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NYTimes: War, Again?

The New York Times has a “news analysis”–usually code for “front-page, signed editorial”–lamenting the American public’s appetite for countering the Iranian regime’s attempts to build nuclear weapons. The conceit of the story is that this is a rerun of the war in Iraq, where the supposed existence of a nuclear weapons program spurred the West to form a coalition to depose Saddam Hussein.

“Echoes of the period leading up to the Iraq war in 2003 are unmistakable,” Scott Shane tells us, “igniting a familiar debate over whether journalists are overstating Iran’s progress toward a bomb.” And who is debating the veracity of reporters’ accounts? “Both the ombudsman of the Washington Post and the public editor of the New York Times in his online blog have scolded their newspapers since December for overstating the current evidence against Iran in particular headlines and stories.” So it is the New York Times accusing the New York Times of beating the drums of war. Let’s take a look at some of the other parallels.

“The intelligence on weapons of mass destruction, which was one of the Bush administration’s main rationales for the invasion, proved to be devastatingly wrong,” Shane writes. Not just wrong, but devastatingly wrong. I’ll leave it to others to check the Times style guide for the spectrum of wrongness, but “devastatingly wrong” must be among the wrongest you can be, in the Times’s opinion.

Moving on, we’re also experiencing a time “in which each side has only murky intelligence, tempers run high and there is the danger of a devastating outcome,” Shane writes, paraphrasing the opinion of Harvard’s Graham Allison. Well actually, that’s not Allison comparing Iran to Iraq; he’s comparing the Iran conflict to a “slow-motion Cuban Missile Crisis.” Fearing that the analogy is becoming strained, Allison summons a stirring appeal to his own authority: “As a student of history, I’m certainly conscious that when you have heated politics and incomplete control of events, it’s possible to stumble into a war.”

Of course, “heated politics” and “incomplete control of events” are staples of both foreign affairs and domestic politics–something a student of history should probably have picked up on. Unconvinced? Let the common sense of academia wash over you:

“I find it puzzling,” said Richard K. Betts of Columbia University, who has studied security threats since the cold war. “You’d think there would be an instinctive reason to hold back after two bloody noses in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Still skeptical? What if I told you Betts is a student of history? In fact, he spent the better part of a decade since the Bush administration’s first term as part of something called the “Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy,” made up of “scholars, policy makers and concerned citizens united by our opposition to an American empire.” The group was indeed worried about the possibility of an American empire–its statement warning against it used the word “empire” or “imperial” 16 times.

That American empire never came to be, so what else did the Realistic Realists have to say about American foreign policy? In 2005, the group released an open letter criticizing the Bush administration’s support for Israel, saying it hinders our ability to fight al-Qaeda if terrorists see us as “supporting Israel’s continued occupation of Arab lands–including Islam’s third-most holy site in Jerusalem,” and that Bush was too close to Ariel Sharon and other proponents of a “greater Israel.”

As we soon found out, Sharon was actually willing to once and for all bury the idea of a “greater Israel” by initiating his historic disengagement plan, removing every last Jew from Gaza and parts of the West Bank. You might say Betts and his co-authors were devastatingly wrong. You might also be surprised to know that Betts’s co-authors of that letter included John Mearsheimer, Stephen Walt, and Juan Cole. Or you might not be surprised.

In any event, the intelligence on Iran isn’t all that murky. What the Times is saying is that even when we can all agree on what the intelligence shows, we can’t trust it, because of Iraq. The Times is actually building a case here against military action even if Iran is about to achieve nuclear capability. As the article notes, however, that’s a view shared by some academics from Harvard and Columbia, but opposed by a majority of Americans.



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