Is the media marching us to war (again)?

American journalists keep raising the possibility that the various conflagrations in the Middle East will lead to a wider war in the region – perhaps even to direct hostilities between the U.S. and Iran.

Major news outlets continually run headlines like “The killing of U.S. troops in Jordan raises specter of a wider war in the Middle East” (NPR, Jan. 29); “U.S. strike in Baghdad raises specter of wider regional war” (Washington Post, Jan. 4); and “Attacks Heighten Fears of a Wider War for the Middle East and U.S.” (New York Times, Jan. 3). The Times has even collected its coverage under the rubric of Widening Mideast Crisis.

They seem enlivened by the possibility. They should instead be warning of what a massive disaster such a wider war would be for everyone involved.

Similarly, in the wake of a deadly drone attack on a remote U.S. outpost in Jordan, American journalists keep asking when President Biden will respond and will it be aggressive enough.

What they should be asking instead is “What are we doing there in the first place?” and “How can the U.S. de-escalate the tensions in the region?”

It’s almost like the run-up to war in Iraq again, except instead of the Bush hawks intentionally taking us to war on false pretenses, the Biden hawks are potentially getting us into an accidental war based on a flawed principle: unwavering support of Israel. The central motive for the current spate of hostilities toward the U.S. in the region is the U.S.’s continued support of Israel’s inhumane bombing and destruction of Gaza.

Meanwhile, just as in the run-up to Iraq, the mainstream media is accepting administration narratives as gospel, without any pushback.

And reporters are basically braying for military solutions, willfully forgetting the lesson of Iraq (and Afghanistan and Vietnam) that U.S. military intervention pretty much always makes things worse.

Leading the pack, as it was in Iraq, is the Washington Post editorial board, which on Tuesday called for “devastating retaliation” for the outpost attack.

The news articles routinely state that Biden and other American officials are trying to avoid a wider war. But they don’t get into what the consequences would be – or the most obvious way to avoid them.

To learn that, you have to go elsewhere.


National security writer Spencer Ackerman opened his “Forever Wars” newsletter on Wednesday with this lede:

Proving that the U.S. political class has learned nothing from the generation-long disaster in Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond, the lethal drone strike that slew three U.S. Army reservists in northeastern Jordan has become a call to hunt the great white whale of the War on Terror: Iran.

Biden may not be seeking war, but he “has locked his policy into a position where every provocation prompts another step up the escalator,” Ackerman wrote. And he openly addressed the danger of a U.S.-Iran war:

If you thought the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were agonizing catastrophes, they will be nothing compared to war with Iran….

It does not take a paranoid imagination to see how easily this war can become apocalyptic.

Unlike mainstream writers, Ackerman bluntly described the root cause of the crisis: “Israel’s collective punishment of Gaza; and beyond it, Israel’s occupation and apartheid.” And he concluded: “The only way out at this point is for the US to restrain Israel.”

Daily Beast columnist David Rothkopf wrote that the debate over response to the outpost attack is a trap:

Debating tactics in the midst of complex, rapidly evolving conflict in the Middle East that has broader ramifications here and the U.S. and worldwide, often ends up being a distraction from bigger more strategic issues.

Specifically, he wrote:

[C]alls for direct attacks against Iran, long a goal of Iran hawks, must be weighed not against past grievances, but against the consequences those attacks would have.

Such attacks could trigger a full-scale region-wide war that would put thousands of U.S. forces at risk and could necessitate deployments that would put even more members of the U.S. armed services in harm’s way. The U.S. and our allies must also be cognizant of the fact that an ill-considered or badly timed response could cause Iran to seek to derail talks between its proxy, Hamas, the Israelis, the U.S,. and intermediaries like Qatar.

By contrast, he wrote:

[P]roducing a ceasefire or moving toward a longer-term settlement in [Gaza] is one of the best ways of reducing risks to U.S. troops and facilities—as well as those of our allies.

On “Democracy Now,” Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, explained:

From the very beginning, it was clear: As long as there was no material pressure on Israel to cease its bombardment in Gaza, this eventually would lead to a situation in which the United States would be faced with an attack that actually had left Americans killed….

Now we are in that situation, instead of raising questions about this entire strategy as to why we are putting U.S. troops at risk in order for Israel to continue to indiscriminately bomb and kill and slaughter people in Gaza — instead, there’s been this frenzy about pushing us further into war. And this is how these endless wars begin, tactical responses to attacks by the other side that in the moment may come across as legitimate because, of course, these attacks against U.S. troops are unacceptable, without any recognition, however, that this is leading us into a war whose aims we have not defined, whose exit we cannot envision.

The media, Parsi wrote, should be asking this key question:

Why do we continue to have a broader policy in the Middle East in which we are positioning more than 50,000 American troops in various places in the region right now, in which they’re essentially made to be sitting ducks? And tripwires and a single attack against them can lead to several deaths, which then, again, immediately will cause the rise of these calls for a broader war in the region? This is to the detriment of our own interests.

Lessons Unlearned

Here are some of the lessons journalists should have learned from Iraq — and Vietnam before it. It’s heavily cribbed from a list I made back in February 2007 for the now-defunct Nieman Watchdog website, when it looked like Bush might be gearing up to attack Iran.

I don’t think the Biden administration is being intentionally deceptive like the Bush people were. But when there’s a potential for war, journalists need to be deeply skeptical of administration statements, especially when they’re anonymous and/or come without persuasive evidence:

  • Don’t assume anything administration officials tell you is true. In fact, you are probably better off assuming anything they tell you is a lie.
  • Demand proof for their every assertion. Assume the proof is a lie. Demand that they prove that their proof is accurate.
  • Don’t print anonymous assertions. Demand that sources make themselves accountable for what they insist is true.

Where Bush was making a case for war, Biden is not. But when one too many tit-for-tats has the potential to provoke major hostilities, these points are still relevant:

  • War is so serious that even proving the existence of a casus belli isn’t enough. Make officials prove to the public that going to war will make things better.
  • Demand to know what happens if the war (or tactical strike) doesn’t go as planned?
  • Demand to know what happens if it does? What happens after “victory”?
  • Ask them: Isn’t it possible this will make things worse, rather than better?
  • Give voice to the skeptics; don’t marginalize and mock them.
  • Listen to and quote the people who got it right last time: The intelligence officials, state department officials, war-college instructors and many others who predicted disaster in Iraq, but who were largely ignored.
  • Send more reporters into the country we are about to attack and learn about their views, their politics and their culture.
  • Don’t allow the population of any country to be demonized. All humans deserve to be humanized.
  • Demand to know why the administration won’t open a dialogue with the enemy.

Finally, there needs to be public debate about any action that could lead to war, starting in Congress but not ending there. The nation is not well served when issues of war and peace are not fully debated in public. The press should demand that Congress engage in a full, substantial debate, and then should cover that debate exhaustively and substantively.


  1. I’m actually somewhat hopeful based on what I’m seeing from the Admin.

    Obviously, the civilian casualties, running now somewhere around 5% of Gaza’s population and the likelihood of many more from hunger, thirst, and disease, are sobering.

    But the Administration has done two things that none has ever done before it: it has not interfered in the legal process at the UN, and it has taken concrete steps against settler violence. Those are clear steps that if Israel does not stop its reckless attacks on civilians and its unconscionable denial of aid, the US may let the legal process at the UN run its course.

    I don’t know if the Israeli leadership is thinking clearly, but if they are, they will realize that withdrawal of US protection at the UN would have major consequences.

    I may be over-optimistic. Clearly Netanyahu wants war with Iran, and has for two decades. Also, as long as the fighting is continuing, he isn’t headed for jail. But so far the Administration has been restrained in response, focusing on the militants who actually attack US forces and interests rather than on those who armed and trained them. Let’s hope that Biden is a deeper thinker than we often give him credit for.

    • Netanyahu, like Trump, knows the only thing that will keep him out of prison is power. He’s likely to do anything it takes to stay where he is. At the last election, that meant courting Israel’s extreme right wing, then it means castrating the courts, and now it means keeping this war going as long as possible. And just as Trump unleashed dark forces in America that we may never get back under control, Netanyahu is doing irreparable damage to Israel’s relationship with one of the only friends it has in the world. All of Israel will come to regret this, I fear.

  2. I’m the mother of a U.S. Marine, so nobody is more horrified by the prospect of an expanded war in the Middle East than I am.
    I’m also a passionate hater of the political media and a huge fan of your work, as our common acquaintances will attest. (Yale ’84 here.)
    But I am beyond appalled by this piece of drek, wherein you:
    (1) parrot knee jerk Israel bashing on the left just like the infamous media stenographers that Stephen Colbert so brilliantly called out in 2006.
    “Ackerman bluntly described the root cause of the crisis: ‘Israel’s collective punishment of Gaza; and beyond it, Israel’s occupation and apartheid.’
    That’s it? WHOLE root cause of the current crisis? The brutal genocide by Hamas on October 7 had ZERO to do with it?? (The words October 7 appear nowhere in your piece.)
    (2) Smear Biden — who has done the best any human being could possibly do to contain this crisis and is being rewarded with undeserved shit from all sides — with an outrageous and utterly ludicrous comparison to Bush 2003.
    In short, Dan, stick with the media suckage, because you suck at foreign policy.
    Also, shame on you.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.