The “nobody could have known” excuse and Iraq

The NYT's lead war reporter claims he did not know, and could not have known, what the invasion would unleash

Topics: Iraq war, Washington, D.C.,

The "nobody could have known" excuse and IraqU.S. marines run with their combat gear to take position in the suburbs of the town of Nasariyah in Iraq March 24, 2003. U.S. marines were fighting on Monday to take control of Nassiriya where the city's defenders were putting up stout resistance. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj Pictures of the month March 2003 DS/FMS (Credit: © Reuters Photographer / Reuters)

(updated below – Update II - Update III [Wed.] – Update IV [Wed.] – Update V [Wed.] – Update VI [Wed.])

The predominant attribute of American elites is a refusal to take responsibility for any failures.  The favored tactic for accomplishing this evasion is the “nobody-could-have-known” excuse.  Each time something awful occurs — the 9/11 attack, the Iraq War, the financial crisis, the breaking of levees in New Orleans, the general ineptitude and lawlessness of the Bush administration — one is subjected to an endless stream of excuse-making from those responsible, insisting that there was no way they “could have known” what was to happen:  ”I don’t think anybody could have predicted that they would try to use an airplane as a missile, a hijacked airplane as a missile,” Condoleezza Rice infamously said on May 16, 2002, despite multiple FBI and intelligence documents warning of exactly that.  One finds identical excuses for each contemporary American disaster.  Robert Gibbs just invoked the same false excuse:  that “nobody” knew the depth of the financial and unemployment crisis early last year.

Because the political class is treating today as some sort of melodramatic milestone in the Iraq War, there is a tidal wave of those self-defending claims crashing down around us.  The New York Times‘ John Burns — who bravely covered that war for years — presents a classic case of this mentality today in a solemn retrospective entitled “The Long-Awaited Day.”  I realize we’re all supposed to genuflect to Burns’ skills as a war journalist — I’ve personally found him far more overtly supportive of the war than most others covering it and certainly more than his claimed objectivity would permit, even when his reporting was illuminating — but if he’s right about what he says today, it’s a rather enormous (albeit unintentional) indictment of himself and his colleagues covering the war:



Hindsight is a powerful thing, and there have been plenty of voices amid the tragedy that has unfolded since the invasion to say, in effect, “I told you so.” But among that band of reporters –  men and women who thought we knew something about Iraq, and for the most part sympathized with the joy Iraqis felt at what many were unashamed then to call their “liberation” — there were few, if any, who foresaw the extent of the violence that would follow or the political convulsion it would cause in Iraq, America and elsewhere.

We could not know then, though if we had been wiser we might have guessed, the scale of the toll the invasion would unleash: the tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians who would die; the nearly 4,500 American soldiers who would be killed; the nearly 35,000 soldiers who would return home wounded; the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who would flee abroad as refugees; the $750 billion in direct war costs that would burden the United States; the bitterness that would seep into American politics; the anti-Americanism that would become a commonplace around the world.

If Burns wants to claim that he and his American media colleagues in Baghdad were unaware that any of this was likely, I can’t and won’t dispute that.  In fact, it’s probably true that they were unaware of it — blissfully so — which is why media coverage in the lead-up to the war was so inexcusably one-sided in its war cheerleading, as even Howard Kurtz documented.  But Burns’ claim that they “could not know then” that the invasion could unleash all of the tragedy, violence and anti-Americanism it spawned is absolutely ludicrous, a patent attempt to justify his severe errors in judgment as being unavoidable.

Aside from the obvious, intrinsic risks of invading a country smack in the middle of the Muslim world, with much of the world vehemently opposed, there were countless people warning of exactly these possibilities from invading.  If Burns and his friends were unaware of those risks, it was only because they decided to ignore those voices, not because they could not have known.  Here, as but one example, is Jim Webb in 2002, arguing against an attack on Iraq in The Washington Post:

Meanwhile, American military leaders have been trying to bring a wider focus to the band of neoconservatives that began beating the war drums on Iraq before the dust had even settled on the World Trade Center. Despite the efforts of the neocons to shut them up or to dismiss them as unqualified to deal in policy issues, these leaders, both active-duty and retired, have been nearly unanimous in their concerns. Is there an absolutely vital national interest that should lead us from containment to unilateral war and a long-term occupation of Iraq? . . . .

With respect to the situation in Iraq, they are conscious of two realities that seem to have been lost in the narrow debate about Saddam Hussein himself. The first reality is that wars often have unintended consequences — ask the Germans, who in World War I were convinced that they would defeat the French in exactly 42 days. . . . .

The issue before us is not simply whether the United States should end the regime of Saddam Hussein, but whether we as a nation are prepared to physically occupy territory in the Middle East for the next 30 to 50 years. Those who are pushing for a unilateral war in Iraq know full well that there is no exit strategy if we invade and stay. . . . .

The Iraqis are a multiethnic people filled with competing factions who in many cases would view a U.S. occupation as infidels invading the cradle of Islam. Indeed, this very bitterness provided Osama bin Laden the grist for his recruitment efforts in Saudi Arabia when the United States kept bases on Saudi soil after the Gulf War.

In Japan, American occupation forces quickly became 50,000 friends. In Iraq, they would quickly become 50,000 terrorist targets. . . . It is true that Saddam Hussein might try to assist international terrorist organizations in their desire to attack America. It is also true that if we invade and occupy Iraq without broad-based international support, others in the Muslim world might be encouraged to intensify the same sort of efforts.

And here’s Howard Dean, in one of the more prescient political speeches of the last decade, speaking at Drake University, roughly one month before the war began:

We have been told over and over again what the risks will be if we do not go to war.

We have been told little about what the risks will be if we do go to war.

If we go to war, I certainly hope the Administration’s assumptions are realized, and the conflict is swift, successful and clean. . . .

It is possible, however, that events could go differently, and that the Iraqi Republican Guard will not sit out in the desert where they can be destroyed easily from the air.

It is possible that Iraq will try to force our troops to fight house to house in the middle of cities — on its turf, not ours — where precision-guided missiles are of little use.

It is possible that women and children will be used as shields and our efforts to minimize civilian casualties will be far less successful than we hope.

There are other risks.

Iraq is a divided country, with Sunni, Shia and Kurdish factions that share both bitter rivalries and access to large quantities of arms.

Iran and Turkey each have interests in Iraq they will be tempted to protect with or without our approval.

If the war lasts more than a few weeks, the danger of humanitarian disaster is high, because many Iraqis depend on their government for food, and during war it would be difficult for us to get all the necessary aid to the Iraqi people.

There is a risk of environmental disaster, caused by damage to Iraq’s oil fields.

And, perhaps most importantly, there is a very real danger that war in Iraq will fuel the fires of international terror.

Anti-American feelings will surely be inflamed among the misguided who choose to see an assault on Iraq as an attack on Islam, or as a means of controlling Iraqi oil.

And last week’s tape by Osama bin Laden tells us that our enemies will seek relentlessly to transform a war into a tool for inspiring and recruiting more terrorists.

We should remember how our military presence in Saudi Arabia has been exploited by radicals to stir resentment and hatred against the United States, leading to the murder of American citizens and soldiers.

We need to consider what the effect will be of a U.S. invasion and occupation of Baghdad, a city that served for centuries as a capital of the Islamic world.  

I could literally spend the rest of the day quoting those who were issuing similar or even more strident warnings.  Anyone who claims they didn’t realize that an attack on Iraq could spawn mammoth civilian casualties, pervasive displacement, endless occupation and intense anti-American hatred is indicting themselves more powerfully than it’s possible for anyone else to do.  And anyone who claims, as Burns did, that they “could not know then” that these things might very well happen is simply not telling the truth.  They could have known.  And should have known.  They chose not to.

 

UPDATE:  Perhaps even worse than the strain of “nobody-could-have-known” excuse-making invoked by Burns is the claim that “nobody could have known” that Iraq did not really have WMDs.  Contrary to the pervasive self-justifying myth that “everyone” believed that Saddam possessed these weapons — and thus nobody can be blamed for failing to realize the truth — the evidence to the contrary was both public and overwhelming.  Consider the March 17, 2003, Der Spiegel Editorial warning that “for months now, Bush and Blair have been busy blowing up, exaggerating and deliberately over-interpreting intelligence information and rumours to justify war on Iraq,” or a September 30, 2002 McClatchy article — headlined: “War talk fogged by lingering questions; Threat Hussein poses is unclear to experts” — which detailed the reasons for serious skepticism about the pro-war case.

Or simply recall the various pre-war statements by the ex-Marine and U.N. weapons inspector for Iraq, Scott Ritter (“The truth of the matter is that Iraq has not been shown to possess weapons of mass destruction, either in terms of having retained prohibited capability from the past, or by seeking to re-acquire such capability today”), or Howard Dean in his Drake speech (“Secretary Powell’s recent presentation at the UN showed the extent to which we have Iraq under an audio and visual microscope. Given that, I was impressed not by the vastness of evidence presented by the Secretary, but rather by its sketchiness“).  All of that, too, was brushed aside by government officials and suppressed and even mocked by most of the  American media, all of whom were determined to allow nothing to impede the march to war.  Rather than take responsibility for their failings, they instead insist — as Burns did today — that they could not have known.

 

UPDATE II:  Every retrospective from supporters of the attack on Iraq, if they’re to be honest and worthwhile, should read more or less like John Cole’s, from 2008.

 

UPDATE III:  After Obama’s Iraq speech last night, I was on CBC – Canada’s broadcasting network — discussing that speech.  It can be seen here.  As you can see, Skype video technology is improving rapidly and enabling acceptance of more TV offers.

 

UPDATE IV:  For sheer factual inaccuracy in John Burns’ observations, see here.

 

UPDATE V:  Speaking of accountability for those responsible for the Iraq War, Simon Owens has a very good article on the criticisms provoked by Jeffrey Goldberg’s Iran article in The Atlantic — featuring my criticisms of him — and what that dynamic reflects about the new media landscape.

 

UPDATE VI:  Here’s someone who, back in 1994, definitely understood what invading Iraq would unleash (and note the sociopathic, though quite typical, refusal to factor in “deaths of Iraqi civilians” as one of the “costs”):

Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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