The NYT on the administration's "debate" over whether to attack Iran

A front-page article examining the possibility of a new war includes some questionable facts and excludes some relevant ones.

By Glenn Greenwald

Published June 16, 2007 12:05PM (EDT)

It is, I believe, a positive development that The New York Times today has a front-page article documenting how active the debate is inside the Bush administration over whether to attack Iran. Perhaps the article will elevate the attention level paid to this very real and very dangerous possibility.

The essence of the article is this:

The debate has pitted Ms. Rice and her deputies, who appear to be winning so far, against the few remaining hawks inside the administration, especially those in Vice President Dick Cheney's office who, according to some people familiar with the discussions, are pressing for greater consideration of military strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities.

The narrative is identical, of course, to the pre-Iraq-war "debate" which the media so vocally dramatized, with Secretary Rice in the role of reluctant warrior formerly played by Colin Powell, and Dick Cheney reprising his role of unabashed warmonger. It is true that there have been some personnel changes since then (most notably, Robert Gates in the place of Donald Rumsfeld), but George W. Bush is still the Decider, and he has not exactly been ambiguous about his views on the proper resolution of such "debates." As he told a group of right-wing pundits in October 2006: "I've never been more convinced that the decisions I made are the right decisions."

The NYT article tells the Iran story almost entirely from the administration's perspective. Although the article begins by referencing Iran's nuclear program, it includes this paragraph early on:

Even beyond its nuclear program, Iran is emerging as an increasing source of trouble for the Bush administration by inflaming the insurgencies in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and in Gaza, where it has provided military and financial support to the militant Islamic group Hamas, which now controls the Gaza Strip.

Note that the numerous claims here are presented not as assertions, not as arguments, but as facts. And they are not even accompanied by the qualification that these were asserted by the article's anonymous "administration officials." Rather, they are simply stated, by the Times itself, as unquestionable facts. And they are obviously inflammatory "facts," as they depict Iran as, more or less, at war with the U.S. in multiple countries, arming and funding groups directly at war with our military.

But so many of the "facts" here are, at the very least, questionable. While some U.S. officials have accused Iran of arming Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan, Iran has categorically denied that accusation, and, as that same article reported, even Robert Gates refused to confirm the allegation with anywhere near the level of certainty that the Times bestowed this morning on this claim.

Indeed, the Times itself even reported last week: "Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Monday that Iranian weapons were being smuggled into Afghanistan and into the hands of Taliban fighters, but that it was unclear whether Iran's government was behind the arms shipments." Contrast that caution from Bush's own Defense Secretary with the unambiguous claim of the Times today that Iran is "inflaming the insurgencies in . . . Afghanistan."

And then there is the claim that Iran is "inflaming the insurgencies in Iraq . . . and in Gaza." It is more or less established that Iran aids the Shiite factions which are close to Iran and close to the Iraqi government, but those are not "insurgents." And it is far from established that Iran aids the actual insurgents in Iraq attacking U.S. troops -- in particular, the ex-Baathist Sunni elements and "Al Qaeda in Iraq." The claim by the Times -- presented as unquestionable fact -- that Iran "is inflaming the insurgency in Iraq" is, at best, quite sloppy, and as presented, is also misleading.

The same is true for the claim that Iran is "inflaming an insurgency" in Gaza. The sole basis for that claim appears to be the aid provided by the Iranians to Hamas. But Hamas is not an "insurgency," but rather, the majority party which was democratically elected by the Palestinians. Theoretically, at least, to aid Hamas is to aid the democratically elected majority party in the Palestinian Authority, not arming an "insurgency."

And then there are the multiple vital facts which the article does not include, beginning with the highly provocative steps the U.S. has taken towards Iran -- from our reported support for groups inside and outside of their country seeking regime change to our detention of multiple Iranian officials in Iraq to our military attacks on an Iranian consulate in Iraq to the administration's wholesale rebuffing of Iranian efforts to negotiate all issues of dispute back in 2003 (a step which, quite predictably, accelerated Iran's enrichment efforts).

And that is to say nothing of the increasing overt war threats emanating from the likes of Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman, the song merrily sung by John McCain about bombing their country, and the multiple military maneuvers undertaken by the U.S. with the clear intent of threatening Iran.

And four years ago, we put them on a short list of "evil" countries, alongside Iraq and North Korea, even at a time when U.S.-Iran relations were at their best point since 1979. And we have invaded, and are currently occupying, two of their neighboring countries. Perhaps they concluded that the administration wants war with them and they are unable to avoid it. And perhaps if we stopped doing all or even some of these things, they, too, would be less provocative.

Of course, questions such as whether we ought to be doing any of that, whether such actions are justified, whether Iran or the U.S. is the more provocative party here, are all questions which can and should be debated. And nobody doubts that Iran -- like large numbers of countries around the world, including some of our most important allies -- is internally repressive. But no account of a potential U.S.-Iran war can possibly be complete -- or even accurate -- without including all of those facts about what we are doing to provoke the Iranians into conflict.

Yet the Times article contains none of that. It presents a view of Iran that adheres almost completely to the administration's depictions -- namely, that "Iran is emerging as an increasing source of trouble for the Bush administration," as though it is unilaterally and without provocation running around waging war against the U.S. In doing so, the article repeatedly asserts as facts propositions which are nothing more than unconfirmed administration claims.

While this article is not the worst one ever written -- it at least quotes U.N. official Mohamed ElBaradei (but no American) as arguing that "military action against Iran would 'be an act of madness'" -- and while its focus is on describing the internal administration debate rather than the U.S.-Iran conflict itself, it nonetheless presents a starkly one-sided view of this critically important issue.

This isn't about nitpicking facts or insisting upon political arguments to be included in news articles. It is quite clear that, at some point over the next 12 months, we are going to confront the issue of whether we should commence a war against Iran. The views of Americans on this question -- and about the "Iranian threat" -- are being formed now.

Articles such as the one today from the NYT clearly have the effect -- whether intentionally or otherwise -- of fundamentally skewing the issues by depicting Iran as an unprovoked enemy waging war on the U.S. and by excluding the many steps we have taken to heighten the likelihood of such a war. If this is how the media is going to report on the potential U.S.-Iran war, I'd say the odds of that conflict occuring are quite high.

Glenn Greenwald

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