Sep 1 2011

The Forever Wars

Media enlist to promote unending military adventures

Shock & Awe in Iraq

Shock & Awe in Iraq

In the era of the “War on Terror,” the United States has embarked on two major wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a NATO-led “humanitarian” bombing of Libya that almost immediately morphed into a war for regime change, and undeclared drone bombing campaigns in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

Launching these wars has been fairly easy for the White House, with or without congressional approval. How any of them ends, though, remains unclear. The shift from the U.S.’s time-limited military adventures since the Vietnam War–in conflicts like Grenada, Panama, Somalia and Kosovo–to today’s seemingly interminable and endlessly multiplying military commitments is one of the most notable, yet little noted, features of the post-September 11 landscape. And corporate journalists seem all too willing to encourage Washington’s new “permanent war” footing.

Iraq: Mission (Never) Accomplished

Though mostly an afterthought in the news after the escalation in Afghanistan, Iraq has received a sizable amount of recent coverage around efforts to prolong the U.S. troop presence there. Some journalists have portrayed the existing arrangement–a joint U.S./Iraqi agreement that U.S. forces would be withdrawn by the end of 2011–as a problem. The Washington Post (5/10/11) reported nonsensically that the Iraqi government’s failure to deviate from the plan for withdrawal was “complicating plans for the U.S. military withdrawal”; later, reporter Aaron Davis gave a more straightforward explanation:

A growing chorus of military strategists in Washington would like a deal allowing at least some continued U.S. military presence in Iraq. Amid the broad unrest across the Middle East, they say, a U.S. foothold in Iraq is critical to help ensure stability in that country and to keep Iran and other potential aggressors in check.

Two months later, the Post (7/10/11) was at it again, making illogical arguments to give cover to efforts to prolong the war. Under the headline “Iraqis Fail to Reach Consensus on Longer U.S. Troop Presence,” Karen DeYoung wrote that Iraqi politics were leaving the White House with “an ever-shorter timetable to complete the withdrawal or manage the political fallout from staying.”

This “complicates an already vexing problem for Obama,” she went on, explaining that the president has made a “pledge of complete withdrawal,” but “the administration has made clear its willingness to continue tasks such as training, air defense, intelligence and reconnaissance”–in other words, the opposite of withdrawal.

She added that

the longer the decision takes, the less time Obama has to explain to the American public the importance of preserving a presence, and the more he risks clouding an election-year message that he has overseen the end of the Iraq war.

So Obama promised to withdraw from Iraq–which is the current status quo–but apparently the administration actually wants to stay. That’s not the “vexing problem,” though; it’s the fact that Iraqis have so far failed to change their minds, which gives Obama less time to “explain to the American public the importance of preserving a presence” in Iraq.

This is especially jarring given that less than one year earlier, the withdrawal of “combat troops” was treated as the end of that conflict. “It’s gone on longer than the Civil War, longer than World War II. Tonight U.S. combat troops are pulling out of Iraq,” announced NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams (8/18/10). It’s also worth pointing out that even the withdrawal of the remaining 50,000 troops would still leave a massive State Department presence of some 17,000, including more than 5,000 mercenaries (TomDispatch, 6/7/11).

Afghanistan: Withdrawal–but Not Really

The Afghan War presents another “vexing problem.” Public opinion remains critical of that war, and even Republican presidential contenders like Mitt Romney have been voicing antiwar messages (Politico, 6/14/11).

Media portrayals of Obama’s June 22 announcement of a phased troop withdrawal from Afghanistan suggested this was a major step towards ending the war. “Obama Moves Toward Exit From Afghanistan” read a Reuters headline (6/22/11), while USA Today (6/23/11) reported that “Obama heralded the beginning of the end of the nation’s 10-year war in Afghanistan.”

The actual announcement suggested, with many of the usual caveats, a plan to remove 30,000 “surge” troops–“the withdrawal of the entire surge force by the end of next summer,” as the New York Times put it (6/23/11). But that framing neglects an earlier surge of 20,000 troops in February 2009, plus another roughly 13,000 added over the course of Obama’s watch, which brought the total troop levels from 34,000 at Bush’s exit to nearly 100,000–and that’s not counting the 100,000 Pentagon contractors in Afghanistan.

As ThinkProgress noted (6/22/11), the troop reductions would still leave the U.S. with

far more troops in Afghanistan than it did when Obama came into office and more than at any point during former president George W. Bush’s administration. This means that the troop reduction would not put us much closer to actually ending the war by the end of 2012.

Somehow, this merited headlines like “Obama Will Speed Military Pullout From Afghan War” (New York Times, 6/23/11). The previous day, echoing discussions about leaving Iraq too soon, the Washington Post (6/22/11) previewed Obama’s speech under the headline “Obama’s Challenge: Leaving, But Not Too Quickly.”

Given the public’s antiwar sentiment, the actual problem for most people is leaving too slowly.

Iran: The On-Again, Off-Again Iran

As if “going after the enemy” weren’t enough, U.S. officials and the corporate media are regularly inclined to talk up the threat posed by Iran. In July officials who were pressing Iraq to extend the U.S. presence in Iraq were also issuing warnings about Iranian meddling in Iraq. The allegation centered on a string of attacks on U.S. forces by Iraqi insurgents “Weapons prove Iranian role in Iraq, U.S. says” was the Washington Post‘s July 5 headline, in a piece alleging that the presence of “more sophisticated weapons.”

The allegations are eerily reminiscent of similar claims from 2007 (Extra!, 3-4/07; Extra! Update, 12/07). The Post is aware of this, writing that “U.S. officials have previously accused Iran of supplying weapons and training to Iraqi insurgents, although details have been scant.” It is not clear why the evidence is more convincing now than it was then.

The New York Times (7/11/11) reported that claims about Iran supplying weapons to Iraqi militias were coming from several U.S. officials, including Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who “did not elaborate on what the forensic evidence entailed.” The Times added some context that served to offer a more plausible explanation for the sudden concern about Iranian meddling:

Mr. Panetta’s comments, made a day before he is to meet with the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, were aimed at urging the Iraqi military to take stronger action against Shiite militias and to see Iran as the Obama administration does–not just as a threat to American troops, but as a potential cancer in the country.

Not two weeks later, newspaper readers were learning of a different Iranian plot– this time to help Al-Qaeda move personnel and funds into Pakistan. “Iran Allows Money, Recruits to Reach Al-Qaeda, U.S. Says” read a July 29 Washington Post headline. Like before, the Post pointed out that while “U.S. officials have repeatedly accused Iran of assisting Al-Qaeda, links between the two have been difficult to prove.”

In the New York Times, the allegations were given more credibility, based in part on the argument that because the allegations were backed by Treasury Department sanctions, there must be something to it: “The officials said the sanctions were nonetheless meaningful because they would serve to demonstrate that Iran was working with Al-Qaeda.” That would be like saying that since the U.S. invaded Iraq in order to destroy Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, those weapons must have existed.

The lessons media were supposed to learn from the Iraq debacle seemed pretty clear: Government sources should be challenged. More skepticism of shadowy claims about terror links was in order. In an era of permanent war, citizens would seem to be suffering from fatigue–but the corporate media remain eager battlefield participants.