Top Ten Media Failures in the Iran War Debate
By Stephen M. Walt
March 15, 2012 "FP" - - I did a brief interview for All Things Considered last Friday, on the topic of media handling of the current war scare over Iran. Here's a link to the story, which ran over the weekend.
The interview got me thinking about the issue of media coverage of this whole business, and I'm sorry to say that most mainstream news organizations have let us down again. Although failures haven't been as egregious as the New York Times and Washington Post's wholesale swallowing of the Bush administration's sales pitch for war in 2002, on the whole the high-end media coverage has been disappointing. Here are my Top Ten Media Failures in the 2012 Iran War Scare.
#1: Mainstreaming the war. As I've written before, when prominent media organizations keep publishing alarmist pieces about how war is imminent, likely, inevitable, etc., this may convince the public that it is going to happen sooner or later and it discourages people from looking for better alternatives. Exhibits A and B for this problem are Jeffrey Goldberg's September 2010 article in The Atlantic Monthly and Ronan Bergman's February 2012 article in the New York Times Magazine. Both articles reported that top Israeli leaders believed time was running out and suggested that an attack might come soon.
#2: Loose talk about Iran's "nuclear [weapons] program." A recurring feature of Iran war coverage has been tendency to refer to Iran's "nuclear weapons program" as if its existence were an established fact. U.S. intelligence services still believe that Iran does not have an active program, and the IAEA has also declined to render that judgment either. Interestingly, both the Times' public editor Arthur Brisbane and Washington Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton have recently chided their own organizations for muddying this issue.
#3: Obsessing about Ahmadinejad. A typical insertion into discussions of Iran is to make various references to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, usually including an obligatory reference to his penchant for Holocaust denial and his famously mis-translated statement about Israel "vanishing from the page of time." This feature is often linked to the issue of whether Iran's leaders are rational or not. But the obsession with Ahmadinejad is misleading in several ways: he has little or no influence over Iran's national security policy, his power has been declining sharply in recent months, and Supreme Leader Ali Khameini -- who does make the key decisions -- has repeatedly said that nuclear weapons are contrary to Islam. And while we're on the subject of Iranian "rationality," it is perhaps worth noting that its leaders weren't goofy enough to invade Iraq on a pretext and then spend trillions of dollars fighting an unnecessary war there.
#4: Ignoring Iranian weakness. As I've noted before, Iran is not a very powerful country at present, though it does have considerable potential and could exert far more international influence if its leaders were more competent. But its defense budget is perhaps 1/50th the size of U.S. defense spending, and it has no meaningful power-projection capabilities. It could not mount a serious invasion of any of its neighbors, and could not block the Strait of Hormuz for long, if at all. Among other things, that is why it has to rely on marriages of convenience with groups like Hezbollah or Hamas (who aren't that powerful either). Yet as Glenn Greenwald argues here, U.S. media coverage often portrays Iran as a looming threat, without offering any serious military analysis of its very limited capabilities.
#5: Failing to ask why Iran might want a bomb. Discussions of a possible war also tend to assume that if Iran does in fact intend to get a nuclear weapon, it is for some nefarious purpose. But the world's nine nuclear powers all obtained these weapons first and foremost for deterrent purposes (i.e., because they faced significant external threats and wanted a way to guarantee their own survival). Iran has good reason to worry: It has nuclear-armed states on two sides, a very bad relationship with the world's only superpower, and more than three dozen U.S. military facilities in its neighborhood. Prominent U.S. politicians repeatedly call for "regime change" there, and a covert action campaign against Iran has been underway for some time, including the assassination of Iranian civilian scientists.
#6: Failing to consider why Iran might NOT want a bomb. At the same time, discussions of Iran's nuclear ambitions often fail to consider the possibility that Iran might be better off without a nuclear weapons capability. As noted above, Supreme Leader Khameini has repeatedly said that nuclear weapons are contrary to Islam, and he may very well mean it. He could be lying, but that sort of lie would be risky for a regime whose primary basis for legitimacy is its devotion to Islam. For another, Iran has the greatest power potential of any state in the Gulf, and if it had better leadership it would probably be the strongest power in the region. If it gets nuclear weapons some of its neighbors may follow suit, which would partly negate Iran's conventional advantages down the road. Furthermore, staying on this side of the nuclear weapons threshold keeps Iran from being suspected of complicity should a nuclear terrorist attack occur somewhere. For all these reasons, I'd bet Iran wants a latent nuclear option, but not an actual nuclear weapon. But there's been relatively little discussion of that possibility in recent media coverage.
#7: Exaggerating Israel's capabilities. In a very real sense, this whole war scare has been driven by the possibility that Israel might feel so endangered that they would launch a preventive war on their own, even if U.S. leaders warned them not to. But the IDF doesn't have the capacity to take out Iran's new facility at Fordow, because they don't have any aircraft that can carry a bomb big enough to penetrate the layers of rock that protect the facilities. And if they can't take out Fordow, then they can't do much to delay Iran's program at all and the only reason they might strike is to try to get the United States dragged in. In short, the recent war scare-whose taproot is the belief that Israel might strike on its own-may be based on a mirage.
#8: Letting spinmeisters play fast and loose with facts. Journalists have to let officials and experts express their views, but they shouldn't let them spout falsehoods without pushing back. Unfortunately, there have been some egregious cases where prominent journalists allowed politicians or government officials to utter howlers without being called on it. When Rick Santorum announced on Meet the Press that "there were no inspectors" in Iran, for example, host David Gregory didn't challenge this obvious error. (In fact, Iran may be the most heavily inspected country in the history of the IAEA).
Even worse, when Israeli ambassador Michael Oren appeared on MSNBC last week, he offered the following set of dubious claims, without challenge:
"[Iran] has built an underground nuclear facility trying to hide its activities from the world. It has been enriching uranium to a high rate [sic.] that has no explanation other than a military nuclear program - that has been confirmed by the International Atomic Energy Agency now several times. It is advancing very quickly on an intercontinental ballistic missile system that's capable of carrying nuclear warheads."
Unfortunately, MSNBC host Andrea Mitchell apparently didn't know that Oren's claims were either false or misleading. 1) Iran's underground facility was built to make it hard to destroy, not to "hide its activities," and IAEA inspectors have already been inside it. 2) Iran is not enriching at a "high rate" (i.e., to weapons-grade); it is currently enriching to only 20% (which is not high enough to build a bomb). 3) Lastly, Western intelligence experts do not think Iran is anywhere near to having an ICBM capability.
In another interview on NPR, Oren falsely accused Iran of "killing hundreds, if not thousands of American troops," a claim that NPR host Robert Siegel did not challenge. Then we got the following exchange:
Oren: "Imagine Iran which today has a bunch of speedboats trying to close the Strait of Hormuz. Imagine if Iran has a nuclear weapon. Imagine if they could hold the entire world oil market blackmailed. Imagine if Iran is conducting terrorist organizations through its terrorist proxies - Hamas, Hezbollah. Now we know there's a connection with al-Qaida. You can't respond to them because they have an atomic weapon."
Siegel: Yes. You're saying the consequences of Iran going nuclear are potentially global, and the consequences of a U.S. strike on Iran might also be further such attacks against the United States..."
Never mind the fact that we have been living in the nuclear age for some 60 years now, and no nuclear state has even been able to conduct the sort of aggressive blackmail that Oren suggests Iran would be able to do. Nuclear weapons are good for deterrence, and not much else, but the news media keep repeating alarmist fantasies without asking if they make sense or not.
Politicians and government officials are bound to use media moments to sell whatever story they are trying to spin; that's their job. But It is up to journalists to make this hard, and both Mitchell and Siegel didn't. (For another example of sloppy fact-checking, go here).
9. What about the human beings? One of the more bizarre failures of reporting on the war debate has been the dearth of discussion of what an attack might mean for Iranian civilians. If you take out some of Iran's nuclear facilities from the air, for example, there's a very real risk of spreading radioactive material or other poisonous chemicals in populated areas, thereby threatening the lives of lots of civilians. Yet when discussing the potentially dangerous consequences of a war, most discussions emphasize the dangers of Iranian retaliation, or the impact on oil prices, instead of asking how many innocent Iranian civilians might die in the attack. You know: the same civilians we supposedly want to liberate from a despotic clerical regime.
10. Could diplomacy work? Lastly, an underlying theme in a lot of the coverage is the suggestion that diplomacy is unlikely to work, because it's been tried before and failed. But the United States has had very little contact with Iranian officials over the past thirty years, and only one brief set of direct talks in the past three years. Moreover, we've insisted all along that Iran has to give up all nuclear enrichment, which is almost certainly a deal-breaker from Tehran's perspective. The bottom line is that diplomacy has yet to succeed-and it might not in any case-but it's also never been seriously tried.
I'm sure you can find exceptions to the various points I've made here, especially if you move outside major media outlets and focus on online publications and the blogosphere. Which may be why more people are inclined to get their news and analysis there, instead of from the usual outlets. But on the whole, Americans haven't been well-served by media coverage of the Iran debate. As the president said last week, "loose talk" about an issue like this isn't helpful.
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international affairs at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, where he served as academic dean from 2002-2006. He previously taught at Princeton University and the University of Chicago, where he served as master of the social science collegiate division and deputy dean of social sciences.