The ongoing exclusion of war opponents from the Iraq debate

Charlie Rose convenes a five-year anniversary panel of American foreign policy experts to present "both sides" on the Iraq war. As usual, none were actual opponents of the invasion.

By Glenn Greenwald
Published March 25, 2008 11:14AM (EDT)

(updated below - Update II)

Several days ago, Charlie Rose broadcast a two-part show to survey the Iraq War on its fifth anniversary. He interviewed four alleged American foreign policy experts in order -- as he proudly announced at The Huffington Post -- "to find out how both critics and supporters of the war effort see the current situation" (h/t reader pj).

The two alleged "war critics" were the President Emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, Lesley Gelb, and The New Yorker's George Packer. As Rose put it: "To get the other side's perspective, I talked to Richard Perle and Fred Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute." And therein one finds a perfect expression of how limited, distorted and propagandistic the debate over Iraq in the establishment press continues to be.

In no meaningful sense are Gelb and Packer on "the other side" from Perle and Kagan. Both Gelb and Packer were, albeit to different degrees, among the most influential enablers of the invasion of Iraq.

In February, 2003, Gelb went on Fox News with Brit Hume and attacked the French for impeding our invasion, telling Hume (via LEXIS): "But frankly, except for The Cuban Missile Crisis, I don't think more has been at stake than today. Our country really is at risk in a way we've never been at risk before." Three days before the invasion, he told The Associated Press: "I'm in favor of this . . . . It's the best medicine for anti-Americanism around the world I can imagine." To this day, Gelb continues to insist that the invasion was the right thing to do, but that we just should have executed it more effectively. So that's one of Rose's "war critics."

While much more nuanced and cautious than Gelb, Packer was one of the intellectual leaders of the so-called "liberal hawk" movement. He wrote a highly influential December, 2002 New York Times article proclaiming "The Liberal Quandry over Iraq," touting the views of so-called "liberal hawks." The next month, he demanded "a clean break" with what he scorned as "doctrinaire leftists, who know what they think about American foreign policy -- they're against it," and rejected "an antiwar movement with little to say to Americans' fears for their own safety."

Packer never endorsed Bush's specific invasion plan, but he certainly never opposed it, and -- like most "liberal hawks" -- endorsed the concept itself ("the wrong people are doing the right thing for the wrong reasons"). Packer perfectly exemplified the Tom-Friedman-esque "liberal hawk" enabling behavior back then of advocating American interventionism of the type contemplated in Iraq (while wishing it would be better executed) and attacking those who were genuinely opposed to the war ("Until liberals show that they will make the world safe for democracy -- for their fellow citizens, and for citizens around the world -- the American people won't give them the chance").

So when Charlie Rose arranges a five-year anniversary discussion of Iraq purportedly involving American foreign policy experts on "both sides," it completely excludes any Americans who unequivocally opposed the war in the first place -- i.e., it completely excludes those who were right and offers only those who were wrong. As always, unadorned war opposition is mutually exclusive with Foreign Policy Seriousness, and those who are unequivocal in their opposition to the underlying premises of the war (rather than its tactical execution) are almost never heard from in media discussions -- still.

Critically, then -- and just as one would expect -- there was virtual unanimity among Rose's American foreign policy experts on the question of whether we should set timetables for withdrawal -- the central political question on the war. Despite the fact that unconditional withdrawal happens to be the position of both Democratic presidential nominees and the vast majority of the American public (see this superb new report documenting that fact, by Ruy Teixeira (.pdf)), the entire panel -- war lovers and "war critics" alike -- agreed that timed, unconditional withdrawal is a bad idea.

Such withdrawal was opposed both by "war critic" Gelb ("I would say the main decision you have to make is the decision to begin a withdrawal process, not to set a deadline or anything like that. I've never been in favor of doing that. . . . We shouldn't do it precipitously, and no deadlines") and by "war critic" Packer ("John McCain's victory will not happen. But neither will the neat, clean 16-month withdrawal plan of Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. I think none of the candidates is capable right now of leveling with the public about just how hard it`s going to be to end this war, and how bad the consequences are going to be one way or the other").

It should be noted that, in terms of presenting a complete view of the Iraq debate to the American public, Charlie Rose is actually much better than the standard establishment media outlet. To his credit, prior to the invasion, he actually interviewed genuine war opponents (and did so respectfully, not in order to deride them as objects of freakish wonderment). He conducted meaningful interviews with people like Amy Goodman and Noam Chomsky -- figures whom the establishment media (which gives endless airtime to the likes of Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh and Bill Kristol) would never get anywhere near because they are too far "on the Left" -- far too anti-war -- and thus too far outside of the mainstream to be heard from (there is no such thing as being out of the mainstream by virtue of being too far "on the Right" or too pro-war).

Even more to Rose's credit, on the same five-year anniversary show where he interviewed Kagan and Perle "on one side" and Gelb and Packer "on the other," Rose also interviewed two Iraqis now living in the U.S., Ali Fadhil and Sinan Antoon. Notably, they were not there to opine on the U.S. invasion of Iraq as American foreign policy experts nor to speak about the war from the perspective of American foreign policy, but rather -- as Rose put it -- were there to describe "how they see it as Iraqis, five years later."

Still, if you watch nothing else this week, watch this 15-minute interview with Fadhil and Antoon. Nothing reveals how distorted, incomplete and propagandistic to this day is the American media's discussion of the U.S. occupation of Iraq and especially the Glorious Surge. The facts and perspectives presented here are excluded almost entirely from establishment press discussions of Iraq and U.S. foreign policy, because the only "war critics" who are heard from are people like Leslie Gelb, George Packer and even Michael O'Hanlon -- people who, at most, quibble with the execution of the war and our foreign policy but not their underlying premises:

Even now, Americans are inundated with "The Surge is Working!" rhetoric and hear almost none of the views expressed in this interview, just as -- prior to the invasion -- they were exposed to every shade and color of pro-invasion advocates while the anti-war view was drastically minimized and even suppressed. Amazingly, nothing has actually changed from that 2002-2003 period when -- as even Howard Kurtz documented in one of the better (and only) pieces of establishment journalism examining pre-war media coverage -- actual war opponents were buried, rendered invisible, and war advocates were amplified and celebrated. That's still happening.

Atrios has frequently said that the range of acceptable establishment political opinion in the U.S. spans the suffocatingly narrow gamut from The New Republic to National Review (or: "From The New Republic to The Free Republic"). The substantial body of opinion to "the left" of the pro-war (or, at best, anti-war-execution) New Republic is excluded as fringe and unserious, while nothing substantial exists to the right of National Review. There is never any outer boundary on the Right.

In exactly the same way, the range of acceptable establishment views on the war and foreign policy generally spans the suffocatingly narrow gamut from faux "war critics" like Gelb, Packer and O'Hanlon to war lovers Richard Perle and Fred Kagan. In the establishment press, even today -- after five years of the Iraq occupation -- anyone outside of that narrow range is Unserious and more or less invisible, even though that's where most of the American public is.

UPDATE: Several people in comments and by email have objected that there were conservatives, as well as so-called "leftists," who unequivocally opposed the war. That's undoubtedly true (though the bulk of war opposition was from what is generally described as "the Left"), and I didn't mean to suggest otherwise (and don't think I did).

Here, for instance, is what conservative Harvard Professor Stephen Walt said in February, 2003, as quoted by the Canadian newspaper Globe and Mail:

Advocates of war claim that invading Iraq will trigger a process like the Velvet Revolutions in Eastern Europe, and bring a lot of Arab Lech Walesas and Vaclav Havels to power.

This is a dream world. The populations in most of these countries are more anti-American than their governments. Radical change is as likely to open the door to Islamic extremists as to bring liberals to power. We are playing with fire in doing this. Our invasion will resurrect images of colonialism, and fuel even greater anger at the United States.

You can't get more right than that, yet one rarely hears from him while being unable to avoid democracy-exporter advocates like Gelb, Packer and O'Hanlon.

This also illustrates the difficulty of using the terms "Right" and "Left" with any clear meaning, particularly in contemporary foreign policy debates. Unadorned war opponents (as distinct from Friedman-esqe tactical quibblers) included many on the Left, non-interventionists on the Right, and Iraq-specific war opponents from the "realist" school. At least as I use the terms with regard to foreign policy, the "Right" has come to mean the Kristol/Limbaugh/Fox News/Brookings faction of endless war, while the "Left" generally designates those opposed to the fundamental premises of America's imperial and war-making foreign policy. Those in the former group can never go too far to be out of the mainstream, while those in the latter group almost presumptively are.

UPDATE II: There's an ongoing myth, peddled by the pro-war establishment, that very few people with "serious" foreign policy credentials unequivocally opposed the invasion of Iraq. That just isn't true. Here, for instance, is an anti-war ad signed (and paid for) by 33 scholars of international security affairs -- from among the nation's most prestigious academic institutions -- which they published in The New York Times in September, 2002, presciently setting forth the case against the invasion.

Review the names of the anti-war signatories and one finds that they are virtually never heard from in the establishment press, even now. As one of the prime movers of that ad, signatory Stephen Walt of the Harvard School of Government (who, as indicated, made pre-invasion, anti-war arguments with pinpoint accuracy in numerous other venues as well), wrote to me via email today:

Apart from a series of articles that the Harvard Crimson did last week (focusing on Harvard faculty views then and now), I haven't been asked for my views on Iraq by mainstream media in months, if not years. What's more remarkable is that most of the other academics who opposed the war are also largely ignored. As far as I know, none of the signatories of our original NYT ad were asked to provide prominent commentary on the 5 year anniversary, and certainly not in prominent places like the New York Times or the Washington Post.

Indeed, I believe that virtually everyone in the media has simply forgotten that there were prominent, mainstream voices who opposed the war on straightforward strategic grounds, and were proven correct. Future historians will have a field day discussing how the United States continued to listen to those who were proven wrong over and over and over, while ignoring those who were (regrettably) proven right.

By contrast, war cheerleader Michael O'Hanlon -- who could not have been more wrong about virtually everything -- has, by himself, had "13 pieces in four of the most influential op-ed pages in the country over the past 7 months." Just two days ago, he complained petulantly that he had been "getting on average three to five calls a day for interviews about the war" but "now it's less than one a day."

In this post here, Tristram Shandy objects to my inclusion here of George Packer, arguing that -- subsequent to the invasion -- Packer has been "a forceful, exceptional and high-profile critic of the war." That may be true, but it's besides the point. There are some others who originally supported the war who have also produced good commentary since then. I'm not making an anti-Packer point here. Rather, I'm pointing out that there are numerous experts who opposed the Iraq War from the start -- presciently so -- yet who are virtually always excluded from our establishment media's discussions of the Iraq War and foreign policy generally.

The political and media establishment recognizes only two categories of Serious Foreign Policy "Experts":

(a) those (like Perle, Kagan and John McCain) who supported the war from the start and still do (the "pro-war" experts), and

(b) those (like Gelb, Packer and O'Hanlon) who, in one way or another, supported the war from the start and then came to criticize its prosecution (the "war critic" experts).

But individuals such as the 33 anti-war scholars who signed that ad, and most other political and academic figures who unequivocally opposed the war from the start, simply don't exist. That's what makes the current Iraq "debate" almost as stilted and one-sided -- and destructive -- as the pre-invasion "debate" itself was.

Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

MORE FROM Glenn GreenwaldFOLLOW ggreenwald

Related Topics ------------------------------------------