As a candidate for president, George W. Bush famously argued that to command respect in the world, we needed to demonstrate not only strength but also humility. In office, though, the humility gave way to hubris. President Bush got it wrong. And so did I.
The remedy for bad journalism is more and better journalism. Reporters at The Times made amends for the credulous prewar stories with investigations of the bad intelligence and with brave, relentless and illuminating coverage of the war and occupation. But what The Times writes casts a long shadow. For years, our early stories hyping Iraq’s menace (and to a lesser extent what people like me wrote on the opinion pages) fed a suspicion, especially on the left, that we were not to be trusted.
John F. Burns, a correspondent who chronicled the tyranny of Hussein while the man was still in power and stayed on to cover the invasion and aftermath, recalls the reflexive hostility he encountered as a Times reporter on trips home. “We were all liars, warmongers, lapdogs of Bush and Cheney and so forth,” he told me.
“Whatever we wrote — no matter what it was, and no matter how well documented — was dismissed as Bush propaganda,” added Dexter Filkins, who covered the battlefields and politics of Afghanistan and Iraq for The Times before moving last January to The New Yorker. “That was probably going to happen anyway, but the paper’s real failings gave those criticisms more credibility — and longer legs — than they deserved. Remember that the right-wingers (and a lot of the military) hated us at the time, too, since the war had started to go badly from the get-go, and we were reporting that.”
The last big story to break on my watch as executive editor was the upheaval in Libya. The contours weren’t exactly the same, but they involved another entrenched, grotesque strongman; another oil economy; another fractured Arab society; another cloud of misinformation. This time we all — president, public and press — picked our way more carefully through the mess, weighing the urge to support freedom against the cost of becoming part of a drama we don’t fully understand. That is the caution of a country feeling more threatened these days by our own economics than by foreign enemies. But for some of us it is also the costly wisdom of Iraq.