Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Forest & Trees: How Fareed Zakaria (and So Many Others) Missed Iraq’s Most Important Lesson

Fareed Zakaria writes at CNN on the (claimed) 5 Lessons of the Iraq War.  His list?  (1) bring enough troops; (2) don’t tear down the state; (3) don’t knock down doors; (4) make a deal to include all parties; and (5) write constitutions before holding elections.

Hear me sigh.  It is a time-worn thing, this sigh of mine.

While an interesting and perhaps even accurate list, Mr. Zakaria misses the most important and obvious answer to his own question – what lessons might be learned from the war? –

Don’t do it.

Simple, really.

Don’t do it.

Just say no.

Be suspicious.

Ask questions.

Demand the truth.

If my thesis is don’t do it, don’t do what, exactly?

1. Don’t devalue the lives of your [presumed] enemies.  They love their children as much as you love yours.  Value their very existence as much as you value your own.

2. If you’re a journalist (and Mr. Zakaria is just that), do not – ever – take the word of anyone at face value, especially when they’re (a) acting out of self-interest; and (b) proposing to kill people on a massive scale.

3. Do not adopt the propagandist language of those trying to sell you on an idea that will result in the deaths of millions (and yes, it was millions).

4. Do not be sidetracked by tactics.  Focus instead on the underlying idea or proposition, asking:  (a) is it a desirable goal?  (b) will the achieving of the goal make us better people?  ( c) is the goal so important, so necessary, that it will be worth the loss of everything else?  (d) what’s the rush?  When people try to hurry you into a costly decision, chances are there’s something behind the mirror they don’t want you to see or have the time to think too much about.  (e) are there alternatives?  There are always alternatives.  Why were they not explored?  Why were they so handily dismissed?  Perhaps Chris Hedges was right in his seminal work War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning: a war is just too good an opportunity to miss out on.  It’s exhilarating.  Here’s a thought: the next war we contemplate, you might consider: (a) the fact that it’s something that can be contemplated means that it is not necessary (a real emergency that requires an armed response does not provide a lot of time to think about it – as in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor); and (b) when it comes to truth claims from one’s own government, maybe you could have journalists who are not citizens of our country take a look at them – after all, objectivity is a benchmark of your profession – or it used to be.

Really, all of this boils down to one point, one lesson to be learned from our collective decision to invade Iraq.  It’s a simple lesson, really:

5. Do not go to war based on a lie.

The subsets of this lesson are legion: (a) do not go hastily to war – ever; (b) know the facts.  Demand them.  In the absence of verifiable facts, make no decision; ( c) Let no be our operating assumption, our first response, the objective which must be overcome by overwhelming evidence, when it comes to war; (d) always examine our own motives, for they are always suspect; (e) there are many aiders and abettors in any decision to go to war – don’t be one of them; (f) ask the real consequential questions out loud – publicly and often: is this so important that we are willing to kill children to achieve it?  Because we will; we do – whenever there is a war, we become the killers of children – our own and others; (g) make it a moral/ethical discussion, because waging war is a moral and ethical decision and abandoning ethics and morality in favor of discussing tactics is itself unethical.

As I said, these are but a few of the questions that might and, I think, should be asked in any decision about the waging of war against others.

And this, I think, is the largest gap in mainstream press coverage on our collective decision to invade Iraq, even 10 years later, when we should know better.

In 1999 (well before our invasion of Iraq), in his book Debating War and Peace: Media Coverage in the post-Viet Nam Era, Jonathan Mermin of Princeton University writes about the journalistic phenomena of taking the word of the powers-that-be inside Washington when it comes to matters of war and peace.  As the publisher’s review indicates, Mermin demonstrates that:
when it comes to military intervention, journalists over the past two decades have let the government itself set the terms and boundaries of foreign policy debate in the news. . . [showing] that if there is no debate over U.S. policy in Washington, there is no debate in the news, [further observing that] journalists often criticize the execution of U.S. policy, but fail to offer critical analysis of the policy itself if actors inside the government have not challenged it. . .Princeton University Press
Many in the press of these United States rushed to war right alongside President Bush and his administration when it came to Iraq.  Liberal and conservative, you were virtually all on board.  And you are our professional fact finders.  If I knew (and I did – from NPR’s reporting of UN sources) that the Niger yellow-cake claim was a forgery before the invasion (IAEA report on Iraq), why didn’t you?  It is your job to know.  Well, actually, you did know – since the IAEA report I heard on NPR was reported with transcript offered on CNN on March 7, 2003, 13 days before the invasion based (at least in part) on this allegation and others about Iraq’s purported (falsely) attempts to go nuclear, as the IAEA reports made clear at the time.

And ten years later, the best you have to offer us, Mr. Zakaria, is more of the same: more analysis on how we could have waged the war better and absolutely no analysis on why your own industry was so eager to facilitate the Administration’s rush to war in the first place; no reflection on how to avoid the rush to war in future; no questions or answers about the missing piece of moral and ethical reflection.

It is not enough to claim to be reporters of fact only, as you are an analyst and your piece proffers analysis.  How can you exclude from your proffered opinions so glibly any consideration about the question of whether to engage in such an exercise, restricting yourself to trying to figure out how to do it better next time?

Shame, Mr. Zakaria.

If the only lessons you learned are how to do it better as opposed to whether to do it at all, you really should be working for a defense-industry think tank.

Sadly, your five so-called lessons tell me that you’ve learned nothing at all in the last ten years.  That’s the best ‘spin’ I can put on your piece, for the alternative is truly too horrific to contemplate: that you yourself are part and parcel of the intentional misguiding of the American people on this travesty so tritely named Iraqi Freedom.

I expect more.

Nay, I demand it.

You, the press, are our only non-governmental constitutional organ of freedom.  Your job is much too important to be taken lightly.  The lessons to be learned from our invasion of Iraq are yours as much as our military’s.

No – the lessons to be learned are actually more yours than theirs.

They were being true to who they are.

Who or what were you being true to?

*Selecting a title for an essay on a subject I care deeply about is not as easy as one might think – especially if you want to make it tweetable.  And so, for whatever edification or amusement may result, I offer you the title rejects for this piece:  Why journalists have nothing to teach you about the lessons of war; Undoing Zakaria’s Lessons of War; Zakaria’s Box: His Lessons Aren’t Iraq’s Lessons; Zakaria’s Idol (idle?) Thinking?; What Mr. Zakaria Didn’t Learn from Iraq; Zakaria: Really?; I don’t know what school you went to. . .; War & Peace?  No: War & War; This isn’t your mama’s war sonny; Flag on the Play: Zakaria Misses the Mark – Again; Pressing the Press: Iraq, Journalism & Lost Lessons; Been There, Done That & I Don’t Want Your T-shirt; False Teaching; False Teaching/False Teachers: How Fareed Zakaria Missed the Mark on Iraq; Words of Mass Destruction: Zakaria’s “Lessons” on Iraq Still Killing After All These Years; The Killing Fields: Zakaria’s Word of Mass Destruction; Fareed Zakaria Thinking inside the box again; Still smug after all these years; History Writ Small: Why Journalists Make Bad Historians; History Writ Small:  Zakaria’s Iraq Lessons Need Schooling; History Writ Small: Five Lessons for Fareed Zakaria; History Writ Small: 5 Lessons I Wish Fareed Zakaria Knew about Iraq; 5 Paltry Lessons; Lessons from Iraq:  Zakaria Flunks the History Exam – Again; 5 Lessons Iraq Could Teach Fareed Zakaria; 5 Lessons Fareed Zakaria Didn’t Learn About Iraq; Lessons from Iraq: 5 Things Fareed Zakaria Didn’t Learn but Should Have; When It Comes to Iraq, Mr. Zakaria, There’s Only One Lesson to be Learned; Unfit to Print:  Zakaria’s Five Lessons Learned from the Iraq War.

**In the last week, 94 people (at a minimum) have been killed in violence across Iraq and 50+ injured. Al Jazeera in English and Washington Post

***Since the US invasion of Iraq, according to ORB, the UN, and others, more than 1 million civilians were killed and more than 4.5 million refugeed or internally displaced, many of whom have still not been able to return home or to anything resembling normal life.  That represents almost 20% of the population of Iraq.  Perhaps we might focus more on the place where we directly caused such whole-sale destruction before entertaining a reprise in neighboring Syria.


  1. Replies
    1. Laurie, It's a sad world, isn't it, when we have to say please and thank you to encourage stepping outside the crowd and try to see ourselves as others might? But it is the world in which we live, so thank you for reading, for caring enough to say thank you. Peace, Beth

  2. Journalism ain't what it used to be. I thank you, as well, for this and for so much more.

    1. Debbi, I continue to be so grateful for the connections and differences we can make in this wonderful time in which we live and that in such a time, our paths can and do cross. Blessings, Beth