Monday, September 15, 2008

Bad War Coverage

Fred Hiatt personifies a lot of the problems with the mainstream media, not the least of which is its coverage of the Iraq war. Throughout the conflict, the media focus has been on military action and violence. There's been scant coverage of the political situation in Iraq, or how inter- and even intra-sectarian conflicts continues to pose an impediment to peace and the withdrawal of forces. Hiatt, a reliable cheerleader for the war, now brings us this:
It's easy to forget the utter hopelessness that had settled on Washington with regard to Iraq less than two years ago.
Sure, it's easy to forget because without high levels of violence, the mainstream media sees little need to even cover the war. Britney's public meltdown? Lipstick on a pig? Those are stories.
And it's easy to forget the nearly universal skepticism that greeted President Bush's announcement of a new strategy in January 2007.
It's easy to forget how well-grounded that skepticism was, given the abject incompetence of the Bush Administration's conduct of the war to that point. A lot of the skepticism wasn't directed at the idea that more troops could reduce violence - it was a question of, "Is this too little, too late." As it turns out, the Anbar Awakening had a profound effect on levels of violence, as has the effective ethnic segregation of formerly integrated neighborhoods of Baghdad. Those aren't effects of "the surge", though, and it isn't even clear to what degree the surge has helped with recent successes in Iraq. Don't take my word for it - take the word of General Petraeus:1
So would the Sunni Awakening have succeeded without the surge? Possibly, he concedes, but the surge came at that time and helped empower Sunni leaders, paying their fighters and backing them up on the streets. This is where Seneca the Younger comes in: "Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity."
It would be reasonable to credit the Bush Administration for letting its military leaders (finally) move away from its bad strategies of the preceding five years, so as to create the opportunity. But instead, people like Hiatt consistently ignore the positions of people who are aware of the facts on the ground in order to spin the fiction that everything is about the surge, and only the surge. My suspicion is that Hiatt is acting deliberately, as this fiction allows him to support McCain and attack Obama (consistent with Hiatt's own preferred interventionist foreign policy), whereas telling the truth would hamper him in his political goals.

Hiatt also elides from history the overstated success and impact of the surge, which resulted in stories like this:
Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of Multinational Force Iraq, told the House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committees today that the surge in Iraq is showing progress, and that he believes troop reductions to pre-surge levels could begin by summer 2008 without jeopardizing gains made.
How well did that turn out, again?

Hiatt reinvents the success of the surge, consistent with the mainstream media's principal interest in covering acts of violence, as being about the violence, not about political progress. Although he is cautious enough to refer to the surge as creating only "a chance of success", Hiatt fails to describe any of the benchmarks of success described by the Bush Administration or how they have been met. Earlier this year we had columnists like Charles Krauthammer pretending that significant progress had been made on at least some of those criteria. But despite the amount of progress we were promises by the end of 2007, we're still waiting for even one of Bush's benchmarks to be fulfilled. So yes, changes of strategy combined with the surge created a significant window of opportunity - one Hiatt would be correct to celebrate - but it appears that under Bush's "leadership" that opportunity is (again) being squandered.

While Hiatt praises national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley for quietly lobbying for the surge, consistent with the rest of his piece he omits mention of others who played a role (and perhaps a more important role) in bringing about the policy changes that created the groundwork for the surge's contribution to holding down violence.2 Hiatt observes,
Out of that success, in fact, a new conventional wisdom seems to be settling on Washington - that the U.S. job in Iraq is nearing completion, and the time has come to move on to Afghanistan and other challenges.
Okay, let's call that the consensus. Has it arisen because of good media coverage and commentary about the realities in Iraq, or has it arisen due to the absence of good coverage and commentary? Hiatt's implicit answer: the latter:
If, as seems likely, the celebration is premature and U.S. troops will be needed in Iraq for some time to come, we can hope that the next national security adviser again has the strength to resist the crowd and the deftness to steer the country in the right direction.
If that's what Hiatt believes, why did he devote 98% of his column to suggesting the opposite - that the surge has been a great success, and vindicates Bush to the degree that historians will assess the surge "as an act of remarkable courage"? And how is it "an act of remarkable courage" to advance a policy when virtually everybody in your party has your back?
1. It's coincidence, but should we find some amusement in the fact that Petraeus likes to use the "lipstick on a pig" metaphor? And that his doing so was deemed "media-savvy"?

2. I'm content to assume that the surge has played a role in the reduction of violence, even a substantial role, but given the difficulty that even General Petraeus has in quantifying its contribution I'm not going to try to state a figure, save for observing that Hiatt's implied "100%" is both overconfident and overstated.

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