Media should expand their list of experts, and ask sources — and themselves — tough questions.
An Iraqi Shiite Turkmen gunman holds his RPG as he stands in front of a portrait of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, right, at the front line village of Taza Khormato, in the northern oil rich province of Kirkuk, Iraq, Friday June 20, 2014. Thousands of people fled the town of Taza Khormato fearing the advance of Sunni insurgents who overran the neighboring village of Kirkuk. Taza Khormato residents said insurgents led by the al-Qaida inspired Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant seized the nearby village of Basheer, shelling and burning down the houses. Both communities are dominated by ethnic Turkmen Shiites who are seen as heretics worthy of death by Sunni extremists.
News viewers are used to spin. But some may have been dizzy with dissonance this week when the Sunday morning shows and cable news networks trotted out some of the original Iraq war architects and advocates.
Yet there they were — Bush administration figures like Paul Wolfowitz, Paul Bremer and Andrew Card, as well as journalists Judith Miller and Bill Kristol, among others — all opining on-air about the crisis sparked by ISIL (also called ISIS), the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, a radical Islamic force that now controls a broad swath of Iraq. And it wasn’t just on TV: Bremer backed up his point in the Wall Street Journal, which also ran Dick and Liz Cheney’s excoriation of foreign policy under President Obama.
But unlike the more muted response to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, this time the pushback was loud — and fast.
Columnists quickly criticized the resiliency of Iraq war supporters. “Where is the accountability in Iraq?” asked Katrina Vanden Heuvel in the Washington Post. “Iraq Everlasting” wrote Frank Rich in New York magazine. “The Gall of Dick Cheney,” chided Charles Blow in the New York Times.
On TV, Jon Stewart gave the media amnesia and the ubiquity of Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham the “Daily Show” treatment.
On the Senate floor, Majority Leader Harry Reid said that “being on the wrong side of Dick Cheney is being on the right side of history.”
And on Twitter, James Fallows, a national correspondent for the Atlantic who was one of the relatively few media members to prominently oppose the invasion, said in a frequently retweeted message: “Working hypothesis: no one who stumped for an original Iraq invasion gets to give ‘advice’ about disaster now. Or should get listened to.”
The sentiment may be widespread, and not just with opinion leaders. A Public Policy Polling survey suggests support for Obama’s caution. And many are questioning the seemingly permanent post-9/11 wartime footing. Ten years ago this week, a Pew poll was headlined “Public Support for War Resilient.” But by last December Pew reported that a record high 52 percent of Americans believe that “the U.S. should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.” The top reason, according to an accompanying survey of 1,838 members of the Council on Foreign Relations? “War fatigue.”
But in seeking to not repeat the run-up to the invasion, it’s important not to repeat the mistake of muffling opposing opinions, even if they come from those identified with what many now consider a discredited decision.
Besides, it’s not just those closely associated with President George W. Bush: Former (and future?) Democratic presidential prospects Hillary Clinton and John Kerry were among 29 Democrats to back Bush in the 2003 Senate vote to authorize the use of military force against Iraq, and no one has deemed the previous and current secretaries of state irrelevant to the renewed Iraq debate.
Groupthink should be avoided in any instance. Witness 2003, when war drums drowned out dissenting voices that proved prescient about how ill-advised — if not illegal — such a war would be.
Yet while the original neoconservatives shouldn’t be quieted, they should be questioned on how their previous positions square with their criticism of Obama’s Iraq record, as Fox News Channel’s Megyn Kelly did when she responsibly and respectfully asked Dick Cheney blunt questions in an interview this week.
Beyond asking sources tough questions, though, the news media should ask themselves tough questions about sources. Such as: Wouldn’t the nation be better served if it also turned to experts who don’t fit the established parameters of the binary Beltway establishment?
Too often talk shows in particular book familiar faces to deliver familiar positions that reflect, if not create, today’s political polarity. That approach may be appropriate for the Potomac narrative, but it doesn’t fit the one on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates, where things are more complex.
There are experts who give context to these complexities based on years of research, scholarship and on-the-ground analysis. Many work in academia or at think tanks. They’re thorough and thoughtful, embrace nuance over certitude, and often can’t be categorized on a convenient — but simplistic — left-right, hawk-dove divide.
But because they are not instantly identifiable, speak in paragraphs instead of sound bites and reflexively consider, not contest, divergent viewpoints, these experts appear on the “PBS NewsHour,” National Public Radio and on opinion pages more frequently than they do on cable news networks or Sunday morning shows.
Intervening in Iraq, or anywhere in today’s roiling world, is the most profound presidential decision. Like all leaders, Obama will turn to advisers and allies, both abroad and here at home. But he’ll also gauge public opinion. An open, inclusive, informed debate that expands beyond the voices usually associated with Washington will serve the public, and thus the country, well.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.
The Opinion section is produced by the Editorial Department to foster discussion about key issues. The Editorial Board represents the institutional voice of the Star Tribune and operates independently of the newsroom.