March 13, 2007
By Alan W. Dowd
It’s not fair to blame the messenger for delivering bad news. But it is fair to blame the messenger for delivering nothing more than bad news when there is also good news—or at least exculpatory news—to report. Four years after the end of Saddam Hussein’s regime, Iraq is a case in point.
The media are not contriving the news they report, of course. There are, after all, car bombings and kidnappings and killings. And there were, after all, problems with prewar intelligence and the postwar plan. But the media are choosing not to report other news about the US mission in Iraq—news that tells another side of a very complex and complicated chapter in American history. What the American people are left with is a partial picture—a picture that shapes their opinions about the war and will ultimately define its trajectory. Last month’s House resolution condemning the so-called “surge,” which supporters somehow claimed at once to be both meaningless and momentous, tilted that trajectory further downward.
The flagging will of the American people and their representatives is worrisome, albeit unsurprising.
Reflecting the recognition among American military commanders that the war on terror and its offspring in places like Iraq will be a generational struggle, Air Force Brig. Gen. Mark Schissler conceded recently that “one of my concerns is how to maintain the American will, the public will, over that duration.” He is not the first to make the connection between public will and mission sustainability. As Alexis de Tocqueville observed long before the British carved out the borders of Iraq, “Among democratic nations, the private soldiers remain most like civilians; upon them, the habits of the nation have the firmest hold and public opinion has the most influence.”
This connection between public opinion and those who defend the public is a good thing. But when public opinion is shaped by a partial picture, the results can be disastrous for a war effort.
Why does the press accentuate the negative? One reason is that the old media maxim still holds: “If it bleeds it leads.” Bad news is more interesting (which is to say, sells more papers and attracts more viewers) than good news. And there is plenty of bad news in Iraq to report. As I write this, for example, these are the headlines: “Blast kills six US soldiers in Iraq,” “Nine troops killed in two Iraq bombings,” “Snipers, bombs kill 14 in Iraq,” “At least 38 dead after Iraq bombing.”
But there are other reasons that major press outlets tend to focus on the negative: the major media’s latent distrust of the Executive branch, distaste for American power, mistaken sense that war itself is the enemy and sad inability to know the difference between balance and bias, neutrality and anti-Americanism.
Just consider how The New York Times reacted to reporter Michael Gordon’s views about the troop surge into Iraq, which caught the attention of The Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz and ABC’s Terry Moran. Asked if victory was within reach, Gordon said, “As a purely personal view, I think it’s worth…one last effort for sure to try to get this right, because my personal view is we’ve never really tried to win. We’ve simply been managing our way to defeat. And I think that if it’s done right, I think that there is the chance to accomplish something.” In response, the Times publicly reprimanded Gordon, concluding that he “stepped over the line” and that his comments “were an aberration” and “went too far.”
Went too far? As Moran asked, is it now wrong for American reporters “to want the US to win the war in Iraq?” For a significant number of editors and producers at influential media outlets, the answer is coming into sharper focus every day. Thus, we are treated to a smorgasbord of bad news:
-A study conducted by the Center for Media and Public Affairs (and recapped by the Manhattan Institute) recently traced the steady downward spiral of Iraq reporting: In mid-2003, 51 percent of reports were negative; by late 2003, it was 71 percent; in 2004, it was 84 percent; in 2006, it was a stunning 94 percent.
-In fact, according to the Media Research Center (MRC), for every positive story on the major networks about Iraq, there are four negative stories. Consider how CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360” broadcasted footage of snipers hunting and killing American troops—footage that not only terrified stateside families and deflated stateside morale, but was delivered by enemies of the United States.
-MRC also found that the number of casualties “was reported as a dry statistic, a morbid scorecard of what America had lost.” In other words, US casualty figures are seldom attached to any greater goal or good, and there is rarely an effort to put US losses in perspective by comparing them to losses in Vietnam, Korea or World War II.
-The major press generally blames the ongoing war in Iraq on America’s failure to control chaos and looting in the immediate postwar period. But Iraq’s postwar war didn’t happen as some sort of spontaneous people’s revolt. It pays to recall that Charles Duelfer concluded in his postwar postmortem that Saddam “expected the war to evolve from traditional warfare to insurgency” and ordered his military to hide munitions caches throughout the country to support such an insurgency.
-In 2005-2006, the press reported that US troops had perpetrated a “Haditha Massacre” without according the accused the same sense of objectivity and fairness reserved for stateside cop-killers—or even, ironically, captured terrorists: Recall the Orwellian decision by Reuters not to label as terrorists people who commit acts of terrorism.
-Major print and television news outlets treated the 2006 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, which concluded that terrorist activity had increased since the invasion, as if it had been handed down from Mount Sinai. Yet many of these same news outlets heaped scorn on the Bush administration for accepting the premise of the 2002 NIE, which concluded that Saddam was hiding weapons of mass destruction.
Weapons of Mass Confusion
Speaking of WMDs, no matter how loudly they cheer for Scooter Libby’s conviction, major print and television news outlets have glossed over or ignored crucial pieces of pre-war and postwar WMD evidence. For instance:
-The headline from David Kay’s testimony was, “We were all wrong.” What didn’t make the front page was that Kay also reported “hundreds of cases” of activities that were prohibited under UN Resolutions 687 and/or 1441; argued that postwar looting was “designed by the security services to cover the tracks of the Iraq WMD program;” described how “deliberate dispersal and destruction of material and documentation related to weapons programs began pre-conflict;” concluded that some WMD materials and personnel left Iraq before and during the invasion; and revealed Saddam’s illegal efforts to acquire long-range missile technology from North Korea.
-Likewise, while Duelfer conceded that Saddam’s WMD arsenal was decayed and dormant, his report also concluded that Saddam was secretly planning to reconstitute his WMD arsenal as soon as the UN lost interest, and that Saddam had even established agreements with numerous non-Iraqi firms to enable him to build or buy “technologies for Iraq’s WMD-related conventional arms, and/or dual-use goods programs.” Toward that end, the report revealed, “the Iraqi Intelligence Service maintained throughout 1991 to 2003 a set of undeclared covert laboratories to research and test various chemicals and poisons, primarily for intelligence operations.” Plus, Duelfer concluded that Iraq “was planning to produce several CW agents, including sulfur mustard, nitrogen mustard, and sarin.” Even more frightening, Saddam “could have re-established an elementary BW program within a few weeks to a few months of a decision to do so.”
-Similarly, major media outlets took a pass on John Negroponte’s 2006 letter to Congressman Hoekstra, which declared that Coalition forces had recovered 500 munitions containing mustard or sarin nerve agent. And they largely ignored the US Joint Forces Command Iraqi Perspectives Project, which found that “when it came to weapons of mass destruction, Saddam attempted to convince one audience that they were gone while simultaneously convincing another that Iraq still had them,” and that Saddam maintained “the illusion of having WMD,” even within his ruling circle. If Saddam’s generals didn’t know about his deadly game, one wonders how President Bush and his generals could have.
In short, the media outlets where most Americans get their news have painted a distorted picture—a tale of a country in ruins, of American troops as either helpless prey or thuggish torturers, of a war launched under false pretenses and waged in vain, of a lost cause. But there is positive news to report, if only the press cared to look for it:
Saddam is gone, and America is more secure as a result
-First and foremost, if we consider the fullness of the assessments offered by dispassionate men like Duelfer and Kay, the American people are indeed safer now that Saddam Hussein is no longer in control of a regime with the proven capacity to build and deploy WMDs. That does not make the loss of American troops any easier, but it should make sense of that loss. In the harsh but sound calculus of this war, it is better for American troops to fight and die on foreign shores than for American civilians to be threatened or targeted on our own.
-Second, it’s a good thing that Saddam and his sons are dead, that their thugocracy is gone, that their prewar safe haven for terror is dismantled, and that their postwar partner in crime, Zarqawi, has joined them wherever mass-murderers go when justice finally catches up with them.
-Third, media analyses fail to entertain the possibility that the major cause of American casualties in Iraq—Baathist guerillas, al-Qaeda terrorists and Iranian-funded militias—is evidence that Washington’s post-9/11 security strategy is sound: The fact that Syria and Iran have aided and abetted the insurgencies inside Iraq, that al Qaeda sprung up immediately after (or perhaps as) the statues fell, and that Zarqawi and Saddam partnered with Islamist holy warriors and secular Baathists with equal ease adds credence to the notion that America’s enemies don’t care as much about means and methods as about realizing their common ends and destroying their common foe.
-And finally, we should never forget that Saddam’s ouster did not occur in a vacuum. Consider Libya’s preemptive surrender of its WMD arsenal in late 2003, which, tellingly, came after Saddam’s capture. Sufficiently impressed by America’s work in Iraq, Moammar Quadaffi decided it was better to hand over his WMDs than end up cowering in a hole like Saddam Hussein. His WMD program, by the way, is entirely dismantled, its pieces shipped to Tennessee and destroyed.
Iraq is fighting for a more secure Middle East
-To be sure, Baghdad and the other restive locales in central Iraq are not secure (hence the Bush administration’s surge). But that’s changing. Muqtada al-Sadr didn’t flee to Iran for a vacation.
-Outside the so-called Sunni Triangle, a large majority of Iraqis report feeling safe. To expand that zone of safety and stability, Iraqi troops are fighting alongside Americans—and fighting is the operative word. Some 322,000 security and interior forces have been trained, with 104 combat battalions conducting operations in the field. After a terrible start in places like Fallujah in 2004, the Iraqi military is now an important part of the Coalition. As Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Malaki intoned last year, “It is your duty and our duty to defeat this terror…Iraq is the front line in this struggle, and history will prove that the sacrifices of Iraqis for freedom will not be in vain. Iraqis are your allies in the war on terror.” (By the way, if you don’t recall Malaki’s stirring words, he delivered them to our Congress last July—not that the major media cared to report it.)
-Malaki brought together Iraq’s neighbors and world powers on March 10 for a regional conference in Baghdad to steer the country away from a Balkan-style breakdown. But let’s not expect too much from this neighborhood gathering. As George Walden, the author and former British Member of Parliament, once observed, “the group dynamics of diplomacy are not always the straightest path to virtue.”
-Media mantras notwithstanding, this has never been a unilateral war. In fact, after four years of war and counterinsurgency, some 25 nations in addition to the US and Iraq still have boots on the ground. South Korea, for instance, recently extended its deployment commitment. And Britain’s February announcement of a troop drawdown, which was widely misreported as a withdrawal, is just another example of the major media fashioning its own narrative based on some of the facts. Headlines at ABC, AP and The San Francisco Chronicle all read, “Blair Announces Iraq Withdrawal Plan,” but what the prime minister actually announced was that Britain was lowering its troop commitment from 7,100 to 5,500—and that those 5,500 would stay “for as long as we are wanted and have a job to do.” We can debate whether this is prudent or helpful to the overall war effort, but it’s a far cry from withdrawal.
Iraq is free—and trying to stay free
-In 2005 alone, Iraq held three nationwide elections, including elections for the interim government, a referendum on the constitution and elections for the constitutional government. Today, there are 300 political parties and coalitions registered with Iraq’s election commission. And it pays to recall that Iraq earned back its sovereignty far sooner than postwar Japan or Germany.
-The Iraqi government, quite unlike virtually all of its neighbors, operates under the rule of law, as prescribed by the most progressive constitution in the Muslim or Arab world.
-A recent Pentagon progress report on Iraq indicates that the country’s GDP is climbing fast: It was $25.5 billion in 2004, but it grew to $34.5 billion in 2005 and $47 billion in 2006—a whopping 80 percent increase over three years. Iraq’s GDP is expected to eclipse the $71-billion mark by the end of 2008.
-In 2005 alone, US AID helped immunize 98 percent of Iraqi children younger than five (3.62 million) against measles, mumps, and rubella—and 97 percent of children under five (4.56 million) against polio.
-As of early 2007, according to the US Army’s Iraq Reconstruction Report, the US Army has launched some 3,340 reconstruction and development projects in Iraq. Americans are helping build 142 primary healthcare centers, which will serve more than 6 million Iraqis.
-With the help of America’s ambidextrous troops, Iraq’s schools—in peacetime used as places of Baathist indoctrination, and in wartime used as anti-aircraft sites—are being rebuilt. All told, some 3,400 schools have been rehabilitated since 2003, and more than 55,000 teachers have been trained.
In short, Iraq is far different than what many hoped it would be by now. But it is also far different than what our media messengers describe it to be.
Sources: Tom Regan, “Duelfer report: Hussein planned on postwar insurgency,” October 12, 2004; Charles Duelfer, “Comprehensive Report of the Special Advisor to the DCI on Iraq’s WMD,” 30 September 2004; US Defense Department, “Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq,” Report to Congress, November 2006; US State Department, “Iraq Weekly Status Report,” December 27, 2006; US Army, “Iraq Reconstruction Report, January 4, 2007; Molly Hennessy-Fiske, “Iraqi dinar builds head pf steam amid nation’s chaos,” December 11, 2006; John Negroponte, Letter to Peter Hoekstra, June 21, 2006; James Q. Wilson, “The Press at War,” City Journal, November 6, 2006; Media Research Center, “TV’s Bad News Brigade,” October 13, 2005; US Department of State, “Rebuilding Iraq: U.S. Achievements through the Iraq Relief and Reconstruction Fund,” February 2006; US AID, “Iraq Reconstruction: A Brief Overview,” www.usaid.gov/iraq; US Department of State, “Fact Sheet: Operation Iraqi Freedom: Three Years Later,” March 18, 2006.