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MSNBC host Keith Olbermann used his broadcast on Thursday to respond to President Bush's latest failed plan for Iraq:
OLBERMANN: The plan fails militarily. The plan fails symbolically. The plan fails politically. Most important, perhaps, Mr. Bush, the plan fails because it still depends on your credibility. You speak of mistakes and of the responsibility "resting" with you, but you do not admit to making those mistakes. And you offer us nothing to justify this clenched fist towards Iran and Syria.
In fact, when you briefed news correspondents off-the-record before that speech, they were told, once again, "If you knew what we knew -- if you saw what we saw" --
"If you knew what we knew" was how we got into this morass in Iraq in the first place. The problem arose when it turned out that the question wasn't whether or not we knew what you knew, but whether you knew what you knew.
You, sir, have become the president who cried wolf. All that you say about Iraq now could be gospel. All that you say about Iran and Syria now could be prescient and essential. We no longer have a clue, sir. We have heard too many stories.
Olbermann raised a point too often overlooked by his media colleagues: Bush's lies and misstatements may have eroded his credibility to the point that it is impossible for him to govern; impossible for him to function effectively as commander in chief.
We've written several times that the news media has been negligent in ignoring this possibility. In November 2005, for example, we wrote:
With every week bringing new indications that the American people don't approve of or trust their commander in chief, news organizations continue to turn a blind eye toward the obvious questions that this distrust raises.
The Associated Press reports: "Two crucial pillars of President Bush's public support -- perceptions of his honesty and faith in his ability to fight terrorism -- have slipped to their lowest point in the AP-Ipsos poll. ... [S]ix in 10 now say Bush is not honest, and a similar number say his administration does not have high ethical standards."
And yet news organizations ignore, both in the polls they conduct and in the news reports they publish and broadcast, seemingly obvious follow-up questions about the effects of this widespread distrust of President Bush and of the belief that his administration was dishonest about the reasons for the Iraq war.
News organizations don't ask, for example, whether people are less likely to believe the administration if it argues that military action against another nation is necessary.
Instead, they treat public opinion about the Bush administration's honesty as a political challenge, as something with primarily partisan political effects. But when the majority of the American people think their president is dishonest and has already deliberately misled the nation into war once, that has profound national security implications that demand attention from the media. If, as a result of their belief that the administration was deliberately misleading about Iraq, people won't believe the administration in the future, that makes America less safe.
It wasn't long ago that some of America's leading news organizations thought that a president's deception was cause for resignation. The Chicago Tribune, for example, called for Bill Clinton's resignation in a September 15, 1998, editorial. One reason the Tribune gave was that Clinton's statements about the Monica Lewinsky matter would make it difficult to trust him in the future: "Who will know when he's telling the truth and when he's not, whether he's being sincere or play-acting, whether his word is his bond or just another artful dodge?"
That's a question news organizations should start asking again: "Who will know when he's telling the truth and when he's not?"
Bush has announced his intention to escalate a war the majority of Americans want to get out of -- a decision that one senior leader of his own party, Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, called "the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam." And, in doing so, he seemed to suggest a possible move against two other nations, Iran and Syria, as Steven Clemons, director of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, has noted on his personal weblog.
Perhaps recognizing the lack of legislative branch support for his policies, Bush has refused to seek congressional authorization for his Iraq escalation, even though three-quarters of Americans think he should seek such approval. And, as Glenn Greenwald, author of The New York Times best-seller, How Would A Patriot Act?, has explained, Bush may not seek congressional authorization before going to war with Iran.
This week, his press secretary declared: "Congress has the power of the purse. The President has the ability to exercise his own authority if he thinks Congress has voted the wrong way."
It's time for the media to start asking -- and try to answer -- some of the most important questions that exist in American democracy.
Has our president squandered the consent of the governed? Is he in danger of doing so? Does he even care, or does he believe he rules by divine right?
Those are weighty questions, the answers to which carry serious consequences.
But these are serious times.
Since Election Day, when voters rejected the Iraq war and gave Democrats convincing victories in both the House and the Senate, Sen. Joe Lieberman -- one of the most prominent supporters of the Iraq war -- has continued to enjoy regular access to the nation's airwaves as a guest on leading political shows.
As we have noted, Lieberman and Sen. John McCain, a fellow supporter of the Iraq war escalation, were the two guests on NBC's Meet the Press the Sunday after the November 2006 elections. Lieberman has also appeared on CBS' Face the Nation and CNN's Late Edition. This weekend, he is set to appear again on Meet the Press.
Given that Lieberman is one of the most prominent (indeed, one of the only) supporters of Bush's expansion of the Iraq war, we offer some questions that should be asked of him -- not only on Meet the Press, but by any journalist interviewing him about Iraq.
Too often, journalists stick to questions like, "Do you agree with President Bush?" and "Do you think 20,000 more troops will really help?" But many of the questions journalists should be asking of Lieberman, of the Bush administration, and of the pundits, who continually tell us we're just six months from success, aren't that simple. Given how often so many people have been so wrong about this war in the past, journalists should ask questions intended to discern why we should listen to them now; how they can be confident that they're right this time. Some of those questions are below; they focus on McCain due to his upcoming appearance on Meet the Press, but most apply to any supporter of the Bush-McCain-Lieberman Iraq war escalation plan.
1. Lieberman said in reaction to Bush's speech: "At the moment, we and our Iraqi allies are not winning in Iraq and the American people are understandably frustrated by the miscalculations, the lack of progress, and the daily scenes of violence and casualties."
To what miscalculations was Lieberman referring? Which miscalculations is he guilty of? What are the consequences of those miscalculations? What has he done to make himself less likely to make such miscalculations again?
2. In a November 2005 op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, Lieberman wrote: "Does America have a good plan for doing this, a strategy for victory in Iraq? Yes we do."
That didn't work out very well. Why and how was Lieberman so wrong? How can he now be sure he isn't wrong again? Why should we trust his judgment?
3. Lieberman has called Bush's plan "our last best hope." What if it doesn't work? What is Plan B?
4. The January 9 edition of The Washington Times quoted Lieberman as saying "In war, there are two exit strategies. One is called victory. The other is called defeat. ... America has too much on the line in Iraq to accept defeat."
What does "victory" mean? How will we know when it is achieved? Is there anything worse than "defeat"? What price is too high to pay for victory? How will we know when we've paid it?
5. Lieberman recently said that Congress should not interfere in Bush's plans for escalation: "I think this is a time for the president to be president and Congress to respect that part of the authority of the commander in chief and all hope that it works."
Under what scenario does Lieberman think should Congress intervene? What would Bush have to do in order for Lieberman to support congressional intervention? What would have to happen in Iraq? What gives Lieberman confidence that Bush knows what he's doing?
6. According to the Los Angeles Times on January 10, "Lieberman ... indicated that he was cool to the idea of screening all shipping containers. 'We're going to look at it,' he said. 'But it's not practical to impose it immediately.'"
Yet, as Media Matters for America has noted, a bipartisan group of senators including Chuck Schumer and Norm Coleman have pointed to Hong Kong's success in screening containers as evidence that such a system can work. Why does Lieberman think it is "not practical" to carry out this recommendation of the 9-11 Commission?
7. McCain recently said: "I'm not sure what the point would be" to raising taxes to pay for the Iraq escalation. And Bloomberg reported this week: "Iraq is the only major U.S. conflict, except for the 1846-48 Mexican-American War, in which citizens haven't been asked to make a special financial sacrifice. President George W. Bush opposes tax increases, even as the costs escalate far beyond predictions and he calls for more troops."
How does Lieberman plan to pay for the escalation of the Iraq war? Does he want to raise taxes? If not, what spending would he cut?
8. In December, after a visit to the Middle East, Lieberman wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post in which he argued for an escalation. Lieberman based his argument on conversations he claimed to have had with members of the military during a visit to Iraq:
After speaking with our military commanders and soldiers there, I strongly believe that additional U.S. troops must be deployed to Baghdad and Anbar province -- an increase that will at last allow us to establish security throughout the Iraqi capital, hold critical central neighborhoods in the city, clamp down on the insurgency and defeat al-Qaeda in that province.
In Baghdad and Ramadi, I found that it was the American colonels, even more than the generals, who were asking for more troops. In both places these soldiers showed a strong commitment to the cause of stopping the extremists. One colonel followed me out of the meeting with our military leaders in Ramadi and said with great emotion, "Sir, I regret that I did not have the chance to speak in the meeting, but I want you to know on behalf of the soldiers in my unit and myself that we believe in why we are fighting here and we want to finish this fight. We know we can win it."
Lieberman -- and McCain -- frequently invoke their purported conversations with members of the military in Iraq to support their stance, and they are almost never asked for detail by interviewers. Some obvious questions:
How many "military commanders and soldiers" did Lieberman speak to?
Were they unanimous? Did he encounter anyone who didn't think more troops would help; who thought the United States should get out of Iraq? What percentage opposes the escalation or thinks the United States should begin to withdraw from Iraq?
How did Lieberman come into contact with the "commanders and soldiers"? Were they a random sampling or a hand-picked group? Was Lieberman alone or accompanied by Pentagon handlers?
GOP Rep. Heather Wilson also recently went to Iraq -- and came away with far different conclusions than Lieberman. As Greg Sargent has noted, Republican Sen. Susan Collins was on the same trip Lieberman went on, during which she also talked to troops. She concluded that "it would be a mistake to send more troops to Baghdad." Sargent has also noted that even Oliver North said the troops he talked to in Iraq oppose escalation. North wrote:
McCain and Lieberman talked to many of the same officers and senior NCOs I covered for FOX News during my most recent trip to Iraq. Not one of the soldiers, sailors, airmen, Guardsmen or Marines I interviewed told me that they wanted more U.S. boots on the ground. In fact, nearly all expressed just the opposite: "We don't need more American troops, we need more Iraqi troops," was a common refrain. They are right.
Did Lieberman talk to different people than Collins and North talked to? How can he be confident that he got a representative sample of on-the-ground opinion?
9. In his November 2005 Wall Street Journal op-ed, Lieberman wrote, among other things, "I have just returned from my fourth trip to Iraq in the past 17 months and can report real progress there. ... Progress is visible and practical. ... There are many more cars on the streets, satellite television dishes on the roofs, and literally millions more cell phones in Iraqi hands than before. ... Last week, I was thrilled to see a vigorous political campaign, and a large number of independent television stations and newspapers covering it."
But the day after Lieberman's op-ed ran, the Los Angeles Times reported:
[T]he U.S. military is secretly paying Iraqi newspapers to publish stories written by American troops in an effort to burnish the image of the U.S. mission in Iraq.
Many of the articles are presented in the Iraqi press as unbiased news accounts written and reported by independent journalists. The stories trumpet the work of U.S. and Iraqi troops, denounce insurgents and tout U.S.-led efforts to rebuild the country.
Lieberman frequently pointed to the "independent television stations and newspapers" he saw in Iraq as evidence of how well things were going there. But those media outlets apparently weren't so "independent"; they were part of a U.S. propaganda campaign. As we noted at the time:
The possible effect that U.S. propaganda efforts aimed at the Iraqi people have apparently had on a senior U.S. senator is not a trivial matter. Lieberman bases his view of what our Iraq policy should be in part on his view of the progress being made there; his view of the progress being made there is likewise dependent in part on what he saw of the Iraqi media -- a media that, it turns out, may not be so "independent" after all. Thus one of the most prominent and influential backers of the Bush administration's Iraq policy -- one whose support President Bush talked about during his November 30 speech -- might be basing his support in part on Pentagon propaganda.
Lieberman's views of the situation in Iraq, in turn, drove news coverage about the war for much of the week: He made multiple appearances on CNN on the same day, appearances the network replayed and quoted throughout the week; he appeared on Fox News and on MSNBC and was mentioned in The Washington Post, the Associated Press, and several other major news outlets.
So news about Iraq this week was largely shaped by Lieberman's positive assessment of progress in Iraq, an assessment that relied in part on his having seen Iraq's "independent" media for himself. But the Los Angeles Times made clear just how hollow claims of a free and independent Iraqi media are.
So: In November 2005, Lieberman went to Iraq, looked around, thought he saw some independent newspapers, talked to a few people, and concluded that "[p]rogress is visible and practical."
As even Bush now admits, Iraq is, in fact, a mess. What steps, then, did Lieberman take to ensure that he make a more accurate assessment of the state of things during his December 2006 trip to Iraq? What did he do differently that time? What did he do to ensure that he saw reality, rather than simply seeing what the Pentagon wanted him to see? What lessons did he learn from his previous mistakes? Why should people trust that he'd gotten it right that time -- especially when Sen. Collins reached the opposite conclusion from the same trip?
10. During his post-election appearance on Meet the Press, host Tim Russert asked Lieberman: "Can you keep a country at war that doesn't want to be there?" Lieberman responded: "You can't, and that's why we need to form a bipartisan consensus for victory in Iraq, for success in Iraq, which is still attainable."
Two months later, the American people still don't want to be in Iraq, don't support the Bush-McCain-Lieberman escalation, and don't have confidence in Bush's handling of the war. How much longer does Lieberman think he can "keep a country at war that doesn't want to be there"?
11. This week, in support of Bush's announcement of his escalation plan, Lieberman stated that "excessive partisan division and rancor at home only weakens our will to prevail in this war."
If Lieberman thinks partisan division is so bad, shouldn't he join in with the growing number of members of Congress of both parties who oppose the escalation?
How does Lieberman reconcile his statement that "partisan division" is bad with his opposition to the most bipartisan position having anything to do with Iraq -- opposition to escalation?
12. The New York Times reported on January 5: "Mr. Lieberman said he hopes the president's proposals do not set off 'partisan political combat or some kind of inside-the-Beltway compromise.' "
Lieberman, then, warns of "partisan division" ... and yet opposes "compromise." How does he reconcile the two? Does he simply think everybody should do what he tells them?
13. Lieberman issued a statement in support of the Iraq war escalation in which he concluded: "Weakness only emboldens our enemy, but united resolution will make our nation safer for generations to come."
Does Lieberman really think those who disagree with his position are "weak"?
How does he reconcile calling those with whom he disagrees "weak" with his denunciation of "excessive partisan division and rancor"?
14. Lieberman's office announced this week that despite his election-year rhetoric, he would not use his new post as chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee to investigate the Bush administration's bungling of Hurricane Katrina. Newsweek reported:
Last year, when he was running for re-election in Connecticut, Lieberman was a vocal critic of the administration's handling of Katrina. He was especially dismayed by its failure to turn over key records that could have shed light on internal White House deliberations about the hurricane, including those involving President Bush.
But now that he chairs the homeland panel -- and is in a position to subpoena the records -- Lieberman has decided not to pursue the material, according to Leslie Phillips, the senator's chief committee spokeswoman. "The senator now intends to focus his attention on the future security of the American people and other matters and does not expect to revisit the White House's role in Katrina," she told NEWSWEEK.
Asked whether Lieberman's new stand might feed complaints that he has become too close to the White House, Phillips responded: "The senator is an independent Democrat and answers only to the people who elected him to office and to his own conscience."
Last year, Lieberman said he could not give "high marks to the Executive branch for its response to our investigation. The problems begin at the White House, where there has been a near total lack of cooperation that has made it impossible, in my opinion, for us to do the thorough investigation we have a responsibility to do. ... They have opposed efforts to interview their personnel. And they have hindered our ability to obtain information from other federal agencies regarding White House actions in response to Katrina. ... I hope the Committee will continue to pursue all these unanswered questions asked of the Executive branch until we have the information to answer the questions that must be answered."
Now, Lieberman won't use his new subpoena power to seek those answers. What has changed? Why does he no longer believe the committee has a "responsibility" to conduct a "thorough investigation"? Or was Lieberman simply grandstanding last year in an attempt to mollify Democratic voters?
Louisiana Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu campaigned for Lieberman last October, saying, "I do believe that Sen. Lieberman's record in the Senate justifies my support of him, not only what he's done for Connecticut, but what he's done for Louisiana, what he's done for the nation." Did Lieberman discuss his decision not to pursue the Katrina investigation with Landrieu?