Power vacuum—or memory hole?
When Al-Qaeda-linked militants reportedly wrested control over parts of the Iraqi city of Fallujah, corporate media covered it in part by looking back on some of the history of the Iraq War.
Emphasis on some. For many, Fallujah was remembered primarily as a place where US soldiers made great sacrifices. Fallujah was “one of the most crucial areas that US troops fought to pacify,” explained the Washington Post (1/3/14). On ABC World News, anchor Diane Sawyer (1/6/14) announced that Iraq was a place “where so many brave American troops fought to create a future,” and correspondent Terry Moran explained that “after a decade of US-led war to plant democracy in Iraq, much of Fallujah has now fallen to Al-Qaeda.” Moran, like many other reporters, could give a specific account of US losses in Fallujah: “More than 100 Marines gave their lives to pacify the city, and hundreds more were injured.”
Mostly—if not entirely—forgotten was what was done to the people who lived in Fallujah. After an incident in 2003 when US forces fired on protesters, killing over a dozen people, there were two major offensives in 2004—a siege in April and an intense US-led assault on the city in November.
The April siege reportedly killed hundreds of civilians, though major outlets like the New York Times downplayed the death toll (FAIR Action Alert, 11/16/04). The intense US attacks in November included the use of cluster bombs, depleted uranium munitions and incendiary white phosphorus (FAIR Blog, 10/22/12). The Red Crescent estimated that the death toll by late November 2004 might have been more than 6,000 (BBC, 11/27/04).
As Mike Marqusee wrote in the Guardian (11/10/05):
The assault was preceded by eight weeks of aerial bombardment. US troops cut off the city’s water, power and food supplies, condemned as a violation of the Geneva Convention by a UN special rapporteur, who accused occupying forces of “using hunger and deprivation of water as a weapon of war against the civilian population.” Two-thirds of the city’s 300,000 residents fled, many to squatters’ camps without basic facilities.
Marqusee added that the “collective punishment inflicted on Fallujah…was largely masked by the US and British media.”
That seemed to still be true a decade later, as US losses continued to eclipse the much larger Iraqi suffering in American media. The suggestion seemed to be that the Americans, unlike the Iraqis, had died for a noble cause: Time magazine’s Aryn Baker (1/20/14) explained that it was Fallujah where “US forces redeemed the possibility of a peaceful Iraq, fighting house to house, up close and personal, in a costly but successful effort to clear the city of insurgents.”
The advances of Al-Qaeda in Fallujah kicked off a broader conversation about the role of Iraq in US foreign policy. “Power Vacuum on Middle East Lifts Militants” was the headline over a much-discussed January 5 New York Times story that argued that events in Iraq and elsewhere “[expose] something new and destabilizing: the emergence of a post-American Middle East in which no broker has the power, or the will, to contain the region’s sectarian hatreds.”
Rather than seeing Iraqi violence as the product of US absence, one might more reasonably trace it to the US military’s deadly invasion and occupation of that country. Indeed, the Times admitted that the “drumbeat of violence… threatens to bring back the worst of the Iraqi civil war that the United States touched off with an invasion.” But that observation was at best secondary to the main point that the current problems stem from the supposed US reticence to be more militarily involved in the conflicts.
Indeed, criticism of US policy was remarkably narrow. On CBS’s Face the Nation (1/4/14), Times reporter David Sanger said that in Iraq and Afghanistan, “you have seen a power vacuum develop. And power vacuums get filled in that region by extremist groups.” Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, also on the show, slightly disagreed, saying that he didn’t quite buy the idea of a major collapse of US influence: “I see little mistakes.”
Likewise, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman (1/8/14) thought the problem was not really a “power vacuum” but rather “a huge ‘values vacuum.’”
He was talking about the values of Arabs, not the values of those who invaded Iraq and brought so much death and destruction—in order to tell the Muslim world, “Suck on this,” as Friedman (Charlie Rose, 5/29/03) explained at the time.