Roughly midway through her conversation with Dr. Hans Blix onstage at the University of California at Berkeley last week, Christiane Amanpour raised her hand to emphasize a point and flung her clip-on microphone to the floor. It landed with a clatter. Without the slightest hesitation, the man who failed to find Iraq’s mythical weapons of mass destruction jumped to his feet, retrieved the transmitter box and stood by while the English-speaking world’s most beloved foreign correspondent reaffixed the mic to the lapel of her beige suit.
“Can you hear me?” Amanpour asked.
“No, no, no, no,” Blix said, handing her a small object, “you need a battery.”
Blix futzed a little more, wiggled a connecting wire and secured a connection. “Can you hear me?” Amanpour repeated.
Yes! The audience cheered.
“And she,” Blix concluded, “is an explosive lady!”
It seemed merely a moment of delightful chaos in an otherwise orderly conversation. But looking back at the three-day “Media at War” conference sponsored by UC Berkeley’s School of Journalism and George Soros’ Open Society Institute, among others, it began to stand for everything. Contained in Blix’s gesture of spontaneous chivalry was the very essence of a diplomat, all the reasons he was “pulled into diplomacy” when he really just wanted to be a university professor in his native Sweden. From the unthinking way Blix rushed to Amanpour’s side, you got the feeling that he would have done the same for any dignitary in his presence, friend or foe. Even George W. Bush.
He would have had plenty of reason not to. In the final three years of Blix’s tenure as the director of the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission for Iraq, he was ignored, lied to, lied about and, in the end, openly defied. His requests for patience were met with administration doublespeak (Donald Rumsfeld’s “The absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence” is only the most famous). And his well-considered arguments were dismissed as the rantings of a pacifist (which he is not).
One would expect Blix to be openly angry, even vindictive, or that he would at least hold a grudge. But even now, as a self-described “free man” who can speak from his “gut instincts,” the nastiest remark Blix could muster came when Amanpour asked whether he thought it was “reasonable” for Rumsfeld to hold out for the possibility that WMD would be unearthed. “Until after the election,” Blix answered generously, “yes.”
Was he not at least resentful that the administration had unapologetically bugged his U.N. office and the offices of his colleagues? “No,” Blix said. “I only wish they’d listened to what we said.”
Following Michael Massing’s February 26 essay in The New York Review of Books excoriating the U.S. media, in particular The New York Times’ Judith Miller, for failing to sufficiently criticize the Bush administration’s casus belli, “Media at War” brought together international war correspondents, editors and human-rights workers to discuss whether and why the media got the pre-war story wrong, and whether the ongoing coverage is any better. It was a remarkably respectful discussion. Except for Robert Scheer’s trademark combativeness on the final evening’s panel — in which the L.A. Times columnist declared that the U.S. media should be “ashamed” of itself — and a sharp rebuke from Elizabeth Farnsworth of The News Hour With Jim Lehrer to the international journalists who suggested all U.S. media had failed, hardly anyone raised his or her voice.
Even Maher Abdallah Ahmad, the dashing Al-Jazeera correspondent who reminded U.S. reporters that they can’t possibly get the story right if they don’t speak the language, delivered his ominous warnings about the future (“the war has not yet begun — this is just a warm-up”) with a charismatic smile. At almost every turn, one could observe in the world’s best journalists the same unrelenting equanimity that made Blix an effective weapons inspector. But the essential faith in human nature that behooves a diplomat fails a journalist miserably. Toward the end of their talk, Amanpour handpicked an index card from a pile submitted by the audience that asked, “Was the war on Iraq about oil?” Blix unceremoniously dismissed it. “No,” he said. “It was 9/11 that was behind it. And WMD.” To read the reports that led up to the war in most of the nation’s major newspapers (as Massing points out, there were exceptions), one would be forced to conclude that the media agreed.
Is it any wonder, then, that as recently as last August, 68 percent of the people polled by the Washington Post thought it likely that Saddam Hussein was “personally involved” in the attacks of September 11, 2001, and 82 percent believed he had “provided assistance to Osama bin Laden”? The question of how that public opinion formed hung in the air at the conference like the refrain of a nattering harpy that everyone who took the floor had to swat down before he or she could speak. Rone Tempest of the Los Angeles Times blamed the public’s unsophisticated reading habits; others fingered television news for promoting the notion. No one in Europe believed it, and certainly everyone in the Arab world knew it was absurd. According to Hani Shukrallah, the managing editor of Cairo’s Al-Ahram Weekly, “Given half a chance, Saddam would have been right there with the Americans, torturing the terrorists.” Where did Americans get the idea that he liked them? Everyone was stumped by the question.
But here’s what they did know: That while almost everyone suspected Hussein had chemical and biological weapons in his arsenal, no one thought he had nuclear weapons or the ability to produce them (“Lumping them together,” said Blix, “is like lumping together apples and pears and . . . mushrooms”); that both Bush and Tony Blair used intelligence they knew was faulty as they sold their respective countries on the war; that at no point did any credible intelligence suggest that Hussein was an immediate threat to anyone but his own people. Nearly everyone knew for certain what Bush’s war was not. But no one I heard could explain what it was.
To raise the issue of profit-based warmongering in this crowd — to suggest that maybe, just maybe, the Bush administration, a group of men and women lousy with conflicts of interest and oil-industry money, was engaged in a duplicitous grab for resources, strategic position and an illegal expansion of military power, ambitions consistent with the plan laid out in a widely circulated September 2000 manifesto by the Project for a New American Century — well, that would have sounded like a conspiracy theory. The closest anyone came was Italian journalist Frederico Rampini, who accused the U.S. government of “ripping off the American taxpayer” in its rebuilding and redevelopment efforts in Iraq. “I don’t see a U.S. media campaign on this issue,” he remarked. “Even in Italy, the champion of conflicts of interest, this would be on the front page for weeks.” Not even Rampini, however, suggested that this ripping off was on Rumsfeld’s mind on September 12, 2001, when the defense secretary advised his colleagues that there were no good targets in Afghanistan but plenty in Iraq. That would have been simplistic.
It would also have been too great a challenge to what Massing and Mark Danner, in a lunch-hour conversation with an audience of journalists, called the news media’s “master narrative” — in this case, the idea that the U.S. goes to war to liberate, not to plunder. But after all the Bush administration’s stated reasons for going to war have been dismantled and replaced with nothing but shrugs, greed is the last explanation left standing — except, of course, for the one about Hussein and 9/11. No one should be surprised when the American public, desperate for a story, patches together innuendo and insinuation and makes up its own. We weren’t going to war over nothing, were we? So Hussein must have done something against us. If he didn’t, we’re being governed by criminals. And that can’t possibly be true.
I sat through that lunch with my hand in the air most of the time, hoping to ask why no one was willing to impugn the U.S. government’s motives. But Danner called only on people he knew on a first-name basis, most of them men; war correspondents are a closed tribe, and I didn’t begrudge them their insularity. I do not pretend to know better than they do how to report on a war. But I do remember interviewing Cambodian immigrants to Minnesota in the mid-’80s and being amazed to hear that they were grateful to the United States for its generousness and blithely unaware that Nixon had needlessly overthrown their benign leader and bombed their country into dust. And I wondered whether it was significant that the people of northern Iraq had told Lindsey Hilsum of Britain’s Channel 4 News that they wanted this war after it became clear that the people planning the battle were, as Blix writes in his new book, Disarming Iraq, bent on “creating their own virtual reality.” It was not Blix’s style to condemn them, a trait that made him a great diplomat but would have rendered him ineffective as a reporter. Unfortunately, he would not have been alone.
From August 10 to 31, 2003, three teams of Stars & Stripes reporters surveyed 1,935 military personnel in Iraq, asking the question “How worthwhile do you think fighting this war was for America?”
The percentage of soldiers who indicated doubts over the justifications for the invasion: 50
Percentage who said the war was “probably worthwhile”: 19
Percentage who said the war was of “little value”: 20
Percentage who said the war was “not worthwhile at all’: 11
Percentage who said the war was “very worthwhile”: 28
Percentage of soldiers who answered that they were either “mostly unclear” or “not clear at all” about why they were in Iraq: 35
Percentage of troops who rated their unit’s morale as “very high” or “high’: 16
Percentage of troops who rated their unit’s morale as “low” or “very low”: 49
Percentage of part-time soldiers who stated that it was “unlikely” or “very unlikely” they would re-enlist when their time was up: 55
Percentage of soldiers who intend to leave the military as soon as possible: 49
Percentage of soldiers who said it was “very likely” they would remain: 18
Percentage of soldiers who ranked their living conditions as average or worse: 64
Percentage of soldiers who ranked health-care services average or worse: 63
Percentage of soldiers who assessed their personal health as “not good” or “poor” since they arrived in the Middle East: 16
On a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being the lowest, the percentage of soldiers who ranked their toilet and hand-washing facilities, telephone, television and newspaper access, and gym and amusement facilities as 1 or 2: 50
Percentage of soldiers who said their commanders had an “excellent” or “good ability” to make improvements: 41
Percentage of soldiers who said that their commanders were “not concerned” about their living conditions: 16
—Compiled by Christine Pelisek