The Media and Iraq, Eight Years On
Leslie Gelb and Jeanne-Paloma Zelmati make useful points about the failure of the “elite press” to be critical enough of U.S. policies before and during the invasion of Iraq [“Mission Unaccomplished,“ Issue #13]. As the only correspondent who reported from Iraq in the year before the war for one of the newspapers they refer to, The Wall Street Journal, I would like to raise more fundamental issues that foreign correspondents like me faced in tackling the onrush of the Iraq war. These are the problems that are endemic in reporting anything about the Middle East in a U.S. newspaper.
Some of these obstacles are cultural, not political. American readers like, and editors look for, stories with American characters, transparent motives, and happy endings. We pulled punches in order not to disturb Americans’ comfort zones: minimizing bloody violence, boiling hatreds, and the Western role in plotting coups and stoking up at least 15 major wars and revolutions that have crippled Middle Eastern societies over the last century.
Instead, we all played roles in constructing familiar but artificial narratives: an Arab-Israeli “peace process” that has never proceeded anywhere, a misleading scenario of regional struggle between “moderates” and “radicals,” a myth of American neutrality, and analysis confused by one-size-fits-all labels like “Islam,” “Arab world,” and “terror.” The “elite press” thus helped build a wall of incomprehension between American readers and the realities of the region. Unsurprisingly, the average American in 2002 had a hard time understanding what was going on anywhere in the Middle East, let alone in Iraq.
Additionally, especially in the case of the Journal, readers’ and policy makers’ opinions in the run-up to the war were surely swayed by largely unchallenged articles in the opinion pages by hard-line Israelis and their American supporters, making what soon proved to be fallacious assertions about America’s duty to invade Iraq. At the same time, for much of the 2000-2002 period, the Journal’s news pages didn’t even have an Israel correspondent.
It was hard to see all this while working in the field. At the time, when I tried to alert readers to the folly of the Iraq war, I felt like a blade of grass flattened by a gale force wind of pro-war sentiment. I often just felt depressed, even emasculated, and I understood how tempting and empowering it must have felt to be able to join the militarist charge.
It is humbling to realize that this flattened-grass effect is how journalists in authoritarian regimes feel most of the time. I remain thankful that, unlike them, I was not also trampled underfoot. In the Journal’s news pages, my editors were honest and rigorous, and they printed my dissident stories, even if the problems mentioned above did distort, diminish, and delay our coverage. My field-based analysis on the historic folly of invading Iraq or any Middle Eastern country did eventually grace the front page of the newspaper. But it only appeared on the day before the tanks started rolling in.
Parliament Über Alles
The debate about parliamentary vs. presidential systems, which Clay Risen revived in the last issue of Democracy [“German Lessons,“ Issue #15], is one of those recurring features of liberal debate, with no apparent answer. Either conflict within parties, or conflict between parties—seems like six of one, a half dozen of the other. Except it isn’t. The presidential system introduces disproportionalities and perverse incentives that don’t exist in the parliamentary system, no matter how you slice it.
To start off with, in a parliamentary system there’s no possibility that the prime minister can win simply by splitting the opposition. In a parliamentary system, on the other hand, if the plurality party can’t win a majority, it has to form a coalition with at least one of the minority parties. Thus Risen’s claim that German radical leftists had nowhere to go but terrorism is clearly false, on his premises. If the radical leftists managed to win even one seat in parliament, there would have been a possibility that they could have exercised veto power over the entire government, including even the executive—something that just doesn’t exist in presidential systems. Moreover, in a system of proportional representation, it wouldn’t be as hard to start a new party as Risen implies.
According to Risen, “The big decisions in contemporary politics—climate change, global terrorism, international financial reform—demand a policymaking coherence and stability that only broad-based, pragmatic parties like America’s can provide.” But coherence isn’t necessarily a virtue for highly technical problems where there isn’t a magic-bullet solution, like global warming. Stability isn’t a good response to an extremely dynamic problem like terrorism. Even for financial policies—our traditional strength over Europe—our system isn’t as effective as a parliamentary system would be. Congress originally voted down the fiscal stimulus package that saved our economy. Both parties revolted against their leadership—showing very clearly that this was a structural problem, not a policy debate. Congress can avoid responsibility for its actions simply by blaming things on the president. In a parliamentary system, where the legislature and the executive of a particular party share the same fate, (because the members of parliament pick the president), no group of policy makers can pass the buck like that.
Risen notes that more than half of Germans don’t think it really matters who wins. He sees that as a weakness of the German system. In our American context, it would be a weakness, because we’re always trying to increase voter turnout. However, Europe doesn’t tend to have problems with voter turnout. Germans, it seems, are happy with the way things are; the system, in this view, has already achieved its goal, and the need for activism has been reduced. Focusing on just the number of parties misses other important aspects of a political system, and those less obvious aspects decisively favor parliamentary systems.
University of California, San Diego
San Diego, California