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The Washington Post Editorial Board’s Sociopathic Lesson from Iraq War: US Should Intervene in Syria

Creative Commons-licensed photo on Flickr by bikesandwich

A deputy editor for the major establishment newspaper, the Washington Post, has written a column that belatedly marks the tenth anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq while at the same time claiming he has learned a “lesson” that leads him to conclude there is a need for US intervention in Syria.

Jackson Diehl concedes he is like other Iraq War supporters, who now push for more US involvement in Syria, but he sociopathically argues:

Iraq was unquestionably costly and painful to the United States — in dollars, in political comity and, above all, in lives, both of Iraqis and Americans. It hasn’t turned out, so far, as we war supporters hoped. Yet in the absence of U.S. intervention, Syria is looking like it could produce a much worse humanitarian disaster and a far more serious strategic reverse for the United States. [emphasis added]

Diehl proceeds to compare what he believes happened after US forces invaded and occupied Iraq to what he believes is happening now in Syria because the US has not intervened.

He suggests the “United States faced down al-Qaeda and eventually dealt it a decisive defeat” while at the same time “A revival of al Qaeda in Iraq” is making it increasingly likely al Qaeda obtains “chemical or biological weapons.” And, “The Iraq war prompted low-level meddling by Iran, Syria and other neighbors but otherwise left the surrounding region unscathed, thanks to the U.S. presence.”

Those statements ignore how the Post‘s own Ernesto Londoño reported in November 2009—that though Iraq had once been a “foreign-led terrorist organization” it had developed into a “mostly Iraqi network of small, roving cells” that now relied on “the flow of fighters and weapons smuggled through the Syrian border, albeit at a slower rate.” Whatever “decisive” defeat was delivered to al Qaeda through the infamous “surge” did not prevent the eventual resurgence of an al Qaeda, which news agencies report is still “stepping up attacks on Shia targets and security forces.” And Diehl also declines to acknowledge that the intervention in Iraq made Iran a greater power in the region.

This is why one can say Diehl is suffering from a form of sociopathy. The facts are insignificant to the ideology driving him to the conclusion that US influence in the Middle East region is “plummeting” because the US has not been involved in Syria like it was in Iraq.

He writes, “Not just Britain and France but every neighbor of Syria has been shocked and awed by the failure of U.S. leadership. If it continues, Syria — not Iraq — will prove to be the turning point when America ceases to be regarded as what Bill Clinton called the “indispensable nation.

Diehl, like so many who claim to know so much about US foreign affairs, is deluded with the classic ideology of American exceptionalism that runs throughout US history. The view is America is a saintly custodian of morality and must do whatever it takes to restore order in places where there is chaos, even if recent history suggests a complete lack of ability to create such order.

He is no neoconservative think tanker to be marginalized. His views on America as the “indispensable nation” could be considered indistinguishable at times from President Barack Obama, who declared ahead of his re-election, “America remains the one indispensable nation. And the world needs a strong America.” Diehl, in advocating for intervention, is merely following this belief to its ultimate and natural conclusion. 

Diehl concludes:

…The tragedy of the post-Iraq logic embraced by President Obama is that it has ruled out not just George W. Bush-style invasions but also the more modest intervention used by the Clinton administration to prevent humanitarian catastrophes and protect U.S. interests in the 1990s. As in the Balkans — or Libya — the limited use of U.S. airpower and collaboration with forces on the ground could have quickly put an end to the Assad regime 18 months ago, preventing 60,000 deaths and rise of al-Qaeda. It could still save the larger region from ruin.

The problem here is not that advocates of the Iraq invasion have failed to learn its lessons. It is that opponents of that war, starting with Obama, have learned the wrong ones. [emphasis added]

Thus, the “lesson” Diehl has learned from the Iraq war is not just that America should be intervening in Syria now, but that opponents of the war did not learn correctly from what happened in Iraq. It is a far cry from a mea culpa; more like a pretentious admonition that in his mind others are way more wrong than he happens to be.


The publication of this column comes just over two weeks after the Washington Post chose to not publish a column from The Nation‘s Greg Mitchell, which it had commissioned him to write on the media and Iraq War. As Al Jazeera English‘s “Listening Post” highlighted, the Post ran an article by Post staff reporter Paul Farhi instead with the headline, “On Iraq, journalists didn’t fail. They just didn’t succeed.” The piece was a “triumph of ambiguity over accuracy and accountability.”

Sinan Antoon, co-editor of, said, “When they commission a piece that is critical of the media coverage and this piece is an excellent piece that reminds us of all those moments and episodes and instances, where it was all obvious, and it gets killed and we get a piece with a ridiculous title that the media did not succeed but it did not fail—This shows the inability to be really self-critical and to change its action and its approach to the war.”

Mitchell himself appeared in the segment to point out that, though the Times has received the “lionshare” of criticism for its content in the run-up to the war, the Post was nearly as bad. In fact, according to Bill Moyers, in the six months prior to the invasion, the Post editorialized in support of the war at least 27 times.

The tenth anniversary was really no different. Choosing to not comment on the “lessons of that war,” the editorial board opted to describe the current state of Iraq. The editorial appeared to suggest a key mistake was made when more US troops were not left in Iraq by Obama. It argued Iran’s influence was “mounting” because Obama “failed to agree with Baghdad on a stay-on force of US troops.” The influence of Diehl could also be presumably seen, as the editorial warned, “The risk of greater turmoil or even a return to civil war in Iraq is one of several compelling reasons for more aggressive US action to end the war in Syria.”

It is the Diehl and the Post editorial board’s commitment to American hegemony—influence and authority throughout the world—that leads them to refuse to face the lies from President George W. Bush’s administration, which they endorsed and published for American readers. The ends justify the means so the means with which the administration launched a war of aggression is not to be questioned. The editors are able to rationalize the end result of a country with no Saddam Hussein and believe without any shred of evidence that the country is going to be better off as the years progress because of what the US has done.

This sociopathy can be put in proper context by the people’s historian, Howard Zinn, who said in a speech at the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association in Boston, Massachusetts on June 28, 2003:

 …There’s a professor at the Kennedy School at Harvard who wrote, “The twentieth century sees a new invention, a global hegemony, whose grace notes are free markets, human rights and democracy.” A writer for the New Republic, Charles Krauthammer, says, “We are a unique, benign imperialism.” And it made me go back to something that the secretary of war, Elihu Root, said at the time of the Spanish-American War and at the time of our conquest of the Philippines. He said, “The American soldier is different from all other soldiers of all other countries since the world began. He is the advance guard of liberty and justice, of law and order and of peace and happiness.”…

This is the idea of American imperialism as being kinder, gentler and much more benevolent than other empires in world history. To hold such view, one must rely on abstract statements devoid of any mention of what actually has happened in numerous US wars or interventions in the past two centuries.

It is worth emphasizing there are arguments for intervention in Syria that do not cite the Iraq war. One would think a better case for intervention would be made if one completely ignored the chapter of American history in Iraq. Yet, editors of the Post made some calculation that they might be able to advocate better if they exploited the ten-year anniversary of the invasion.

When a major American newspaper’s editorial board does not do what it should and appropriately reflect themselves on the role it played in pushing for a war that citizens of Iraq now contend made the country worse, this is not simply the result of an inability to admit mistakes were made. When rampant torture, summary executions, targeting of citizens for detention, birth defects caused by US weapons, the horrific injuries of US soldiers coming home from war, the epidemic of suicide and the thousands of US forces and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed are all paid no attention by the editorial board on a US war’s tenth anniversary, there is more to such indifference. Rather, it is indicative of the reality that the newspaper is run by ideologues, who feel the need to prove that in some way or another views they had a decade ago are still valid in some way.  It is also a product of a newspaper that is read by Washington’s political elite and a symptom of the fact that the newspaper benefited from this in the run-up when it was used by government officials to plant and leak baseless justifications for invading Iraq.

The majority of the top comments on Diehl’s column wholly and fundamentally reject Diehl’s view—which is also the Post‘s view: that the Iraq war should teach us to intervene in more countries that need “our help.” The response to the comments, however, will not be to shift the content so the editorial board begins to critique US policy and America’s role in the world more often. This is because the Post’s editorials are not for the citizens of the United States, the citizens of Iraq or the citizens of the world. It matters little what citizens consider to be the truth of US foreign policy. Post editorials are for those in power and conform to the spectrum of ideology in Washington.

The Post cannot acknowledge it made “mistakes” because to do so would implicate officials in Washington, who the paper is unwilling to call out for making “mistakes.” Also, there’s the question of whether the Post even would concede it made “mistakes.” Based on the fact that no person was let go from the Post for his or her coverage of the war and they did not even offer a mea culpa like the New York Times did, it appears the Post has accepted if not embraced the role it plays in pushing for greater US militarism.

Finally, because the sociopathy communicated by Diehl—including the notion that the Iraq war somehow has contributed to the ability of Arabs to achieve freedom and democracy—has currency in the halls of power, it will manifest itself and reappear in the pages of the Washington Post.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."