Psst! Iran Helped Plan September 11 …

Today's front-page stories concerning the Bush administration's saber rattling over Iran raises the question: Is the press going to repeat the mistakes of 2002?

As today’s page-one stories in both the New York Times and the Washington Post make clear, the Bush administration has begun to apply pressure on the U.S. intelligence agencies to pump up the threat that Iran poses.

Matthew Yglesias, guest-blogging on TPM, warns that “Democrats had better be prepared to confront this business aggressively.”

So should the press. Because while both the Times story and the Post story make ample, if measured, reference to what happened the last time Cheney and Co. insisted on getting the “right” answers to their intelligence questions, neither reminded readers of how little skepticism we in the press brought to claims that Iraq had WMD, that Saddam’s henchmen had gone to Niger and secured “yellowcake,” that those aluminum tubes really were trouble, and that there was a 9/11 connection.

Nor did those stories go far enough in putting this latest bit of White House maneuvering into its proper context. The country is less than three months away from a crucial mid-term election, and with the GOP facing the distinct possibility of losing its majority in Congress, the administration is desperately trying to play the only card that has worked repeatedly with the voters — fear of terrorism. It needs a new villain, and Iran’s persistent thumbing of its nose at the West over its nuclear program provides the perfect opening to elevate one.

Finally, there was scant outrage expressed anywhere in the press today (perhaps tomorrow?) over the fact that, despite all we’ve learned about this administration’s willingness to say whatever is necessary to get what it wants, here, it seems, we go again.

In the new issue of the Columbia Journalism Review (out in September), Bill Berkeley makes a convincing case that the Western media have consistently gotten Iran wrong because we insist on interpreting its political culture through the dual prisms of Islam and the Holocaust. It is not that Iran represents no threat at all to U.S. interests, but rather that the true nature of that threat is often lost in caricature.

Berkeley argues that for Iran’s ruling mullahs, extreme Islam is not an end in itself, but rather a means to power. He also writes, “For all the recent rhetoric about wiping Israel off the map … the Iranians are not Nazis. For one thing, Iran is not the dominant military power in the region, Israel is. … Moreover, Iran lacks a rational motive for [attacking Israel]. … For all its bluster, many Iranians and most experts on Iran will tell you, the Iranian leadership is not irrational.”

Berkeley’s analysis is particularly resonant, given that the House Permanent Select Committee’s report on the Iran threat, which is at the center of all the GOP saber rattling, had on its cover a color photo of Iranian President Ahmadinejad at a lectern emblazoned with the words: “The World Without Zionism.”

Fear-mongering at election time is one thing. Inventing a case for war where none exists is something else entirely. For the press, a reminder: Fool me once …

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Brent Cunningham is CJR’s managing editor.