During the course of two weeks in May, America’s top-ranking military officer went from warning that war with Iran could cripple the US military to rattling his saber at Tehran.
That’s one interpretation, anyway. In an interview with Israeli TV that was broadcast on May 5, Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, struck a glum note when asked about the possibility of preemptively striking Iran’s nuclear facilities. “I actually am very hopeful that we don’t get into a position where we have to get into a conflict,” Mullen responded, according to Reuters. “It would be a very significant challenge for the United States right now to get into a third conflict in that part of the world.”
But on May 20, testifying before the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, Mullen sounded far more combative. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, which the US designated a terrorist organization in 2007, is “directly jeopardiz[ing]” peace in Iraq, said Mullen, according to the Associated Press (AP). And then: “Restraint in our response does not signal lack of resolve or capability to defend ourselves against threats.”
That seems like a major shift — but what did it mean? Did Mullen really rethink his assessment of whether the military could handle a new conflict? Did he backpedal after concluding that his earlier remarks could undercut diplomatic efforts to limit Iran’s budding nuclear program? Or might one of the Bush administration’s most hawkish members — someone from Vice-President Dick Cheney’s office, perhaps — have pointedly told Mullen that attacking Iran was still very much an option?
Oddly, there didn’t seem to be much interest from the media in finding out — or even in asking the question. The AP report on Mullen’s congressional testimony didn’t note his change in rhetoric. Neither did the New York Times, which made only passing reference to Mullen’s testimony. (The Times story, which focused on the Jerusalem Post’s claim that the US plans to attack Iran this year, was buried on A13.) And the May 21 Washington Post didn’t mention Mullen’s testimony at all.
To be fair, this dearth of coverage didn’t come on a slow news day. The Times’ front page, for example, featured stories about Barack Obama winning a majority of Democratic delegates, Ted Kennedy’s brain-cancer diagnosis, and a fragile peace in Baghdad’s Sadr City neighborhood. The top story in the paper’s “International Report” section, meanwhile, was a follow-up on the Sichuan earthquake.
That said, the muted reception to Mullen’s comments hints at the American media’s broader Iran problem. The good news is this: the press seems to have learned from its failings prior to the invasion of Iraq, when the media’s widespread credulity paved the way for war. The bad news, however, is that Iran poses its own journalistic problems — and these problems could lead, yet again, to the US launching a major attack in the Middle East without the Fourth Estate doing due diligence.