The current round of Syria-might-use-chemical-weapons stories sound a bit like the warnings about Iraq and WMDs before the 2003 invasion. How could media do more to mimic that awful performance? Bring back some of the same journalists who so badly misjudged Iraq and treat them as experts.
That's what Meet the Press did on December 9 when they invited Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic on to weigh in on Syria. It was a brief exchange, but the presence of Goldberg and the question he was asked are both revealing. Here's how moderator David Gregory kicked things off:
For more on this developing story I want to go to The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg …. Jeffrey, you cover this entire region extensively and have for years, you heard what the president said and what Richard (Engel) has said. Why this red line, something the United States never did in Iraq, for instance, when Hussein used chemical weapons, but we're doing it here, big shift maybe?
I suppose we have to assume that Gregory is talking about Iraqi chemical attacks in the late 1980s, most infamously the attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja in 1988. The United States did spend a fair amount of time talking about the chemical attacks that U.S. troops could face as they invaded, which obviously did not happen.
So if that's indeed what Gregory meant, then it's a rather odd question. Saddam Hussein was, at that time, an ally of the United States. The U.S. government's reaction to news of the Halabja atrocities was first to blame Iran, and then to continue to provide support to the Hussein regime. (Read this fantastic review of the Washington Post's coverage by Seth Ackerman– Extra!, 9-10/02).
So Gregory's question is absurd–unless he was intending to make a subtle yet devastating point about the duplicity of U.S. foreign policy and our government's record of shielding the government that killed thousands with chemical weapons.
Or maybe he thought his guest might do the same– Goldberg, who reports on "this entire region extensively," must know this history. But Goldberg's response was a predictable lament about Obama's apparent unwillingness to intervene more aggressively in the brutal Syrian civil war: "There is no real Obama doctrine here except for passivity, I'm afraid to say."
So who is Jeffrey Goldberg? Gregory told viewers he'd been covering this part of the world for years. A more important point might be that the last time the media was whipped up into a frenzy over the alleged weapons of mass destruction of an enemy state, Goldberg was in the thick of it.
Remember the notion that Iraq was somehow in cahoots with Al Qaeda? As Ken Silverstein wrote in Harpers (6/06):
Prior to the American-led invasion of Iraq, Goldberg wrote two lengthy articles in the New Yorker which argued that there were extensive ties between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein.
One of those pieces relied heavily on an source who turned out to be, in the estimation of Observer reporter Jason Burke (2/8/03), a liar. As Silverstein put it:
In urging war on Iraq, Goldberg took highly dubious assertions—for example, that Saddam was an irrational madman in control of vast quantities of WMDs and that Iraq and Al Qaeda were deeply in bed together—and essentially asserted them as fact.
So what were the professional consequences for Goldberg? As Glenn Greenwald pointed out (Salon.com, 6/27/10), two of Goldberg's pre-war pieces won major journalism awards, and the Atlantic's owner went to unusual, even absurd lengths to hire him away from the New Yorker.
So that's the price one pays in big media for being so wrong about a matter of enormous consequence. You never have to admit you were wrong; in fact, you'll be invited on television shows where other journalists will treat you like you're an expert.