Last fall, when America and the world were debating whether to go to war in Iraq, no one in the Washington establishment wanted to talk much about the aftermath of such a war. For the Bush administration, attempting to rally support for a preemptive war, messy discussions about all that could go wrong in the aftermath were unhelpful. Anything is better than Saddam, the argument went. The Democrats, already wary of being labeled unpatriotic, spoke their piece in October when they voted to authorize the use of force in Iraq, essentially putting the country on a war footing. Without the force of a “she said” on the aftermath story, it was largely driven by the administration, which is to say stories were typically framed by what the administration said it planned to do: work with other nations to build democracy. Strike a blow to terrorists. Stay as long as we need to and not a minute longer. Pay for it all with Iraqi oil revenue. There were some notable exceptions — a piece by Anthony Shadid in the October 20 Boston Globe, for instance, and another on September 22 by James Dao in The New York Times, pushed beyond the administration’s broad assumptions about what would happen when Saddam was gone — but most of the coverage included only boilerplate reminders that Iraq is a fractious country and bloody reprisals are likely, that tension between the Kurds and Turks might be a problem, and that Iran has designs on the Shiite region of southern Iraq. David House, the reader advocate for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, wrote a piece on March 23 that got at the press’s limitations in setting the agenda. “Curiously, for all the technology the news media have, for all the gifted minds that make it all work … it’s a simple thing to stop the media cold. Say nothing, hide documents.”
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.