U.S.

Iraq Looms Over Media’s Syria Coverage

August 29, 2013

The shadow of the Iraq War is looming over much of the media coverage of the run-up to a potential US-led attack on Syria.

The parallels are everywhere: reports of banned weapons use; a dispute over United Nations inspections; a shaky international coalition.

There are also parallels in the parade of talking heads and op-eds discussing an attack on television and in newspapers–whether it was both the left-leaning and right-leaning “Crossfire” hosts agreeing that an attack needed to happen, or the New York Times op-ed headlined, “Bomb Syria, Even If It Is Illegal.”

There are also the editorials and magazine covers advising the West to go further in its planned campaign than Obama and his partners have signaled they intend to. The Economist, for instance, was very direct:

I wonder what @TheEconomist really thinks about Syria? pic.twitter.com/NLKtk7ek7V

– Erin Cunningham (@erinmcunningham) August 29, 2013

Then there were the New York dailies:

NY tabloids helpful as always in promoting reasoned, dispassionate debate over matters of war pic.twitter.com/R2LXUUOHlh

– Michael Tracey (@mtracey) August 29, 2013

In 2003, the American media famously failed to question the Bush administration’s case for war. This time, though it appears very clear that an attack has occurred, there have been persistent questions about the Assad regime’s culpability.

In the past, observers have wondered whether Twitter would have helped give more weight and exposure to the skeptical Iraq stories which had been buried deep within newspapers. On Thursday, those people got a chance to test that theory, when the Associated Press published a story saying that the intelligence surrounding the chemical weapons attack was far from nailed down:

However, multiple U.S. officials used the phrase “not a slam dunk” to describe the intelligence picture – a reference to then-CIA Director George Tenet’s insistence in 2002 that U.S. intelligence showing Iraq had weapons of mass destruction was a “slam dunk” – intelligence that turned out to be wrong.

[...]

So while Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday that links between the attack and the Assad government are “undeniable,” U.S. intelligence officials are not so certain that the suspected chemical attack was carried out on Assad’s orders, or even completely sure it was carried out by government forces, the officials said.

There was also a front-page New York Times piece, in which officials were quoted as saying that there was “no smoking gun” directly tying Assad to the attack. The piece added:

The White House faces steep hurdles as it prepares to make the most important public intelligence presentation since February 2003, when Secretary of State Colin L. Powell made a dramatic and detailed case for war to the United Nations Security Council using intelligence — later discredited — about Iraq’s weapons programs.

Iraq reared its head in President Obama’s interview with “PBS Newshour” hosts Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifill. Woodruff asked Obama if he could promise that, “given Iraq and Afghanistan, that the United States will not get bogged down in another war halfway around the world.”

In Britain, too, journalists were raising the specter of Iraq. On the BBC’s flagship morning show, “Today,” host John Humphrys asked deputy prime minister Nick Clegg why he felt the need to rush a decision on whether or not to attack.

“Why not wait for the weapons inspectors to report?” he asked. “Surely history tells us that if we jump the gun this way, and we saw it happen during Iraq, we can make terrible mistakes.”

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