Watching the watchers

A reader informs me that this cartoon has been given the Spinsanity treatment (I’m not bothering to cut and paste the links here, you can visit their site for those):

In his newest syndicated cartoon, Tom Tomorrow purports to set the record straight on the circumstances under which United Nations weapons inspectors left Iraq in 1998. But, like many liberals making this point, he presents the situation out of context.

In the strip, a character whose opinions are presented as authoritative states that inspectors “weren’t kicked out [by Saddam in 1998] — they were ordered to withdraw by chief U.N. weapons inspector Richard Butler”. But as Josh Marshall pointed out on Salon last week, this is a deceptive summary of what happened.

While Tomorrow is right to point out that inspectors were not technically expelled by Saddam — as a number of media outlets have inaccurately reported — he and others omit crucial context when they imply that the inspectors simply withdrew of their own accord. After repeated instances of Iraqi non-compliance with the inspection regime, the US and Great Britain decided to launch a series of retaliatory airstrikes against Iraq in December 1998. As a result, Butler withdrew the inspectors, saying “we can’t adequately do our jobs under these circumstances” and that it “made logical sense therefore to pull our people out.” After the strikes, Saddam did not allow the inspectors to return.

Give the importance of this issue to the current debate, both sides must take care to present what happened accurately.

Well, yes. And in the interest of presenting what happened accurately, let’s take a little trip in the Wayback machine, back to that distant, mythical era, of which so little historical record apparently survives: 1998. Those of you with exceptionally long memories may recall what Spinsanity and Josh Marshall apparently do not: Saddam justified his lack of cooperation with the UNSCOM inspectors because, according to him, they were being used to spy on him. And you know what? They really were being used to spy on him. “United States officials said today that American spies had worked undercover on teams of United Nations arms inspectors,” the New York Times acknowledged on January 7, 1999. And according to the Washington Post, the U.S. “infiltrated agents and espionage equipment for three years into United Nations arms control teams in Iraq to eavesdrop on the Iraqi military without the knowledge of the U.N. agency.” (You can also read the cartoon I did at the time here.)

Whether or not you think it was a good idea to use the UNSCOM team to spy on Iraq is irrelevant to this discussion — it was in direct contravention of the UN mandate which allowed them access, meaning, unfortunately, that Hussein had every right to refuse them cooperation. The Washington Post quoted a UN source at the time: “The United Nations cannot be party to an operation to overthrow one of its member states. In the most fundamental way, that is what’s wrong with the UNSCOM operation.” (Also, a side note, for what it’s worth: not only did Butler pull his team out, he did so without the approval of the UN Security Council.)

Spinsanity’s confusion is understandable, at least if they’re relying solely on current newspaper and cable news accounts — as FAIR notes, “facts that (the major media’s) own correspondents confirmed three years ago in interviews with top U.S. officials are being recycled as mere allegations coming from Saddam Hussein’s regime.” But still. If you’re going to lash someone with a limp noodle for not providing proper context, you need to be sure you’re not doing the same thing. Because I agree with them on one point absolutely — this is an incredibly important debate, and misinformation doesn’t do anyone any good.