You may be surprised to learn that, precisely five years ago, at least one-third of the top newspapers in this country came out against President Bush taking us to war at that time. Many of the papers may have fumbled the WMD coverage, and only timidly raised questions about the need for war, but when push came to shove five years ago they wanted to wait longer to move against Saddam, or not move at all.
"For apparently the first time in modern history, the U.S. government seems poised to go to war not only lacking the support of many of its key allies abroad but also without the enthusiastic backing of the majority of major newspapers at home," Ari Berman and I wrote at Editor & Publisher on March 19, 2003. Berman had just completed his fifth and (presumably) final prewar survey of the top 50 newspapers' editorial positions.
Following Bush's 48-hour ultimatum to Saddam Hussein, newspapers took their last opportunity to sound off before the war started. Of the 44 papers publishing editorials about the war, roughly one-third reiterated strong support for the White House, one-third repeated their abiding opposition to it, and the rest -- with further debate now useless -- took a more philosophical approach.
But, in the end, the majority agreed that the Bush administration had badly mishandled the crisis. Most papers sharply criticized Washington's diplomatic efforts, putting the nation on the eve of a pre-emptive war without U.N. Security Council support -- and expressed fears for the future despite an inevitable victory.
Once equivocal editorial pages got straight to the point. "This war crowns a period of terrible diplomatic failure," The New York Times argued, "Washington's worst in at least a generation. The Bush administration now presides over unprecedented American might. What it risks squandering is not Americans' power, but an essential part of our glory."
Other papers were even more blunt. The Sun of Baltimore, consistently one of the most passionate dissenters on the war, began their editorial with the sentence, "This war is wrong. It is wrong as a matter of principle, but, more importantly, it is wrong as a matter of practical policy."
USA Today asked Bush to finally disclose risks, costs, and democratic government estimates for Iraq while the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wondered "what 'the peaceful entry' of 280,000 troops would look like." The Arizona Republic in Phoenix said that Bush and his "coalition of the willing," with prodding by the French, "have left the United Nations in tatters. …