MSNBC selectively remembers the Iraq War

Updated: Morning Joe and Luke Russert leave out some important context. Like how much MSNBC pushed for war

Published March 19, 2013 7:38PM (EDT)

Joe Scarborough and Luke Russert         (Reuters/Fred Prouser/AP/Evan Agostini)
Joe Scarborough and Luke Russert (Reuters/Fred Prouser/AP/Evan Agostini)

[UPDATE BELOW] MSNBC today ran two very interesting segments addressing the 10th anniversary of the start of the Iraq War. In one, Luke Russert interviewed veteran NBC foreign correspondent Richard Engel on the state of Iraq today (spoiler: not great). In another, Joe Scarborough hosted a large panel to discus how the Iraq War happened and what went wrong.

The Russert segment is sort of bizarre, referring to "that big anniversary" and completely ignoring the reasons the Iraq War started. It concludes -- after Engel explains how Iraq is once again in a sectarian civil war -- with Russert essentially asserting the inevitability of a military strike against Iran, saying they could be "months" away from building nuclear weapons.

Here's the Morning Joe segment. It's long, but well worth watching. Bob Woodward's presence adds a note of dark comedy to the proceedings. No one bothers to mention any of his horrible pre-war punditry, or his culpability for the misleading journalism the Washington Post was producing at the time.

Scarborough also repeatedly interrupts Michael Isikoff, co-author of a very good book on how the Bush administration, abetted by the press, sold the war to Congress and the public, while Isikoff is in the middle of pointing out how the intelligence was never as clear-cut as many claimed it was. "We could all go back 10 years, and again I am not doing George W. Bush's bidding here, but wasn't the preponderance of the intelligence coming from the CIA, coming from our intel community, coming from intel communities across the globe, that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction," Scarborough tells Isikoff in a statement that was phrased as a question but wasn't intended to get an actual answer.

Scarborough then played a little package that I think he put together himself, in which he totally nails Democratic hypocrites who initially supported the war and then turned against it when it went bad.

Some of this is just patently dishonest. Nancy Pelosi and Carl Levin both actually voted against the Iraq Resolution. The very next sentence in the Pelosi speech this clip quotes explicitly states her opposition to the war. Calls for Saddam Hussein to be "disarmed" are not the same as calls for Saddam Hussein to be ousted. But the broader point that lots of Democrats and lots of "liberal media" types were for the war before they were against it is obviously true. It's something liberals and antiwar people have always been mad about. It's why Barack Obama is now president instead of Hillary Clinton. And calling out the Post and the Times but ignoring NBC News is the cheapest of cheap shots.

Both of these segments show how incredibly little anyone learned from very recent history.

In Luke Russert's assessment of our decade-long disaster, the history of the Iraq War begins the day President Bush announced that it had begun. There is no reference to the reasons, stated or unstated, that we launched the invasion. There's no historical context or mention of the many justifications and false claims that convinced so many people that the war was necessary. It just happened, one day, and now we are here, 10 years later. That war is finished, now What Is To Be Done About Iran?

In Scarborough's version of the run-up to war, flag-waving with-us-or-against-us cheerleaders like him are essentially blameless, because everyone agreed that Iraq posed an existential threat. His questions for Isikoff and his cute little video package are designed to buttress that convenient perspective. When he repeats that the Washington Post and the New York Times were both making the case for war, he's not wrong, but he's also doing exactly what everyone in the press did back then: selectively reading only those pieces making that case and ignoring the many, many stories that poured cold water on every single claim made by advocates for invasion.

The Times didn't just publish Judy Miller. They also published James Risen, who in 2002 debunked the myth that Mohammad Atta met with Iraqi Intelligence in Prague (something Cheney had claimed on "Meet the Press" -- an NBC show hosted by Luke Russert's father -- a month earlier) and who in early 2003 reported on the pressure CIA analysts felt to politicize their intelligence. Risen's stories were rarely on the front page -- Miller owned the front page -- but one cool thing about newspapers is that you can read past the front page.

At the Washington Post, Walter Pincus debunked trumped-up Iraq WMD claims in multiple stories that Scarborough also apparently didn't see. The Knight-Ridder papers had some of the best pre-war reporting in the nation -- and people like Scarborough ignored all of it. None of this was hidden -- liberal bloggers all read and linked to these stories -- people like Scarborough just chose to ignore all of it, in favor of supporting a war that made everyone feel super-patriotic.

Much of the pre-Iraq journalism, good and bad, is easily accessible. What is harder to find is the pre-Iraq TV news conversation, which did just as much as Judy Miller to make being pro-war the Only Serious Position. MSNBC at the time decided to go full-on pro-war as a ratings strategy, and so it canceled a show by liberal peacenik Phil Donahue and hired a bunch of pro-war conservatives, including a former congressman named Joe Scarborough.

Joe Scarborough has a TV show because of his boundless enthusiasm for waging the Iraq War. This is what he sounded like, on the subject of people who opposed the war, in April of 2003:

The two commentators were gleeful as they skewered the news media and antiwar protesters in Hollywood.

''They are absolutely committing sedition, or treason,'' one commentator, Michael Savage, said of the protesters one recent night.

His colleague, Joe Scarborough, responded: ''These leftist stooges for anti-American causes are always given a free pass. Isn't it time to make them stand up and be counted for their views?''

That's the problem with the "who could've possibly foreseen that this was all bullshit" stance: Lots of people saw that it was bullshit, and they were ridiculed and marginalized by people like Scarborough.

So yes, Joe Scarborough has noted, correctly, that some people were opportunistically for the war, and then opportunistically against it. Good for him. But he still has not acknowledged that lots of people were always against the war, that those people turned out to be correct, and that he himself and his network were not caught up in an unavoidable, tragic mistake, they were bullying cheerleaders for that mistake.

UPDATE: Luke Russert Tweets:

[embedtweet id="314129968093351936"]

This is the segment he links to. I'll embed it, why not.

Please, watch it very closely. Because it has precisely nothing at all to do with the media's role, let alone MSNBC's role, in making the case for war, and marginalizing those who opposed the war. It has nothing to do with the false intelligence and trumped-up threats and incoherent justifications of the Bush administration officials, or the role people like Russert's father played in promoting, and not challenging, those officials. It is an interview with a Democratic Congressman who regrets his vote for the war, just like Joe Scarborough's little video was about Democrats who supported the war, and now feel bad. Russert asks if Smith regrets the war, but not why he voted for it.

So, no, Luke, I only left it out because it wasn't a very interesting interview.

By Alex Pareene

Alex Pareene writes about politics for Salon and is the author of "The Rude Guide to Mitt." Email him at and follow him on Twitter @pareene

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