Goldberg's War

By Ken Silverstein

June 30, 2006

By Ken Silverstein

Last week Jeffrey Goldberg, the Washington correspondent for the New Yorker, spoke at a panel session here that asked the burning question, “Can Liberals—and Only Liberals—Win the War on Terror?” Readers may recall that Goldberg was, in the year leading up to the war, a strong proponent of invading Iraq, and wrote a number of articles that echoed the administration's arguments for toppling Saddam Hussein. That was no coincidence, since his reporting relied heavily on administration sources and war hawks (and in at least one crucial case, a fabricator).

Goldberg and his friends predicted that events would unfold smoothly in Iraq, and now that they haven't, he wants to make sure that U.S. troops stay put and fight the war that he helped promote. The Democrats, he told the Washington panel, can regain power only by reaching out to their conservative wing (and to voters even further to the right who over the years have migrated from the party to the G.O.P.). He's been interviewing members of this vital voting-bloc, he said, and he was able to report that they would “like to leave Iraq but they'd really like to win Iraq” and are looking for “a party and leadership” that can lead the way to victory.

Prior to the American-led invasion of Iraq, Goldberg wrote two lengthy articles in the New Yorker which argued that there were extensive ties between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. Much of what he wrote in a mammoth March 2002 story was based on the testimony of Mohammed Mansour Shahab, a prisoner in a Kurdish-controlled town in northern Iraq. Jason Burke of the London Observer later demolished Goldberg's story when he spoke to the same prisoner and found that he couldn't even describe the city of Kandahar, where Shahab had claimed that he'd traveled on Al Qaeda-related business. “Shahab is a liar,” Burke concluded. “[S]ubstantial chunks of his story simply are not true.” Goldberg also peddled the Iraq–Al Qaeda connection during a February 2003 interview on All Things Considered, delivering the grim news that Saddam's agents had some years earlier helped Al Qaeda “in the teaching of the use of poison gas.”

Goldberg's hysteria peaked when it came to his claims regarding Saddam's “weaponization” of a biological agent called aflatoxin. Aflatoxin, he wrote on October 3, 2002 in Slate, “does only one thing well: It causes liver cancer. In fact, it induces it particularly well in children.” (In this same Slate item Goldberg attacked Slate contributors who opposed the war, saying the critics had “limited experience in the Middle East” and that this led them to “reach the naive conclusion that an invasion of Iraq will cause America to be loathed in the Middle East, rather than respected.”) Within an hour of President Bush signing a congressional resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq, Goldberg was on CNN and again claimed that Saddam had “weaponized aflatoxin, which is a weapon that has no military value. Its only value is to cause liver cancer, primarily in children.”

Saddam, to state the obvious, was indeed an evil man, and any experimenting his regime was doing with aflatoxin would have been cause for concern. But the September 2004 report from Charles Duelfer, the Bush Administration's chief weapons inspector in Iraq, stated that Iraqi scientists conducted experiments with aflatoxin, possibly as a means to “eliminate or debilitate the Regime's opponents,” but concluded that there was “no evidence to link these tests with the development of BW [biological weapons] agents for military use.” (His broader conclusion was that there was “no direct evidence that Iraq, after 1996, had plans for a new BW program or was conducting BW-specific work for military purposes. Indeed, from the mid-1990s, despite evidence of continuing interest in nuclear and chemical weapons, there appears to be a complete absence of discussion or even interest in BW at the Presidential level.”)

Whatever Saddam's regime intended to do with aflatoxin—and Duelfer's report reached no conclusion on that subject—it did not involve wholesale tot-slaughter. But it seems to me that Goldberg was out to prove that Saddam was singularly evil—a man who would kill kids with cancer, no doubt cackling with glee as he watched them expire—because the American public might be less willing to support war if he was merely an evil dictator, which are a dime a dozen.

In urging war on Iraq, Goldberg took highly dubious assertions—for example, that Saddam was an irrational madman in control of vast quantities of WMDs and that Iraq and Al Qaeda were deeply in bed together—and essentially asserted them as fact. From these unproven allegations, he demonstrated that an invasion of Iraq was the only rational policy. As a political analyst—his remarks at last week's panel mirror what he wrote in a recent New Yorker article—he employs a similar strategy.

His core thesis now is that the Democrats must attract conservatives or forever remain a minority party. He went out to discover what those conservatives want and he found, he said at the panel, that they were relatively untroubled by the “rationale of the Iraq War” or questions about the war's legality. These voters believe President Bush was right to take action because they believed that Saddam was “up to no good” and aren't upset by the fact that the United States went to war but are upset that “we look to be losing it.”

The obvious conclusion: to attract these voters, Democrats must “sound a more fighting kind of argument” and reject calls from loonies such as Congressman John Murtha, who favors a speedy withdrawal of U.S. troops—a position which struck Goldberg as “so out of touch” with the views of the good folks he's been speaking with. (That said, the anti-war movement's new-found fondness for Murtha is truly bizarre. Here's a man that has never met a weapons program he didn't support and whose entire political career has been paid for by defense contractors—and he's now proclaimed to be a paragon of virtue.)

Mind you, Goldberg makes his case at a time when, according to a recent Gallup poll, 71 percent of registered Democrats favor withdrawing from Iraq within 12 months (and even when many Republicans are rejecting the administration's call to “stay the course”). Yet according to Goldberg, Democrats should avidly court the small number of party faithful who share his war fever and risk alienating the great majority who don't.

Goldberg told the panel that he has interviewed lots of people in Springfield, Missouri, and that the war debate there is a far cry from the debates taking place in liberal enclaves in New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. That's no doubt true, but since Springfield has a population of about 150,000 people compared to the millions of people in the three cities mentioned by Goldberg, locking in Springfield's votes may not be the surest path to electoral victory.

Michael Grunwald of the Washington Post recently challenged the notion that Democrats need to move ever further rightward. “Maybe there's nothing wrong with the Democrats, politically speaking,” he wrote. “They've won the popular vote in three of the past four presidential elections. Their one outright loser was Sen. John F. Kerry, who had the liberal voting record that moderates warn about and the inability to take a stand that liberals warn about. Voters—even his supporters—told pollsters they didn't like him . . . . So how did Kerry become the party's standard-bearer? Democrats in Iowa and New Hampshire, liberal and moderate, thought a military veteran had the best chance to beat Bush. They analyzed the political landscape, tried to imagine what the American people wanted in a president and voted accordingly. Their analysis just happened to be wrong. They voted, in other words, like pundits. Maybe that's what's wrong with the Democrats.”

What's truly astonishing is that neither the New Yorker nor Goldberg have ever been held accountable for the egregious propaganda that was published prior to the invasion.

The New Yorker has published investigative reporting, particularly that of Seymour Hersh and Jane Mayer, that has exposed the war as both a tactical and moral failure. But Goldberg himself has never, as far as I can tell, acknowledged that he may have been mistaken in some of his earlier assessments, or questioned his own reporting. Back in late 2003, at a panel discussion hosted by the New School for Social Research, the topic of Saddam's weapons of mass destruction came up. “Did the CIA simply mess up?” Goldberg asked Paul Wolfowitz. “Did I?” is the question he should have asked.