On Iran, Will the Media Pay Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain?

The U.S. media with very few exceptions enabled the catastrophic war in Iraq by its failure to challenge the core assumptions on which the march to war was based — assumptions which were patently false — patently, that is, for anyone daring to break with a nationalist consensus fueled by demagogues in the Administration and among the neocon and “liberal hawk” talking heads (Yes, folks, the Tom Friedmans and Peter Beinarts and George Packers are every bit as responsible for enabling this moral and political disaster as were the Kristols, Krauthammers and O’Reillys — not that having been wrong about Iraq has harmed anyone’s infotainment career…)

Not only did the media allow the contention that Iraq had WMD to go largely unchallenged; it mostly failed to unpack that contention and its consequences (yes, the consensus among intel agencies and the UN inspectors was that some old stocks of battlefield chemical weapons from Iraq’s arsenal were still unaccounted for, but even if they existed, they represented no strategic threat to anyone). And more importantly, the media largely failed to challenge the patently false assumption even if such stocks of mustard gas and VX shells existed, U.S. military intervention would leave Iraq and the region more stable and secure.

The fundamental assumption left unchallenged is that military force is a wise, prudent or legitimate response to the proliferation of nasty weapons among regimes hostile to the U.S. It’s precisely that assumption that has been trashed in Iraq, which even if it had had a couple of hundred (or even thousand) mustard gas and VX shells would still be the catastrophic mess it is today.

Iraq is lost, of course, and the same media pundits and moguls that gave us the war have convinced themselves of more self-serving falsehoods, i.e. that the U.S. failure in Iraq was largely a product of bad management by Donald Rumsfeld and some of his generals. Good war, badly done, you might say (in the spirit of the Trotskyists who’ll defend their own Bolshevism by claiming that the revolution was led astray by Stalin). Or better still, that Iran was somehow responsible for the U.S. failure in Iraq.

My reason for revisiting the morbid saga of media complicity in enabling the Iraq war now is that a new, even more catastrophic war is in the works against Iran — but it’s not a done deal. Cheney, quite probably the most dangerous man in the world given the combination of his extremist views and his proximity to real power, would love to make it happen, and so would the neocons and Likudniks, who are agitating for it with increasing alarm.

Not only do we have a steady stream of hysteria pouring out of the Israeli establishment and its American backers making the absurd comparison between Iran and Nazi Germany, routinely exaggerating both Iran’s intentions and its capabilities. There’s also the new trope — equally absurd, but it’s not like there’s a very effective filter in place — of blaming Iran for things going wrong in Iraq.

The idea of Iranian “meddling” in Iraq is now commonly discussed in U.S. news outlets, and little air time is given to Iraq’s leaders saying they have no problem with Iran, and reject their country being used as a platform to attack Iran. Just last week, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki told CNN, “We have told the Iranians and the Americans, ‘We know that you have a problem with each other, but we are asking you: Please solve your problems outside Iraq. We don’t want the American forces to take Iraq as a field to attack Iran or Syria.” And it’s not just the Shiite parties that see Iran as a friend. “If you exclude the Sunnis, the majority of Iraqis think of Iran as a friend,” says Kurdish legislator Mahmoud Othman. And Kurdish leaders have been equally harsh in criticizing U.S. attempts to ratchet up a confrontation with Iran on Iraqi soil.

The U.S. had promised a major roll-out last week of “evidence” showing Iran was contributing towards instability in Iraq, but it was canceled, reportedly after State and Defense Department officials pushed back against the flimsiness of the evidence on offer. But as Juan Cole notes, the pertinent question worth investigating, then, is “who was spearheading this presentation inside the Bush administration?” ?
I wish I had more confidence in the Democrats readiness to stand up to the demagoguery on Iran. And also the media’s. Thank heaven, then, for former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brezinski, and his moral clarity on the matter. His recent Senate testimony on Iraq and Iran should be required reading for people covering this story. Extract:

If the United States continues to be bogged down in a protracted bloody involvement in Iraq, the final destination on this downhill track is likely to be a head-on conflict with Iran and with much of the world of Islam at large. A plausible scenario for a military collision with Iran involves Iraqi failure to meet the benchmarks; followed by accusations of Iranian responsibility for the failure; then by some provocation in Iraq or a terrorist act in the U.S. blamed on Iran; culminating in a “defensive” U.S. military action against Iran that plunges a lonely America into a spreading and deepening quagmire eventually ranging across Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

A mythical historical narrative to justify the case for such a protracted and potentially expanding war is already being articulated. Initially justified by false claims about WMD’s in Iraq, the war is now being redefined as the “decisive ideological struggle” of our time, reminiscent of the earlier collisions with Nazism and Stalinism. In that context, Islamist extremism and al Qaeda are presented as the equivalents of the threat posed by Nazi Germany and then Soviet Russia, and 9/11 as the equivalent of the Pearl Harbor attack which precipitated America’s involvement in World War II.

This simplistic and demagogic narrative overlooks the fact that Nazism was based on the military power of the industrially most advanced European state; and that Stalinism was able to mobilize not only the resources of the victorious and militarily powerful Soviet Union but also had worldwide appeal through its Marxist doctrine. In contrast, most Muslims are not embracing Islamic fundamentalism; al Qaeda is an isolated fundamentalist Islamist aberration; most Iraqis are engaged in strife because the American occupation of Iraq destroyed the Iraqi state; while Iran — though gaining in regional influence — is itself politically divided, economically and militarily weak. To argue that America is already at war in the region with a wider Islamic threat, of which Iran is the epicenter, is to promote a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Deplorably, the Administration’s foreign policy in the Middle East region has lately relied almost entirely on such sloganeering. Vague and inflammatory talk about “a new strategic context” which is based on “clarity” and which prompts “the birth pangs of a new Middle East” is breeding intensifying anti-Americanism and is increasing the danger of a long-term collision between the United States and the Islamic world. Those in charge of U.S. diplomacy have also adopted a posture of moralistic self-ostracism toward Iran strongly reminiscent of John Foster Dulles’s attitude of the early 1950’s toward Chinese Communist leaders (resulting among other things in the well-known episode of the refused handshake). It took some two decades and a half before another Republican president was finally able to undo that legacy.
One should note here also that practically no country in the world shares the Manichean delusions that the Administration so passionately articulates. The result is growing political isolation of, and pervasive popular antagonism toward the U.S. global posture…

…It is obvious by now that the American national interest calls for a significant change of direction. There is in fact a dominant consensus in favor of a change: American public opinion now holds that the war was a mistake; that it should not be escalated, that a regional political process should be explored; and that an Israeli-Palestinian accommodation is an essential element of the needed policy alteration and should be actively pursued. It is noteworthy that profound reservations regarding the Administration’s policy have been voiced by a number of leading Republicans. One need only invoke here the expressed views of the much admired President Gerald Ford, former Secretary of State James Baker, former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and several leading Republican senators, John Warner, Chuck Hagel, and Gordon Smith among others.

The urgent need today is for a strategy that seeks to create a political framework for a resolution of the problems posed both by the US occupation of Iraq and by the ensuing civil and sectarian conflict. Ending the occupation and shaping a regional security dialogue should be the mutually reinforcing goals of such a strategy, but both goals will take time and require a genuinely serious U.S. commitment.

It’s worth reading the whole thing in full, because it includes a grownup guide to how the U.S. could extract itself from the disaster it has created.

And when you hear the U.S. media echoing half-baked allegations against Iran or flights of fancy about how Washington is building a Sunni Arab united front to push back against the likes of Iran and Hamas, or hawking the same notions that security can be created through the application of military force despite that notion having been so spectacularly discredited in Iraq, remember that it’s often the “expertise” of the same cast of clowns that got the Iraq equation so spectacularly wrong that is now shaping the Iran discussion.

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21 Responses to On Iran, Will the Media Pay Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain?

  1. Ziad says:

    While I’m still concerned about the possibilty of war, there is much more reason to hope this time. The public just isn’t buying it. The war fever that existed on 2002-3 is long gone. The recent accusation that Iran is resposible for the deaths of U.S. troops…which would have been met with a chorus demanding retribution 4 years ago….has been met with skepticism. Possible presidential contenders and senators (John Edward and Chuck Hagel) are urging negotiations. Candidates talk tough at AIPAC meetings and to the republican “base” but not so much on TV. Former House majority leader Dick Armey has admitted he regrets his vote for the Iraq war.

    And finaly, I read in the jpost that Russian FM Sergei Lavrov was assured that millitary action is not being contemplated.

    Ofcourse Bush is still the decider. And he may believe that a quick and “easy” strike on Iran might turn public opinion around. And that still leaves Israel. Even there, though, there is a now Tel Aviv University study, reported in Haaretz, that says Iran will maintain a policy of ambiguity and will neither test nor even anounce (much less use) its nuclear capability. I wonder if it will be picked up in the western press.


  2. montysano says:

    As long as we have a corporate media whose primary job is to attract viewer, as opposed to actual reporting, then the outlook is grim. Couple that with a public that is spectacularly lacking in curiosity (led by Incurious George himself), and the problem just gets worse. Thanks largely to the internet, and especially the blogosphere, the truth is out there, but you have to want to find it.

    flights of fancy about how Washington is building a Sunni Arab united front But the good Sunnis, correct? Like the ones that Paul Bremer threw out into the street after the fall of Baghdad? Because you surely don’t want those bad, Salafist Sunnis, right? And this front can help smack down that Shiite Mahdi Army, who is allied with Mailiki, and………. wait a minute, I’m confused: who is the enemy?

    That’s where the media could be of real help in assisting Average Joe in sorting out the brain-bending complexity of the mess we’re in. But I won’t hold my breath. When polled, many congressmen and high govt officials didn’t know the difference between Shiite and Sunni. Obviously the men who led us into this mess had a tenuous grasp on those facts. So we’re left with a news media who are more than willing to scare us because it’s good for business. So the myth of Brown People Who Will Kill Us While We Sleep persists, and it’s off to Tehran we go.

  3. Pat S. says:

    I’m with Ziad. While I am more worried about this potential war than in the past, I’m still more optimistic than pessimistic that it will be avoided. I really think we’ll see rioting in the streets if this shit goes down.

  4. The U.S. media definitely dropped the ball on Iraq and they look to be doing the same on Iran. Bush is preparing to attack Iran right now and the media and the liberals are doing little to prevent it. The public is too passive and apathetic these days.

  5. Ziad says:

    I just wanted to add two points;

    1) While the media did drop the ball, I believe the problem was social as well. Most people everywhere are given to jingoism. After 9/11 there was a social restriction on what one could say. No one stopped you from saying it, but you just understood that certain views about the morality of an unprovoked attack on another nation were best left unvoiced. And so they were. except for some brave individuals. Certainly, by giving those who were so wrong, so often, so loudly about the war an even bigger forum to speak, the media bears some responsibility. But so does the public, and so does human nature.

    2) Just wanted to through in my two cents about the sunni Shia split. When I was last in Egypt I was speaking to a relative about politics. People had the greatest respect for Hizbollah, Hassan Nasrallah and viewed Iran as the last best hope for ‘Muslim independence.’ This was in November of 04. The past Lebanon war could only have increases this exponentially. There may be real troubles in Saudi and countries with a substantial Shia minority, but in Egypt, any Sunni Shia split will appear contrived.

    I refer you to this post on missing links. Scroll down to Jan 20 to “What America Wanted Mubarak to Do…”;

  6. montysano says:


    You said:

    There may be real troubles in Saudi and countries with a substantial Shia minority, but in Egypt, any Sunni Shia split will appear contrived.

    How so? I read the linked article; very interesting, but I still had this question.

  7. Mike says:

    “There may be real troubles in Saudi and countries with a substantial Shia minority, but in Egypt, any Sunni Shia split will appear contrived.

    How so? I read the linked article; very interesting, but I still had this question.

    There has long been an anti-Shia, anti-Sunni current that has in part been mobilized in our basic US strategy in the Middle East: SADDAM, or Sunni Arab-dominated dictatorships against the mullahs. This strategy goes at least as far back as Iran’s Islamic Revolution.

    For instance, you’ll recall that during the Iran-Iraq war between 1980 and 1988, nearly all the Sunni Arab dominated dictatorships sponsored Saddam Hussein and gave him funds as well as support to fight against Shia Iran.

    This issue of manufactured Sunni-Shiite sectarianism is present on many levels. For instance, in Egypt the authorities refuse to shut down Al-Zawraa or “insurgent TV,” which pretty much plays nonstop loops of attacks on Shiites and Americans. It strongly implies that the current rulers of Iraq are dominated by Iran and non-Islamic and such.

    To put it in simple terms: the government of Egypt is promoting a kind of fear of ideological insemination by the Shiites. If you want to read more about how the anti-Shiite sectarianism is to some degree a top-down strategy by the leaders of our “allies,” you should read Abu Aardvark. Here is what one entry of his says:

    “I’ve just come across a report in al-Masryoun, an Egyptian paper with which I’m not familiar, about clashes between Sunni and Shia at the Cairo Book Festival. The report claims that a Shia book vendor got into a scuffle over his supposedly offensive behavior which had to be broken up by the security forces. It then links it back to Sunni Muslim anger over “hundreds of thousands” of pamphlets urging Sunnis to become Shia and advertising a forum dedicated to “Shia-izing Egypt”, along with the publication of numerous Shia books attacking the Sunnis, and Qaradawi’s warnings about the dissemination of Shia books among Sunnis.”

  8. Ziad says:

    Montesano and Mike,

    “To put it in simple terms: the government of Egypt is promoting a kind of fear of ideological insemination by the Shiites.”

    There are two reasons why the Egyptian government would want to stoke anti-shiite tensions. 1) it may be under U.S. pressure to join the anti-shia ‘alliance.’ 2) perhaps more importantly, the Egyptian government is extremely unpopular and lacks legitimacy. Therefore the government feels threatened by any political figure more popular than they are. Iran and its current president are very popular.

    Could the ‘moderate’ Arab states be a part of a U.S.-israel anti Iran alliance? Beyond the Mubarak and the two Abdullahs going through the motions to keep America sweet, I doubt it. For the Arab public, everything is seen through the confrontation with Israel; what helps the cause and what hinders it. Iran is definately on the help column.

    In places like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, Sunni-Shia tensions can indeed develop. But the Saudi government is hardly interested in lighting that fire.

    And in Iraq, if the Shia government feels the U.S. is trying to set the dogs on them, that can only backfire on U.S. interests there.

    Finally, bear in mind that the vast majority of practicing Sunnis consider Shiism a perfectly legitimate form of Islam.


  9. montysano says:

    There are two reasons why the Egyptian government would want to stoke anti-shiite tensions. 1) it may be under U.S. pressure to join the anti-shia ‘alliance……..

    ……..And in Iraq, if the Shia government feels the U.S. is trying to set the dogs on them, that can only backfire on U.S. interests there.

    Good God, we really have no idea what we’re doing over there. I recall members of the Bush admin making chest-thumping pronouncements to the effect that a fundamentalist government in Iraq would be “unacceptable.” Given that we had just tossed the Sunnis out onto the street, I remember thinking “if not Shia, then who?” I realize that Maliki himself is moderate, but the Al Sadr/Iran contingent are certainly closer to the seat of power than they’ve been in years (decades?). Heckuva job, Brownie….

    And I would ask the same question today: if not Shia, then who? If we are indeed about to “set the dogs” on the Maliki government, who do we think is waiting in the wings?

    One has to assume that the neocon dream for the Middle East is still alive, and that if they keep throwing the playing cards into the air again and again, eventually they’ll be dealt a hand that they like.

  10. Jafar Alsadiq says:

    Tony, Salutations of Peace :

    Your guests appear stymied over this “Sony–Shit” divergence [how you americans say?]. The depths of ignorance have yet to be completely probed. Abu Aardvark himself (an american who happens to speak Arabic and surfs the Arab press) only shows a little tip of the iceburg.
    The passions and blind emotional reactions that are now being unleashed due to american arrogance and hubris shall surprise even you, Tony, who normally displays good solid comprehension of the forces at play. Rational self-interests will be swept aside and forgotten like banana peels, like refuse flushed down.
    Our Egyptian-american Ziad has put his finger on something, though. The “American Islam” cliques are being played by Bush’s “sunni arc” meant to counter the “shiah crescent”, and opinions are being manufactured in Egypt and in the Kingdom out of sweaty fears for survival. And witness the proxy wars being fought or threatening: Hizbullah countered by a sunni security force paid for by Gulf states (ask Prince Bandar & Olmert about this); Hamas–Fatah battles (Egypt & Jordan supplying US paid arms to Abbas’ presidential guard, green light f rom Israel); and of course Iraq … akh! The Äbode of Peace” [Baghdad = Madinat al-Salaam, so named by Caliph Mansur] . . .
    Thus, for once I find myself in disagreementt with you, that the sabre-rattling and threats are only meant to scare and bluff, and to detract from the obvious impotence and weakness of the US in the region. On the contrary, it will be the last glorious affirmation of Bush and his gang, in search of a mission to be accomplished.
    . . . and the Shia in Iraq, Lebanon, the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Shia refugees in Jordan, Syria, Egypt [the Kingdom keeps them out] … and Bahrain and al-Hasa’ [East Arabia] will be there to inherit the earth. They see themselves as the “mustad’ífin” – meek oppressed ones who are to triumph in the end.
    So perhaps your guests should inform themselves about these people, whose ultimate values may possibly be more in tune with US ideals & values than the Jihadists, and the totalitarian regimes so beloved of america. For it is these Shiah who still practise ijtihad, who read Aristotle and Godamer in translation, whose culture and mindset are far elevated from the bedouin of Arabia and Jordan, and whose constitution is (on paper) an order-of-magnitude superior to any political travesty operative in the Sunni world.

    Peace upon those who follow the Guidance.


  11. Gracie_fr says:

    While the drum beat for war with Iran might not be as loud as it was for an attack on Iraq in February 2003, it is a persistent tattoo. Moreover the vilification of Iran is a double pronged one, lest we forget the Israeli/Hezbollah war of last summer and almost daily claims of monies for or actual arms transfers supplied by Iran coming into Lebanon and even Gaza. It would be wise to keep full attention on the war hawks in Washington, several of whom shared microphone time with like-minded proponents of an attack on Iran at the Hertzilya Conference in Israel in January.

  12. M S says:


    Great analysis… as always. We need to grant you a bigger platform to really disseminate your facts. Perhaps an appearance on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart?



  13. john says:

    Remind me again, as I seem to have forgotten my history, but when did the media first become responsible for deciding foreign policy? When did the American electorate elect corporates at CNN and NBC to make the tough decisions on sending troops into battle to defend freedom?

    Time to get off your high horses. If you want to decide what is worth going to war and what isn’t, run for office, work on a campaign, or get the hell out of this country. Iran could use a few more liberal nut cases like you.

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