Newswatch | Newswatch

You are here

With Iraq in crisis: What will editors do about it?

One wonders what it will take for newspapers in this country to endorse the notion of a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq starting, oh, how about now? I’ll take speedy (the Murtha plan) or slow and steady (the realistic idea). But some-time-in-our-lifetime (the default position) doesn’t quite cut it, especially after the events of the past two days in Iraq.

Readers will likely not respond to a call for withdrawal by canceling subscriptions or making crank calls to editors. A Gallup poll this week revealed that 55% of adult Americans now call the war "a mistake"--up 4% since the end of January. And that was before the shrine got its head blown off in Samarra.

As regular readers, or avoiders, of this column no doubt know, I have pushed newspaper editorialists to promote a phased withdrawal for more than two years now. I won’t repeat the arguments, except to observe that from the beginning I have reasoned that newspapers owe a special debt because of their failure, by and large, to probe the administration’s faulty evidence for the need for war.

Yet very few papers have endorsed a pullout or deadline, not even The New York Times, which has been extremely critical of the waging of the war. The papers that have called for an early exit range from the dovish Minneapolis Star-Tribune to the hawkish Pitttsburgh Tribune-Review, but not much in between (The Seattle Times, a few others).

This is all the more surprising, and disturbing, since so many leading newspapers were lukewarm, at best, about the war right up to the time of attack, almost three years ago. I’m sure that if anyone had asked those editors if they thought it possible that the U.S. would still have 130,000 troops in Iraq almost three years later –with more than 2000 American lives lost and thousands more damaged for life–they would have laughed. Yet they still support the war today. And it's no laughing matter, especially with civil war brewing.

This paradox becomes plain when you consider editorials on the eve of the war. Contrary to conventional wisdom ("everyone wanted this war at the start"), Gallup surveys showed that half the country opposed our invasion and editorial pages were severely divided. I was reminded of that earlier this week when I reviewed E&P’s coverage from that period. Here is most of an article that I wrote with Ari Berman on March 19, 2003.


For apparently the first time in modern history, the U.S. government seems poised to go to war not only lacking the support of many of its key allies abroad but also without the enthusiastic backing of the majority of major newspapers at home, according to E&P's fifth and (presumably) final prewar survey of the top 50 newspapers' editorial positions.

Following Bush's 48-hour ultimatum to Saddam Hussein, newspapers on Tuesday took their last opportunity to sound off before the war starts. Of the 44 papers publishing editorials about the war Tuesday, roughly one-third reiterated strong support for the war, one-third repeated their abiding opposition to it, and the rest -- with further debate now useless -- took a more philosophical approach.

But, in the end, the majority agreed that the Bush administration had badly mishandled the crisis.

Most papers sharply criticized Washington's diplomatic efforts, putting the nation on the eve of a pre-emptive war without U.N. Security Council support -- and expressed fears for the future despite an inevitable victory. The Houston Chronicle said it remained "unconvinced" that attack was preferable to containment, and The Orange County Register of Santa Ana, Calif., declared it was "unpersuaded" that the threat posed by the "vile" Hussein justified military action now.

The San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News wrote, "War might have been avoided, had the administration been sincere about averting it."

There was always in our surveys a group of roughly a dozen papers that strongly supported regime change as the only acceptable vehicle toward Iraq's disarmament. They included The Wall Street Journal, New York Post, New York Daily News, Chicago Sun-Times, and Boston Herald. They continued their praise of the president this week and celebrated the fact that "the regime of Saddam Hussein is doomed," as The Kansas City (Mo.) Star put it.

The Washington Post, while backing the attack, observed: "The war will be conducted with less support than the cause should have commanded. The Bush administration has raised the risks through its insistence on an accelerated timetable, its exaggerated rhetoric and its insensitive diplomacy; it has alienated allies and multiplied the number of protestors in foreign capitals."

The majority of papers, however, are even more deeply troubled. Large papers such as the Los Angeles Times, The Oregonian in Portland, and Newsday of Melville, N.Y., which have long advocated (or at least accepted) using force to disarm Hussein, criticized their President as he prepared to send young men and women into battle.

"The road to imminent war has been a bumpy one, clumsily traveled by the Bush administration," The Buffalo (N.Y.) News wrote. "The global coalition against terror forged after the atrocities of 9/11 is virtually shattered. The explanation as to why Iraq presents an imminent threat requiring immediate action has not been clear and compelling."

"So the United States apparently will go to war with few allies and in the face of great international opposition," the L.A. Times said. "This is an uncharted path ... to an uncertain destination. We desperately hope to be wrong in our trepidation about the consequences here and abroad."

At the same time, some editorials pages, once equivocal about the war, now got straight to the point. "This war crowns a period of terrible diplomatic failure," The New York Times argued, "Washington's worst in at least a generation. The Bush administration now presides over unprecedented American might. What it risks squandering is not Americans' power, but an essential part of our glory."

Other papers were even more blunt. The Sun of Baltimore, consistently one of the most passionate dissenters on the war, began their editorial with the sentence, "This war is wrong. It is wrong as a matter of principle, but, more importantly, it is wrong as a matter of practical policy." USA Today asked Bush to finally disclose risks and costs of establishing a democratic government for Iraq.


One of the chilling quotes in the original article was this, from Newsday: "At this point, we can only hope that the U.S. military campaign in Iraq is better coordinated and implemented than the hamhanded diplomatic maneuvers that led to it."

We all know how that turned out. Why won’t newspapers now show some of that eve-of-war fire, three years later, and help get us out of this disaster?

Date posted: February 24, 2006 Last modified: May 23, 2018 Total views: 7