Militarization of State Dept. Stirs Little Media Interest

When Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies appeared on FAIR’s radio show CounterSpin last week, she challenged Barack Obama’s assertions that U.S. combat in Iraq was ending and that the last combat brigade was leaving the country, describing the plans the U.S. actually has in store for Iraq:

The policy has not changed. It is true that the number of troops are significantly lower than they were at their height of 165,000; it’s now down to about 50,000. That’s a good thing. Reduction in troops is a good thing. But the notion that this troop reduction somehow means that all combat brigades, let alone combat troops, are out of Iraq is just specious.

The 50,000 troops that are in Iraq now are combat troops. The Pentagon has, in their own words, remissioned them. They have given combat troops a new mission, which is for training and assistance of the Iraqi military. But they remain combat troops, ready to reengage in combat at any given moment.

We heard from President Obama about the Fourth Stryker Brigade, which is, as he described it, the last combat brigade leaving Iraq. We didn’t hear about the 3,000 new combat troops, more combat troops, from Fort Hood in Texas, who were just deployed to Iraq about 10 days ago. We also didn’t hear about the 4,500 special forces, which have the job, one, of continuing its counterterrorism operation, meaning using its capture-or-kill list to run around the country and capture or kill people. The other is to train their Iraqi counterparts, the Iraqi Special Operations Force, which is shaping up to be something that looks suspiciously like an El Salvador-style death squad. This is not the end of combat.

This was newsworthy enough, though few other media outlets challenged the White House “end of combat” hype. But Bennis had something even more troubling to add. When CounterSpin pointed out that John Pilger was reporting in the New Statesman that U.S. policy with regard to airstrikes and bombings would be unaffected by the “new” policy, and that U.S. military contractors would be increasing in numbers, Bennis responded:

Absolutely. The number of contractors is quite disturbing, both in its own right and because it’s the beginning of a process underway of militarizing U.S. diplomacy. There will be 7,000 new armed contractors coming into Iraq solely to work under the auspices of the State Department, not the Pentagon, when the State Department becomes the primary U.S. agency in Iraq. What we really didn’t hear from President Obama is that the transition underway is not so much from U.S. control to Iraqi control as much as it is from Pentagon control to State Department control. The agreement that was signed between the U.S. and Iraq that requires, if it doesn’t get changed–which is, I think, a likely possibility–required all U.S. troops and armed contractors under Pentagon control to be out of the country by the end of next year does not apply to contractors, armed or not, under the auspices of the State Department. So with this giant new embassy that holds 5,000 diplomats–it’s the size of Vatican City–there will be at least 7,000 armed contractors. The State Department is bringing in armored cars, surveillance drones, planes and their own rapid response forces. So what we’re seeing is the Pentagon leaving, largely, but the State Department taking on military tasks.

The planned militarization of the State Department has received some coverage in recent months. Stories by McClatchy‘s Warren Strobel, the Associated Press‘ Richard Lardner and Michael Gordon in the New York Times have reported on the State Department’s new military role, fortress-like embassies, planned use of military contractors and purchase of military equipment, including Black Hawk helicopters and armored vehicles. According to AP‘s Lardner, State Department documents sent to the Pentagon last April reveal the agency expressing the need to “duplicate the capabilities of the U.S. military” by the end of 2011, when all American military forces are required to leave Iraq.

But journalists beguiled by the White House hype were apparently too busy perpetuating it to address such meddlesome details.

As Salon‘s Glenn Greenwald pointed out, NBC News anchor Brian Williams reported the withdrawal of combat forces without qualification (8/18/10): “It’s gone on longer than the Civil War, longer than World War II. And tonight, U.S. combat troops have pulled out of Iraq.” Greenwald also cited liberal MSNBC commentators like Keith Olbermann, who touted the story as an historic event in a “special edition” of Countdown where his MSNBC colleague Rachel Maddow gushed about the last U.S. combat troop to leave Iraq: “We just saw, right here live with that gate closing, the last U.S. combat troop. I’m totally covered in goose bumps. It is an important moment.â┚¬Ã¢”ž¢”

Greenwald did offer deserved kudos to Associated Press standards editor Tom Kent, who instructed AP journalists in a memorandum to challenge the White House hype, writing, “To begin with, combat in Iraq is not over, and we should not uncritically repeat suggestions that it is, even if they come from senior officials.”

But, overall, it was a bad showing by journalists, many of whom seemed more interested in regurgitating an officially endorsed feel-good story rather than the more complex truth that the U.S. military involvement in Iraq would continue, and continue in some strange new ways.

About Steve Rendall

Senior Media Analyst and Co-producer of CounterSpin Steve Rendall is FAIR's senior analyst. He is co-host of CounterSpin, FAIR's national radio show. His work has received awards from Project Censored, and has won the praise of noted journalists such as Les Payne, Molly Ivins and Garry Wills. He is co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error (The New Press, 1995, New York City). Rendall has appeared on dozens of national television and radio shows, including appearances on CNN, C-SPAN, CNBC, MTV and Fox Morning News. He was the subject of a profile in the New York Times (5/19/96), and has been quoted on issues of media and politics in publications such as the Chicago Tribune, Washington Post and New York Times. Rendall contributed stories to the International Herald Tribune from France, Spain and North Africa; worked as a freelance writer in San Francisco; and worked as an archivist collecting historical material on the Spanish Civil War and the volunteers who fought in it. Rendall studied philosophy and chemistry at San Francisco State University, the College of Notre Dame and UC Berkeley.