March 12, 2012 · 0 Comments
By Howard Friel:
The Oxford English Dictionary defines “ civilized” as “at an advanced stage of social and cultural development, usually marked by the existence of organized communities and adherence to established conventions of behaviour.” Can anyone credibly claim that the United States is a civilized society, along the lines of this definition, when the federal government spends $1.2 trillion dollars annually on something fraudulently called “national defense” and scarily named “homeland security,” when nearly half the population lives in poverty, public education is abandoned, there is no national healthcare system, and when we repeatedly target a particular race and religion of persons abroad for mass killing and occupation? Does this seem even remotely like we are living “at an advanced stage of social and cultural development”?
One cause of the fall from civilization is the chronic failure of the news media to challenge the U.S. right to wage elective wars; not so much the reasons for such war, which are debated to a degree, but the right to such war, about which there is never any debate. Frankly, I don’t know why this happens, over and over again, but it does. Ten years ago, it was Iraq. Today, it’s Iran, as if the total destruction of Iraq never happened, at a minimum cost to U.S. taxpayers of a trillion dollars.
The refusal by mainstream American news organizations to challenge a U.S. right to war breaches the second part of the Oxford Dictionary’s definition of a civilized society—that it “adhere to established conventions of behaviour”; in this case, the cardinal rule of the U.N. Charter, which prohibits the threat and use of force by states in the conduct of their international relations.
All of which brings us to the March 10 column in the New York Times by its current public editor, Arthur S. Brisbane, titled “Lessons From Another War,” in which Brisbane responded to readers complaints that the newspaper’s coverage of the U.S. and Israeli threats to bomb Iran resembles its coverage a decade earlier of the U.S. threats to invade Iraq. Typically, as in Brisbane’s column, the focus of such commentary is on the Times coverage of Iraq’s alleged nuclear weapons program and the reporting by Judith Miller.
Clearly, there was evidence at the time indicating that Iraq’s nuclear weapons program (a) was probably destroyed in 1991 due to the first U.S. bombing of Iraq, (b) rendered physically extinct due to the brutal economic sanctions of 1990–2003 against Iraq, (c) documented as destroyed by IAEA inspectors and U.S. inspector Scott Ritter, and (d) reported as mostly destroyed by the Amorim Panel report commisioned by the U.N. Security Council. As Richard Falk and I demonstrated in our 2004 book, The Record of the Paper: How The New York Times Misreports U.S. Foreign Policy, most or nearly all of these scenarios militating against the Bush administration’s militant threats against Iraq were ignored, thinly covered, or ridiculed (in Ritter’s case) in the Times, and not by Judith Miller alone.
Although we viewed the issues pertaining to the alleged reasons for an invasion of Iraq to be important, we viewed the unchallenged U.S. right to invade Iraq more importantly. This was so because, even assuming some Iraqi WMD capability, the Bush administration still would have had no right under international law to invade in the absence of an armed attack by Iraq against the United States (a physical and military impossibility) or authorization by the U.N. Security Council, which was never given.
And so—and this is what Brisbane in his “Lessons From Another War” did not consider—if there is one analogy worth mentioning between the Times coverage of Iraq and Iran, it is that the Times, in either its news or editorial pages, has yet to challenge the right of the United States or Israel under international law to resort to a threat or use of force against Iran.
In short, despite the fact that an invasion of one country by another implicates the cardinal rule of the U.N. Charter—the prohibition against the use and threat of force by states—the New York Times editorial page never mentioned the words “U.N. Charter” or “international law” in any of its seventy editorials on Iraq from September 11, 2001 to March 21, 2003 (the start of the U.S. invasion of Iraq). Likewise, the Times editorial page to date has declined to write “U.N. Charter” or “international law” into its editorials about the U.S. and Israeli threats to bomb Iran. Indeed, the “civilizational” failure at the Times goes beyond even this.
The Nuremberg Principles define “crimes against peace” as the “planning, preparation, initiation or waging of a war of aggression or a war in violation of international treaties, agreements, or assurances.” The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 was almost certainly a “war of aggression” and a “crime against peace” under the Nuremberg precedent, as would a U.S. or Israeli bombing of Iran, if that should occur. Several major Nazi war criminals, including Hermann Goering, Joachim von Ribbentrop, and Wilhelm Keitel, were found guilty at Nuremberg of committing “crimes against peace” as defined above, and sentenced to death by hanging. The Nuremberg Principles thus state at the outset that “any person who commits an act which constitutes a crime under international law is responsible therefore and liable to punishment” (Principle I), and “the fact that a person who committed an act which constitutes a crime under international law acted as head of State or responsible Government official does not relieve him from responsibility under international law” (Principle II). In other words, the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq in violation of the U.N. Charter was a “crime against peace” under the Nuremberg precedent, as would an American or Israeli bombing of Iran as currently discussed and threatened. This would seem to introduce, one would think, unacceptable “civilizational” implications for the United States, its people, and its news organizations.
While I can’t claim to have read every New York Times article and editorial about the U.S. and Israeli threats to bomb Iran’s nuclear facillities, I don’t recall any discussion over the past year or so in the Times, as these threats have escalated, about the Nuremberg Principles, formulated in response to Nazi aggression. Having thus denied the applicability of the U.N. Charter and the Nuremberg Principles to the threatened bombing of Iran, on what civilized basis has the Times grounded its coverage of that issue, if not the post-Nazi core of international law?
Certainly not the U.S. and Israeli positions on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Although, according to former president Jimmy Carter, Israel has over 300 nuclear weapons, it has never signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and it maintains and operates its nuclear arsenal in total secrecy. Iran, on the other hand, has signed and ratified the treaty, which gives signatories the right to peacefully use nuclear technology, and which also makes it subject to regular inspections by the IAEA. Furthermore, as recently as September 2010, the International Atomic Energy Agency, under pressure from the Obama administration, rejected a resolution calling on Israel to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
Although there are serious international law issues implicated in the U.S./Israeli threats to bomb Iran, Brisbane, like the Times, ignored them, in effect reproducing a key New York Times editorial practice while allegedly scrutinizing the Times. This is not to say that everything that Brisbane wrote was worthless or jingoistic; to the contrary. For one thing, he ably summarized it seems some of the criticisms of the Times coverage: “Among the criticisms are that The Times has given too much space to Israeli proponents of an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities; has failed to mention often enough that Israel itself has nuclear arms; has sometimes overstated the findings of the International Atomic Energy Agency; has repeated the questionable assertion that Iran’s leaders seek the eradication of Israel; and has published misleading headlines.” Brisbane also quoted William O. Beeman, author of a 2005 book on the United States and Iran, who “faulted The Times for mischaracterizing I.A.E.A reports.”
Brisbane, however, then relents somewhat: “This bill of particulars against The Times’s coverage weighs heavily, but it is clear to me that this is not a replay of the Judith Miller episode. I do find examples that support the complaints mentioned above, but also see a pattern of coverage that gives due credence to the counternarrative―not of war but of uncertainty and caution.” It isn’t clear how this allegedly better reporting cancels out the misleading headlines, the mischaracterized I.A.E.A. reports, the disproportionate space given to Israeli commentators, and the failure to mention the hypocrisy of two nuclear powers threatening to bomb an unproven nuclear power in violation of the most important rules of international law.
In the end, Brisbane made a good case that the Times had published both bad and good reporting on Iran. He also cited a number of experts on Iran who validly complained that the view from Iran was not making its way into the Times coverage, resulting in “a caricatured understanding not only of Iran’s leaders but of its people as being completely oppressed or completely lunatic,” although “neither impression is accurate.” Brisbane closed by arguing that “the West’s inability to understand the other side’s leadership may have a parallel with the run-up to the Iraq war,” and that “once again, the stakes are high for all involved, including The Times, which has an opportunity to get it right this time.” All of this is fine, except for the fact that the international law prohibition against the use and threat of force is not contigent on whether we better understand the leaders and people of Iran, although that certainly is a desirable goal.
Howard Friel is the author (with Richard Falk) of The Record of the Paper: How The New York Times Misreports U.S. Foreign Policy(Verso, 2004), and (with Falk) of Israel-Palestine on Record: How The New York Times Misreports Conflict in the Middle East (Verso, 2007). His most recent book is The Lomborg Deception: Setting the Record Straight about Global Warming (Yale University Press, 2010).