And Now, a Few Golden Oldies from 1998!

The Washington Times reprints another paper's 7-year-old editorial to make a point about the Iraq war. So what, exactly, was the Times itself publishing on that same day?

In general, newspaper opinion editors tend to pride themselves on publishing pieces that are fresh and original. But yesterday the editorial gatekeepers at the Washington Times dispensed with convention and, instead, tried a groundbreaking approach — specifically, reprinting part of an editorial that originally appeared 7 years ago … in the New York Times.

Rather than publishing the dusty goods under a literal headline such as, say, “Somebody Else’s Old Idea,” the Washington Times served up the editorial as part of an ongoing series about the run-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq called “History lessons.”

What followed was a brief note (presumably written by Washington Times’ employees themselves) explaining the context of the refried editorial. According to the paper, the excerpted piece from the New York Times originally appeared on November 16, 1998. At the time, President Clinton had just decided to recall an air strike against Iraq following Saddam Hussein’s last-minute agreement to let weapons inspectors back into his country.

“The apparent peaceful resolution is welcome, and can be credited to President Clinton’s renewed willingness to back diplomacy with the threat of force,” wrote the New York Times. “But this must be the last time that Iraq tries to manipulate the Security Council.”

“Too many times before Iraq has tried to slip free of its commitments to cooperate in the elimination of its stocks of biological and chemical weapons and missiles that can deliver them …” added the New York Times. “If Baghdad again attempts to restrict inspections, Washington, with support from Britain and other allies, need not wait for weeks or even days to respond.”

So what exactly was the Washington Times trying to teach us with this history lesson? Since its editors decided to play it coy and not actually, you know, editorialize about the specifics themselves, allow us a brief interpretation. Perhaps the Washington Times’ editors wanted to point out that (a) originally the New York Times supported a hawkish stance toward Saddam (in line with President Bush’s subsequent mode of action) and thus (b) all the second-guessing about the efficacy of the war on the part of the New York Times amounts to elitist poltroonery of the worst sort.

Or something.

All of which left us wondering what had appeared on the editorial pages of the Washington Times on that same day, November 16, 1998.

Looking back, what we found there was an eloquent argument by a scholar from the Brookings Institution in support of giving Saddam incentives to allow inspections and arguing against military action. Consider it our contribution to “History lessons.”

“Iraq’s weekend decision to back down and allow U.N. inspectors to resume their work is clearly a better outcome than U.S. air strikes would have been,” wrote Michael O’Hanlon, who was then a fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution.

“Why is an imperfect, tedious, and interminable U.N. inspection process preferable to air strikes?” he added. “Because the former approach keeps Saddam contained, gradually whittles away at his military power, keeps world opinion firmly on the side of the United States, and helps us keep our coalition with other Arab states in the region in place.”

“Spending two or three billion dollars a year to send Saddam a message of our continued resolve, while admittedly expensive and demanding on U.S. troops, represents just one percent of our defense budget,” O’Hanlon added. “It is less expensive than the $5 billion it could cost to conduct a major air campaign and far less expensive than the $50 billion to $100 billion it could cost to use ground forces to remove Saddam from power (to say nothing of the thousands of U.S. casualties such a conflict would almost surely produce).”

So relevant, all these years later.

We’d suggest that the editors of the New York Times’ Op-Ed page return the courtesy and publish the Washington Times’ 1998 commentary on their pages. But, then again, the editors at the New York Times would probably decline, clinging to the stuffy notion that 2006 is a year for publishing new and timely ideas, not for retrieving canned turnips that have been on the shelf for more than seven years.

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Felix Gillette writes about the media for The New York Observer.