Two Major Regional Papers, Two Views on Iraq

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By: William E. Jackson, Jr.

The Senate debate on resolutions opposing an escalation of U.S.
involvement in Iraq represents the first bipartisan confrontation between Congress and the White House over the Iraq war since the invasion nearly four years ago. Is it too much to expect that editorial page editors of major newspapers provide adequate perspective and sound facts to readers as the legislative argument proceeds?

Over the last several years, E&P has monitored the editorial pages of
dozens of newspapers, noting their very slowly changing positions on the Iraq war. Along the way, several became severe critics of the Bush Administration’s invasion, and later occupation, of Iraq; some now oppose the “surge” in troop commitments. Few, as E&P has long pointed out, ever call for a speedy withdrawal. Some papers maintain “diehard” editorial stances which seldom, if ever, have deviated from the White House’s initial rationalization of the invasion.

Now there’s an interesting split in my neck of the woods, a striking contrast between the editorial stances of McClatchy?s two big North Carolina papers, The Raleigh News & Observer and the recently acquired (from Knight Ridder) The Charlotte Observer. One looks forward; the other looks backward.

Before the publication of the Baker-Hamilton report, the editorial page editor of the N&O?Steve Ford?wrote: ?It can be an awkward position to be in. You warn that policies are wrong-headed, that mistakes are being made, that the situation, whatever it is, will only become worse unless people come to their senses and change course.? He went on to salute a famous Yale cleric, the university chaplain William Sloane Coffin, who had ?denounced the Bush war venture in a New Haven speech a few weeks after the 2003 Iraq invasion (I was in the audience). Pride and self-righteousness were among our national stumbling blocks, Coffin believed.?

After the release of the Baker-Hamilton critique, the N&O ? which had consistently been more skeptical about America?s involvement in Iraq than the Charlotte Observer ? ran a ?Long Way Home? editorial. It declared that more than three years after the Bush administration invaded Iraq, the Baker-Hamilton commission ?finds no solution that is guaranteed to bring the conflict to a satisfactory end, meaning that American forces could leave and a democratic Iraqi government could overcome the current chaos to stand on its own. Perhaps that is the group?s most stinging rebuke to President Bush?this deadly mess, even though it began with the overthrow of the brutal dictator Saddam Hussein, may ultimately turn out merely to have substituted one awful situation for another. What an indictment of wishful thinking and poor planning. How the nation?s best intentions turned into such a debacle is a haunting question….

“A more forthright move toward ending the U.S. involvement in the war is now the way to go, even if such a strategy may never achieve the worthwhile goals for which so many have suffered and died.?

By contrast, when reading the views of editorial page editor Ed Williams of The Charlotte Observer, one enters a time warp — not to mention the display of a highly selective memory, and spotty research.

The Observer has been a fairly consistent supporter of the war in Iraq. On the eve of this week’s Senate non-debate, in a February 4 editorial entitled ?Remember What Drew Us Into Iraq?,? Williams argued (in the context of discussing what constitutes a ?just war?) that the invasion may have been unwise but it was not without justification: ?In the murderous chaos that envelops Iraq, it’s easy to forget what drew us into the war. Everyone remembers the weapons of mass destruction that were not found. But there was more.?

Williams looked back at columns and editorials he had written in 2003 to establish certain ?facts.? He quoted from an essay by John Burns of The New York Times: ?Though President Bush made weapons of mass destruction and possible links to al-Qaida his principal arguments for invading Iraq, the war could have been justified on the basis of human rights alone.?

So, like the Bush White House, is the Observer still in quest of a compelling rationale for the initiation of the war? In a war of choice, this country should have invaded a major regional power to champion human rights?

Williams then asked: Remember the events that preceded the war? ?In the late 1980s, Saddam Hussein’s regime launched a campaign that led to the disappearance of tens of thousands of Kurds in northern Iraq. Saddam’s forces razed Kurdish villages, launched poison gas attacks and slaughtered men, women and children or buried them alive in mass graves.? But that tragedy had not prompted American government intervention at that time. Quite the contrary.

He went on: ?In 1990 Saddam invaded Kuwait. The first President Bush organized an international force to drive him out. In 1991, in return for a cease-fire, Saddam promised to disarm and admit U.N. inspectors to ensure he’d done so. Yet for more than a decade he misled and harassed inspectors and eventually expelled them.? But Williams ignores the reality that Saddam largely destroyed his stockpiles of WMD in the nineties, evidence of which the U.N. inspectors had been amassing, only to be ridiculed by the Bush administration. And, of course, the inspectors were on the ground in Iraq again in 2003 before they had to flee to avoid the U.S. invasion.

In regard to U.N. trade sanctions that followed Gulf War I, Williams wrote: ?The international community sought to make adequate food and medicine available to the Iraqis under the oil-for-food program, but the Iraqi regime blocked proper distribution.? Yes. But the same strictures contributed significantly to the deterioration of the military/industrial infrastructure of the Iraqi state.

Williams also quoted Mark Bowden, the author of ?Black Hawk Down,? who thought that Saddam posed ?a serious threat to the United States and the rest of the world,” and warned that they might put nuclear weapons in the hands of al-Qaida.

But non-existent stockpiles of nuclear weapons were not — indeed, could not be — turned over to al-Qaida. And Saddam?s Iraq never posed an imminent threat to the United States. Incredibly, Williams made no mention of the long list of bogus claims of Iraqi WMD threats read off by Secretary of State Colin Powell before the U.N. Security Council four years ago yesterday.

Williams closed: ?History will judge America for what we’ve done there. History would have judged us for doing nothing, too.?

Yes. And history will judge editorial page writers who beat the drums for a disastrous war of choice; and continue today to try to re-write history.

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