Nov 1 2007

No Way Out

Withdrawing from withdrawal from Iraq

Historians analyzing the phases of the Iraq War might find one period particularly striking. The midterm elections of 2006 removed the Republican Party’s grip on Congress, and exit polls and political analysts agreed that the Iraq War was the principal cause for their defeat. And yet the public’s dissatisfaction produced, oddly enough, an escalation of the war in Iraq. While much blamed can be pinned on compliant Democrats, the mainstream media played its role by reframing the discussion of the war to exclude the possibility of ending it by withdrawing U.S. forces.

Whatever the White House might be able to claim about “progress” or “success” in the Iraq War, the U.S. has remained stubbornly antiwar. Throughout much of the war, polls have registered substantial support for withdrawing troops from the country. The CBS/NYT poll registered 55 percent support for reducing or withdrawing U.S. troops in August 2005, climbing to 66 percent by July 2007. Sixty-five percent of Americans wanted U.S. troops withdrawn either within a year or immediately, according to an L.A. Times/Bloomberg poll (1/13=16/07). An ABC/Washington Post poll that asked, “Do you think the United States should withdraw its military forces from Iraq in order to avoid further U.S. military casualties, even if that means civil order is not restored there?” registered 40 percent support for withdrawal in May 2004, which rose to 59 percent in July 2007.

This has presented something of a problem for media outlets that regularly poll the public on the war: The disconnect between the Beltway debate and broad public sentiment is hard to miss. But even after the Democratic victory in 2006, corporate media managed to keep withdrawal from Iraq off the table as a serious policy option.

Skewed Presentation

After the election, Time correspondent Aparisim Ghosh (12/11/06) wrote passionately against a U.S. withdrawal: “It may take five more years. But if the U.S. leaves sooner, Iraq will devolve into an even bigger mess. If the Americans insist on pulling out, they ought to park their hardware nearby, because like it or not, they’ll be back.” What Ghosh favored was “30,000 more coalition soldiers and a real willingness to thrash the Shi’ite militias, something they’ve avoided so far.”

ABC World News convened a panel (11/29/06) to discuss what anchor Charles Gibson labeled the three choices available for Iraq: “Send more troops to Iraq to stop the violence, continue on present course, or set a schedule for leaving Iraq, getting the troops out.” None of the participants–Newsweek‘s Fareed Zakaria, retired Army general and surge advocate Jack Keane, and Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haass–supported the withdrawal option, leaving Gibson to summarize: “Bottom line, there is no good option.”

A similarly skewed presentation appeared on PBS‘s NewsHour With Jim Lehrer (11/20/06), whose taped report skewed heavily towards pro-war views–George W. Bush, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), along with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and U.S. military commander John Abizaid; Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) was the lone supporter of a phased withdrawal from Iraq.

The debate that followed was introduced by Lehrer as “our own version of the debate, two men who’ve advised President Bush on Iraq policy this year.” Neither guest–Fred Kagan from the right-wing American Enterprise Institute and Michael Vickers of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments–advocated withdrawal; Kagan favored troop increases, while Vickers mostly parried, saying the U.S. didn’t have enough troops to send more. To get a wider range of discussion, the NewsHour probably would have had to go outside the small circle of former Bush advisers.

This template for discussing the war seemed more or less set in stone. After tens of thousands of antiwar activists marched on January 27, 2007, the Sunday chat shows on the national networks leaned to the right, with even critics of the White House (like Democratic senators Chuck Schumer and Jim Webb) loath to consider moves like cutting off the funding for the troop “surge” that was under consideration. It was hard to ignore the irony when ABC‘s George Stephanopoulos said, “We saw tens of thousands of protesters here this week. Polls show that two-thirds of Americans almost oppose this plan. Doesn’t Congress at some point, at some level, have a responsibility to give voice to that opposition?” The media certainly don’t seem eager to offer such a platform.

‘Simply not realistic’

How this happened is worth examining. The Democrats prevailed in the November 2006 midterms, riding a wave of antiwar sentiment–and yet by the time George W. Bush offered his “surge” plan on January 10, 2007, somehow the media had more or less determined that anything else wasn’t politically possible. In order for this White House escalation strategy to work, it needed media support of some form.

One of the most prominent anti-withdrawal media voices was New York Times military reporter Michael Gordon, who co-wrote some of Judith Miller’s infamous WMD reports. Soon after the midterm elections (11/15/06), he weighed in with a front-page story, “Get Out of Iraq Now? Not So Fast, Experts Say.” Gordon summoned three “experts”: former military officers Anthony Zinni and John Batiste, who called for additional troops in Iraq, and war proponent Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution. That evening, Gordon told CNN‘s Anderson Cooper that withdrawing troops was “simply not realistic given how precarious the security situation is at this point in time…. It’s just the American military that stands between Iraq and civil war at this point. And, in that context, you can’t withdraw a lot of troops.”

The next day (11/16/06), Gordon co-authored a story headlined “General Warns of Risks in Iraq if GIs Are Cut,” which cited Gen. John Abizaid’s warning that a phased withdrawal of troops “being proposed by Democratic lawmakers” would likely lead to an increase of sectarian violence.

On December 5, under the headline “Blurring Political Lines in the Military Debate,” Gordon led with this: “No military expert was more forthright in opposing the Iraq War than Anthony C. Zinni.” What made Zinni’s opinion–a Marine general Gordon called a “barrel-chested officer” with “a well-earned reputation for blunt talk”–especially relevant? Zinni, far from being the staunchest military opponent of the invasion, actually mostly objected to the timing, telling the Washington Post (2/2/03), “I don’t object to military action against Saddam; in fact, we should have done it a long time ago.” But having painted Zinni as a war critic, Gordon told readers he was now delivering a “provocative message”: He was steadfastly opposed to withdrawing forces, and actually supported sending more U.S. forces–what he called a “surge”–to Iraq.

As a corollary, Gordon also argued that the war debate “roiling Washington cuts across partisan divides and has led to some odd bedfellows.” His chief case for this was that former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had released a memo just before resigning that recommended some troop reductions. This apparently demonstrated “some convergence between him and Democratic lawmakers who have criticized the war.” Thus Gordon linked Democratic critics trying to challenge the White House with a figure closely associated with the Iraq debacle.

Several weeks later, Gordon earned a mild rebuke from Times public editor Byron Calame (1/28/07) for sharing his personal opinions about the Iraq War on PBS‘s Charlie Rose show. Gordon had supported a troop surge in Iraq as “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.” But readers who’d paid attention to Gordon’s pro-surge campaign in the Times‘ news pages were probably not surprised to hear him say the same on television.

‘Rapid withdrawal fast receding’

Of course, Michael Gordon wasn’t the only journalist pushing withdrawal from Iraq further to the margins. Leaks to the media about the conclusions of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group–chaired by former Rep. Lee Hamilton and Bush family adviser James Baker–seemed to contribute to a narrowing of the media discussion. Press accounts ahead of the group’s report (e.g., Time, 12/11/06; FAIR Media Advisory, 12/4/06) stressed that the panel would endorse only a tentative call for gradually withdrawing troops, with no fixed timeline.

A December 1, 2006 New York Times “News Analysis,” headlined “Idea of Rapid Withdrawal From Iraq Seems to Fade,” was emblematic, reporting that “the idea of a rapid American troop withdrawal is fast receding as a viable option.” Reporter David Sanger noted that Democrats, “with an eye toward 2008, have dropped talk of a race for the exits, in favor of a brisk stroll.” He went on to claim that the “debate in Washington and much of the country” has rejected the White House’s stay-the-course policy in favor of “renewed efforts to prepare the Iraqi forces while preparing to pull American combat brigades back to their bases, or back home, sometime next year.”

While the New York Times‘ Sanger attributed a slow withdrawal position to “much of the country,” opinion polls would seem to show much more willingness on the part of the public to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq sooner than most pundits and politicians would like. A September 15-17 USA Today/Gallup poll found 48 percent support for withdrawing troops either immediately or within a year. Less than two months later (12/3=12/6), an Associated Press poll found 60 percent favored a six-month timeline to withdraw all U.S. troops. The public, apparently, hadn’t heard about the allegedly widespread realization that leaving Iraq couldn’t happen.

Never mind those polls

The clarity of the public’s feelings about the Iraq War had to be dismissed as less important than it seemed. On NBC‘s Meet the Press (4/8/07), conservative pundit Kate O’Beirne sneered that “Democrats seem to think that they have public opinion at their back on this, they seem to think this is a mainstream position to set firm dates for withdrawal. But the Baker/Hamilton Group was specifically opposed to this.” Note that elite and not popular opinion seems to be the determinant of what is “mainstream.”

Writing in the New York Times Magazine (4/8/07), law professor Noah Feldman tried to explain the gap between the public and the political elites:

Elected officials of all persuasions are supposed to respond to public opinion. So what explains this gap? One possibility is that politicians realize that raw public sentiment cannot be translated into practical policy without taking account of the likely consequences. It is not enough to give the public what it wants today if tomorrow–or whenever the next elections are held–the public will be even angrier about where things have gone in the meantime. With office comes responsibility–if only because politicians want to keep their jobs.

In other words, voters should be given what politicians believe they need, not what they say they want–a somewhat odd philosophy for someone sent to advise Iraqis on setting up a democratic constitution.

Feldman elaborated by suggesting that the stay-the-course Iraq policy actually captures some hidden nuances of public opinion–that it’s possible that “the politicians are reading the polls just right, and adopting policies that reflect a deep ambivalence–not to say confusion–on the part of the voters themselves, whether Iraqi or American.”

U.S. public opinion is arguably less important than what Iraqis think of the military occupation of their country. That polling too indicates overwhelming sentiment against the occupation, though at times the results can be difficult to locate even in the media outlets that did the polling. When a major poll of Iraqis was conducted by USA Today, ABC and the BBC found in March 2007, reading about the findings in USA Today (3/20/07) might have been more confusing than anything else.

The most relevant results were relegated to bullet points at the end of the article, where one could learn that Iraqis mostly oppose the presence of troops in their country (83 percent of Shiites and 97 percent of Sunnis), that “by more than 3 to 1, Iraqis say the presence of U.S. forces is making the security situation worse,” and that 51 percent of Iraqis “say attacks on U.S. forces are acceptable political acts.”

Still, the paper summarized Iraqi attitudes toward the occupation as being “contradictory,” noting that “only 35 percent of Iraqis want U.S. forces to leave immediately.” That number–while perhaps higher than many consumers of U.S. media would expect–may be as low as it is because respondents were not given any time frame for withdrawal other than “immediately”; when a Program on International Policy Attitudes poll (1/31/06) offered a choice of deadlines, 35 percent of Iraqis wanted U.S. troops out within six months, while another 35 percent wanted them gone within two years.

But for some journalists, whose contacts with typical Iraqis are no doubt limited, such sentiments didn’t exist. When ABC‘s George Stephanopoulos (3/19/06) asked, “How long will the Iraqi people give the American presence?” ABC correspondent Jackie Spinner replied, “I find when I come back to the United States the discussion of troop withdrawal to be a curious one, because nobody is talking about that in Iraq.”

Move slowly, if at all

In the run-up to the 2006 midterm elections, some in the media figured (FAIR Action Alert, 6/16/06) that the Iraq War would be an asset to Republicans, who have long been adept–with no small assist from the press–at painting their opponents as weak on national security. The results of the elections did little to change some media minds.

NBC reporter Norah O’Donnell (11/26/06) acknowledged the Democrats’ electoral victory, but argued that doing something to actually respond to public pressure would be unwise:

They wind up looking weak on national security, because what they’re proposing is essentially a pull-out in four to six months. There is not one military or foreign policy expert who thinks you could actually feasibly do that, and second, that it would be a good idea. So why are they proposing that?

O’Donnell’s roster of “experts” doesn’t include retired Army general and Reagan-era National Security Agency chief William Odom, who advocates for troop withdrawal–as do former CIA director John Deutsch and Boston University military historian Andrew J. Bacevich. Or former Sen. George McGovern and former State Department official William Polk, who co-authored a recent book, Out of Iraq: A Practical Plan for Withdrawal Now.

Some in the media argued that pro-withdrawal Democrats should be kept away from the levers of power. The Washington Post‘s editorial page (11/14/06) weighed in against Rep. John Murtha’s bid to become majority leader, claiming that Murtha’s call for the redeployment of U.S. troops from Iraq is “an extreme step that most congressional Democrats oppose.” That was hard to square with the fact that about half the Democrats in Congress were co-sponsors of Murtha’s resolution (ThinkProgress, 11/14/06).

Efforts to erase the Democrats’ anti-war base were made in the news section as well. Washington Post reporter Dan Balz (4/16/07) warned Democrats and Republicans that adopting the positions of their core voters would “risk embracing positions that could complicate later efforts to win the support of independent voters.” On the war, this translates into the Republican candidates for president “uniformly support[ing] President Bush’s troop buildup strategy,” while Democrats “just as forcefully argue for starting to withdraw U.S. troops and a timetable for eventual removal of virtually all combat forces.” This dynamic, according to Balz, was one in which “the candidates are at opposing poles of the debate.”

That’s probably half-right–Balz is accurately describing the White House pole of the debate, one with little public support. But “a timetable for eventual removal of virtually all combat forces” was in no way one of the “opposing poles of the debate”–a CBS/NYT poll (4/9=12/07) found 57 percent support for a timetable for withdrawal of troops from Iraq. The opposite position from endorsing Bush’s escalation in Iraq was supporting the immediate withdrawal of all troops–a position that at the time was embraced by about a third of the country, including much of the Democratic Party base.

Washington Post political reporter David Broder (6/7/07), under the headline “Candidates Lacking a Real-World Clue,” worked much the same ground, lamenting that “Democrats brushed aside concerns about the impact of their votes to cut off funding for the troops in Iraq or the larger implications of a precipitous withdrawal from that country.” (This framing of war funding as being “funding for the troops”–with the implication that removing them from a war zone would somehow put them at risk–played a key role in dampening talk of withdrawal.) Broder argued that top-polling candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama had been pushed left by “four long-shots” and John Edwards, and “have abandoned their cautious advocacy of a phased withdrawal of U.S. forces and now are defending votes to cut off support for troops fighting insurgents in Iraq.”

‘Nightmare scenario’

In May, when a majority of Democratic senators voted for a proposal by Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.) that called for timetables and a phased withdrawal, ABC World News correspondent Jake Tapper suggested that Democrats had taken a sharp turn: “What was considered radical just a few months ago on Capitol Hill is now mainstream Democratic thought”–a very bad thing, he thought. Tapper saw “once cautious Democrats now trying to outflank one another on the antiwar left,” and stressed that “many analysts caution against a withdrawal that is too sudden and say the bill Democrats voted for today could make matters worse.”

Those “analysts” were Newsweek columnist Fareed Zakaria, who said withdrawal would lead to “a rise in insurgent activity in Iraq, an increase in the bloodletting, an increase in the civil war,” and Kurt Campbell of the Center for a New American Security, who linked a pull-out to a “larger regional conflict, deeper sectarian violence in Iraq and also the prospects of some sort of Al-Qaeda strongholds inside the country.”

This is a familiar media storyline–the Democrats once again were well to the “left” of the country. Newsweek‘s Howard Fineman explained on MSNBC (1/17/07) that there was some “tension that people like Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Joe Biden are caught in as they try to move to the left on the war without taking themselves out of the mainstream of the country.” According to polling, of course, the “left” position represents well over half the population, leaving the “mainstream” and “right” positions to fight over the remaining minority.

A related theme suggested that whatever the White House’s blunders, credible alternatives were hard to come by. As U.S. News & World Report put it (1/22/07): “For all the carping, the president’s critics have few of their own plans to offer. While some suggest a phased withdrawal, few can counter Bush’s nightmare scenario of a hasty U.S. departure resulting in the complete collapse of the Iraqi government and ‘mass killings on an unimaginable scale.'”

Of course, advocates for withdrawal argue that given the current state of Iraq–hundreds of thousands of dead, millions of refugees, a capital city effectively ethnically cleansed of Sunnis–the nightmare is already here. Media warnings of what could result from a withdrawal seemed predicated on denial of what has actually resulted from the invasion. In his Slate column (7/10/07), Fred Kaplan wrote:

Bush was right about one thing: A precipitous and total U.S. withdrawal from Iraq probably would have “serious consequences.”… (If you think the country’s already as bad off as it can be, think back on Lebanon during the civil war or Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge.)

While Bush may not have inflicted Pol Pot levels of destruction on Iraq, the death toll is actually quite a bit higher than Lebanon’s 1975-76 civil war, which killed between 40,000 and 100,000 people (Historical Atlas of the 20th Century).

Time‘s suggestion was to redefine “withdrawing” as “staying.” Under the headline “How to Walk Away,” the magazine explained (7/30/07) that the “two big schools of thought” on Iraq–a quick withdrawal or an open-ended conflict–were wrong. The best answer: “The best strategic minds in both parties have argued for months that the answer is essentially to muddle our way out, cut our losses carefully and try to salvage what we can from a mission gone bad”–a proposal that turned out to require thousands of U.S. troops occupying Iraq indefinitely.

Enter Petraeus

For a press corps looking for an exit strategy from the discussion over Iraq exit strategies, news came in the summer that Gen. David Petraeus would deliver a status report to Congress on the troop “surge” in Iraq. For many in the elite media, this meant that debate was almost beside the point, since his words would somehow matter more than what anyone else thought about Iraq. The fact that he was likely to speak out against withdrawing U.S. forces evidently only elevated his importance. Asked where the war debate was “going,” ABC‘s Cokie Roberts explained (8/26/07):

Well, I think the debate is in flux, but the real truth is, is that everybody’s kind of sitting and waiting for General Petraeus to give his report in September…. And what is interesting is that you are hearing the Democratic candidates, as much as they say, you know, ‘We have to get out of there,’ they’re saying, ‘But let’s be realistic, it’s not going to be any time soon. It’s going to take a very long time. We have to tell the truth about this.’ So I think that there’s a real ratcheting down of expectations of a lot of people coming home any time soon.

Perhaps aware that escalating the war in Iraq contradicted every indicator of public opinion, the “surge” had to be discussed by pundits and reporters as something with a defined endpoint–one that one would become clear when Petraeus came to Washington. NBC correspondent Andrea Mitchell offered a typical formulation (5/20/07):

You can’t sustain it militarily and you can’t sustain it politically here at home. So the basic calculation by Republican and Democratic senators is when General Petraeus briefs in September, if this thing has not turned a corner, you’re going to start to see withdrawal.

NBC host Chris Matthews summarized, “Everybody seems to think–or most people–that we’re going to actually see an actual withdrawal from Iraq, gradually beginning and proceeding through…next year at this time.”

“Satisfies both sides”

But when September came around and Petraeus gave his much-hyped testimony, the media seemed eager to provide cover for Democratic politicians seeking to avoid efforts to end the Iraq War. A September 13 Washington Post headline was typical: “Democrats Push Toward Middle on Iraq Policy.” The Post emphasized “modest bipartisan measures,” which constitute the “middle” only in the Beltway.

While the public seemed less impressed with Petraeus’ plea for more patience (polls seemed to show little, if any, change in the public’s view of the war), the press seemed convinced that they’d finally found a way to shortcut the debate over ending the war. A September 11 Washington Post headline seemed to hope for an end to the discussion altogether: “The General’s Long View Could Cut Withdrawal Debate Short.”

NBC reporter David Gregory suggested (9/10/07) that “by recommending a withdrawal of surge troops beginning in December, Petraeus may have satisfied both sides of the aisle.” Gregory bizarrely tried to back up this point with a quote from Democratic Sen. Carl Levin backing a timeline–something that Petraeus did not support.

The Los Angeles Times (9/11/07) made a related point–that Democrats frustrated about how to withdraw troops would now be outmaneuvered by Petraeus’ pledge to bring down troop levels to their pre-“surge” levels. Though Petraeus’ “proposed drawdown would not be as fast or large as Democrats have wanted,” it could still “undermine support for their push to order a major withdrawal.”

The implication was a curious one; while the public has expressed an obvious desire for a much more significant, rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops, they were somehow projected to reject Democrats’ attempts to do what they say they want. But for the press, such peculiar predictions provided the perfect way to usher popular opinion off the radar.

‘The abyss of pulling out’

The press has stayed the course in its pro-occupation line even as public opposition has increased. When the three most-discussed hopefuls for the Democratic presidential nomination–Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards–refused to pledge to end the Iraq War by January 2013 (the end of the first term of the next president), they won remarkable media support–even though public support for continuing the war for five additional years is practically non-existent. (A CBS poll found 5 percent support for extending the U.S. presence in Iraq longer than five years–9/14-16/07.)

NBC reporter David Gregory declared (9/30/07) that this was “a really measured position for three candidates…. I think it’s a realization, though, that, that they’re going to take a more centrist position and say to the left wing of their party, ‘We’ve got to be pragmatic about this. We can’t lose the general election because of your feelings about the war.'” Responding to his Fox News colleague Brit Hume’s argument that the Democrats were too close to “far-left” groups like, commentator Juan Williams said the front-runners

understand America’s interest in Iraq to the point that they are willing to say to their base, a base that wants to get out, “No, you know what, we may have to be there to protect American interests til 2013.” How is that playing [to]–in any way appeasing–a base? That is being honest and responsible. That’s the kind of leadership we want


Under the headline “For a Democrat, Options in Iraq Could Be Few,” Washington Post reporter Thomas Ricks (9/29/07) all but declared attempts to end the war impossible. Ricks wrote that “the key question for centrist Democrats in the presidential race is no longer whether U.S. forces will remain in Iraq but what size, mission and length a post-buildup, post-Bush force would take on.” He continued, “Ultimately, however, it appears now that no matter who inhabits the White House, the United States may be resolved–or resigned–to an enduring presence in Iraq.” The article is closed out by a comment from David Kilcullen, an adviser to Petraeus, rejecting the prospect of a troop withdrawal: “America has taken a deep breath…looked into the abyss of pulling out, and decided, ‘Let’s not do it yet.'”

The American public might not remember that fictitious moment, but U.S. media elites will be happy to remember it for them.