Irony hath no shame

Posted: May 20, 2005 12:00 AM

Even the most liberal-bashing, war-mongering, beef-eating American surely struggled to keep a straight face as the Bush administration expressed moral indignation about a Newsweek story that went belly-up on account of bad intelligence.

If anyone on God's green earth should understand that sometimes information is flawed, that one would be President George W. Bush, whose arguments in favor of invading Iraq proved to be similarly false.

Not lies, as I've stubbornly argued despite the risk of assault by audiences armed with cream pies and salad dressing. But bad info. Widely held beliefs that turned out not to be true. Incorrect data from formerly reliable sources who didn't get it right this time.

As was the case with the two Newsweek reporters who filed a "Periscope" item claiming that a Pentagon investigation had found evidence of Koran desecration at Guantanamo Bay.

The blurb, as everyone now knows, was later retracted, but not before it had provided unemployed Afghan radicals an excuse to riot, leading to more than a dozen deaths. And not before the world exploded in outrage and recrimination. I've already written about this so won't belabor the topic.

But after several days of being slapped around by the Irony Fairy, I can't ignore the absurdity of the White House's new role as institutional victim. My eyes have rolled so many times, my sockets are sore.

Apparently borrowing a page from the administration's critics, the White House condemned the reporters for making assertions on thin evidence, while press secretary Scott McClellan urged Newsweek to help repair the damage inflicted on America's image abroad.

". There is lasting damage to our image because of this report, and we would encourage Newsweek to do all that they can to help repair the damage that has been done, particularly in the region," he said.

McClellan suggested that Newsweek write about what happened - how it got the story wrong - and shine a light instead on how the U.S. military goes out of its way to be sensitive about issues related to Islam and the Koran.

I'm all for showing our best face, especially the military's, and have noted the media's disproportionately negative coverage during our time in Iraq and Afghanistan. But, come on, Scottie. One small news item about Koran desecration (not the first) hurt our image abroad?

Our image as infidels was, and has been, abysmal among those who would riot and who, time permitting, happily would exterminate us. Islamic extremists didn't even need Abu Ghraib to hate us more. Our image as Satan is tattooed on the radical-Muslim psyche and won't be erased until those rioting have a job, a paycheck and hope for some future this side of 72 virgins.

All of which is why I supported the Bush Doctrine and still hope it works. The spread of freedom and democracy is the Arab world's best hope and, therefore, ours. But getting to test that doctrine by invading Iraq was a bet we now know was based on faulty intelligence.

There were no stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, as everyone - including the French, Germans and others - believed. There is no evidence so far of Iraq trying to buy uranium yellowcake from Niger, as claimed. There were no mobile labs for biological weapons production, though arguably what were believed to be mobile labs had potentially dual uses, including possible production of biological and chemical agents.

All of the above were factors in the U.S. decision to invade Iraq. All were based on sources that proved to be unreliable. And yes, many people died.

History will determine whether the risk was worth it and whether we "won" this war. If democracy takes firm root in the Middle East - and there's reasonable cause for optimism - Bush will be honored for his political skill and courage. If not, charitable scribes will say he acted in good faith on bad information. The less-than-charitable are having their say now.

Alas, he had bad sources.

Newsweek's reporters in this case were sloppy by their own standards, printing a potentially explosive story based on only one (formerly reliable) source. For that, there's no defense. But the Bush administration would have done well to remain silent if sternly disapproving and let journalism punish its own. The market will take care of the rest.

By contributing to the cacophony of criticism, officials merely reminded people of this administration's own reliance on unreliable sources, giving the hate-Bush crowd fresh grenades to lob. As careful students of life's rulebook know, those who wage war don't get to play victim.