Newspaper of Wreckage

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by Derek Davison

The New York Times is often called the “newspaper of record,” which is supposed to sound very authoritative. But when you consider its performance in obfuscating, overhyping, under-investigating, and/or outright lying the United States into war, maybe “newspaper of wreckage” makes more sense. From Iraq to Libya to Syria and now maybe to Iran, the Times has helped prod the American public into an astonishing number of conflicts, and that’s just in this century.

The thing about being the “newspaper of record” is that if the Times reports on something happening in Washington, like Monday’s “White House Reviews Military Plans Against Iran, in Echoes of Iraq War,” you can assume, absent any other reporting, that it’s accurate. If the Times says the Trump administration has a plan to send 120,000 U.S. soldiers to the Middle East to counter/provoke Iran, then the Trump administration probably does have a plan to do just that. It’s everything else about the paper’s reporting that you have to question. In addition to displaying a staggering ignorance about parts of the world that aren’t either New York City or Washington, DC, its reporters tend to fill in the many blanks in their knowledge with whatever their (usually anonymous) government (or sometimes think tank) sources have told them. This leads what is supposed to be the most trusted news outlet in the United States to run an awful lot of unchecked pro-war propaganda.

The best example of this phenomenon is the Judith Miller scandal during the lead up to the Iraq War, when Miller allowed herself to be spun like a top by the Bush administration and Ahmad Chalabi. Although less apparent, the paper’s reporting on Iran and especially Iran’s nuclear program has been almost unmatched in terms of its glaring ignorance and over-reliance on unreliable sources. LobeLog has highlighted some of the most egregious cases of shoddy Times reporting on the subject. And that piece on Monday made it clear that the Times intends to keep pumping out misleading garbage on Iran even as John Bolton is busy manufacturing an excuse to take the United States into war.

The big problem with Monday’s piece comes in the very first paragraph (emphasis mine):

At a meeting of President Trump’s top national security aides last Thursday, Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan presented an updated military plan that envisions sending as many as 120,000 troops to the Middle East should Iran attack American forces or accelerate work on nuclear weapons, administration officials said.

The phrasing of “accelerate work on nuclear weapons” is either deliberately intended or sloppily worded so as to imply that Iran is already doing work on nuclear weapons, just at a slower pace than it might otherwise be doing. There’s no evidence of that. Both the International Atomic Energy Agency and the U.S. intelligence community say that Iran halted whatever nuclear weapons program it may have had in 2003 and hasn’t restarted it. On top of that, there’s good reason to question the intelligence that suggested Iran had an active weapons program prior to 2003. But the body of the Times’ work on Iran, not just this one recent article, for the most part treats it as a given that Iran has pursued, is pursuing, and will pursue nuclear weapons, relying for the most part on pro-war/pro-regime-change figures in DC political circles and the think tank community (the demonstrably pro-war Foundation for Defense of Democracies seems to be their go-to for Iran analysis).

Let’s continue (again, emphasis mine):

The revisions were ordered by hard-liners led by John R. Bolton, Mr. Trump’s national security adviser. They do not call for a land invasion of Iran, which would require vastly more troops, officials said.

Undoubtedly an invasion of Iran would require vastly more than 120,000 U.S. soldiers to even have a prayer of succeeding. But U.S. planners have tried going to war on the cheap in the past (the 120,000 or so used to invade Iraq were enough to overthrow Saddam Hussein but not nearly enough to secure the country afterward, which only compounded the problem in going to war in the first place). The Times never asks what good it would do to have all of those U.S. soldiers hanging around the Middle East just to look menacingly toward Tehran. The answer, most likely, is that Bolton et al would put them there to pressure the Iranians while providing the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps with a plethora of potential targets should, say, one of its commanders give in to that pressure and decide to take matters into his own hands. In other words, they’d be bait, there to provoke the Iranians into giving Bolton a justification for war. At that point, they’d become the nucleus of a larger invasion force.

Further along:

Some senior American officials said the plans, even at a very preliminary stage, show how dangerous the threat from Iran has become. Others, who are urging a diplomatic resolution to the current tensions, said it amounts to a scare tactic to warn Iran against new aggressions.

This paragraph is pure stenography. That the United States and its conspicuously anti-Iran national security advisor have a plan to put tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers in the Middle East is evidence of nothing other than an intent to trigger a conflict. It says nothing about “how dangerous the threat from Iran has become,” and it doesn’t mean Iran is about to carry out “new aggressions” (the Times helpfully says nothing about Iran’s previous “aggressions,” leaving the reader to use his or her imagination to fill in the blank).

Later, the article reports that those 120,000 troops are necessary as a display of “American Resolve,” so the Iranians stop thinking that the United States is weak:

But two of the American national security officials said Mr. Trump’s announced drawdown in December of American forces in Syria, and the diminished naval presence in the region, appear to have emboldened some leaders in Tehran and convinced the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps that the United States has no appetite for a fight with Iran.

But is there any evidence that the IRGC has been emboldened, apart from the musings of a couple of anonymous Trump administration officials? The “newspaper of record” never reveals this evidence for it is only interested in passing along what it’s been told. But wait! What about those oil tankers that were allegedly sabotaged off the coast of the United Arab Emirates on Sunday? The Times throws up its hands here, offering only that “American officials suspect that Iran was involved” but that “there is not yet any definitive evidence linking Iran or its proxies to the reported attacks.” Not “yet,” suggesting that there will be evidence at some point.

The Times offers some additional stenography further along in the piece:

“The president has been clear, the United States does not seek military conflict with Iran, and he is open to talks with Iranian leadership,” Garrett Marquis, a National Security Council spokesman, said Monday in an email. “However, Iran’s default option for 40 years has been violence, and we are ready to defend U.S. personnel and interests in the region.”

Over the past 40 years Iran has fought one war, after being attacked by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. It has participated to one degree or another in the Syrian civil war, supporting Bashar al-Assad. In the Iraqi civil war, it has fought against the Islamic State (as the United States was also doing). And in the Yemeni civil war, it has been supporting the Houthi rebels. But if one were to put the United States and Iran side-by-side and ask which of those two countries had made violence its “default option” in the Middle East over the past 40 years, the answer would easily be the United States. The Times, unsurprisingly, never bothers questioning the presumptions underlying Marquis’ statement.

As recently as late April, an American intelligence analysis indicated that Iran had no short-term desire to provoke a conflict. But new intelligence reports, including intercepts, imagery and other information, have since indicated that Iran was building up its proxy forces’ readiness to fight and was preparing them to attack American forces in the region.

Could it be that Iran is “building up its proxy forces’ readiness to fight” because the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran is really starting to look like a prelude to war, and Tehran is preparing in case it needs to defend itself? No, it must be that Iran is preparing to attack the United States. Anonymous U.S. officials have said so, and apparently it’s not the Times’ place to do anything more than repeat their claims.

Only at the very end does the article reveal that not only has John Bolton been pushing for a war with Iran since his time in the George W. Bush administration, but that he’s already requested that the Pentagon put together plans to strike Iran militarily at least once since becoming national security advisor—only to be thwarted in his efforts by then-Defense Secretary James Mattis.

By this point, a reader who wasn’t already familiar with the state of U.S.-Iran tensions would have concluded that Iran is an emboldened rogue state making dangerous threats against the United States while actively pursuing a nuclear weapon. Which is exactly the conclusion the Trump administration would like them to draw, even though none of it is objectively true. But for the newspaper of record, regurgitating those claims seems to be all it’s willing to do.

There’s an epilogue to this story, and no it’s not the offensive, warmongering editorial cartoon the Times ran on Tuesday. It’s that Trump, also on Tuesday, called the Times report “fake news” and said “hopefully we’re not going to have to plan for that.” So, then…where did the Times get its story? Who were all those anonymous sources eager to spill the beans about U.S. deployment plans, and why were they so eager to do it?

The answer seems clear: it was Bolton himself, and his acolytes, sending their own threat to Iran akin to Bolton’s “accidental” legal pad memo to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro back in January. But if Bolton’s boss doesn’t know what his own advisers are planning—and admittedly, this is not uncommon for Trump—then there’s a genuine danger that Bolton could wind up in control of the administration’s Iran policy. And his intentions are quite clear.

Derek Davison

Derek Davison is an analyst covering U.S. foreign policy and international affairs and the writer/editor of the newsletter Foreign Exchanges. His writing has appeared at LobeLog, Jacobin, and Foreign Policy in Focus.



  1. Of course the NYT has its own agenda, but the examples given show the danger this can pose, and has already posed just in this century. Not only is Iran made into an aggressor, quite without evidence, but even the defensive methods it takes ( ballistic missiles, alliance with neighbor Syria) are brought into the alleged breach of a nuclear agreement.
    “The revisions were ordered by hard-liners led by John R. Bolton, Mr. Trump’s national security adviser.” We could go back to Bolton’s 2003 failure with Iran and wonder how even Donald J Trump could employ such a loose cannon as a “National Security Adviser”.

  2. The sad thing is the American public has already forgotten the lessons learned after the media’s propaganda offensive supporting the illegal 2003 invasion of Iraq. The NYT and the rest of the “liberal media” call Trump a fascist yet they support and encourage his disastrous foreign policy. Ditto Democratic politicians. They seem more concerned about Trump’s lack of etiquette and his bellicose personality rather than his actions, which have tangible effects at home and abroad.

    Americans really have no historical memory and the people in power know it and take full advantage of this national character flaw.

  3. Thanks for this article. I hope a lot of people read this. Trump is uneducated in all subjects and not interested or curious to learn about anything. It’s the sound bite, the tough guy, bully rhetoric. Which makes him dangerous. Bolton and Pompeo also are an embarrassment. Diplomacy is best served when there is a problem with friend or foe. Iran is not a problem to the US, Russia is our problem. Europe has the right plan, don’t wait for 2020 and hope that the US rights their ship, but continue in the Iran deal. War with Iran will only give US another generation of fallen soldiers.

  4. Phenomenal article. Thanks for codifying this. The think tank culture and journalism go hand in hand, because expert sources are required for articles. If the journalist knows the political bias of the source they should briefly mention it, probably: “progressive-leaning” “hawkish” “conservative group” etc.

  5. Zahra wrote:

    Condy Rice had famously said that the death of 5 million children in Iraq (death by starvation, lack of medical care, displacement, landmines and bombs) was worth its price.

    Do you have a link for that, or reference to a dead trees journal or newspaper? I think you are exaggerating the story about former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. When she was told (she didn’t say it) that American sanctions on Iraq had killed 500,000 children over ten years, and was asked whether she thought it was “worth it,” she answered yes.

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