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Ian Williams on Iraq: "The War Isn't Present in the Media"

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As the war in Iraq completes its fifth year this week, The Huffington Post is featuring interviews with and essays by those journalists, elected officials, policymakers and former military officials who spoke out early and boldly against what they saw as an inevitable disaster. They join our Iraq Honor Roll.

Ian Williams on Iraq: "The War Isn't Present in the Media"

By Marc Cooper

British-born author and journalist Ian Williams never flinched from opposing the war in Iraq in spite of his adamant opposition to the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. While other writers were beating the drums of war, Williams warned that the White House was about to blunder into a catastrophe.

Williams' writing, which appears in publications ranging from The New York Observer to the Financial Times, can be found at his personal website. http://deadlinepundit.blogspot.com/ He's also a regular contributor to the online commentary of The Guardian.

In an interview with The Huffington Post, Williams slams a constrained model of American journalism which he says "inhibits" reporters from seeing the real war in Iraq.

How difficult was it five years ago to see how badly things were going to turn out in Iraq?


It wasn't difficult at all. All of the signs and all of the information were evident. There were so many, at times, it was perplexing. I had seen the war coming for some time because the cumulative weight of the evidence was that the administration clearly wanted a war.

Once you accepted that as the basic premise, everything else was purely commentary. Was it about Saddam Hussein's behavior? Was it because he was a threat? Was it because of the oil? In the end, I don't think anyone has really answered those questions because none of it really makes sense.

The one thing that was making it certain, and I was very close to Hans Blix and his office at the time, was Saddam Hussein. If he in fact didn't have any weapons, why didn't he just didn't let the inspectors in more freely? It's the one thing that could have killed the momentum toward an actual invasion.

What about the media environment at the time prior to the invasion? It's easy to blame the media, but on the other hand, you certainly gleaned enough to understand the situation.

I think it was a case mostly of standing outside the herd of lemmings. It's not an exclusively American thing, but there is such a thing as a media consensus where things just become accepted wisdom. And of course official things become even more accepted wisdom.

So there you had the State Department, and both political parties - because there wasn't much opposition coming from what you might call the Democratic front benchers--and these were the sources of wisdom for many journalists.

They'll tell you that nothing really happens until someone says it on The Hill. And none of the major political figures were saying this whole thing was spurious. So most of the media just went along with the consensus. They didn't want to stand out like they were some sort of wild ultra-leftists or lunatics. The inexorability was being created in the media throughout this whole time.

You ascribe the media failings, then, to a lack of courage rather than some sort of ideological bias?

I think so. There were some cases that were ideological, certainly like that of Judith Miller. But mostly I think we are talking more about some sense of self-preservation. I know from personal experience, you don't get any medals for telling editors things they don't want to hear. And telling them something other newspapers aren't carrying.

Has this media environment shifted much over the last five years?

No. There's still a great deal of caution, not wanting to shock the sensibilities of their editors and their readers. I mean, look at the press in Britain. They are no paragons of virtue, but they are a lot less respectful to authority.

And don't forget, there's a complicating factor in Iraq. Saddam It was hard to draw the line. Even I am still being vilified by some because I was saying: "Look this war is coming. It's wrong. But don't be surprised if troops go in and find there are weapons of mass destruction there." A lot of people opposed to the war were taking an ideological
position that Saddam was a saint and that there couldn't be WMD because Bush said there was.

In my writing, I had to be very clear. That I was coming down on this issue on the hard facts and not because of any false sentiment for Saddam Hussein who, all things being equal, I was very happy to see go.

How do you evaluate the current reporting on Iraq, especially since the surge? Some critics argue that Iraq has just slipped from the front pages?

How can you report on a war when no American reporter dares to leave the comfort and security of an allied convoy or the Green Zone? You simply can't report on it. The second point is that given the conventionalities of American reporting, the only people who can report on this are Arabs and Iraqis and are therefore seen, ipso facto, as untrustworthy. They're the only ones who can talk to people on the ground. But they are used as stringers and sources only. You don't see their bylines. You don't see their analysis.

The continual inhibition of American reporting, the "just the facts" approach, means that you have op-eds written by people in complete ignorance of what's happening on the ground. And you have the news written by people on the ground who can't see what's happening at the next bus stop down the road and are inhibited professionally.

Compare this to the way The Guardian, Le Monde or the Financial Times would cover things, pulling it all together into a big picture, and you see the difference. There's something about the stricture of American J-School standards that makes that impossible.

So you think the European coverage five years ago about Iraq was much better than the American?

There was a lot more skepticism than in the U.S. press but at the same time there was also a disturbing amount of jingoism in the British press which was supporting the war. But also, some people who were supporting it were doing it on the same grounds, my sources tell me, that Tony Blair did. Blair wasn't worried about WMD. He only used that as the legal pretext to get UN cover. He was an active player in this, he wasn't dragged into this by George Bush. Blair wanted to get rid of Saddam Hussein because he thought he was evil, and that this would be a sort of follow-up to Kosovo.

Which is a war you supported?

Yes, I did. Kosovo was good work but it was a one-time thing. You couldn't follow it up the way Blair wanted to Iraq. But there were a lot of commentators in the British press who were following Blair's line of thinking. Not the same exactly as Bush. The Never Again Crowd who thought it was payback time for Saddam Hussein.

Why is there such a weak anti-war movement in the U.S.?

This is war that happens to other people. You don't have the degree of casualties that you had in Vietnam. And if you have to face it - that the anti-Vietnam War protests were in large measure from people who didn't want to be drafted to be blown up in the jungle. It was not such altruistic concern about the Vietnamese getting bombs dropped on them.

Also, this administration has been very clever in manipulating the debate around the casualties. It's become sort of unpatriotic discuss them. The war is not present in the media because there's no way for American reporters to get out there and see what's happening to the Iraqis. That's the real war.