Sep 1 2008

Spinning the Surge

Iraq & the election

Elections in Iraq--Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Al Jazeera English

Elections in Iraq–Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Al Jazeera English

The most conspicuous thing about the mainstream media’s election-year discussion of the Iraq War is the lack of one.

The numbers tell much of the story. Although it had been the main news story between January and May of 2007, totaling 20 percent of the news hole, that number declined to just 4 percent in the first three months of 2008—while the presidential campaign occupied 43 percent (Project for Excellence in Journalism, 3/26/08). Media decisions to treat the Iraq War as an afterthought have caused some correspondents to speak out publicly—most notably CBS correspondent Lara Logan, who said on Comedy Central’s Daily Show (6/17/08):

I was asked once, “Do you feel responsible for the American public having a bad view, a negative view of the War in Iraq?” And I looked at the reporter and I said: “Tell me the last time you saw the body of a dead American soldier. What does that look like? Who in America knows what that looks like?” Because I know what that looks like and I feel responsible for the fact that no one else does, you know? That’s what I feel responsible for—that nobody really understands. And the soldiers do feel forgotten, they do, no doubt, from Afghanistan to Iraq.

Beyond the scarcity of coverage, the content of the media discussion on the Iraq War has been troubling. The media line seems to boil down to a few distinct truisms: The troop “surge” has worked; Democrat Barack Obama’s support for a phased withdrawal from Iraq must therefore be adjusted; and Republican nominee John McCain—an ardent supporter of the war and the “surge”—has an unexpected advantage.

The ‘success’ of the ‘surge’

When George W. Bush first proposed deploying tens of thousands of additional troops to Iraq in January 2007, the media gave the idea a mostly warm reception. Despite the anti-war verdict of the 2006 midterm elections and multiple polls showing strong public support for withdrawal, journalists largely dismissed this possibility and cast a troop increase as the only viable option (Extra!,11-12/07).

Some early media assessments of the escalation were somewhat cautious, even in the face of official U.S. sources who were declaring qualified success. The New York Times noted (9/11/07) that “many Iraqis have told reporters they still do not feel secure, despite General Petraeus’ charts showing drops in violence,” while the Washington Post reported (4/8/07) that “in Baghdad, there are a few signs of improvement, but they tend to be offset by worrisome indications elsewhere in Iraq.”

Any skepticism that existed at that time, however, eventually gave way to the official media line: The “surge” worked. In the New York Times (6/24/08), David Brooks predicted that “before long, the more honest among the surge opponents will concede that Bush, that supposed dolt, actually got one right.” ABC’s World News aired a series of reports (6/19/08, 6/21/08, 6/23/08, 6/25/08, 7/8/08) emphasizing the progress in Iraq. And as NBC host Chris Matthews remarked (Chris Matthews Show, 7/6/08), “The surge’s success has been a point of honor for McCain.”

The numbers tell a different story. Since February 2007, when the troop escalation started, Iraq coalition deaths have averaged about 2 a day—not much different from the average for the entire war, 2.3 a day, or in the immediate pre-“surge” period, when they averaged 2.4 a day. Some of the highest U.S. death tolls of the war occurred after the escalation was well underway, in the spring of 2007. As for Iraqi civilians, Iraq Body Count (9/3/07) pointed out that “the first six months of 2007 were still the most deadly first six months for civilians of any year since the invasion.” As violence has receded to the levels of 2005, Iraq is still one of the deadliest countries for civilians in the world.

What’s more, that decrease in the level of violence that “surge” supporters point to seems to have virtually no connection to the increase in troop levels. Mideast scholar Juan Cole (Informed Comment, 7/21/08, 7/24/08) wrote that the decline occurred primarily in Al-Anbar, which saw little troop increase, and in Basra, where British forces had already largely withdrawn. Cole argued that if the escalation contributed to decreased levels of violence, it was because it “allowed the ethnic cleansing of the Sunnis of Baghdad and the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis from the country.”

In his much-discussed recent interview with Der Spiegel (7/19/08), Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was asked “which factor has contributed most to bringing calm to the situation in the country?” Al-Maliki listed several reasons, the U.S. troop increase not among them. Given that the total number of occupation troops at the height of the surge—about 183,000—was the same as the number present in November/December 2005, it is unlikely that the escalation by itself did much to fundamentally change the situation in Iraq.

Mostly forgotten, meanwhile, were what Bush defined (1/10/07) as the original goals of the troop increase: to give the Iraqi government “the breathing space it needs to make progress in other critical areas.” “A successful strategy for Iraq goes beyond military operations,” he said in announcing his Iraq plan. “So America will hold the Iraqi government to the benchmarks it has announced.” But most of the “benchmarks” he then listed—taking responsibility for security in all provinces by November 2007, holding provincial elections in 2007, passing oil-revenue-sharing legislation, spending $10 billion on reconstruction and infrastructure projects—have not been met, with little impact on the question of whether the “surge” succeeded.

When CNN correspondent Candy Crowley observed (6/29/08) that “while few would argue about the success of the so-called surge in Iraq, there’s no shortage of criticism about the political progress there,” she apparently forgot that by definition a successful “surge” was supposed to usher in political progress. Most media analysis, though, left out the political dimension altogether, as when NBC anchor Brian Williams asked Obama (7/24/08), “Is it not time to say that the surge you opposed has worked?” When ABC correspondent Terry McCarthy (7/31/08) examined the decline in U.S. troop deaths, he stated flatly: “The turning point was the surge.” Fox pundit Fred Barnes’ judgment that the troop increase “turned Iraq heading into a stable, democratic country” (Fox Special Report, 7/9/08) was only an exaggerated version of what had essentially become a media truism.

What it means to voters

The corollary of this “success” was that those who opposed sending more troops to Iraq would have to answer for their opposition. The New York Times’ Brooks wrote (6/24/08) that “cocksure surge opponents, drunk on their own vindication, will get to enjoy their season of humility.” Brooks derided war critics—Obama among them—for passing through several stages of “intellectual denial,” ignoring progress in Iraq and finally “skipp[ing] over to the argument that Iraq is progressing so well that the U.S. forces can quickly come home.” The L.A. Times’ James Rainey (6/26/08) wondered that if Obama “gets credit” for opposing the Iraq invasion, “Shouldn’t he have to account for opposing the surge, which has enhanced the safety of Iraqis and American GIs?”

On July 4, NBC’s Today show presented an interview with the Brookings Institution’s Michael O’Hanlon, a major proponent of the war and of the escalation (Extra! Update, 10/07), to evaluate the positions of Obama and McCain. O’Hanlon’s verdict was no surprise:

I think Senator McCain, whether you like his initial stance on the war or not, has a lot to brag about for the last couple of years. He’s been one of the original advocates of the so-called surge strategy, which has worked well. So I think he’s on pretty solid ground on Iraq.

O’Hanlon was less impressed with Obama’s position: “He’s got a bit of a dilemma in that his rhetoric doesn’t seem to have caught up with the great progress in the surge. . . . I think the best thing for him would be to try to avoid the topic until he goes to Iraq.”

At times it seemed that any event in Iraq could be portrayed as a good omen for McCain. When the New York Times, 7/13/08) floated the idea that the White House was considering additional troop cuts, the paper suggested that “the political benefit might go more to Mr. McCain than Mr. Obama. Mr. McCain is an avid supporter of the current strategy in Iraq. Any reduction would indicate that that strategy has worked and could defuse antiwar sentiment among voters.” In a neat media twist, the candidate who enthusiastically advocated keeping troops in Iraq for decades would be given credit if they were brought home instead.

So how could Obama resolve his Iraq problem? As coverage focused on his supposedly opportunistic shifts to the right on a number of issues (FAIR Media Advisory, 7/15/08), a more hawkish tilt on Iraq seemed to be one “flip-flop” corporate media were encouraging Obama to make. On MSNBC, New York Times/CNBC reporter John Harwood said (7/1/08): “Now that the surge is nearly complete, with reduced violence to show for it, will Obama moderate his views on pulling troops out? And when? So far he hasn’t.”

Harwood and his colleagues wouldn’t need to wait very long. Obama told reporters at a press conference (7/3/08) that he would “continue to refine” his Iraq policy, and that “I’ve always said that the pace of our withdrawal would be dictated by the safety and security of our troops and the need to maintain stability.” This was widely interpreted as a sign that Obama might reverse his stated goal of withdrawing most U.S. forces from Iraq within 16 months. Obama held a second press conference the same day to explain that he had not actually changed his position. But the media storyline was that he had, and reporters seemed happy to hear it. On ABC’s This Week (7/6/08), Ted Koppel explained:

Obama’s advisers have conveyed to him what I’m sure he has known all along. And that is, U.S. troops are in a part of the world that produces . . . a huge amount of oil and natural gas. We will have U.S. troops in that region for years to come, whether we want to or not. And I think Senator Obama has come to that realization. He’s come to realize you cannot pull all the troops out of Iraq, unless you put them somewhere else. . . . This is not a time to be saying, yes, we’re going to pull all the U.S. troops out of there come what may.

A Washington Post editorial (7/8/08) declared that Obama “has taken a small but important step toward adjusting his outdated position on Iraq to the military and strategic realities of the war he may inherit.” The Post hoped that Obama’s “strident and rigid posture” in favor of a phased withdrawal was being eclipsed by a “worthy, necessary attempt to create the room for maneuver[ing] he will need to capably manage the war if he becomes president.”

For some in the media, Obama’s apparent shift was really just a way for him to get back in the mainstream. As NPR’s Mara Liasson declared on Fox News Sunday (7/6/08), if Obama was backing away from a 16-month phased withdrawal, it would be “what the American people want a commander in chief to do. That might not be what his left-wing base does.” The Los Angeles Times (7/4/08) reported that the “confusion” over Obama’s apparent shifting away from favoring withdrawal was perhaps not so hard to figure out: “Now, as he faces an opponent who is a war hero, and tailors his message to the broader electorate, he is also trying to present himself as a commander in chief who will listen to the military brass.” The Washington Post (7/9/08) saw similar movement from Obama—and, oddly enough, McCain as well: “Their party nominations in hand, Obama and McCain have calibrated their firm stands on Iraq to adapt to changing events on the ground, namely a post-‘surge’ reduction in violence, to target a more centrist audience.”

Actually, the public’s “center” overwhelmingly supports withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq. A CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll (7/27-29/08), found 62 percent agreeing that the “U.S. should set a timetable for withdrawal by announcing that it will remove all of its troops from Iraq by a certain date,” vs. 37 percent saying that “the U.S. should keep troops in Iraq as long as necessary without setting any timetable for withdrawal.” Asked by the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, “Do you believe that it is a good idea or a bad idea for the United States to set a timetable for withdrawal of troops from Iraq?” 60 percent said it would be a good idea, 30 percent a bad idea. If Obama is shifting at all, then, he would seem to be shifting away from the middle.

The way out

For some pundits, the real path to ending the Iraq War amounted to splitting the difference between Obama and McCain. Washington Post columnist David Ignatius (6/19/08) lamented:

The presidential campaign debate about Iraq, so far, has been a sterile one—implying that the choice is between an Obama solution of pulling out the troops and a McCain solution of staying the course and winning military victory. Neither alternative is realistic.
The right way out is something in between—ambiguous, messy, occasionally in the shadows—a course that recognizes Iraqi sovereignty but also works with care and cunning to protect America’s interests.

And Post deputy editorial page editor Jackson Diehl (7/14/08) advised that Obama

needs to adjust his withdrawal plan, drawn up more than 18 months ago, to the dramatic changes on the ground during the past year—so that he will have the political mandate to pursue a sensible policy if he becomes commander in chief. But he also needs to keep his antiwar base happy and not blur what looks like a big contrast between his strategy and that of John McCain.

Diehl advised that the “better way for Obama to solve his Iraq problem” is to pursue something called “conditional engagement,” which would amount to staying in Iraq longer than he had pledged and making troop redeployment “a matter of negotiation” with the Iraqi government.

New York Times columnist Tom Friedman echoed the line from the Post; he argued that the correct position on Iraq was somewhere in between the two candidates, writing (7/23/08) that “the right position on Iraq today is probably ‘McBama.’” A few weeks earlier, Friedman had sounded generally fatigued over the war debate (6/18/08), but nonetheless concluded: “The U.S. military is still needed as referee. It still is not clear that Iraq is a country that can be held together by anything other than an iron fist.”

Referees do not generally brandish iron fists, but his point seemed clear enough: If Obama becomes president, “the Iraqis will tell him on day one that we can’t leave Iraq precipitously because it will explode.” Actually, that isn’t at all what Iraqis are saying (see sidebar)—but it is what he’s being told by the U.S. press corps.

Research Assistance: Hannah Dreier