2020 is the new 2003
On Friday morning, President Trump ordered a drone strike that killed Qassim Suleimani, a powerful Iranian military commander, near the Baghdad airport in Iraq. The assassination "meets virtually any definition of an act of war," and the Iranian government has vowed to retaliate. Trump has responded to these threats with a series of tweets, saying that if Iran attacks American interests, he will "hit them harder than they have ever been hit before."
The dramatic escalation in tensions echos the run-up to the Iraq War in 2002 and 2003. During that critical time, according to a study by researchers at Syracuse University, "the voices of anti-war groups and opposition Democrats were barely audible" in the media, and "the overall thrust of coverage supported a prowar perspective." The appallingly slanted coverage paved the way for a war launched on a false premise that killed hundreds of thousands of people and cost American taxpayers trillions.
American troops remain in Iraq 17 years later, but major news organizations are repeating many of the same mistakes.
It was logical that the five major Sunday political talk shows featured Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, to defend Trump and answer questions about the strike. But the same shows featured seven current or former elected officials who publicly supported the Iraq War and just one who publicly opposed it.
NBC, ABC, CBS, and CNN did not include a single guest that publicly opposed the Iraq War. The only guest with a public record of opposing the Iraq War in 2002 and 2003, Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), appeared on Fox.
Van Hollen, however, joined Congress in January 2003, after the vote for the resolution authorizing the Iraq War. So none of the five shows featured a guest who voted against the war. There were three guests, however, who voted in favor of the Iraq War:
Former Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA). Santorum appeared on CNN's State of the Union. "President Bush has effectively made the case for action against Iraq if it fails to comply with all U.N. Security Council resolutions...we know that Saddam Hussein has an active weapons of mass destruction program," Santorum said in October 2002, explaining his support for the Iraq War resolution.
Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY). Schumer appeared on ABC's This Week."This is to show the naysayers we are serious about the war on terrorism...While any type of action poses real danger, sometimes doing nothing is riskier than acting," Schumer said in November 2002, defending his vote to authorize the Iraq War.
Congressman Adam Schiff (D-CA). Schiff appeared on CNN's State of the Union. Defending his vote in favor of the Iraq War resolution in the Pasadena Star-Tribune, Schiff said he "thought that it was important that there be a bipartisan majority supporting the president's position."
The shows also featured four guests who were not in Congress but publicly supported the Iraq War.
Senator Mark Warner (D-VA). Warner appeared on NBC's Meet The Press. On March 20, 2003, the day Bush launched the invasion of Iraq, then-Governor Mark Warner said the Iraq War "should be supported as the best option to preserve Virginia's and the nation's safety," the Roanoke Times reported. "As a commonwealth and a nation, we must all support the president," Warner said.
Matthew Dowd. Dowd appeared on ABC's This Week. Dowd was the chief strategist for President Bush's 2004 reelection campaign, which included a vigorous defense of Bush's decision to invade Iraq.
Former Congressman Rahm Emmanuel (D-IL). Emmanuel appeared on ABC's This Week. Emmanuel was a candidate when Congress voted on the Iraq War resolution but "indicated his support of President Bush's position." After Emmanuel was elected, in January 2003, he said he believed "Bush has made the case thus far for a war against Iraq," according to the Associated Press.
Former Governor Pat McCrory (R-NC). McCrory appeared on NBC's Meet The Press. He was mayor of Charlotte in 2003. In the days after the invasion, McCrory attended a demonstration in support of the Iraq War. "A lot of people don't realize it, but the president is the commander in chief… We must support him," McCrory said.
The shows did feature some anti-war voices who did not speak publicly about Iraq in 2003. Senator and presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), for example, appeared on Meet the Press but was a law professor focusing on economic issues in 2003. Wajahat Ali, a New York Times contributing op-ed writer, appeared on CNN but had just graduated college when the Iraq War started.
But the networks missed an important opportunity to hear from some of the people that they ignored seventeen years ago.
An undisclosed conflict of interest
On Meet The Press, Jeh Johnson, who served as Secretary of Homeland Security in the Obama administration, asserted that Trump had the full legal authority to assassinate Suleimani without Congressional authorization:
[T]he president, under his constitutional authority as commander in chief, had ample domestic legal authority to take him out without an additional congressional authorization. Whether he was a terrorist or a general in a military force that was engaged in armed attacks against our people, he was a lawful military objective.
But neither Johnson nor NBC disclosed that Johnson currently serves on the board of defense contractor Lockheed Martin. The company paid Johnson $310,000 in cash and stock compensation in 2018, according to Lockheed Martin's proxy statement.
As a board member, it is Johnson's job to advance Lockheed Martin's economic interests. Lockheed Martin is likely to benefit from an escalation of the conflict between the United States and Iran. On Friday, after the strike, Lockheed Martin's stock "surged more than $17 a share, or 4.3%," even as the stock market overall declined.
There is far from a consensus that Trump had legal authority to order the strike that killed Suleimani under international and domestic law. "We have carried out the attack on the territory of a state that plainly did not give us permission. The attack was unlawful, the assassination was not justifiable," Mary Ellen O'Connell, a law professor at Notre Dame University, told NBC News. Writing in Lawfare, Scott R. Anderson, a former advisor for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq, argues "the decision to kill [Suleimani] pushes against certain aspects of how the president’s authority to use military force—both constitutional and statutory—have been construed in the past."
Nevertheless, Johnson's blanket claim was quickly seized upon by Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh.
To bolster its case for the Iraq War, the Bush administration advanced false narratives. Former President Bush and former Vice President Cheney both linked Saddam Hussein to Al Qaeda, the terrorist group responsible for 9/11. Cheney made the unsubstantiated claim that one of the hijackers "met a senior Iraqi intelligence official in April 2001." Bush continued to push the links even after the bipartisan 9/11 Commission determined there was "no collaborative relationship" between Hussein and Al Qaeda.
History is repeating itself.
On Friday night, Vice President Pence linked Suleimani to the 9/11 attacks.
Pence's claim is also baseless. There is no evidence Suleimani played any role in the 9/11 attacks. The 9/11 Commission Report never mentions Suleimani's name, and unequivocally states that there is "no evidence" Iran was involved. Some of the hijackers had traveled through Iran, but that was before the terrorist plot was planned and without the knowledge of the Iranian government.
We have found no evidence that Iran or Hezbollah was aware of the planning for what later became the 9/11 attack. At the time of their travel through Iran, the Al Qaeda operatives themselves were probably not aware of the specific details of their future operation.
Pence has a history of pushing misinformation in support of war. "Weapons of mass destruction have been found," then-Congressman Mike Pence said on the House floor in 2004.
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