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The New York Times and the "Anti-War" Turn

A Begrudging Reversal


The New York Times has finally come out in favor of withdrawal from Iraq, although it is about four years late. While the majority of Americans have favored a phased withdrawal since at least mid-2005, the media’s contempt for public opinion (evident in its long-standing opposition to withdrawal) has long relegated majority opposition to little more than a footnote of history.

The pro-withdrawal announcement from the paper of record came rather begrudgingly in a July 8 editorial titled "The Road Home." Having "put off" advocating withdrawal, the Times editors long preferred to "wait for a sign that President Bush was seriously trying to dig the United States out of the disaster he created by invading Iraq without sufficient cause, in the face of global opposition, and without a plan to stabilize the country afterward." Those are tough words, but they would have meant a whole lot more if they were expressed by the Times at the time of the invasion, rather than nearly 52 months later. Despite the paper’s critical language today, at the onset of the war, Times readers were subjected to blatant propaganda masked through vigilant pronouncements of humanitarian intent and principled opposition to aggression. The "mission" was explained as twofold: "disarming Iraq and then transforming it into a free and hopeful society." Substantive anti-war dissent was largely treated with disinterest. The Times editors conflated the interests of the Bush administration and the anti-war movement, arguing that, "even those who vehemently opposed this war will find themselves in the strange position of hoping for just what the president they have opposed is himself hoping for: a quick, conclusive resolution fought as bloodlessly as possible."

Despite the increasing calls for withdrawal, detractors and supporters of the war in the mainstream press still agree on the veracity of the Bush administration’s objectives in Iraq. The New York Times speaks with romanticism and contradiction about the goal of making "progress toward a stable, democratic Iraq" and "stop[ping] the chaos from spreading," while concurrently striking deals with Iraqi Kurds to keep U.S. military bases in northeastern Iraq indefinitely. The Los Angeles Times’ editors have argued for withdrawal, claiming that, "US troops shouldn’t referee a civil war" (May 6, 2007). The editors at the Chicago Tribune still lend credibility to the Bush administration’s troop "surge," seeing it as an attempt to provide "some security so Iraqi politicians could act in the best interests of their country" (July 8, 2007).

The assumption common to all of these editorials is that the US is somehow working as an honest broker in Iraq, trying to prevent civil war, rather than incite it. The reality is quite the opposite. The United States is the primary force responsible for the destabilization of Iraq; it disbanded the Iraqi army, dismantled the government, and set the stage for the power vacuum that resulted in the political and military battle between various Iraqi militias who are still vying for power to this day. The mass murder of Iraqi civilians along sectarian lines is a legacy that the United States has left in Iraq by its efforts to dissolve all Iraqi governing institutions (setting the stage for the coming anarchy) in its attempt to completely remake Iraq economically, politically, and militarily from the top down. As an occupying power, the U.S. has escalated the violence by killing hundreds of thousands (perhaps more), contributing to widespread destabilization.

The majority of Iraqis view the United States, rather than "insurgent" groups, as the primary obstacle to peace and security. Majorities in Iraq have favored U.S. withdrawal since at least early 2004. Increasingly, majorities of Iraqis are supporting attacks on American troops as an expression of Iraqi national dignity. They feel that the conflicting Iraqi political parties will be able to make stronger steps toward reconciliation only after the U.S. leaves Iraq.

Longstanding Iraqi opposition to the occupation is hardly surprising considering the many initiatives the U.S. has taken to foment a divide and conquer policy of civil war. One could include in this list of actions the following: the US effort to implement the "Salvador Option," training Iraqi "counterinsurgency" death squads to target suspected insurgent sympathizers for torture and assassination, the US training of Iraqi "security forces" to fight against other Iraqis (namely the "insurgency"), US financial support for Iraqi political parties and their respective militias ­ militias which have played a leading role in the sectarian killings since early 2006, and most recently, the plans of the Bush administration and National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley to encourage "Shia on Shia" violence, by encouraging the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq party and its Badr Brigade to declare war on Moqtada al Sadr and his Mahdi army.

Media defenses of the U.S. occupation seem all the more obscene in light of deliberate efforts on the part of the Bush administration to segment Iraqi society along sectarian lines. Such a strategy should hardly be thought of as a revelation, as colonial and neocolonial efforts at dividing and ruling occupied populations are as old as history. Fortunately, media gullibility in buying into the Bush administration’s humanitarian rhetoric (if not always supporting its actual policies) has not translated into an uncritical acceptance on the part of the public. Polls have consistently shown that 3/4ths of Americans are opposed to the Bush administration’s official justification of using military force to "promote democracy" in Iraq and elsewhere. Majorities feel the Iraq war is a diversion from fighting legitimate terrorist threats, and most disapprove of the way the administration has conducted itself in occupying Iraq. That the media has been so far behind the public in opposing the war is again of no surprise when reflecting upon a system where media corporations rely primarily on official statements and propaganda, rather than American and international anti-war opposition, for the crux of their reporting.

ANTHONY DiMAGGIO has taught Middle East Politics and American Government at Illinois State University. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Mass Media, Mass Propaganda: Understanding American News in the "War on Terror" (December 2007). He can be reached at: