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Passive And Mute 
Published: May 05 2003

New York-based Russ Baker is an award-winning journalist who covers politics and media.

Are you feeling blue these days? Despondent because "regime change" has come to the Iraqi people through no fault of your own?

Well, come off it. Obviously, none of us think that anyone anywhere should be forced to live under a brutal, or, for that matter, not-so-brutal dictatorship. Notwithstanding the messiness of the political and security situation in their country these days, it’s genuinely heartwarming to see the Iraqis out from under Saddam Hussein’s monstrous yoke. But somehow, anyone who opposed the Bush administration’s war is left feeling a little guilty. The basis for such feelings, as we shall see, are complex, but some of the guilt is warranted.

The issue was never whether Iraqis -- or Cubans, or Sudanese, or North Koreans, or for that matter Chinese -- deserve freedom and democracy, any more than it is whether Americans can safeguard such desirables for themselves in these troubled times. At issue is whether the reasons given by the Bush administration for a massive, preemptive military assault were legitimate.

The administration used nonexistent threats to build domestic support and neutralize foreign opposition, then fell back on "regime change," a notion for which they’d ridiculed Bill Clinton, as their reason. But actually it was neither. And they never had to justify themselves at any point.

Many of us were sure that the official rationalizations, Al Qaeda ties and Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs), were bogus. Last week, after months of administration insistence to the contrary, the truth began to win out. First, courtesy of the credibility-enhancing participation of The New York Times’ chem/germ-beat reporter, Judith Miller, we learned why large stores of WMDs have not yet been found in the Iraqi outback. Turns out that, like the "active ingredients" in homeopathic remedies, the stuff is essentially undetectable until it is actually in use. How Bush, Powell and Rumsfeld could have been so certain a priori that the Iraqis possessed WMDs is not explained. Second, unnamed administration sources admitted to ABC’s John Cochran that the attack on Iraq was really mostly about showing the world, post-9/11, that the United States wasn’t washed up as superpower. As for ties to terrorists, no smoking pen, much less smoking gun, has been discovered in the smoking ruins of Baghdad’s government buildings.

Yet, despite these transparent shenanigans, the administration was permitted to use these false markers as goal posts. The fault of that lies with the media and with the public. The falseness of the argument had to become the central issue, and the administration had to be made to deal with that. Usually, something said without justification is grounds for it to be shouted down. But we didn’t do that.

After months of administration insistence to the contrary, the truth began to win out.

Instead, much of the media rather liked the idea of a jolly good war (they had long since applied for an exciting embedment). Those reporters and editors with a conscience couldn’t figure out a way to keep raising doubts. Keep reporting on that in a mainstream broadcast or publication and you appear an ideologue. The very nature of the media is that they are better at covering events and statements than exposing tendentious illogic and systematic deception by public figures. Gene McCarthy was generally hassled more than Joe McCarthy.

As a result, the public is still unaware of the fast one that was pulled on them. Witness the polls showing so many Americans believe that Iraq was behind the 9/11 attacks. What sets the Bush administration apart from its predecessors in Washington (and what the media never properly spotlighted) is its willingness to say anything -- no matter how counter-factual or fundamentally misrepresentative of its true objectives -- to advance its aims.

It’s possible that a savvy campaign of public information in response to the White House campaign of disinformation from the White Housemight have slowed or even halted the march toward war. But neither anti-war activists nor the Democratic Party’s leadership were clever enough to consistently put forward, in easily digestible form for both print and broadcast audiences, the two points that could have swayed public opinion: (1) That the administration was lying about the reasons for an invasion (2) That other options existed to free the Iraqi people.

Liberal activists, already traumatized by the obfuscation of the Clinton years, had better learn a lesson from their failure here. Honest people can no longer count on an increasingly befuddled, co-opted and intimidated mass media to stand up to government by fraud. What’s needed from progressive forces is a commitment to new policies that take away from our own anti-democratic right wing such issues as confronting rogue states and freeing oppressed peoples around the world. This will require the kind of hard-headed imagination that, conjuring the Berlin airlift and Marshall Plan, contained and ultimately brought down the Soviet Union without triggering World War III. Who wants to say that only their parents’ generation can rise to an Occasion?

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