Chronicle of a Gulf War Foretold


Last week, journalists were still using phrases like “a possible war,” “in the event of war,” “if war breaks out,” and “assuming there is a war.” Events were unfolding so quickly behind the scenes that results were impossible to predict. But by press time, the subtext that was previously embedded in every newspaper, Internet, and TV war story had become the main thesis: The U.S. is going to attack Iraq. Case closed.

As early as Friday, it became clear the warmongers were deaf to their critics. Discussing Saddam Hussein’s efforts to disarm, President Bush called them insufficient, saying, “We will disarm him now.” The head of Turkey’s top business group said the war “will happen even if Turkey doesn’t give permission.” B-2 stealth bombers and the 101st Airborne Division were dispatched. That night, CBS reported that the general view in Baghdad was that “no matter what the Iraqis do . . . no matter what happens at the UN, a war is coming.” Even a democratic vote from the Turkish parliament could not stop it.

Bush’s unilateral strategy has put the media in a catch-22: You’re either with us or against us. You can either come along to cover the war or get left behind talking to the opposition. It’s easy to dismiss embedded reporters as cheerleaders, but it seems more likely that mainstream journalists listened to their sources and decided that the most skillful efforts to resist this war would be in vain.

The ideal time line surfaced in early February, when various media outlets reported that the Pentagon hoped to attack on the dark nights just before and after the March 3 new moon. (They are now looking at mid March.) The basic strategy was common knowledge, too. On February 7, a retired army officer told Fox News that the war would likely begin with violent air attacks on Baghdad, the attempted killing of Hussein and his henchmen, and the seizure of key terrain and facilities by Special Forces.

By mid February, there were other signals of a bad moon on the rise. On February 14, State Department officials announced that they had ordered the expulsion of Mohammed Allawi, the UN correspondent for the Iraqi News Agency, because surveillance revealed he had engaged in “activities harmful to U.S. interests.” No evidence was offered, and both the story and Allawi dropped out of sight. That week, Newsweek described the “E bomb” Bush planned to drop on Hussein’s bunkers, a high-tech lightning bolt that shorts out electrical and phone lines. Even the scheduling of Dan Rather’s historic interview with Hussein was significant. Rather put in his last request in mid February and arrived in Baghdad a week later because, he told The New York Observer, “I just began to feel that time was getting short.”

Starting on February 24, every day brought new alarms and appeals. On the 25th, The New York Times‘ Arts section reported that Iraq’s archaeological digs were likely to be destroyed and looted after the war. On the 26th, the Times published an eerie photo of a U.S. cargo ship entering the port of Iskerenderun, Turkey, behind the silhouette of a bone white mosque. On the 27th, The Washington Post reported that army general Tommy Franks had arrived at his Qatar command post, declaring that he could not guarantee the safety of the human shields who had planted themselves in Iraq. Also on the 27th, the Times reported that a career diplomat had resigned his position as political counselor at the U.S. embassy in Athens, declaring that the pursuit of war had caused the U.S. to squander its “international legitimacy.”

By midweek, the press corps was projecting its risks and losses. On the 27th, The Washington Post reported that CNN and Fox News execs had decided to “pull all commercials for at least the opening days of an Iraq war, costing each network about $1 million a day.” Also on the 27th, The Wall Street Journal Online published a story by Peter Arnett, who is back in Baghdad with several dozen other journalists who intend to ride out the war behind enemy lines. That same day, a Pentagon spokesperson warned TV networks and newspapers to get their reporters out of Baghdad. “If there is military action,” she said, “it is going to be a really, really bad place to be.”

Omens multiplied through the end of the week. As war opponents in the UN Security Council and Turkish parliament refused to budge, Bush officials told reporters the U.S. doesn’t need Hans Blix or Turkey, anyway. Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz refused to estimate the costs of war, which have been pegged at $95 billion. Hussein began moving troops toward Baghdad and told Iraqi civilians to start digging their own bomb shelters.

Saturday afternoon brought a disruption: Despite U.S. offers of billions of dollars in loans and aid, the Turkish parliament narrowly rejected the proposal to allow U.S. troops into the country to launch an attack on northern Iraq. The vote came on the same day as a huge anti-war demonstration in Ankara, with protesters estimated anywhere from “tens of thousands” to “hundreds of thousands.” New York Times correspondent Dexter Filkins did not mention the demonstration in his March 2 story, though it put to rest his previous claims that the Turks have staged few large protests.

For the hawks, what mattered was not the will of Turkey’s fledgling democracy, but war plans that had been set in stone. The U.S. had planned to use Turkish ports and air bases to send troops into northern Iraq, and the Turks’ vote meant opening a northern front would take longer, cost more, risk more lives. Enter the flip-flopping. Air force general Richard Myers told reporters on Friday,”We will have U.S. forces in northern Iraq, one way or the other.” Several news outlets reported that the backup plan was to reroute military cargo ships through the Suez Canal and to stage the army’s 4th Infantry Division through Kuwait. But the U.S. kept its options open, and by March 3, Filkins reported that the Turkish foreign minister had agreed to seek a new vote.

The Sunday New York Times confined its war stories to the Magazine, which featured a critique of post-war Iraq and a dispatch from media boot camp, along with a not-so-subliminal cover shot of Saddam burning. By contrast, The Washington Post used its front page to announce the kickoff of war. One story reported that General Franks has told his top commanders that everything’s in place; another story cataloged the arsenal of the U.S. military. As the commander of the army’s 3rd Infantry Division told the Post, “We’re ready. We’re just waiting on the word.” On March 2, Senator Lindsey Graham told Meet the Press the war would come “very soon.” On March 3, The New York Times reported that aides say Bush has adopted a “leapfrog strategy,” i.e., he is now disregarding all obstacles in his path. Confirmed from the inside: case closed.

Here’s one story that probably won’t surface in the U.S. press: On March 2, the London Observer reported that the U.S. National Security Agency has been tapping the phone calls and e-mails of UN Security Council members who are undecided about the war resolution. That kind of stuff usually comes out after the war’s over.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 4, 2003

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