On TV, it looked and sounded a lot like 2003 all over again.
All pondered some version of the question that CNN’s Erin Burnett posed to a guest less than 24 hours after the death of Iran’s Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani on Friday: “What would a war between Iran and the U.S. look like?”
As they did 17 years ago, almost all the pundits agreed that conflict of some kind, if not outright war, was inevitable. And some suggested that President Trump’s decision to target Soleimani — “a bad guy,” as more than one commentator called him — was warranted and welcomed, despite the risks.
“I think it’s entirely possible this is going to be a catalyst inside Iran where the people celebrate this killing of Soleimani and puts pressure on the Iranian government to stop its terrorism, stop supporting all of the various terrorist movements it has around the world,” said Ari Fleischer on Fox News a few hours after the news broke. Fleischer was a prominent advocate of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in early 2003 while serving as President George W. Bush’s press secretary.
His fellow Fox panelist on Friday was Bush adviser Karl Rove, another Iraq War advocate, who called Soleimani’s death “a major victory” for “the cause of stability and moderation in the Middle East.” He did so even as Trump ordered another 3,500 troops to the region and Iran vowed to retaliate.
The interview questions had a distinctly 2003 flavor to them, too: Was the threat posed by Iran imminent and real? Was congressional authority necessary for further military action? Was there a way to avoid bloodshed and another foreign quagmire?
Largely missing in the immediate aftermath were the voices of the people who will actually make the decisions about war and peace.
Trump gave a hastily arranged, four-minute speech on Friday, then went largely silent for the next 30 or so hours, even on his preferred medium, Twitter (he popped up again Saturday night, tweeting a threat to strike 52 Iranian sites “representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago”). The White House held no briefings, continuing a streak begun 300 days ago as of Sunday. There were no Pentagon or State Department briefings, either.
Trump administration officials began talking in earnest on the Sunday morning news-discussion programs. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appeared on the five leading shows, including simultaneously (thanks to live and recorded interviews) on “Fox News Sunday,” ABC’s “This Week” and CNN’s “State of the Union.” He did the same later in the morning on “Face the Nation” and “Meet the Press” on CBS and NBC, respectively.
America’s top diplomat didn’t seem to hold out much hope for diplomacy. “We will respond with great force and vigor,” he told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “State of the Union. In an indirect reference to one of Trump’s potential election rivals, he added, “It is important that [the Iranians] understand that America will no longer behave the way that it did during the Obama-Biden Administration. We will no longer appease. We’ll no longer tolerate. Frankly, this war kicked off when the [2015 Iran nuclear agreement] was entered into. It told the Iranians that they had free rein to develop a Shia crescent that extended from Yemen to Iraq to Syria and into Lebanon, surrounding our ally Israel, and threatening American lives as well.”
Within hours of that statement, Iran announced it would abandon its commitments to the nuclear deal, including limitations on enriching uranium for use in nuclear weapons. Trump unilaterally abandoned the agreement negotiated by the Obama administration and imposed economic sanctions, leaving European powers struggling to maintain it.
Viewers could be excused if they were a few beats behind on the televised discussion about Soleimani. The leader of Iran’s foreign military operations was barely mentioned on TV until his death last week. CNN referenced Soleimani by name just 12 times over the last six months of 2019, nine of those on programs carried by its international channel, which usually aren’t seen in the United States, according to the Nexis database. Fox News named him just four times during the same period. ABC, CBS, NBC News and MSNBC didn’t mention him at all.
Although there were voices of skepticism sprinkled liberally throughout the pundit class, one of the more surprising was Fox News’s Tucker Carlson.
An almost reflexive Trump supporter, Carlson took an unexpected turn on his program on Friday, questioning the president’s judgment and motives. “Is Iran really the greatest threat we face?” he asked. “And who’s actually benefiting from this? And why are we continuing to ignore the decline of our own country in favor of jumping into another quagmire from which there is no obvious exit?”
There were also remarkably few from the Class of 2003 who expressed regret for blowing the call the last time around.
Among the exceptions was David Frum, the Bush speechwriter who coined the term “axis of evil” to describe North Korea, Iraq and Iran — a phrase Bush invoked to sell the Iraq War. Frum has since publicly recanted his support for that war. On Sunday on CNN, Frum asked a pertinent question about what could be the next one: “Are we going to make up for the lack of success in Iraq by trying an even bigger project in Iran?” he asked.