If there was something that was really underestimated [by the Bush White House],” she said, “it was how really awful Saddam Hussein was to his own people” and how deteriorated the Iraqi infrastructure had become. Rice was being disingenuous. It had not been tough before the war for the U.S. government to suss out conditions in Iraq. Electronic surveillance, satellite photography, interviews with refugees — all of this could have produced a picture of life within Iraq. Or the CIA could have asked Sean Penn. In mid-October, The New York Times reported on the front page that a yearlong State Department study conducted before the war had predicted many of the problems that have arisen during the occupation. Several government officials told the newspaper that the Pentagon ignored many of the study’s conclusions.
Rice has been consistently mischaracterizing and misrepresenting Iraqi matters. And she is Bush’s main source of news? No wonder he cannot get his facts straight. When Bush addressed the Filipino Congress recently, he compared the transition he wants to achieve in Iraq to the rise of democracy in the Philippines. After all, America, according to Bush, had “liberated the Philippines from colonial rule.” That observation, though, ignored the fact that the United States ruled the Philippines for five decades before granting it autonomy. Had Rice — and all the other vetters of this speech — forgotten about the Spanish-American War?
So Bush proudly eschews The Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, and he replaces them with The Daily Condi. Talk about filters. The president is relying on All the News That Fits the Spin.