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Myths and misconceptions about the war in Iraq

By Brendan Nyhan and Bryan Keefer
April 4, 2003

Accurate information is essential for an informed political debate over the war in Iraq here at home. Yet since hostilities were initiated, politicians and the American media have continued to circulate misinformation, much of which has gone largely unchecked. As with our first column on the debate leading up to the war, we can only deal with information that has been addressed conclusively or near-conclusively on the public record. We do not address most of the apparently mistaken reports that are at least understandable amidst the fog of war. We also do not address allegations from coalition forces that can't be independently verified at this time, nor do we look at the propaganda of the Iraqi regime, which is of course extraordinarily suspect.

Iraq has launched Scud missiles at coalition forces and civilians in Kuwait.

As Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting has recounted, in the early days of the war, it was widely reported that Iraq had fired Scud missiles into Kuwait -- a claim made by Kuwaiti government officials that was quickly given the veneer of fact in media accounts. If the missiles were Scuds, it would have been significant: Iraq is prohibited from possessing such missiles under disarmament agreements it has entered into since the Gulf War. However, the missiles launched at Kuwait were apparently not Scuds, as the military later admitted. While Iraq may still possess the banned weapons, there is no solid evidence that any of the missiles launched at Kuwait so far have been Scuds, nor have any Scuds been discovered by coalition troops in the current war. Instead, according to the Washington Post, "[t]he missiles being fired at Kuwait have not been definitively identified," but US commanders say eight were Ababil-100s, while "[a]t least two" were Al Samoud-2s, which the United Nations says are also banned under Iraq's 1991 disarmament agreement. Despite the inherent factual uncertainty of sketchy early reports, pundits like Mona Charen then rushed to condemn the alleged use of Scuds, bashing the "antiwar crowd" for the supposed failure of inspections to find the Scuds that were launched. She later corrected the record (as did others), but this was a major mistake.

The coalition against Iraq is larger than the one that conducted the first Gulf War.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has claimed that the current coalition "is larger than the coalition that existed during the Gulf War in 1991." While this claim is accurate in terms of the number of countries lending their political support to the effort, it is highly misleading in terms of the actual operational contributions of coalition members. As Dana Milbank pointed out in the Washington Post, "that 34-member group [in 1991] was an actual military coalition, with all members providing troops, aircraft, ships or medics. By that standard, there are only about a half dozen members of the coalition in the current war."

Passage of the Bush tax cut is necessary so that troops have jobs to come home to.

White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer has offered a new rationale for passage of the president's proposed tax cut in recent days: "so that when our men and women in the military return home, they'll have jobs to come home to." But as Milbank has noted, full time military personnel will continue to be employed by the military, and thanks to legislation passed in 1994, reservists are entitled to resume their civilian jobs. The situation is not analogous to World War II, where large numbers of decommissioned troops returned home without guaranteed employment. Fleischer's claim is simply disingenuous.

Evidence found at the Ansar Al-Islam camp ties Al Qaeda to Saddam Hussein.

On March 31, coalition forces raided the camp of Ansar Al-Islam, an extremist Islamic group based in Iraqi Kurdistan that is allegedly affiliated with Al Qaeda. After the raid, coalition leaders claimed to have found evidence demonstrating a link between the two groups. However, the Associated Press story about the raid specifically states that "there was no indication any of the evidence tied Ansar to Saddam Hussein as Washington has maintained."

Nonetheless, Rush Limbaugh simply asserted that the evidence found demonstrates an Al Qaeda-Iraq link, arguing that the very existence of the group in the Kurdish part of northern Iraq proves that Saddam is linked to Al Qaeda. The fact is, however, that Kurdish northern provinces of Iraq have been outside of Saddam's control since 1991 and that his possible knowledge of activities there is not in itself proof of anything. Rather than even making an argument to this effect, the Union Leader in New Hampshire brazenly headlined the AP story "HAVEN FOR TERROR: U.S.-led raid reveals Saddam's al-Qaida ties," ignoring the contradictory conclusion in the text below.

No one in the administration ever claimed the war in Iraq would be easy.

Though the war in Iraq is only about two weeks old, critics have already noted that Bush administration officials implied that it would be quick and easy. In response, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer has suggested that the President repeatedly stated that the war in Iraq could be quite difficult. Fleischer cited three speeches by Bush: an October 7 speech in which he said that "military conflict could be difficult," a January 3 speech during which he stated "I know that every order I give can bring a cost... We know the challenges and the dangers we face" and the January 28 State of the Union passage in which he said, "This nation fights reluctantly, because we know the cost and we dread the days of mourning that always come."

Yet as a number of sources, including USA Today, Dana Milbank of the Washington Post, and Salon.com [subscription or viewing of an advertisement required] have pointed out, Bush officials and advisors were often aggressive before the war in suggesting that it would be relatively quick and easy. Though they occasionally equivocated, the thrust of their rhetoric implied that US troops would face little resistance.

On March 16, Vice President Dick Cheney suggested on CBS's "Face the Nation" that a war would proceed "relatively quickly" and be over in "[w]eeks rather than months." On NBC's "Meet the Press" the same day, Cheney was asked by Tim Russert whether "the American people are prepared for a long, costly, and bloody battle with significant American casualties." Cheney replied, "Well, I don't think it's going to unfold that way, Tim, because I really do believe that we will be greeted as liberators." While he stated that "close-in defenders" of Saddam "might, in fact, try to put up ... a struggle," Cheney added, "I think the regular army will not [fight]. My guess is, even significant elements of the Republican Guard are likely as well to want to avoid conflict with the U.S. forces and are likely to step aside."

Richard Perle, a civilian member and former chairman of the influential Defense Policy Board (which advises the Defense Department), was particularly outspoken with his predictions about how quickly Iraqi resistance would collapse. In an interview on PBS's "Wide Angle" last July, he claimed that "we have the ability to remove Saddam Hussein and his regime. And it will be quicker and easier than many people think," and suggested that "Support for Saddam, including within his military organization, will collapse at the first whiff of gunpowder." (In the same interview, he does also backtrack a bit and say that the war "will not be easy"). Kenneth Adelman, another member of the Defense Policy Board, went even further in a February Washington Post op-ed in which he predicted that "demolishing Hussein's military power and liberating Iraq would be a cakewalk."

President Bush doesn't pay attention to war coverage on television.

When the war began, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer claimed that President Bush was not paying attention to television coverage of the conflict, saying "The President may occasionally turn on the TV, but that's not how he gets his news or his information." But in a March 29 New York Times article the administration conceded that this was in fact untrue:

In the opening days of the conflict, White House officials were so eager not to personalize the war as a Bush revenge match against the dictator who tried to assassinate his father that Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary, at first suggested that Mr. Bush was not even watching the enormous blasts on live television of the first bombs thundering down on Baghdad. Mr. Fleischer said later that the president had indeed been watching television.

In fact, Bumiller reports that Bush "started laughing" when he heard reports that "the president of the United States, according to White House officials, was not glued to the TV" and that he "regularly turned in to the cable channels for updates on Iraq," even calling National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice when he "saw something that concerned him."

The Iraqi military is using terrorist tactics to attack coalition troops / the suicide bombing in Iraq proves Saddam is a terrorist.

Iraqi soldiers have disguised themselves as civilians, attacked coalition troops after feigned surrenders and conducted a suicide bombing of a US checkpoint while dressed in civilian clothes. These are reprehensible violations of international law protecting non-combatants. But contrary to White House press secretary Ari Fleischer's claim that "We're really dealing with elements of terrorism inside Iraq that are being employed now against our troops," these attacks are not "terrorism" as it is almost always defined (as Slate's Fred Kaplan points out). Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke and Major General Stanley McChrystal of the Joints Chiefs of Staff have made similar suggestions.

Kaplan cites the official US State Department definition of terrorism, stating that like all such definitions it identifies the term as referring to attacks on civilian targets that are political in nature: "premeditated, politically motivated violence propagated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience." Saddam's regime has engaged in terrorism and supported terrorist groups (though the extent of this is highly disputed) and has recently endorsed terrorist tactics targeting civilians in its official rhetoric, but attacks on military targets are not a case where the term applies.

Most absurd among those pushing this line was New York Times columnist William Safire, who argued that the suicide bombing of US troops, which was carried out by an Iraqi noncommissioned officer, "vividly demonstrate[s] the Baghdad-terrorist nexus." This is absurd - the alleged "nexus" refers to supposed relationships between Saddam's regime and terrorist groups that are in no way demonstrated by a single copycat attack.

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-Myths and misconceptions about Iraq (Bryan Keefer, Ben Fritz and Brendan Nyhan, 3/20/03)

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