The behavior of the American press in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq is rightly notorious. So much commentary — left and right alike — as well as ostensibly objective reporting from our most prestigious outlets failed to scrutinize lies and propaganda from the George W. Bush administration, boosting American enthusiasm for a disastrous war.
"There was an attitude among editors: Look, we're going to war, why do we even worry about all this contrary stuff?" former Washington Post reporter Thomas Ricks told CNN in 2013. Per a March 2003 analysis of two weeks of nightly coverage of Iraq by NBC, ABC, CBS, and PBS, only one of 199 "current or former [U.S.] government or military officials" featured as expert guests mildly questioned the wisdom of invasion.
As we mark the 19th anniversary of that invasion on Saturday, a new war has started amid a markedly different media climate. And a key question, raised by a symposium in which I participated this week at Responsible Statecraft, is: Why?
Did the media learn its lesson with Iraq? Is that why there's so much more skepticism around American military intervention into Russia's attack on Ukraine?
Certainly, we have cheerleaders for war this time, too. Former Bush adviser Eliot A. Cohen, who in 2001 called Iraq the "big prize" for the U.S. to take in a "cakewalk," wrote a billboard piece in The Atlantic mourning America's "pernicious ... hand-wringing over escalation" in Ukraine. NBC's Richard Engel apparently cast open NATO-Russia war, with its risk of nuclear strikes, as an option to consider seriously.
There are other voices like these, yes, but in a sharp break from reckless rhetoric late last year, regretful caution is now the major theme. Russia is wrong, and its invasion should founder, but such a defeat cannot directly come by NATO's hand, because that way lies World War III: This is where many — including many who pushed to invade Iraq — have landed.
The most cynical explanation is that the press is once again echoing the president. A more hopeful argument would be that American journalists have imbibed a deep wariness of any call to war. Or perhaps the circumstances are just too different to compare.
But the likeliest answer, to my mind, is simply this: Even hawks are scared of nukes. So they should be, and here fear is the beginning of wisdom. Yet give us another prospective war, especially after another tragedy on U.S. soil, with another enemy who doesn't have weapons of mass destruction, and then I'm not sure we'd be wondering about lessons learned. The answer might well be an obvious "no."