November 29, 2007 – The New York Times and Washington Post (11/28/07) both failed to adequately challenge the dishonesty of former President Bill Clinton’s declaration that he had been opposed to the Iraq War “from the beginning.” Clinton, in fact, was a supporter of the war, both before the invasion and in the first year or so of the fighting.
In the Times’ words, though, Clinton’s new stance was just “more absolute than his comments before the invasion in March 2003.” The Times went on to claim that around the time of the invasion, “Clinton did not precisely declare that he opposed the war,” though he “has said several times since the war began that he would not have attacked Iraq in the manner that President Bush had done.”
The Post’s account was similarly muddled, with the paper noting that Clinton was “glossing over the more nuanced views of the war he has expressed over time,” though “past remarks made by the former president do leave open a question about how fervently Clinton opposed the war at the outset.” The Post returned to the story the next day (11/29/07), repeating that Clinton “went far beyond more nuanced remarks he made about the conflict in 2003.” The Post did try to challenge Clinton’s position by noting that he had participated in briefings with key Bush administration officials, and had allegedly expressed support for the invasion plan.
But Clinton’s public support for the war is a matter of record. Just before George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair invaded Iraq, Clinton published an op-ed in the London Guardian (3/18/03) urging Britons to “Trust Tony’s Judgment”:
As Blair has said, in war there will be civilian was well as military casualties…. But if we leave Iraq with chemical and biological weapons, after 12 years of defiance, there is a considerable risk that one day these weapons will fall into the wrong hands and put many more lives at risk than will be lost in overthrowing Saddam.
Clinton’s column included the less-than-prescient prediction that “military action probably will require only a few days.”
Soon after the invasion (3/30/03), Clinton appeared on CBS’s 60 Minutes with former Senator Robert Dole and endorsed the war, saying, “Senator, unlike some of your Republican friends during Kosovo, I support our troops in Iraq and the president.” (Note that while one can support the troops but not the war, supporting the president in Iraq means supporting the war.)
In a 2004 interview with Time magazine (6/28/04), Clinton reiterated this before-the-fact support for the invasion: “You know, I have repeatedly defended President Bush against the left on Iraq, even though I think he should have waited until the U.N. inspections were over.”
Clinton went on to claim that Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons were of concern, especially after the September 11 attacks:
So, you’re sitting there as president, you’re reeling in the aftermath of this, so, yeah, you want to go get bin Laden and do Afghanistan and all that. But you also have to say, well, my first responsibility now is to try everything possible to make sure that this terrorist network and other terrorist networks cannot reach chemical and biological weapons or small amounts of fissile material. I’ve got to do that. That’s why I supported the Iraq thing.
Clinton added: “So that’s why I thought Bush did the right thing to go back. When you’re the president, and your country has just been through what we had, you want everything to be accounted for.”
Remarks like these should be referenced when a political figure attempts to dramatically recast his record. But establishment media go out of their way to avoid questioning powerful politicians, especially presidents: “You can’t say the president is lying,” as New York Times reporter Elisabeth Bumiller once proclaimed (Extra!, 1-2/05).
The papers of record have given George W. Bush license to eliminate well-known events from the recent history of Iraq, claiming of Saddam Hussein (7/14/03): “We gave him a chance to allow the inspectors in, and he wouldn’t let them in.” As FAIR pointed out (7/18/03), in fact, after a Security Council resolution was passed demanding that Iraq allow inspectors in, they were given complete access to the country; their well-publicized search for the non-existent WMDs was ongoing until four months before Bush’s claim. The Washington Post (7/15/03), describing Bush’s remarkable statement, could only say that his assertion “appeared to contradict the events leading up to war this spring.”
Bush has repeatedly made the same claim (1/27/04, 3/21/06, 5/24/07, 11/7/07; see Consortium News, 11/9/07), with little or no note taken by the news outlets that chronicle his every move. “Historians will wonder someday how a free press permitted the world’s most important official to say such things without contradiction,” Salon’s Joe Conason reported (3/31/06).
When politicians are allowed to get away with making such bold misstatements, it can only serve to embolden others to do the same, since there would seem to be no downside to lying. Indeed, at a Republican candidates’ debate in June, presidential hopeful Mitt Romney offered his own version of the weapons inspector lie, to little media note (FAIR Action Alert, 6/8/07). Perhaps the press was just treating him as they would if he actually were president.
ACTION: Ask the Washington Post and New York Times why their reports on Clinton’s misstatement did not more forcefully challenge his record on the Iraq War.
Washington Post Ombudsman
New York Times Public Editor