US cable news networks are addicted to war. War is their intoxicating elixir of choice. It has also become their raison d’etre. There are only two stories that matter to CNN, MSNBC and Fox News: presidential politics and war.
The two are, of course, inextricably linked. One not only informs but can also define the other. In this narrow context, the real, lasting and graphic human consequences of war are rarely given attention or exposure. Rather, war is considered solely through the antiseptic prism of its domestic political and international geopolitical ramifications. This cynical pantomime has, once again, been on depressing display in the aftermath of the killing in Iraq of General Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), that has triggered the latest Middle East “crisis”.
Ever since President Donald Trump announced the assassination, US cable news networks – to varying degrees – have been willing and, at times, almost giddy conduits for the typically incoherent rationales offered by his administration for a decision that could lead to yet another war in the midst of the US’s other perpetual wars. (My goodness, CNN host, Jake Tapper, asked a panel of guests if Trump’s decision to kill Soleimani could already be deemed a “win” for the president.) Trump, I suspect, understands this predictable, made-for-TV dynamic. He knows that cable news journalists and editors are obliged to report unquestioningly whatever he says, when he says it – such are the exigencies of the live, 24-hour news cycle.
So, if Trump defends his decision to “terminate” Soleimani by branding him a “terrorist” intent on staging “imminent” attacks on American soldiers and diplomats, the marquee TV journalists dutifully parrot it without even the hint of scepticism. Few questioned the veracity of Trump’s claims of an “imminent” assault. Instead, reporters played mock war-games, using three-dimensional graphics of Iran and its neighbours to point out possible military targets, its arsenal and capabilities, and to diagram how a conflict could unfold in the smouldering region. Left unsaid by the telegenic anchors is this fact: the president making these unsubstantiated claims is a well-documented liar who traffics in conspiracy theories originating in the lunatic recesses of the internet. It would not be good form, I suppose, to tell the truth when the country needs to “rally behind” the commander-in-chief.
That Trump’s rhetoric mirrored George W Bush’s discredited Iraq war script to the letter has also escaped their notice and memory. Clearly, introspection is an alien concept among the editors and reporters who populate US cable news networks. In 2003, they abandoned journalism for stenography wrapped in patriotism and, with a sprinkling of exceptions, they are doing largely the same today. Hence, the parade of mainly white, male former soldiers, spies, think-tank academics and journalists who once assured the world that the invasion of Iraq was necessary to kill another “terrorist” with “blood on his hands” who, in their concocted calculus, also threatened to kill Westerners “imminently”.
When news broke that Iran had fired more than 20 missiles at two Iraqi airbases housing US and Iraqi soldiers, a couple of the ex-generals appearing on CNN – sporting suits rather than uniforms – immediately said Trump had no choice but to strike back, otherwise he would look “weak”. When the moment demanded patience and a measured response, not conjecture and tough, combustible bluster, CNN opted to broadcast the latter, confirming that reason and good sense are too often anathema to the network. Meanwhile, Fox News war-adoring celebrity Sean Hannity told Trump through his direct (not back) channel to the Oval Office – TV – that he had to employ the “full force” of the American military in response. “There is a massive price to pay. You don’t get to do what they did tonight,” Hannity fumed from the comfort of a New York television studio. “And they are going to get hit hard.”
Alas, Trump demurred and offered Iran a temporary reprieve if it changed its “behaviour”. De rigueur, America’s catastrophic record and “behaviour” in Iraq and beyond was not mentioned by the pundits and their acquiescent enablers on TV who all agreed that the US military would win a conventional, “symmetrical” war with Iran easily and quickly, conveniently forgetting they made the exact, cocksure prediction 17 years ago. Hannity may yet get his lethal wish. If Trump has proven anything during his mercurial tenure as president, it is that he ultimately takes his cues from Hannity and foaming Fox News company, not members of his compliant national security team – most of whom enjoy the professional life expectancy of a housefly.
Still, perhaps the most galling aspect of cable news coverage of the US’s most recent “crisis” overseas is providing nationwide audience to the who’s who of Republican architects of the ruinous invasion of Iraq to share their prescriptions of what to do about Iran. Unrepentant hucksters including Paul Wolfowitz, Karl Rove, Ari Fleischer and Michael Chertoff – all prominent members of Bush’s calamitous regime-change regime – have been treated with a deference and respect they forfeited permanently years ago. The many voices who understood that the Iraq invasion would cause so much irreparable harm and instability have been mostly absent from US television screens, as they were in 2003. They were not regarded as important or worthy then, and they are not regarded as important or worthy today.
Also absent from US television screens are the voices in Iraq and Iran who have borne, and will bear, the profound costs of yet another war that so many familiar US politicians and influential television personalities are hankering for. Earlier, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres made a short speech warning of the “unpredictable consequences and the profound risks of miscalculation” of decisions made in Washington, DC, and Tehran alike. He urged leaders in both countries to “stop escalation” because, he added: “Let us not forget the terrible human suffering caused by war. As always, ordinary people pay the highest price. It is our common duty to avoid it.” Not surprisingly, I have not seen Guterres on US cable news networks to share that urgent message.