WAS THE WAR in Iraq inevitable? That was the question that panels of distinguished journalists and media critics implicitly addressed when they gathered at UC Berkeley last week for an international conference titled "The Media at War: The U.S. Invasion & Occupation of Iraq."
Joining them were Joseph C. Wilson, former ambassador to several African countries, and Hans Blix, former U.N. weapons inspector.
All the participants seemed to agree that the Bush administration had misled the American public about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction as well as his ties with al Qaeda terrorists. Many of the speakers also thought that much of the American print and broadcast media -- uncertain whether such dangers actually existed -- simply echoed the administration assertions.
If the media had been more critical and skeptical, would it have made a difference?
A series of speakers tackled this thorny question. Most surprising were remarks made by Joseph W. Wilson, whose op-ed in the July 6, 2003, New York Times refuted the administration's case that Iraq had tried to buy uranium from Niger.
Wilson's condemnation of the Bush administration, which will appear in a forthcoming book, "Inside the Politics of Truth," was remarkably unrestrained for a career diplomat.
If journalists had bothered to investigate the past, he argued, they would have known that those advising the president about foreign policy had written about the need to invade Iraq as early as 1999.
He also criticized newspaper editorial boards across the country for giving the Bush administration a free ride by supporting a unilateral invasion and occupation for which only the most flimsiest evidence had been provided.
After Secretary of State Colin Powell presented his evidence to the U.N. Security Council, nuclear experts told Wilson, "Powell has nothing." Why, then, asked Wilson, didn't reporters and editorial boards interview these same nuclear experts, who knew that the aluminum tubes had nothing to do with nukes and that some of Powell's "evidence" was 10-year old data lifted by the British from the Internet?
Most ominously, Wilson predicted that Iraq was soon headed toward an internal civil war, an assertion repeated by most Arab journalists. Yet, as he pointed out, the American media still unquestioningly broadcasts Bush's reassurances that the situation in Iraq is improving.
In a remarkable interview with Hans Blix, CNN's Christiane Amanpour gave the formerly beleaguered weapons inspector an opportunity to redeem himself before a sold-out audience of 2,000 persons.
Could the war have been prevented if the Bush administration had been willing to give his team more time? Blix's answer was the Bush administration was unwilling to accept that no weapons existed. "They didn't listen to us. But other members of the Security Council did." As a result, the United States went to war without the support of the international community.
No evidence of nuclear weapons in Iraq existed in 2003, Blix said. Yet National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice famously warned, "We don't want the 'smoking gun' to be a mushroom cloud" and both British Prime Minister Tony Blair and President Bush seized upon the threat of nuclear weapons to mobilize public support for the war.
One of the most fascinating discussions focused on embedded journalists. Did they get it right or were they co-opted? Lt. Col. Robert O. Sinclair of the U.S. Marine Corps candidly admitted that the goal of the military was to "dominate the media environment." The military, he said, was quite satisfied with the media's coverage of the war.
But at what cost, asked a panel of journalists from the Middle East? Where were the stories about how the bombing, looting and violence affected the Iraqi people?
Many journalists, including Amanpour, Frontline's Martin Smith, NPR's Deborah Amos and al Jazeera Maher Abdallah Ahmad agreed that, above all else, the American media had failed to provide a historical context for their reports. If they had, the American people might have understood why the Iraqi people, having been subjected to British colonialism after World War I, would never accept a Western occupation.
It wasn't just journalists, however, who knew so little history. Members of the Bush administration also failed to grasp the importance of historical memory in the Middle East.
Could the war have been averted? I don't think so, given the ideological commitment of those who are in power. But the conference did serve to remind us why both the public and journalists need to cultivate a skeptical mind and why, in the end, history always matters.
©2004 San Francisco Chronicle