In November, James Fallows wrote a cover story for The Atlantic Monthly entitled “The Fifty-First State? The Inevitable Aftermath of Victory in Iraq.” In it, with the help of regional experts, historians, and retired military officers, he gamed out just how difficult the aftermath could be. Among the scenarios he explored: the financial and logistical complications caused by the destruction of Baghdad’s infrastructure; the possibility that Saddam Hussein would escape and join Osama bin Laden on the Most Wanted list; how the dearth of Arabic speakers in the U.S. government would hinder peacekeeping and other aftermath operations; how the need for the U.S., as the occupying power, to secure Iraq’s borders would bring it face to face with Iran, another spoke in the “axis of evil”; the complications of working with the United Nations after it refused to support the war; what to do about the Iraqi debt from, among other things, UN-imposed reparations after the first gulf war, which some estimates put as high as $400 billion.
Much of this speculation has since come to pass and is bedeviling the U.S.’s attempt to stabilize — let alone democratize — Iraq. So are some other post-war realities that were either too speculative or too hypothetical to be given much air in the prewar debate. Looting, for instance, and general lawlessness. The fruitless (thus far) search for weapons of mass destruction. The inability to quickly restore power and clean water. A decimated health-care system. The difficulty of establishing an interim Iraqi government, and the confusion over who exactly should run things in the meantime. The understandably shallow reservoir of patience among the long-suffering Iraqis. The hidden clause in Halliburton’s contract to repair Iraq’s oil wells that also, by the way, granted it control of production and distribution, despite the administration’s assurances that the Iraqis would run their own oil industry.
In the rush to war, how many Americans even heard about some of these possibilities? Of the 574 stories about Iraq that aired on NBC, ABC, and CBS evening news broadcasts between September 12 (when Bush addressed the UN) and March 7 (a week and a half before the war began), only twelve dealt primarily with the potential aftermath, according to Andrew Tyndall’s numbers.
The Republicans were saying only what was convenient, thus the “he said.” The Democratic leadership was saying little, so there was no “she said.” “Journalists are never going to fill the vacuum left by a weak political opposition,” says The New York Times’s Steven R. Weisman. But why not? If something important is being ignored, doesn’t the press have an obligation to force our elected officials to address it? We have the ability, even on considerably less important matters than war and nation-building. Think of the dozens of articles The New York Times published between July 10, 2002 and March 31 about the Augusta National Country Club’s exclusion of women members, including the one from November 25 that carried the headline “CBS Staying Silent in Debate on Women Joining Augusta.” Why couldn’t there have been headlines last fall that read: “Bush Still Mum on Aftermath,” or “Beyond Saddam: What Could Go Right, and What Could Go Wrong?” And while you’re at it, consider the criticism the Times’s mini-crusade on Augusta engendered in the media world, as though an editor’s passion for an issue never drives coverage.
This is not inconsequential nitpicking. The New Yorker’s editor, David Remnick, who has written in support of going to war with Iraq, wrote of the aftermath in the March 31 issue: “An American presence in Baghdad will carry with it risks and responsibilities that will shape the future of the United States in the world.” The press not only could have prepared the nation and its leadership for the aftermath we are now witnessing, but should have.
The Real Bias