The conceptual muddle surrounding those elusive weapons

March 22, 2004

Stripped to their basics, the far-reaching actions our country has taken in the past year seem bereft of logic: Under the banner of avenging the attacks of 9/11, the United States went to war against a ruler who had nothing to do with them, and in the name of combating weapons of mass destruction, invaded a country that had none.

Breathtaking, when you put it like that. But that isn’t the way these matters have been put. Instead, somehow, it’s all been made to make sense, this swirl of Islamist terrorism, Iraqi tyranny and hijacked airplanes, spiked with dread of germ warfare, nerve agents and nukes.

They don’t really have much to do with each other, those elements. But they’ve been crammed into a bogus unity in Bush administration political rhetoric to justify open-ended vigilance at home and fierce intervention abroad.

The problem isn’t just polemical over-reaching by politicians. As a sobering new report from the University of Maryland’s Center for International and Security Studies suggests, our news media have casually bought into the same conceptual muddle, particularly in reporting on weapons of mass destruction.

In an analysis of the work of 11 news organizations in three periods during the Clinton and Bush administrations – in 1998, 2002 and 2003 — author Susan D. Moeller argues that the media consistently defaulted to simplistic, illogical and misleading categories that did more to advance the agendas of leaders than to explain the world to their audiences.

Specifically, Moeller found, the media:

– Accepted without question the notion that “weapons of mass destruction,” beloved as a rhetorical flourish, is a coherent category of armaments; in reality, the components of this supposed unholy trinity have totally different potencies, pose markedly different threats — and are in very different hands.

– Cooperated in linking these weapons to terrorism; in reality, terrorist groups kill with bombs and box-cutters, and none has ever used those WMD (apart from the Japanese cult that killed a dozen people with sarin in the Tokyo subway in 1995.)

– Uncritically deferred to the incumbent administration when deciding which weapons were “deterrents,” which “nuclear program” was worrisome, which developments could be ignored.

Part of the problem lay with the conventions of news reporting, which routinely give officialdom the edge in defining issues and put administration statements, leaks, trial balloons and wishful thinking at the lead of the story and the top of the newscast.

That problem was deepened by the media’s special presumption of governmental competence in foreign policy and security matters, whether it was assessing the Indian and Pakistani weapons tests in 1998 or North Korea’s nuclear potential in 2002.

And it was all made worse by the cable age, 24/7 news cycle, in which the latest high-level utterance, no matter how dubious, still gets its turn in the headlines.

Accordingly, for the most part the media obligingly treated WMD as a “monolithic menace,” Moeller writes. The incomparably different destructive capacities of chemical weapons and H-bombs were, by implication, made equivalent, and the whole murderous assemblage treated “as an integral element of the global terrorism matrix.”

That proposition was key to the run-up to the 2003 invasion, when Iraq’s weaponry was repeatedly denounced as a potentially calamitous threat to this country. How? Which weapons, delivered how? Would nuclear-tipped missiles be launched across the Mediterranean and the Atlantic? Would smallpox be dribbled across the Canadian border? Nobody asked, nobody told.

Besides, as the Maryland center’s director, John Steinbruner, notes in his foreword to the Moeller report, how could any responsible U.S. military commander invade a country that he genuinely believed had the capacity for massive retaliation – without a clue as to where that capacity was and how to disable it? Nobody asked, nobody told.

And now? We understand less about the world than ever. Our leaders and our media joined Islamist terrorism, WMD and Saddam Hussein in an imaginary union, from which they politely excluded the Saudis, our friends, in defiance of all evidence. With Hussein gone, we face terrorism resurgent and Madrid and Casablanca ablaze, and an undiminished threat of nuclear proliferation in which Russia and Pakistan, our friends, figure prominently, and Osama bin Laden not at all.

Confused? That’s preferable to a clarity based on falsehoods.

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