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Missing the mark
How a brace of bullish media commentators got it badly wrong on Iraq – yet still brazenly claim victory.
Eamonn McCann, 23 Jul 2004
I bumped into Irish Times columnist Mark Steyn in The Palace the other night, him drunk as a skunk in an ocean of ouzo, celebrating the Greek victory in Euro 2004.
“Didn’t I tell ya?” he exulted, advancing, arms akimbo, flush-faced and at full-volume. “Wasn’t I right, again?” Odd behaviour, even for an Irish Times columnist.
Mark, I asked eventually, when I’d managed briefly to enclose him in the circle of calm which tends to compose itself around me in such circumstances, was it not your goodself who, in the week preceding the tournament, wrote thus: “The Greeks? A one-legged unicyclist with chronic arthritis would have more chance in the Tour de France. If Greece wins, I’ll ski naked down Mount Everest with a carnation up my bum. Tim Henman will win the world heavyweight title before Greece wins the European championship.”
“There. Wasn’ I right?” beamed Mark, aglow with triumphant vindication. “Didn’t I tell ya?”
Mark is every bit as honest, prescient and insightful about global politics as he is about football. “Another six weeks of insurgency [in Iraq] sounds about right,” he wrote in December 2003. “After which it will peter out.”
One of his golden moments, that. Indeed, it was on the basis of that prediction that I momentarily considered him for my coveted Journalistic Warmonger of the Year award, which he’d have lifted no problem had it not been for that sensational last-minute strike by David Aaronovitch. The question which now arises is whether Mark’s latest achievement – in the view of some experts, on a par with his Euro 2004 performance – doesn’t entitle him to the gong after all.
But first let’s consider the Aaronovitch claim. He’s a columnist in both The Guardian and the Observer. In April last year, just as US forces were entering Baghdad, he proclaimed his certainty that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction ready for launch: “If nothing is eventually found, I – as a supporter of the war – will never believe another thing I am told by our government or that of the US ever again. And more to the point, neither will anybody else. Those weapons had better be there somewhere.”
(I pass no comment on the “ever” redundantly following “never”. I’ve quite given up instructing Aaronovitch on syntax, or Steyn on the meaning of metaphor.)
Naive readers might imagine that recall of those words of Aaronovitch’s would now cause the fellow a certain embarrassment. Or at least, that he’d have confirmed he won’t be allowing Blair or Bush to fool him again.
In The Guardian in February, Aaronovitch did face up to the question, “Was I wrong about Iraq?” But embarrassment? Not exactly.
He reckoned his analysis stood up pretty well. “The bit about ‘anyone else’ is clearly true. The government has lost a great deal of trust precisely because the weapons havn’t been found.”
Readers may wish to pause and centre themselves (I believe that’s the phrase) before pondering the Aaronovitch rationale: he’d predicted that if the weapons the people had been assured would be found in Iraq were not, in the event, discovered, people would lose faith in the governments which had assured them they were there.
The weapons hadn’t been found, Aaronovitch mused. And now the people had lost faith in government. Just as he’d predicted. “Didn’t I tell ya, wasn’ I right?”
Not that Aaronovitch himself had lost faith. No. It’s the hoi polloi who are prey to such vagaries. He’s made of steyner stuff.
“I invite open-minded readers to consider this. Had there been a dossier released detailing WMD proliferation in, say, Libya, and blaming rogue Islamacist scientists from, say, Pakistan, I would have been just as (or more) sceptical than I was over Iraq. Yet last week Mohammed El Baradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said that Abdul Qadeer Khan, who has admitted trading nuclear information and equipment with countries including Libya, was ‘the tip of an iceberg for us.’ What now seems extraordinary is that Iraq may not have been part of the submerged mass.”
Got that? The idea of Libya obtaining nuclear know-how from Pakistan was less plausible than the idea of Iraq possessing a stockpile of WMD. But Libya did acquire nuclear know-how from Pakistan. In light of which, it’s astonishing that Iraq didn’t possess a stockpile of WMD. Nobody’s to be blamed, then, for believing that the WMD would be found in Iraq. Not the government. And certainly not the triumphantly vindicated David Aaronovitch.
The technique lacks for nothing in audacity. When your absolutely confident prediction turns out to have been absolutely utterly wrong, you bang the drum for your own brilliance and ebulliently announce, “Didn’t I tell ya? Wasn’ I right?”
Steyn offers a variation. In March last year, the month before Aaronovitch said, “Those weapons had better be there somewhere,” Steyn denounced Robert Fisk as the sort of unreliable anti-American who was stupidly “anticipating ...inevitable stray bombs landing on hospitals, orphanages, wedding parties, etc.”
Now the reference to wedding parties was unfortunate. In May, US forces were to kill 45 members of the Bou Fahad tribe who had been attending a wedding in the village of Mogr el-Deeb.
Fisk hadn’t actually forecast that a wedding party would be massacred. Steyn had put the idea forward as a caricature example of the sort of outlandish speculation Fisk might indulge in. Now his caricature of Fisk had proven horribly factual.
Did Steyn confess to discomfiture? No. Last month he explained that, “Anyone who votes for the troops to go in should be grown-up enough to know that, when they do, a few of them will kill civilians, bomb schools, abuse prisoners...It might be a bombed mosque or a hospital, a shattered restaurant or a slaughtered wedding party, but it will certainly be something.”
The wedding party slaughter, once a risible horror story peddled by demented anti-Americans, is transmogrified in a twinkling into an unremarkable event which every well-informed person had known was inevitable.
The last I saw of Steyn, he was slithering slack-jawed along the edge of the pavement, clutching at passing trouser-cuffs and explaining, “I predicted that Olga Korbut would win Wimbledon, too.”
Aaronovitch and Steyn. Buck eejits.
Steyn has denounced Michael Moore as, (a) the darling of the Left and, (b) a light-minded self-publicist. In fact, the Left has long been mortified by Moore, who publicly apologised for having voted for Ralph Nader in 2000 and supported former NATO chief bomber Wesley Clarke for the Democratic nomination this year.
But fair’s fair. One reason Moore is popular is that, in both his books and his movies, he uses language tolerably well. Steyn, in contrast...Well, there was this in the Times on July 5th: “(Moore believes) that the horrors of the age are just some screwy distraction got up by a chad-wangling moron fratboy’s creepy neocon viziers.”
Or, “...nuclear technology, which long ago slipped the bunkers of the great powers to seep piecemeal through the murkier corridors of power.”
Has any metaphor been so mangled since Fionnbarragh O Dochartaigh told a crowd in the Bogside in 1969 that, “The Nationalist Party is tied tooth and nail to the apron strings of England.”
Must try less hard, Mark lad.