LONDON — History shows us how easy it is for politicians to manipulate public opinion on issues of great national importance, and the price we pay when the press fails to play its role of watchdog and truth checker.
Just look at how the Bush administration talked Americans into invading Afghanistan and Iraq. Most of the mainstream media failed to ask the right questions or simply rolled over and played dead.
A decade later, in the midst of the Republican presidential primaries, I am beginning to get that déjà vu feeling.
The leading candidates (with the exception of Ron Paul) are trying to out-macho each other with pronouncements on how to whomp Iran’s ayatollahs.
Much of this rhetoric is flag-waving nonsense, aimed at currying favor with the party base. But some of it is dangerous nonsense because of the corrosive effect it is having on public opinion.
Recent polls that ask Americans what to do about Iran suggest the public is in a belligerent mood.
A Pew Foundation report shows that 58 percent believe it is more important to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons even if it means taking military action. Only 30 percent think it is more important to avoid military conflict, even if Iran may develop a bomb. Republicans overwhelmingly prefer the war option. Democrats are split 50-50.
Meanwhile several influential U.S. senators have introduced a resolution that could, if adopted, give the president a blank check to go to war. It moves the red line that could trigger American military action from Iranian “acquisition” of a nuclear weapon to Iranian “capability” to develop a weapon. Many experts think Iran already has that basic know-how but has not yet made the political decision to produce a bomb.
Out on the campaign trail, candidates are indulging in scaremongering. Rick Santorum warned an audience in North Dakota, of all places, that they could be a target for Iranian terrorism: “Folks, you’ve got energy here. They’re going to bother you … No one is safe!”
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And ABC News didn’t calm the waters recently when it ran an “exclusive” report that Israel is warning that Jewish schools and synagogues in America and worldwide could be targets of Iranian attacks.
Of course Iran helps raise the tension with its own rhetoric, but many, if not most, experienced Iran watchers believe that country’s current leadership is both rational and prudent.
The highly respected private intelligence service Stratfor notes it is more important to watch what Iran actually does rather than listen to its rhetoric. The Iranian armed forces have been scaling back scheduled military exercises, and those that have recently taken place appear “largely defensive in nature.”
That brings me to the role of the American news media in this war of nerves.
Why is the American public so ill informed and easily manipulated in matters of war and peace? It’s true that our schools do not do a very good job of teaching history and world affairs. But the news media could and should help fill the gap by giving the public the context it needs to understand what is going on in the world and in our own government.
Instead, the mainstream media have been largely a sounding board for this heated rhetoric. To their credit, the ombudsmen of the New York Times and Washington Post have urged their headline writers to cool it, and the Times recently ran an article pointing out the difficulties and dangers of going to war against Iran.
The White House and Pentagon have also been trying to tone down the debate, but that’s not easy in an election year.
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Meanwhile, there is the bloody civil war in Syria and the impact of what we used to call the “CNN effect” in the days before smartphones gave the victims of tragedies their own means of transmitting video reports. Innocent civilians, women and children, are being slaughtered by Syrian government tanks and snipers. Several of the foreign journalists who were brave enough to sneak into the country have died while reporting these war crimes.
The urge “to do something” becomes overwhelming for both politicians and the public when shocking images fill our television screens. Here again, a little context helps put things in perspective.
The problem with Syria is that it is not Libya, and Western intervention, even from the air, would be much more complicated and fraught with unknown political consequences.
Then there is the Israel factor. President Binyamin Netanyahu has been banging the war drums against Iran, but when it comes to Syria the Israeli government has long preferred “the devil they know” — the Assad family dictatorship — to the uncertainty of what kind of regime might follow.
Politicians may prefer to respond to complicated issues with simple slogans, but that should not be good enough for the press. There are no easy answers to the challenges America faces in the Middle East.
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