The Progress Myth in Iraq
AUSTIN, Texas — It was such a relief to me to learn we are making “very, very good progress” in Iraq. As the third anniversary of our invasion approaches, I could not have been more thrilled by the news reported by Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on a Sunday chat show. Vice President Dick Cheney’s take was equally reassuring: Things are “improving steadily” in Iraq.
I was thrilled — very, very good progress and steady improvement, isn’t that grand? Wake me if anything starts to go wrong. Like someone bombing the al-Askari Mosque in Samarra and touching off a lot of sectarian violence.
I was also relieved to learn — via Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, so noted for his consistently accurate assessment of this war — that the whole picture is hunky-dory to tickety-boo. Since the bombing of the mosque, lots of alarmists have reported that Iraq is devolving or might be collapsing into civil war. They’re sort of jumping over the civil war line and back again — yep, it’s started; nope, it hasn’t — like a bunch of false starts at the beginning of a football play.
I’m sure glad to get the straight skinny from Ol’ Rumsfeld, who has been in Iraq many times himself for the typical in-country experience. Like many foreign correspondents, Rumsfeld roams the streets alone, talking to any chance-met Iraqi in his fluent Arabic, so of course he knows best.
“From what I’ve seen thus far, much of the reporting in the U.S. and abroad has exaggerated the situation,” Rumsfeld said. “We do know, of course, that Al Qaeda has media committees. We do know they teach people exactly how to try to manipulate the media. They do this regularly. We see the intelligence that reports on their meetings. Now I can’t take a string and tie it to a news report and then trace it back to an Al Qaeda media committee meeting. I am not able to do that at all.”
No horsepoop? Then can I ask a question: If you’re able to monitor these media committee meetings, how come you can’t find Osama bin Ladin?
But, Brother Rumsfeld warns us, “We do know that their goal is to try to break the will; that they consider the center of gravity of this — not to be in Iraq, because they know they can’t win a battle out there; they consider it to be in Washington, D.C., and in London and in the capitals of the Western world.”
I’m sorry, I know we are not allowed to use the V-word in relation to Iraq, because so many brilliant neocons have assured us this war is nothing like Vietnam (Vietnam, lotsa jungle; Iraq lotsa sand — big difference). But you must admit that press conferences with Donny Rum are wonderfully reminiscent of the Five O’Clock Follies, those wacky but endearing daily press briefings on Southeast Asia by military officers who made Baghdad Bob sound like a pessimist.
Rumsfeld’s performance was so reminiscent of all the times the military in Vietnam blamed the media for reporting “bad news” when there was nothing else to report. A briefing officer once memorably asked the press, “Who’s side are you on?” The answer is what it’s always been: We root for America, but our job is to report as accurately as we can what the situation is.
You could rely on other sources. For example, the Pentagon is still investigating itself to find out why it is paying American soldiers to make up good news about the war, which it then passes on to a Republican public relations firm, which in turn pays people in the Iraqi media to print the stuff — thus fooling the Iraqis or somebody. When last heard from, the general in charge of investigating this federally funded Baghdad Bobism said he hadn’t found anything about it to be illegal yet, so it apparently continues.
Meanwhile, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad told the Los Angeles Times that Iraq is “really vulnerable” to civil war if there is another attack like the al-Askari bombing. By invading, said Khalilzad, the United States has “opened the Pandora’s box” of sectarian strife in Iraq.
Could I suggest something kind of grown-up? Despite Rumsfeld’s rationalizing, we are in a deep pile of poop here, and we’re best likely to come out of it OK by pulling together. So could we stop this cheap old McCarthyite trick of pretending that correspondents who are in fact risking their lives and doing their best to bring the rest of us accurate information are somehow disloyal or connected to Al Qaeda?
Wrong, yes, of course they could be wrong. But there is now a three-year record of who has been right about what is happening in Iraq — Rumsfeld or the media. And the score is: Press, 1,095; Rumsfeld, 0.
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