8.01.2006

disappearance

Canadians often wonder why Americans tolerate the level of bad government currently holding forth in Washington DC. I think it's a two-part answer. One, many don't. They protest vociferously, but are ignored. And two, many others don't know anything about it. For more evidence in that category, I bring you Frank Rich.
The Peculiar Disappearance of the War in Iraq
By Frank Rich

As America fell into the quagmire of Vietnam, the comedian Milton Berle joked that the fastest way to end the war would be to put it on the last-place network, ABC, where it was certain to be canceled. Berle's gallows humor lives on in the quagmire in Iraq. Americans want this war canceled too, and first- and last-place networks alike are more than happy to oblige.

CNN will surely remind us today that it is Day 19 of the Israel-Hezbollah war — now branded as Crisis in the Middle East — but you won't catch anyone saying it's Day 1,229 of the war in Iraq. On the Big Three networks' evening newscasts, the time devoted to Iraq has fallen 60 percent between 2003 and this spring, as clocked by the television monitor, the Tyndall Report. On Thursday, Brian Williams of NBC read aloud a "shame on you" e-mail complaint from the parents of two military sons anguished that his broadcast had so little news about the war.

This is happening even as the casualties in Iraq, averaging more than 100 a day, easily surpass those in Israel and Lebanon combined. When Nouri al-Maliki, the latest Iraqi prime minister, visited Washington last week to address Congress, he too got short TV shrift — a mere five sentences about the speech on ABC's "World News." The networks know a rerun when they see it. Only 22 months earlier, one of Mr. Maliki’s short-lived predecessors, Ayad Allawi, had come to town during the 2004 campaign to give a similarly empty Congressional address laced with White House-scripted talking points about the war's progress. Propaganda stunts, unlike "Law & Order" episodes, don’t hold up on a second viewing.

The steady falloff in Iraq coverage isn't happenstance. It's a barometer of the scope of the tragedy. For reporters, the already apocalyptic security situation in Baghdad keeps getting worse, simply making the war more difficult to cover than ever. The audience has its own phobia: Iraq is a bummer. "It is depressing to pay attention to this war on terror," said Fox News's Bill O'Reilly on July 18. "I mean, it's summertime." Americans don't like to lose, whatever the season. They know defeat when they see it, no matter how many new plans for victory are trotted out to obscure that reality.

The specter of defeat is not the only reason Americans have switched off Iraq. The larger issue is that we don’t know what we — or, more specifically, 135,000 brave and vulnerable American troops — are fighting for. In contrast to the Israel-Hezbollah war, where the stakes for the combatants and American interests are clear, the war in Iraq has no rationale to keep it afloat on television or anywhere else. It's a big, nightmarish story, all right, but one that lacks the thread of a coherent plot.

Certainly there has been no shortage of retrofitted explanations for the war in the three-plus years since the administration's initial casus belli, to fend off Saddam's mushroom clouds and vanquish Al Qaeda, proved to be frauds. We've been told that the war would promote democracy in the Arab world. And make the region safer for Israel. And secure the flow of cheap oil. If any of these justifications retained any credibility, they have been obliterated by Crisis in the Middle East. The new war is a grueling daily object lesson in just how much the American blunders in Iraq have undermined the one robust democracy that already existed in the region, Israel, while emboldening terrorists and strengthening the hand of Iran.

But it's the collapse of the one remaining (and unassailable) motivation that still might justify staying the course in Iraq — as a humanitarian mission on behalf of the Iraqi people — that is most revealing of what a moral catastrophe this misadventure has been for our country. The sad truth is that the war's architects always cared more about their own grandiose political and ideological ambitions than they did about the Iraqis, and they communicated that indifference from the start to Iraqis and Americans alike. The legacy of that attitude is that the American public cannot be rallied to the Iraqi cause today, as the war reaches its treacherous endgame.

The Bush administration constantly congratulates itself for liberating Iraq from Saddam's genocidal regime. But regime change was never billed as a primary motivation for the war; the White House instead appealed to American fears and narcissism — we had to be saved from Saddam's W.M.D. From "Shock and Awe" on, the fate of Iraqis was an afterthought. They would greet our troops with flowers and go about their business.

Donald Rumsfeld boasted that "the care" and "the humanity" that went into our precision assaults on military targets would minimize any civilian deaths. Such casualties were merely "collateral damage," unworthy of quantification. "We don't do body counts," said Gen. Tommy Franks. President Bush at last started counting those Iraqi bodies publicly — with an estimate of 30,000 — some seven months ago. (More recently, The Los Angeles Times put the figure at, conservatively, 50,000.) By then, Americans had tuned out.

The contempt our government showed for Iraqis was not just to be found in our cavalier stance toward their casualties, or in the abuses at Abu Ghraib. There was a cultural condescension toward the Iraqi people from the get-go as well, as if they were schoolchildren in a compassionate-conservatism campaign ad. This attitude was epitomized by Mr. Rumsfeld's "stuff happens" response to the looting of Baghdad at the dawn of the American occupation. In "Fiasco," his stunning new book about the American failure in Iraq, Thomas E. Ricks, The Washington Post's senior Pentagon correspondent, captures the meaning of that pivotal moment perfectly: "The message sent to Iraqis was far more troubling than Americans understood. It was that the U.S. government didn’t care — or, even more troubling for the future security of Iraq, that it did care but was incapable of acting effectively."

As it turned out, it was the worst of both worlds: we didn't care, and we were incapable of acting effectively. Nowhere is this seen more explicitly than in the subsequent American failure to follow through on our promise to reconstruct the Iraqi infrastructure we helped to smash. "There’s some little part of my brain that simply doesn't understand how the most powerful country on earth just can't get electricity back in Baghdad," said Kanan Makiya, an Iraqi exile and prominent proponent of the war, in a recent Washington Post interview.

The simple answer is that the war planners didn't care enough to provide the number of troops needed to secure the country so that reconstruction could proceed. The coalition authority isolated in its Green Zone bubble didn't care enough to police the cronyism and corruption that squandered billions of dollars on abandoned projects. The latest monument to this humanitarian disaster was reported by James Glanz of The New York Times on Friday: a high-tech children's hospital planned for Basra, repeatedly publicized by Laura Bush and Condi Rice, is now in serious jeopardy because of cost overruns and delays.

This history can't be undone; there’s neither the American money nor the manpower to fulfill the mission left unaccomplished. The Iraqi people, whose collateral damage was so successfully hidden for so long by the Rumsfeld war plan, remain a sentimental abstraction to most Americans. Whether they are seen in agony after another Baghdad bombing or waving their inked fingers after an election or being used as props to frame Mrs. Bush during the State of the Union address, they have little more specificity than movie extras. Chalabi, Allawi, Jaafari, Maliki come and go, all graced with the same indistinguishable praise from the American president, all blurring into an endless loop of instability and crisis. We feel badly ... and change the channel.

Given that the violence in Iraq has only increased in the weeks since the elimination of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian terrorist portrayed by the White House as the fount of Iraqi troubles, any Americans still paying attention to the war must now confront the reality that the administration is desperately trying to hide. "The enemy in Iraq is a combination of rejectionists and Saddamists and terrorists," President Bush said in December when branding Zarqawi Public Enemy No. 1. But Iraq's exploding sectarian warfare cannot be pinned on Al Qaeda or Baathist dead-enders.

The most dangerous figure in Iraq, the home-grown radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, is an acolyte of neither Osama bin Laden nor Saddam but an ally of Iran who has sworn solidarity to both Hezbollah and Hamas. He commands more than 30 seats in Mr. Maliki's governing coalition in Parliament and 5 cabinet positions. He is also linked to death squads that have slaughtered Iraqis and Americans with impunity since the April 2004 uprising that killed, among others, Cindy Sheehan's son, Casey. Since then, Mr. Sadr's power has only grown, enabled by Iraqi "democracy."

That the latest American plan for victory is to reposition our forces by putting more of them in the crossfire of Baghdad’s civil war is tantamount to treating our troops as if they were deck chairs on the Titanic. Even if the networks led with the story every night, what Americans would have the stomach to watch?
I'd rather not get into our old debate about whether or not the media is complicit in setting the public's mental agenda and then shaping its opinion. I believe the mainstream media is a principal reason why the American public wallows in ignorance. If you feel otherwise, let's agree to disagree, and leave it at that.

14 comments:

James said...

I can't really see any way to deny that the US media is at best incompetent. CNN had a headline recently -- "Iraq: The Forgotten War".

Forgotten? By whom? CNN, I guess.

Even though far more people are being killed in Baghdad every day than in Israel and Lebanon together, coverage of the situation in Iraq had plummetted to almost nothing. Which is great for Bush, it puts the single biggest failure of his administration out of mind.

M@ said...

It also speaks to the other other side of the equation -- the lack of effective opposition in the government. I can't imagine why every Democrat candidate isn't saying Iraq, Iraq, Iraq. Or do they think the USA is winning there too?

Such a depressing article. Good ones about Iraq usually are though.

Lone Primate said...

Relatedly, The Globe and Mail this morning has news on the opinions of Canadians with regard to the crisis between Israel and Hezbollah that, I feel, are encouraging for those of us who don't want the country to slide to the right or slip into too firm an American orbit...

James said...

Off topic: I don't know if you've heard about the fuss in Kansas over a rainbow flag over the Lakeway Hotel. The owner put up the rainbow flag in memory of his son, not realizing it's association with the Gay Rights movement. Ever since the local paper pointed out the connection, he's been practically besieged by anti-gay bigots. Two days ago, someone cut the flag down.

The hotel owner, J.R. Knight, says he will replace the flag:

My son's Rainbow flag is gone, cut by the very closed minded bigots that we sent him home to get away from. Our new Rainbow flag will serve a different purpose, it will stand for the very thing that THEY (the schalooses) wanted it to stand for. Gay Rights, Gay Pride, Human Rights, Equality of the Sexes, Equality of the Races, Diversity, Unity, Peace, The International Co-operative Alliance's, The Inca banner, The Flag of Cusco, Peru, The Wizard of OZ, God's Gift to Mankind, and everything else that the homophobic, bigoted, ignorant ... people of the world fear.

I thought the mention of Cusco was nice. ;)

There are accounts of the story at Pandagon and Pharyngula.

James said...

"It is depressing to pay attention to this war on terror," said Fox News's Bill O'Reilly on July 18. "I mean, it's summertime."

Reminds me of Barbara Bush: "Why should I waste my beautiful mind on something like body bags and deaths?"

David Cho said...

Got to see the Deer Hunter for the first time last night, believe it or not. What an haunting and powerful movie. It was released only 3 years after the end of the war, so America was still reeling from it.

Looking at Bush, we have not learned a single thing from it. Not a thing.

L-girl said...

Thanks for your excellent comments on media, Iraq, war, depressing, Canadians' opinions...

I like that reference to Cusco, too! The Rainbow Flag flies over the whole Andean region. We loved it. :)

Re this

we have not learned a single thing from it. Not a thing.

that's why I found "Collapse" so depressing and disturbing. The dominant society doesn't seem to be learning anything. Indeed, it is slipping backwards into greater ignorance.

James said...

The dominant society doesn't seem to be learning anything. Indeed, it is slipping backwards into greater ignorance.

That's not precisely correct -- lots of people have learned. The problem is that the qualities that give individuals the ability to learn from past mistakes -- curiousity, open-mindedness, and adaptability -- are qualities which make them less likely to get far in modern politics (though Al Gore did fairly well -- though we'd all be better off had he done better).

Conversely, those qualities which allow one to get to the top -- ruthlessness, inflexibility, etc -- are precisely those which make one less likely to learn from past mistakes. Bush is, of course, an ideal example of this. He can't even admit to having made mistakes, let alone learn from them.

L-girl said...

qualities which make them less likely to get far in modern politics

I don't think the trouble is modern politics. Modern politics are not so very different than politics of any other time.

Politicians of all eras were a mostly selfish, short-term thinking lot, with some very important exceptions - who are notable because they were exceptions.

Globally, and over time, I don't think politics has changed very much at all.

Lots of individual people have learned, that's true. But I don't the mainstream society has. Short-term thinking and profit is rewarded; long-range, community-oriented planning is incredibly difficult and faces massive obstacles. Gains are small, setbacks enormous - regardless of who's in the White House, because the larger, corporate, profit-making powers are still in place.

Conversely, those qualities which allow one to get to the top -- ruthlessness, inflexibility

I also disagree that inflexibility is a precursor of success, in any field, including politics. Ruthlessness, for sure, but that's found in all segments of society. Flexibility, however, is often the hallmark of a great leader, be he Stalin or Mandela. Successful politicians are often the ones who can continually recreate themselves as the situation demands, a la Clinton.

The secret to Bush's success is not a collection of personality traits. It's massive amounts of corporate money. That's what got him in the White House and that's what all his policies are beholden to.

That's what makes me feel so little hope. Although Jared Diamond takes pains to show how good environmental stewardship is more profitable in the long run - and he's right - most corporations aren't thinking about the long run.

Our society doesn't reward a lot of long-term thinking. That's why I feel dismal at our prospects.

James said...

I don't think the trouble is modern politics. Modern politics are not so very different than politics of any other time.

In modern politics, being born to the right people is much less important than it was in the past. Not unimportant -- witness Bush again -- but at least you can get in without being born there.

BTW, here's a great one: a new book explaining how GWB is the Messiah.

L-girl said...

In modern politics, being born to the right people is much less important than it was in the past.

Yes, that's true. That was one exciting thing (initially) about Bill Clinton - coming from a working-class background, I hoped he might be more sensitive to the needs of working people. It certainly showed in his comfort level among people - a man apparently without classism and racism. Alas, it was not to be...

James said...

Yes, that's true. That was one exciting thing (initially) about Bill Clinton - coming from a working-class background, I hoped he might be more sensitive to the needs of working people. It certainly showed in his comfort level among people - a man apparently without classism and racism. Alas, it was not to be...

I'd take any number of Clintons -- even with a Republican Congress -- over the current situation any day.

L-girl said...

I'd take any number of Clintons -- even with a Republican Congress -- over the current situation any day.

No argument there, but that's a gruesome choice.

Having lived through a Clinton with a Republican Congress - the final nail in the coffin of liberal Democrats - it's not something I'd wish to see again. The other Clinton pretty much is Republican.

Lone Primate said...

I'd take any number of Clintons

Even of the Hillary variety?