In the Lead-Up to Iraq, Antiwar Dissent Was Silenced. Not This Time.

The last time the US government marched to war in the Middle East, there was an all-out attack on anti-war voices in the media and in local communities across the country. Let’s make sure the Bush-era crackdown on dissent doesn’t happen again.

nti-War protesters march toward the White House on Pennsylvania Ave. September 24, 2005 in Washington, DC. Mark Wilson / Getty

With a buffoonish Republican president seemingly determined to start a disastrous war in the Middle East, you could be forgiven for thinking it’s the halcyon days of the 2000s again. But if the history of the Bush years is bound to be repeated, let’s make sure the onslaught against anti-war dissent isn’t.

Though it’s been in vogue for the past three years to insist there has never been a president as dangerous as Trump in the White House, the 2000s beg to disagree. Not only did Bush and his team significantly accelerate the current authoritarian direction of US domestic policy and set in motion just about every subsequent crisis of foreign policy, but they did it backed up by a rabidly martial, jingoistic atmosphere that silenced, ridiculed, or attacked critical voices.

Today, the early post-September 11 years are a chilling reminder of just how swiftly dissent and basic freedoms can be smothered in the drive to war, not just by an aggressive government, but by the private sector.

Top Down …

The Bush administration set the tone early after the September 11 attacks, equating dissent and criticism with supporting terrorism. It was, after all, led by the same man who had earlier responded to online mockery by declaring “there ought to be limits to freedom.”

Bush soon delivered the world something of an ultimatum: “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” As his government rounded up more than 1,000 largely Middle Eastern immigrants and moved to use military tribunals to try foreign terrorist suspects, Attorney General John Ashcroft warned liberals not to “scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty,” for it would “only aid terrorists.” Press Secretary Ari Fleischer — now a Fox News talking head who can’t seem to decide whether or not he should stop pretending to oppose Trump — told Americans they “need to watch what they say, watch what they do.”

With those ominous words, Fleischer was responding to the first of many tiresome culture war scandals that helped define the Bush years, a quite literal cancel culture in which apoplectic conservatives, triggered by jokes or simply mild criticisms of their president, melted down. In this case, the offending remarks were by Bill Maher, who charged it was the US military, not suicide bombers, who were the real cowards for “lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away”; advertisers abandoned ship and ABC cancelled his show. (Maher, now perhaps best known for his ambivalence toward Islam and Muslims, later decided he had been wrong to ever vilify Bush).

While one can’t underestimate the fragility of offended conservatives, this atmosphere was also politically useful for cynical Republicans. When on the eve of the Iraq War Democratic Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle said he was “saddened that this president failed so miserably at diplomacy,” Republican House Speaker and child molester Dennis Hastert charged his words “come mighty close” to “giv[ing] comfort to our adversaries.” By the end of the year, a religious right group took out newspaper ads comparing Daschle to Saddam Hussein.

Republican House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who had labelled Daschle’s milquetoast criticism of Bush “disgusting,” called Congressional critics of Bush’s campaign for war “people that don’t want to protect the American people” and who “will do anything … to avoid confronting evil.” Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Richard Myers would all suggest criticism was harming the troops and/or helping the terrorists. Five-term Senate incumbent Joe Biden weathered such a torrent of criticism for suggesting that an overreliance on bombing in Afghanistan could make the United States look like a “high-tech bully,” he quickly became Bush’s foremost Democratic ally in pushing the Iraq War to save his political skin.

… and Bottom Up

This campaign in the halls of power was matched by a hostility toward dissent at the grassroots level. Sixty-year-old New York attorney Stephen Downs was arrested and charged with trespassing for wearing an anti-war T-shirt in a mall, its corporate owner complaining he and his son’s attempt “to express to others their personal views on world affairs were disruptive of customers.” It turned out to be one of several instances of the same company throwing out shoppers for anti-war clothing.

All around the country, Americans faced furious pushback in their local communities for quietly protesting the war. Wheaton College students faced death threats and thrown rocks for hanging an upside-down flag on their residence. A college basketball player’s silent protest of turning her back during the national anthem, and the local anger it inspired, became a national controversy. Even anti-war bumper stickers weren’t safe.

But as the Maher episode foreshadowed, this was perhaps most visible in the world of entertainment. When film producer Ed Gernon drew parallels between his upcoming miniseries on Hitler’s rise and the situation in the United States, the Right flipped out, with neoconservative film critic and literal glutton for punishment John Podhoretz calling it “an act of slander against the president of the United States — and by extension, toward the United States itself.” Gernon was promptly fired.

Long before becoming a magnet for overwrought liberal hate, Susan Sarandon was the magnet for some truly heinous conservative hate, barred from a celebration of her own classic movie over her anti-war criticism. Actors like Martin Sheen and Sean Penn faced similar unhinged censure for their criticism of the war. The Dixie Chicks were blacklisted in the country music industry for speaking out, while CBS warned possible 2003 Grammy winners they would be ripped off the air the second they mentioned the war. And parts of liberal Hollywood memorably booed Michael Moore at the Oscars for attacking Bush for “sending us to war for fictitious reasons.”

Right-wing outrage culture, closely aligned with the interests of the most powerful in both government and business, sent a simple message: whether you were a nobody in a T-shirt, or rich and famous with throngs of fans, no one was safe if they mis-stepped.

No Press Control Necessary

All of this was aided by a media that — with its pro-establishment bias, fear of being labelled “liberal” by conservatives, and concern for profit — threw skepticism to the wind and adopted the role of loyal mouthpiece for the administration.

“Look, I’m an American,” Dan Rather, Walter Cronkite’s successor at CBS, told Larry King a month after the war started. “And when my country is at war, I want my country to win … About that I am prejudiced.” Rather had earlier told David Letterman just six days after the World Trade Center attacks that “as just one American, wherever [Bush] wants me to line up, just tell me where.”

Right-wing media and organizations launched a pressure campaign to make sure this attitude prevailed across the board. Fox anchor Brit Hume said that journalistic neutrality was no longer “an appropriate concept” in a “conflict between the United States and murdering barbarians.” Of course, that was Fox.

But the pressure campaign worked beyond Fox. NPR’s Mara Liasson agreed with Hume’s questioning of whether civilian deaths should be heavily covered in war, saying, “Look, war is about killing people.” CNN chairman Walter Isaacson sent a memo to staff ordering them to “redouble our efforts to make sure we do not seem to be simply reporting from [the Taliban’s] vantage or perspective,” and to “talk about how the Taliban are using civilian shields” or harbored al-Qaeda, and dial down the “perverse” focus on the “casualties and hardship in Afghanistan.” “I want to make sure we’re not used as a propaganda platform,” he helpfully explained later.

It’s been comical this year to watch pundits ridicule Bernie Sanders’s critiques of corporate media bias as a “conspiracy theory,” when the peak Bush years were packed full of cases of outright censorship of anti-war reporting. NBC went on a spree of Iraq War–related firings under Bush: veteran host Phil Donahue, who one MSNBC internal memo fretted would be a “difficult public face for NBC in a time of war”; former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura, who the network essentially paid not to host a show after they found out about his anti-war views; and reporter Ashleigh Banfield, who was disappeared from the network after delivering a speech criticizing media coverage of the Iraq War. Former MSNBC anchor Jessica Yellin later admitted she and the rest of the press corps were

under enormous pressure from corporate executives, frankly, to make sure that this was a war that was presented in a way that was consistent with the patriotic fever in the nation and the President’s high approval ratings … the higher the President’s approval ratings, the more pressure I had from news executives … to put on positive stories about the President.

Despite his cheerleading for Bush’s disastrous answer to the September 11 attacks (“The response is going to have to be massive if it is to be effective,” he had said), ABC’s Peter Jennings nevertheless became the target of thousands of angry phone calls and emails when he offered the anodyne opinion that when it comes to reassuring the country, “some presidents do it well, some presidents don’t,” perceived as a slight against Bush. Four years later, CNN chief news executive Eason Jordan resigned rather than continue bringing dishonor to his employer, having said at a conference that US troops had killed journalists in Iraq, which they had.

Such media censorship was as rife at the local level as it was among cable networks. A Panama City News Herald editor instructed staff not to prominently place photos showing Afghanistan civilian casualties, and to otherwise play them down in reporting. From Grant Pass, Oregon and Texas City to San Francisco, Bad Axe, Michigan and Dallas-Fort Worth, reporters lost their jobs or had their columns rejected for being critical of Bush or the war, or for protesting the war in their own time.

The legendarily feeble treatment of the Bush administration and its war was the result of these factors. An analysis of ABC, NBC, and CBS evening news stories during the eight months leading up to war found that administration officials were most often quoted, that the coverage was largely pro-war, and that anti-war voices were all but absent. Once the war began, FAIR found 64 percent of those appearing on evening newscasts were pro-war, with anti-war guests made up just 10 percent.

One of the worst culprits was Clear Channel Communications, a sprawling mass media company founded and led by Republican Lowry Mayes, a friend of Bush’s father. Not content with playing host to rabidly pro-war, pro-Bush voices like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, several former employees later accused the company of punishing them and others for pushing anti-war views on air.

The print media was little better. When anti-war protesters weren’t ignored, stories presented them as kooky, irrelevant, and soft on Saddam, even suspect, noting that International ANSWER, the group that had organized various anti-war actions, had been founded by a man who had served “a Who’s Who of enemies of the US government.” They looked for pro-war liberal and leftist voices, like Christopher Hitchens or Mitchell Cohen, then editor of Dissent, held up as the sensible Left due to their predilection for Bush’s war.

A reporter could casually dismiss the charge by Harper’s publisher John MacArthur that the infamous scene of US soldiers pulling down Saddam’s statue in Baghdad was a staged “photo-op” as “ridiculous” and “absurd,” even though it was true. Meanwhile, former UN weapons inspector in Iraq Scott Ritter, an authoritative voice insisting — correctly, as it turned out — that Saddam had no WMDs, was roundly defamed across the media, including this Washington Post piece that painted him as mentally unstable and desperate for money and attention.

Never Again

The result was a vicious circle: the atmosphere of jingoistic conformity and stifling of anti-war perspectives made war more likely, which, as the conflict drew closer, in turn fed into that same repressive atmosphere.

Fortunately, things are different now. Trump’s escalations against Iran, particularly this latest one, have been greeted on the whole with far more skepticism and criticism than Bush’s successful engineering of war at the start of this century. Unfortunately, this isn’t so much because the media learned the lessons of Iraq; indeed, Russiagate proved the media are still susceptible to following mendacious official sources off a cliff and falling captive to jingoism-tinged climates.

But the disaster of Iraq and endless stalemate of Afghanistan have created a war-weary public that has been opposed to war with Iran both before and after this latest debacle; the United States is not reeling from an attack on domestic soil; much of the prevailing culture now is reflexively antagonistic to the president, as much as the Bush era’s was reflexively supportive; and the Trump administration’s half-assed, perfunctory attempts to drum up justification for war simply don’t compare to the well-planned, more-than-year-long full court press by Bush to get the public on board with regime change in a far-off country. Added to this is a far more robust alternative media landscape with a built-in skepticism toward government claims, and a propensity to hold the media to account for its failings.

Still, the early Bush years are a reminder of how bad it can get, and the need to push back vigorously against attempts — whether by mainstream media or in local communities — to cow dissenters into silence. For all the complaints about today’s cancel culture, the right-wing outrage machine, particularly when working hand-in-glove with big business and government, can and has ruined far more lives. Let’s not let it happen again.