Voice in the Wilderness

The news about the "war on terror" your local newspaper won't print.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Does The Times Know How to Read?

How can two newspapers cover the same story and have such different takes on it? That's the question being asked here in the wilderness about yet another British memo that has surfaced regarding U.S. preparedness for war against Iraq.

The story in the Washington Post, by Walter Pincus, is quite clear-cut: British military and political experts warned that postwar Iraq following a U.S. invasion would be messy and take a long time to sort out. Here's Pincus' first two paragraphs:
A briefing paper prepared for British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his top advisers eight months before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq concluded that the U.S. military was not preparing adequately for what the British memo predicted would be a "protracted and costly" postwar occupation of that country.

The eight-page memo, written in advance of a July 23, 2002, Downing Street meeting on Iraq, provides new insights into how senior British officials saw a Bush administration decision to go to war as inevitable, and realized more clearly than their American counterparts the potential for the post-invasion instability that continues to plague Iraq.
The story, on the front page of Sunday's Post (in truncated form on page 17 of the Sunday Des Moines Register), goes on to say that the British military planners doubted that their U.S. counterparts fully understood what a takeover of that country would mean:
Saying that "we need to be sure that the outcome of the military action would match our objective," the memo's authors point out, "A post-war occupation of Iraq could lead to a protracted and costly nation-building exercise." The authors add, "As already made clear, the U.S. military plans are virtually silent on this point. Washington could look to us to share a disproportionate share of the burden."
Pincus bolsters the story with background in the form of other memos and documents that reiterated various British objections to the U.S. war plans on the basis that the Americans had no idea what was in store if they invaded:

The British, however, had begun focusing on doubts about a postwar Iraq in early 2002, according to internal memos.

A March 14 memo to Blair from David Manning, then the prime minister's foreign policy adviser and now British ambassador in Washington, reported on talks with then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice. Among the "big questions" coming out of his sessions, Manning reported, was that the president "has yet to find the answers . . . [and] what happens on the morning after."

About 10 days later, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw wrote a memo to prepare Blair for a meeting in Crawford, Tex., on April 8. Straw said "the big question" about military action against Hussein was, "how there can be any certainty that the replacement regime will be any better," as "Iraq has no history of democracy."

Straw said the U.S. assessments "assumed regime change as a means of eliminating Iraq's WMD [weapons of mass destruction] threat. But none has satisfactorily answered how that regime change is to be secured. . . ."

Fairly clear: The British knew the U.S. was going to conquer Iraq, and they raised all kinds of doubts about it. (Read the entire story.)

But if you read Sunday's New York Times, you might come away totally wondering what all the fuss was about. In fact, you might come away from David E. Sanger's story wondering what the Timesman was smoking.

The headline tells you right away that Sanger hardly saw the story the same way: "Prewar British Memo Says War Decision Wasn't Made." Which doesn't support the gist of the story. (Read the entire story and you'll see what we mean.) But have pity on the copy editor who had to write the headline, because Sanger writes the piece like he's lost in a strange town, but too embarrassed to ask for directions.

A memorandum written by Prime Minister Tony Blair's cabinet office in late July 2002 explicitly states that the Bush administration had made "no political decisions" to invade Iraq, but that American military planning for the possibility was advanced. The memo also said American planning, in the eyes of Mr. Blair's aides, was "virtually silent" on the problems of a postwar occupation.
Huh? Is Sanger saying the memo really is an apology for The Famous Downing Street Memo, which, as the entire world (excepting the American press) has realized, reveals that all Bush's rhetoric about war being a last resort was so much twaddle? No, because Sanger's second paragraph seems to parallel Walter Pincus' take in the Post:
"A postwar occupation of Iraq could lead to a protracted and costly nation-building exercise," warned the memorandum, prepared July 21 for a meeting with Mr. Blair a few days later. It also appeared to take as a given the presence of illicit weapons in Iraq - an assumption that later proved almost entirely wrong - and warned that merely removing Saddam Hussein from power would not guarantee that those weapons could be secured.
But where Pincus goes on to read the memo and put two and two together, Sanger spends precious column space first reassuring the reader that the memo didn't come from some Guantanamo prisoner. Three grafs later, he regurgitates Tony Blair's week-old denial of the Downing Street Memo:
The publication of the memorandum is significant because a previously leaked document, now known as the Downing Street Memo, appeared to suggest that a decision to go to war may have been made that summer. In Washington last week, Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair denied that they made any decision in 2002, and suggested that the memorandum was being misinterpreted.

"No, the facts were not being fixed in any shape or form at all," Mr. Blair said, adding that "no one knows more intimately the discussions that we were conducting as two countries at the time than me."

This is news? The best Sanger can do is dredge up week-old quotes that no one believes?

Incredibly, while Pincus looked at this latest document's words, used his brain to reason what they meant, and then used his fingers to type the words to tell his readers, Sanger evidently clocked out on some vacation to journalistic Neverland:

Still, it is revealing about what was known - and assumed - at that time. After noting the risks of a lengthy postwar occupation, the memorandum says that "U.S. military plans are virtually silent on this point. Washington could look to us to share a disproportionate share of the burden. Further work is required to define more precisely the means by which the desired endstate would be created, in particular what form of government might replace Saddam Hussein's regime and the timescale within which it would be possible to identify a successor."
In the academic world, this is what is known as "padding." It's what you do on an essay test when you haven't studied and don't have the slightest idea of the material being covered. You write horse manure until you've reached the required 500 words. Generally, those efforts are rewarded with grades of "F."

Go ahead; read Sanger's entire story. Then see if you're ready to believe that David E. Sanger and Walter Pincus looked at the same memo. Or that both of them are employed by the largest and supposedly the most credulous sources of news and information in the history of western civilization.


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