Against a backdrop of the Trump administration’s increasingly bellicose language, on May 5 Secretary of State John Bolton announced the U.S. would deploy an aircraft carrier and destroyer group to the Persian Gulf “to send a clear and unmistakable message to the Iranian regime that any attack on United States interests or on those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force.”
The deployment was presented as a direct response to an ambiguous and undefined Iranian threat as trumpeted by American officials. Nonetheless, by the Pentagon’s own admission, that threat was more smoke than fire, and it appears the response was less a matter of military pragmatism than political theater.
In fact, the USS Abraham Lincoln had already been scheduled for routine deployment to the Persian Gulf, yet together with the installation of a Patriot missile battery in the area, the announcement prompted the New York Times to declare in a banner headline: “Pentagon builds deterrent force against possible Iranian attack.”
However, four such installations were removed from the area only months earlier. If military posture is an indicator of a threat’s seriousness, the deployments warrant little attention. Yet as a sign of the administration’s bellicose intentions, they’re highly significant.
Increasingly, American actions toward Iran echo the drumbeat that presaged America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq: brutalizing sanctions, economic siege, accusations of crumbling international agreements, collusion with regional players, and warming relations with disgraced exiles who promise to install a more friendly regime.
More worrying yet is another dangerous parallel: media complicity.
Consider the uncritical New York Times report referenced above. It’s an important reminder the Iraq war was not waged with bullets and bombs alone, but under the cover of credulous reporting, and in the absence of meaningful critique.
What the New York Times gets wrong
The article lacks substantive analysis. The reporters ignore the necessary context that shows these deployments are theatrical—not a new military or strategic reality. Even after the deployment takes place, the number of Patriot missile batteries will be a reduction over the defenses mounted several months ago. This is on top of the Department of Defense’s decision to reduce support for regional militaries by 30 percent to fund operations in Asia. The deployments that prompted the Times article are high-profile only in the absence of context, and the very act of covering them gives oxygen to the administration’s narrative.
Not a single dissenting voice finds space in the Times piece. The primary sources are unnamed “American officials.” The lone “neutral” voice is an analyst with the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank which is ostensibly bi-partisan, but unlikely to present views that challenge the national security establishment. More importantly, the piece entirely ignores Iranian (or regional) perspectives. It reinforces the reality that communities abroad have no voice in the American policies that happen to them. Their exclusion is not merely a matter of conscience, but of consequence. Dissenting voices challenge conventional wisdom and can interrupt the self-perpetuating cycle of false narratives.
The article is removed from historical and global context. From the perspective of an overstretched American empire, every potential challenge abroad represents a threat that demands a response, irrespective of the threat’s gravity, credibility, or extent. Because American foreign policy assumes its own benevolence, the consequences of these responses go unnoticed.
The article buries the most damning contrary evidence, and in effect, it validates the military’s action. The intelligence which is assumed to be the impetus for the deployment is far less certain than the declarative reporting of the Times would suggest. As the article concedes: “The Iranian strategy, the analysis said, is to prod the United States into a miscalculation or overreaction.” Nonetheless, it buries this mitigating circumstance and downplays its significance.
At best, the article is stenographic, and it repeats myriad journalistic sins that should continue to haunt the Times. In 2003, the paper’s uncritical coverage of Iraqi weapons programs made it an essential media voice through which the Bush administration was able to promote its ambition to invade Iraq. In an extraordinary admission of guilt, in 2004 the Times editorial board published a mea culpa owning up to the “failings of American and allied intelligence, especially on the issue of Iraq’s weapons and possible Iraqi connections to international terrorists,” a factor that was critical to justifying the war. Its own role reporting that false intelligence was consequential, and it continues to be.
The Times report is not malicious, nor badly misinformed. At worst, it is incomplete. But its omissions have the potential to be enormously consequential. In the past, the press and most Americans have washed their hands of these failings, but Iraqis can’t.