Reprinted from Consortium News
If you wonder how the lethal "group think" on Iraq took shape in 2002, you might want to study what's happening today with Ukraine. A misguided consensus has grabbed hold of Official Washington and has pulled in everyone who "matters" and tossed out almost anyone who disagrees.
Part of the problem, in both cases, has been that neocon propagandists understand that in the modern American media the personal is the political; that is, you don't deal with the larger context of a dispute, you make it about some easily demonized figure. So, instead of understanding the complexities of Iraq, you focus on the unsavory Saddam Hussein.
Instead of Americans coming to grips with the painful history of Central America, where the U.S. government has caused much of the violence and dysfunction, or in Iraq, where Western nations don't have clean hands either, the story was made personal -- about the demonized leader -- and anyone who provided a fuller context was denounced as an "Ortega apologist" or a "Noriega apologist" or a "Saddam apologist."
So, American skeptics were silenced and the U.S. government got to do what it wanted without serious debate. In Iraq, for instance, the American people would have benefited from a thorough airing of the complexities of Iraqi society -- such as the sectarian divide between Sunni and Shiite -- and the potential risks of invading under the dubious rationale of WMD.
But there was no thorough debate about anything: not about international law that held "aggressive war" to be "the supreme international crime"; not about the difficulty of putting a shattered Iraq back together after an invasion; not even about the doubts within the U.S. intelligence community about whether Iraq possessed usable WMD and whether Hussein had any ties to al-Qaeda.
All the American people heard was that Saddam Hussein was "a bad guy" and it was America's right and duty to get rid of "bad guys" who supposedly had dangerous WMDs that they might share with other "bad guys." To say that this simplistic argument was an insult to a modern democracy would be an understatement, but the propaganda worked because almost no one in the mainstream press or in academia or in politics dared speak out.
Those who could have made a difference feared for their careers -- and they were "right" to have those fears, at least in the sense that it was much safer, career-wise, to run with the herd than to stand in the way. Even after the Iraq War had turned into an unmitigated disaster with horrific repercussions reaching to the present, the U.S. political/media establishment undertook no serious effort to impose accountability.
Almost no one who joined in the Iraq "group think" was punished. It turns out that there truly is safety in numbers. Many of those exact same people are still around holding down the same powerful jobs as if nothing horrible had happened in Iraq. Their pontifications still are featured on the most influential opinion pages in American journalism, with the New York Times' Thomas L. Friedman a perfect example.
Though Friedman has been wrong again and again, he is still regarded as perhaps the preeminent foreign policy pundit in the U.S. media. Which brings us to the issue of Ukraine and Russia.
A New Cold War
From the start of the Ukraine crisis in fall 2013, the New York Times, the Washington Post and virtually every mainstream U.S. news outlet have behaved as dishonestly as they did during the run-up to war with Iraq. Objectivity and other principles of journalism have been thrown out the window. The larger context of both Ukrainian politics and Russia's role has been ignored.
Again, it's all been about demonized "bad guys" -- in this case, Ukraine's elected President Viktor Yanukovych and Russia's elected President Vladimir Putin -- versus the "pro-Western good guys" who are deemed model democrats even as they collaborated with neo-Nazis to overthrow a constitutional order.
Again, the political is made personal: Yanukovych had a pricy sauna in his mansion; Putin rides a horse shirtless and doesn't favor gay rights. So, if you raise questions about U.S. support for last year's coup in Ukraine, you somehow must favor pricy saunas, riding shirtless and holding bigoted opinions about gays.
Anyone who dares protest the unrelentingly one-sided coverage is deemed a "Putin apologist" or a "stooge of Moscow." So, most Americans -- in a position to influence public knowledge but who want to stay employable -- stay silent, just as they did during the Iraq War stampede.
One of the ugly but sadly typical cases relates to Russia scholar Stephen F. Cohen, who has been denounced by some of the usual neocon suspects for deviating from the "group think" that blames the entire Ukraine crisis on Putin. The New Republic, which has gotten pretty much every major issue wrong during my 37 years in Washington, smeared Cohen as "Putin's American toady."