Red Flags And Regrets
By David Ignatius
Tuesday, April 27, 2004; Page A21
NEW HAVEN, Conn. -- What gets people riled about the press, if my e-mail is any indication, is a sense that journalists criticize everyone else without taking responsibility for their own mistakes. That's especially true on the two foreign policy topics that seem likely to frame this year's presidential election -- the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the war in Iraq.
So here's an attempt at self-criticism, based on a lecture I gave Monday at Yale University. I apologize if the ivy-covered walls induced too much navel-gazing. But I think those e-mail critics deserve some sort of answer. I'll begin with Sept. 11. The question for journalists is essentially the same one the Sept. 11 commission is putting to public officials: Given what we now know about al Qaeda, should the press have sounded a louder alarm before those planes flew into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon?
A quick survey using LexisNexis (that intolerably precise measure of who published what, when) shows that before Sept. 11, 2001, the New York Times mentioned Osama bin Laden and terror 176 times; The Post made that connection 57 times. That wasn't enough.
The best snapshot of al Qaeda before Sept. 11 was the trial of four members involved in the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa. The New York Times ran several dozen stories about that trial, but some of the strongest journalism subtly questioned whether the government was hyping the al Qaeda threat.
An example is a wrap-up that appeared in the New York Times two days after the trial ended in May 2001. "Before the embassy bombings trial, Osama bin Laden loomed large in the American psyche, a villain of unimaginable evil and sophisticated reach," the story began. But the trial "made clear that while Mr. bin Laden may be a global menace, his group, al Qaeda, was at times slipshod, torn by inner strife, betrayal, greed and the banalities of life that one might find in any office." Not exactly a rallying cry.
A few journalists did "get it" about the danger posed by bin Laden, but I was not among them. That cursed Nexis search reveals that while I wrote often about terrorism and the Arab world, I didn't mention bin Laden once in my columns or other journalism before Sept. 11.
Assessing coverage of Iraq is trickier. The media offered a wide range of reporting and opinion before the war, including some skeptical assessments of Saddam Hussein's WMD threat and his links with al Qaeda. Our biggest failure (and my own) was that we didn't ask enough questions about the administration's planning for postwar Iraq.
A Feb. 17 article in the Times about what could go wrong in Iraq included this haunting quotation from an unnamed senior official: "We still do not know how U.S. forces will be received. Will it be cheers, jeers or shots? And the fact is, we won't know until we get there." Even though it was a blind quotation, that should have been a red flag to every editor and columnist in America. But it wasn't.
The uniformed military privately had serious questions about the Iraq mission, but these only occasionally made their way into print. A rare example is a March 11, 2003, story in The Post by Vernon Loeb and Thomas E. Ricks, which began: "The U.S. Army is bracing for war in Iraq and a postwar occupation that could tie up two to three Army divisions in an open-ended mission that would strain the all-volunteer force and put soldiers in the midst of warring ethnic and religious factions, Army officers and other senior defense officials say." Again, that story should have been a red flag.
In a sense, the media were victims of their own professionalism. Because there was little criticism of the war from prominent Democrats and foreign policy analysts, journalistic rules meant we shouldn't create a debate on our own. And because major news organizations knew the war was coming, we spent a lot of energy in the last three months before the war preparing to cover it -- arranging for reporters to be embedded with military units, purchasing chemical and biological weapons gear and setting up forward command posts in Kuwait that mirrored those of the U.S. military.
My own mistake was thinking more about the justice of overthrowing Saddam Hussein's tyrannical regime than about the difficulty of building a new postwar Iraq. I still think the war was a just cause, but I worry that its costs may one day outweigh its benefits. I don't regret my support for toppling Hussein, but I wish I had followed those red flags and examined more carefully how America could win the peace, after it won the war.
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