What a difference four years makes

On the Iraq war anniversary, it's worth remembering the climate of bullying and intimidation that abetted the Bush administration's case for war.

Published March 19, 2007 5:45PM (EDT)

On MSNBC's "Scarborough Country" recently, the conservative Iraq war supporter turned war critic Joe Scarborough graciously told me he thinks Salon hasn't taken enough credit for being one of the few institutions that was right about the Iraq war from the beginning. I would love to pop champagne corks and begin the party, except it's such an awful thing to have been right about.

Still, it's worth celebrating one thing: The climate of political intimidation that marked the run-up to war and its immediate aftermath has changed dramatically. In 2003 Salon was routinely savaged by conservative television hosts and pundits, and singled out (and not in a flattering way) by the mainstream media, for our skeptical stance on the war, and our doubts about the apparent ease of the "victory" in the early going. Two memories stand out from that period. A few weeks after the war began, on April 4, I wrote about the premature ejaculations of victory from the media, the right wing and even some Democrats. Who remembers that days into the war, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi signed on to a resolution expressing "unequivocal support and appreciation" for the way Bush led the effort; who remembers that she was nonetheless savaged as part of the "Dominique de Villepin left" (after the French foreign minister who opposed the war) by the dishonest William Kristol in the Weekly Standard?

Headlined "How to Think About This War if You're Against It," my article asked why the only ones criticizing Bush and Donald Rumsfeld were, significantly, generals and retired generals who were already saying -- as the deposed Gen. Eric Shinseki had said before -- that the war was being fought with not enough troops and "on the cheap." Everyone else seemed to be eating popcorn and waving flags and enjoying our team kicking their team's ass. I applauded the fall of Saddam but suggested the war might eventually be a little more bloody than in its early days, given Rumsfeld's determination to fight it with fewer soldiers than his generals thought wise.

A week later, after the statue of Saddam fell, I got a call from the New York Times' David Carr, one of my favorite writers there, who seemed to be asking me, politely, gently, even compassionately, what it felt like to be so, well, wrong -- and to be so alone in being so wrong. Carr wrote a fair piece; he corralled me, Dan Perkins (our Tom Tomorrow), Katrina vanden Heuvel and Eric Alterman of the Nation, and Hendrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker; he didn't lump us with any far-left Saddam-boosters or anyone hoping for "a million Mogadishus." He did let Christopher Hitchens say this about us: "Their prediction and deepest hope was that the black shirts of the fedayeen were going to win and force a stalemate. Just like they predicted, the Arab street did explode, but with the joy of freedom, which is not the one that they meant, so they are furious and depressed." But that's a nice quote to have four years later. Just look at all that joy of freedom out on the Arab street!

Carr was even kind enough to give me the last word, which four years later makes me look smart, if a bit too restrained: "I am happy to see Iraqis cheering in the streets. But I think it gets very interesting now. How do we restore order? How do we restore infrastructure and build democratic institutions? And we are still confronted by the costs of going it alone. Since our job is to critique and analyze, it is hardly finished." Hardly finished, four years later, indeed.

Far worse was the treatment Gary Kamiya received when he wrote movingly about watching the Iraqis' joy after the statue of Saddam was toppled April 10, in a piece headlined "Liberation Day." He shared their joy, he said, though he confessed to mixed feelings about the Bush administration's apparent success, confessing that in dark moments, he wished the war hadn't gone so well, because he feared the apparent cakewalk would embolden the administration to move on to Iran and Syria. And then he quickly disavowed his dark thoughts, but it was too late. The Washington Times said he was "cheering the enemy." Bill O'Reilly displayed his picture at the start of his show, calling him a "fanatic" who had "no place in the public arena" and suggested he "think about moving to Costa Rica." (We challenged O'Reilly to debate Kamiya in the pages of Salon, but strangely, he never answered.)

My trip down memory lane isn't meant to say, "We told you so," even though we did. It's also to make sure that while we're remembering the lies that led us to war, and all the lives lost as a result, that we don't forget the bullying and intimidation by the right wing, and the passivity of many Democrats and mainstream media outlets, that helped the White House win the early rhetorical battles that made the war possible.

By Joan Walsh

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