An Insider's Assessment of Media Punditry and "Operation Iraqi Freedom"

By Ibrahim Al-Marashi

Ibrahim Al-Marashi (right)

When high-intensity combat in "Operation Iraqi Freedom" came to a close in May, 2003, the US had declared victory in achieving its objectives. But it failed to predict the wide-scale looting that would erupt after the war as well as the sustained animosity and low-intensity warfare directed against American forces that killed over 500 US soldiers by the war's first anniversary.
Given the rapid pace of this campaign most analyses focused on the course of the war, with little academic or often inaccurate assessment of the war and its aftermath on Iraq. Part of the inaccurate assessments of the situation in Iraq from the US side could be blamed on the structure and nature of the American media's coverage of the build-up and course of the war.

This chapter is based on my experience as an "overnight media pundit" in these very media circles. The experience gave me an insider's perspective of how media operated during this conflict and areas where it needed reform.
As an insider in these media circuits, I noticed during this war that media pundits confused the coverage of the war rather than complemented it, combining misinformation and entertainment in one package.

Misinformation and Media Punditry

In the US media, "overnight experts" dominated the airwaves and the discourse on Iraq. As someone who devoted his life to the study of Iraq since the beginning of my academic career in 1991, nothing irritated me more to see people on the airwaves who marketed themselves as "Iraq experts." In fact, prior to the buildup to the war there were few academics who were devoted to the study of Iraq. Those few, prominent Iraq scholars were not featured prominently in the media talk-interview circuit, perhaps out of their own volition or because they were never contacted.
In American media circles, former military generals dominated media outlets, demonstrating how the US media were obsessed with how Iraq was being destroyed, while little attention was focused on how it would be rebuilt. Many of these military experts could tell American audiences the weapons used to destroy Baghdad, but few, if any could explain the cultural nuances of the Iraqi citizenry, and how the country would react to the presence of US troops on its soil. For example, one of the media pundits was General Wayne Downing, a retired 1991 Gulf War general and special operations expert. He was one of the prominent TV generals who explained in detail US military plans, but who could say little about the country that was being bombed. In an interview with Fox News September 29, 2002, Downing was asked how he predicted the Iraqi military would perform in a war with the U and responded, "
Even the Republican Guards, their elite units, are ones that we have a very, very good possibility that they will fold early in a conflict against a backdrop of overwhelming American force."

While Downing predicted that the Republican Guard deployed on the outskirts of the capital would not serve as an enthusiastic fighting force, nor put up much resistance to an American attack, the Guard demonstrated a sustained will to engage US and UK forces during the conflict. After the Iraqi Shi'a and Kurds revolted against the regime in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, the weakened Republican Guard rallied behind Saddam Hussein, and brutally suppressed the insurrection. This uprising took on an ethnic and sectarian nature, and it appeared as if the predominantly Arab Sunni Republican Guards were defending their privileged status in the Iraqi state. In their perception, this privileged status would not be guaranteed in a post-Saddam Iraq, and thus could explain their motivation in defending a regime, where they were the elite stratum in Iraq's society, as well as the premier fighting unit. However, Downing's analysis focused on the military capabilities of the Guard, without taking these Iraqi cultural or historic nuances into account.
In another interview November 29, 2002, on MSNBC's Hardball, the general was asked about how post-war order and security in Iraq would be restored. He responded, "We have some very, very highly trained people, most of them in our reserve component, our civil affairs units who are experts at going in, restoring government services, restoring power, sewage, water, these types of things, and knowing how the military works, they've got detailed plans on how they'll do that. How long it's going to go, it's going to depend on the situation and how it evolves."

However, the military seemed to have no plan whatsoever to restore order or rehabilitate the nation's infrastructure once the Saddam regime collapsed. As a military expert, Downing had the knowledge to testify about the destruction of Iraq, but had little authority to inform the public of how Iraq would be rebuilt.

As a result, the dearth of public knowledge on Iraq and the emergence of these "overnight experts" led to many false predictions of how the war would evolve as well as how the Iraqis would react to the American and British presence once Saddam was removed. The neglected study of the internal dynamics of Iraq's domestic politics and security apparatus led to many failed forecasts when US and UK forces went to war against those institutions of the Iraqi state. The American media as well as its policy-making "think tanks" provided many failed assessments of how the war would be fought. Generally, these institutions predicted the Shi'as of the south of Iraq would revolt against their Sunni, Tikriti masters, leaving the "decapitation" of the regime in Baghdad the toughest battle. On the contrary, the Shi'a did not rise against the Ba'th, most of the pitched battles were in the south, and Baghdad fell relatively easily. It was predicted that Saddam's elite Special Republican Guard and myriad of security organizations would fight to the very end to defend the capital, however the paramilitary organizations such as Feda'iyeen Saddam, which did not have formal military training, posed the most serious challenge to coalition forces. Saddam's feared weapons of mass destruction were not deployed against military forces as they approached Baghdad; in fact a year after the war they have yet to be uncovered, and in January 2004 even official Washington questioned whether Iraq had WMDs. Finally, it was mistakenly predicted that Iraq's oil wells would be set ablaze in large numbers, as were the Kuwaiti fields in 1991.

The late Edward Said (1998) articulated another flaw in the American media in an article on the 1991 Gulf war. He criticized the media for failing to feature Arab commentators who were neither pro-American, nor pro-Saddam. He argued that if the media were to do so, it would have been perhaps too confusing for the audiences. Yet his comments after the 1991 war touch on a problem that the media failed to remedy after more than a decade. As a whole, media pundits mistakenly classified the Iraqis into pro-Saddam or anti-Saddam factions, and thus assumed that once the Saddam government was vanquished, the anti-Saddam tendencies in Iraq would rally behind the US. However, Arab or Iraqi commentators who were neither pro-Saddam nor pro-American were rarely seen among these media circles. It could have been that those commentators would have warned that there are Iraqis who are neither pro-Saddam nor pro-American, and that while many Iraqis would be happy to see Saddam leave, they would not welcome an American occupation.
Once the high-intensity war was over, it was believed that American forces would be greeted as liberators, and Iraqi exiles would be enthusiastically received. Richard Pearle, chairman of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board and a fellow at the conservative think tank The American Enterprise Institute, argued on the media circuit that the Iraqi people would rejoice at Saddam's downfall and that the Iraqis would welcome the American liberators with open arms. On an October 6, 2002, interview on NBC's Meet the Press, Pearle stated, "Well, I think he will certainly discover, and I think he actually already knows, that very few Iraqis are loyal to Saddam Hussein, which is hardly surprising, given the brutality of his rule over a long period of time. So whether it's an assassination or whether he goes the way of Ceausescu in Romania, where the moment he was seriously challenged, his own people brought him down, I don't know. But there will be very few Iraqis prepared to fight for Saddam Hussein."

His last sentence was brought into question by the fact that there was a stiff resistance to the coalition assault in the first week of the war, and there had been a sustained series of attacks against Coalition forces since the official cessation of hostilities. Pearle's assessments failed to take into account the almost immediate animosity directed towards the US once Saddam was removed, and what the Iraqis envisioned for their future state.

Kenneth Pollack, a former CIA analyst during the Clinton administration and a CNN analyst was one of the more prominent "talking heads" during this conflict. He is a Brookings Institute senior fellow and author of The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq, published in 2002. While Pollack provided accurate analysis on Iraq during the conflict, he did make mistakes as well. In an interview on CNN's Capital Gang on November 23, 2002, Pollack was asked about the possibility of chemical weapons being used in the war. He replied, "I think there's no question he will at some point in time. The key issue is when. Does he use them right at the outset, or does he try to wait?"

I had hoped to do my part in changing these aforementioned flaws, once I entered the arena of media punditry. However I too made failed assessments about Iraq's WMD program, similar to Pollack's comments in the preceding interview. What allowed me to enter the media circles was not that I had devoted my life to the academic study of Iraq's culture and history, nor my publications on this subject. My "claim to fame" emerged when an UK intelligence dossier on Iraq's intelligence agencies, presented by Colin Powell to the UN Security Council in February 2003, was plagiarized from a historical, academic article I had written on Iraq's intelligence agencies (see Al-Marashi, 2002).

As I was inundated by media requests, I thought that this plagiarism incident gave me a chance, as an Iraqi-American, to enter the mainstream media circuits. First, it allowed me a chance to dispel the images of those Iraqi exiles with heavy accents begging the US to liberate their country. Second, it allowed me to present my insight into the Iraqi conflict, giving both an Iraqi and American perspective, something that was glaringly absent from the media. However, my hopes were quickly dashed as I conducted my first barrage of media interviews. I assumed that if my research was valuable enough to have been presented as an UK intelligence source surely my analysis on the situation with Iraq would be sought after by the media. On the contrary, in most instances the interviews were forums to "sling mud" at the British government, focusing on the scandal rather the upcoming war itself.

Since the story of my plagiarized article emerged on February 7, 2003, I had conducted over 200 interviews with the media within a 90-day span. Only 10% of those interviews asked for my analysis on the war with Iraq, without commenting on my plagiarism incident. During those interviews, I noticed another structural flaw in the media, which was articulated by Edward Said in an article on the 1991 Gulf war. I noticed that most media channels would give me or any other pundit no more than two to three minutes to speak. Said (1998) said, "Once in the 15 seconds I was given, when I began to elucidate an argument about the relationship between Iraqi aggression and American imperialism, I was cut off abruptly: 'Yes, yes, we know all that.'"

The media's addiction to neat, concise sound bites and its reliance on splash rather than substance, forced me to gloss over the complexities of not just the upcoming war, but more importantly, its aftermath. In most interviews, I had two minutes to comment, and then a commercial or the next speaker would cut me off. Iraq is not a country one can summarize a minute before the commercial break, and the time constraints caused me to neglect many of minute details of Iraq's politics and internal dynamics. Under the pressure of bright lights and commercial breaks, concise sound bites did not allow me to convey certain information correctly.

Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction

Most media pundits also overstated the case of Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction. William Kristol, co-author of The War on Iraq: Saddam's Tyranny and America's Mission (2003) is also the chairman and co-director of the Project for the New American Century, stated that the Iraqi leader would never peacefully dismantle his weapons program. In an interview with Ted Koppel on ABC's Nightline, March 5, 2003, Kristol said, "Well, look, I think when we go into Iraq and after we remove Saddam, we'll have to stay there for a while. We'll have to remove the weapons of mass destruction. But I think we owe it to the people of Iraq to help them reconstitute their society and to help them establish a decent and, I really hope, democratic government there. That would be a great; it would be great to help the people of Iraq liberate themselves. For one thing, they've suffered under such a cruel and brutal dictator. And it would be a great thing for the Middle East to have a functioning democratic country right in the middle of that region."

However, his justification of an American presence for the sake of the removal of those weapons of mass destruction has proved unfounded, and the debt to the Iraqi people to establish a democracy has not been forthcoming.

David Kay, the chief UN nuclear weapons inspector after the 1991Gulf War, and senior fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, also argued that the nature of Saddam's regime would indicate that Iraq would never give up its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction.

When interviewed on CNBC News January 29, 2003, about the risks of going to war with Iraq, he said, "Actually, as a result of military action in the US, there is at least the distinct and I think a high probability that the results are going to be extremely favorable for the Middle East and for the region."

Granted that Kay has the authority and expertise to speak about Iraq's WMD program, his predications that the war would be favorable for the region may have been overly optimistic. In the immediate aftermath of the war tensions escalated between the US on one hand, and Iran and Syria on the other, there were terrorist attacks in places ranging from Morocco to Saudi Arabia, and the post-war chaos in Iraq may have given Al-Qaeda agents a new base to continue their campaign against the US.

I would also fall into the category of those misrepresenting Iraq's WMD threat during my media interviews. For example, on numerous occasions I was asked if Iraq possessed WMD capabilities. In one instance I had 10 seconds left in an interview to answer one question, "Does Iraq have a weapons of mass destruction capability?" The answer to this question had neither a "yes" nor "no" answer. In my opinion, Iraq had a WMD capability in the past and probably retained the infrastructure to reconstitute that capability. Even so, if Iraq had these weapons, they posed a threat to Iraq's people in the past and invading Iranian soldiers during the Iran-Iraq War. These weapons hardly posed a threat to world security as had been portrayed by other media pundits. However, in this instance I did not have time to give a nuanced answer like this. In this interview, I answered "yes."

The War on Terror

The war against Iraq was justified in many media outlets as a continuation of America's "War on Terror." On the Fox News Network, after the commercial break, the words "Operation Iraq Freedom" would dissolve into "The War on Terror" where upon the news program would begin. Linking of the war against Al-Qaeda and Iraq war in certain media outlets blurred the nature of both conflicts.
Some of the media pundits had studied Iraq for a while, perhaps for too long. Many of those pundits who argued the most vehemently for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, were arguing originally in the 1980s that the dictator was America's staunchest regional ally to contain Iran's Islamic revolution. For example Laurie Mylroie (2001) was one of those "experts" who argued that it was in America's interests to cultivate ties with Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War. After the 1991 invasion of Kuwait, she rehabilitated herself and was one of the first authors to contribute to the demonization campaign against Saddam. She considers herself an Iraq scholar and was the author of A Study of Revenge: The War Against America, Saddam Hussein and the World Trade Center Attacks (2001), which linked Iraq to both World Trade Center attacks in 1993 and 2001. She vehemently argued that Iraq and Osama Bin Laden worked together. Osama Bin Laden provided the "martyrs" while the Iraqi intelligence services trained Al-Qaeda. In her media appearances, she argued the necessity of striking Saddam before he and Osama could hatch another terrorist attack. In an interview on FNN, she claimed that UN inspections were ineffective in that they were failing to protect US security: "
I, for one, like the vice president, did not want to go to the Security Council for precisely these reasons, partly because UNMOVIC is not UNSCOM. UNMOVIC is very weak. It's broken down. And another thing is, for the defense of the United States, we shouldn't be having to go and ask Russia and France, Oh, please, pretty please, can we defend ourselves?" (Fox News, Fox On The Record with Geta Van Susteren, December 9, 2002).

As the interview continued she reiterated her case of Iraqi responsibility for the 1993 and 2001 World Trade Center bombings, "The other alternative is to go back to terrorism, 9/11, the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, and show that Iraq has been involved in these attacks on the United States." While there was little concrete evidence behind this theory, she may have accidentally predicted the cooperation that apparently has emerged between Saddam loyalists and Al-Qaeda elements, with the only caveat that this cooperation emerged in the aftermath of the latest war.

James Woolsey, CIA director under President Clinton, stated that Saddam had ties to Al-Qaeda and supported Laurie Mylroie's theories of an Iraq-Al-Qaeda link. In an interview on the same Fox News program, he was asked in February 2003 about the possibility of Saddam attacking the US during the buildup to the war. He said, "I think what he's likely to do is provide something like, you know, anthrax or something like that to terrorist groups, Al-Qaeda or some other. He and these terrorist groups are sort of like Mafia families, particularly the ones that are religiously based, in part, like Al-Qaeda. They hate each other and they kill each other and they criticize each other, but they're willing to work together on this and that because they hate us more" (Fox News, Fox on the Record With Greta Susteren, February 26, 2003).

Additionally, Frank Gaffney, president and CEO of the Center for Security Policy, argued that Saddam's Iraq had a record of supporting terrorism including the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. An interview on CNN with Katrina Vanden Heuvel on CNN Talkback Live, January 6, 2003, went as follows:

GAFFNEY: Yeah. Well, I think the main point that needs to be born in mind here is we're dealing with a country in Saddam Hussein that has been bent on revenge ever since 1991. And I simply disagree that there's no evidence of involvement between Saddam and acts of terror in this country. There is considerable evidence of it. The case needs to be prosecuted.

VANDEN HEUVEL: Frank, I mean, he may be a brutal dictator...

GAFFNEY: Excuse me just a second, Katrina. The case needs to be properly prosecuted and it hasn't been to my satisfaction to this point. But the larger message is unmistakable. Saddam Hussein's influence is real and is growing in this region, if we allow him to gain access to weapons of mass destruction beyond those he already has. The nuclear weapons in particular. That influence will metastasized even further and be vastly more destabilizing than the act we need to take, which is to liberate the Iraqi people.

In another interview with Paul Begala on CNN Crossfire, October 7, 2002, Richard Pearle also reiterated the claim of a Saddam-9/11 link:

BEGALA: Why are you pushing this line if our intelligence officers say it is not so?

PEARLE: They're wrong.
BEGALA: Can you give us some reasons without breaching classified data? President Kennedy showed us the pictures of the missiles in Cuba. Have you got some proof?

PEARLE: We don't have pictures. We have intelligence reports that I believe are reliable. I think there are other indications of other meetings with other members of al Qaeda including hijackers and intelligence officials from Iraq. The Iraqis-a fellow by the name of al Amni. I think the evidence is compelling. If others think it isn't, there is just a difference of opinion between us.

In the exchange with Begala, Pearle stated that US intelligence officers are mistaken for not emphasizing this link, but then contradicts himself by stating that the evidence for such a link is based on US intelligence reports. While there was barely any evidence that Saddam had cooperated with Al-Qaeda in the past, it seems that in the post-war anarchy ensuing in Iraq, Al-Qaeda elements may in penetrated the country and in fact be cooperating with Saddam loyalists, providing a magnet for fighters to enter Iraq and target American soldiers. Thus "Operation Iraqi Freedom" only intensified the War on Terror, which none of the aforementioned media pundits predicted.

The Language of the Media and its Pundits

I could not help notice how the war was not portrayed in the media as a war against Iraq or the Iraqi people but a war against Saddam Hussein, his two sons, and the Feda'iyeen, depicted as a group of unprofessional bandits and mercenaries in the service of the dictator opposed to the professional, technologically advanced American and British armed forces. The war was almost portrayed as a film with the forces of "good" battling against Saddam's minions of "evil." The vilification of Saddam and his family emerged into an elaborate soap opera of family intrigue with the stories of the abuses of Uday Hussein, Saddam's eldest son featured prominently in men's entertainment magazines such as Maxim and Esquire. On the other hand, I would argue during media interviews that Uday received undue attention opposed to Abid Hamid Mahmoud, the Iraqi presidential secretary, who was responsible for Saddam's security apparatus as well as his personal protection. However Mahmoud, perhaps the second most powerful man in Saddam's regime, with the title of presidential secretary and his long Arabic name, did not have a sinister tone as "Uday, the son of Saddam," and I was never asked to elaborate further on his role.

Saddam, Uday and the Feda'iyeen emerged as the array of icons and symbols throughout the media. Just as in any film, the characters, villains and heroes emerged throughout the conflict. Ali Hassan Al-Majid, Saddam Hussein's cousin, was usually referred to with the euphemistic title of "Chemical Ali," an odious nickname to acknowledge his use of chemical weapons to eliminate large segments of Iraq's Kurdish population. However, Chemical Ali was soon overshadowed by "Comical Ali," Muhammad Said al-Sahhaf, the Iraqi Minister of Information, who exaggerated claims of Iraqi battlefield successes unintentionally won him international recognition and celebrity.
Along with the sinister list of regime cronies, there were other characters such as Dr. Huda 'Ammash known as "Mrs. Anthrax" or "Chemical Sally" and Dr. Rihab Taha, known as "Dr. Germ." Only among US and UK media circles, did I notice the pundits' use of nicknames to describe the members of Saddam regime. Even I discovered that is was useful at times to utilize these titles during media interviews because it made the interviews livelier. Thus, I, too, fell into the trap of not only informing the audience, but entertaining them as well.

During the course of the war, the US Defense Intelligence Agency produced its first "Iraqi Most Wanted" cards printing and cutting out 200 decks by hand. They were initially created for use by US soldiers in Iraq to identify and capture high-ranking Baathists. Various companies such as Great USA Flags started to market these cards over the Internet, selling over a million Most Wanted decks a $5.95 apiece. The emergence of these cards not only was a profitable venture, but it added an element to media's coverage of Iraq. The capture of the former Iraqi Baathists became a game, enhancing the entertainment nature of this conflict. The cards of Iraqi officials, many of them war criminals, could be collected as if they were baseball cards. Figures such as Abid Hamid Mahmoud were no longer the Iraq's "presidential secretary" but rather the "Ace of Diamonds."

On the CNN program American Morning, on June 23, 2003, former general-turned-pundit David Grange was asked about the ongoing hunt for members of Saddam's ousted regime. He responded:
Well ... we can talk about ... Task Force 20. [I]t's a special operations force made up of several services that all bring different capabilities to this task force. It could even have coalition members from British forces as an example. It's primary missions are to go after the card deck of 55, the top people, to kill or grab these enemy leaders, hostage rescue, and also sensitive or highly sensitive possible WMD sites.

Thus, the hunt for some of the members of the most odious regime in the history of the Middle East was reduced to a game of playing cards.

The military conflict that began between Coalition forces and Iraq on March 20, 2003, has been referred to as "Operation: Iraqi Freedom" by the US side, while the Arabic satellite station Al Jazeera labeled it, as did many other Arab circles, "al-Harb al-Khalijiyya al-Thalitha," or "The Third Gulf War." Such titles are key to understanding how media outlets perceive the conflict. The US media would call military actions against Iraq "Operation Desert Storm," "Operation Desert Fox," and "Operation Iraqi Freedom." It was as if the use of the term "operation" sanitized the attacks being carried out against Iraq. The Al Jazeera term, "The Third Gulf War," made more sense, as for the region it was in fact the third Gulf War. Once, when I tried to employ this more politically correct term for the conflict in a media interview, I was corrected by the news anchor, who said, "You mean Operation Iraqi Freedom."

Comparing US and UK media

After the British government had copied my article on Iraq's intelligence agencies, I often traveled to the UK to participate in interviews during the war. My experience in the UK media circuit gave a valuable insight into how American media coverage could be improved. Granted, some could argue that the UK media also served as a vehicle to glorify the British campaign in Iraq, but it featured outside commentators who gave a more balanced commentary of the war. For example, on Sky News, a London-based Iraqi dissident expressed his eagerness to see Saddam Hussein removed, yet was deeply disturbed by the devastation of his native country. He argued, "You cannot put in place a democratic government. That's an oxymoron. A democracy has to be built up gradually according to the culture of a place."

This is a stark contrast to the American media that rarely gave a voice to Iraqis. Iraqi officials, such as Muhammad Sa'id al-Sahhaf, gave the official Iraqi perspective, but the numerous Iraqi community leaders in the West were rarely featured in these media circles. In the few instances they were featured, they had heavy accents, and were apparently chosen because they supported the war.


The purpose of this chapter is not to criticize the inability of the media pundits to predict how the war in Iraq would unfold, as doing so would be difficult for the most dedicated analysts who study the region. Rather this chapter demonstrates how those pundits with a political agenda, such as the neo-conservatives, advanced their views while at the same time they were played off as "experts" on Iraq or the region. Their analyses, broadcast through various media outlets, misled viewers on the nature of Iraq's WMD program and its role in the War on Terror.

The media's failure to understand Iraq's history and politics led to many miscalculations of how "Operation Iraqi Freedom" would evolve, and how the Iraqi people would react to an American occupation. Additional miscalculations could have disastrous results. If given the chance, as an historian of Iraq, I could have used the media to warn that the US should heed the lesson of the Great Iraqi Revolution of 1920, which united the disparate communities of the Shi'as, Sunnis, and Kurds in the newly created mandate of Iraq in their common animosity to British forces based in Iraq. All the ingredients are present for a second Great Iraqi Revolution. The Iraqi nation was created from the ravages of the First World War, a nationwide revolt in the 1920s, and the uncertainties of World War II. It underwent revolutions in 1958, 1963 and 1968, dealt with an almost continuous Kurdish rebellion, a mass uprising in March of 1991, and three disastrous wars with foreign powers. Neither Iraq, nor the Americans stationed there, need a second Great Revolution. TBS

Ibrahim Al-Marashi (M.A., Georgetown)is an analyst at the Center for Non-Proliferation Studies in Monterey, California. After receiving a master's in Arab Studies, Al-Marashi is currently finishing a Ph.D. at the University of Oxford, Centre for Middle Eastern Studies. He is a specialist on Iraq's intelligence agencies and Iraqi public diplomacy during the 1990-1991 occupation of Kuwait. Al-Marashi authored the Middle East Review of International Affairs article, "Iraq's Security and Intelligence Network: A Guide and Analysis", which was plagiarized by the British government in February 2003 as part of its case for going to war in Iraq. The case's celebrity resulted in an intensive but brief stint as an international media pundit.


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