You may have caught Bush's latest claims of success in Iraq, where he employed his usual falsehoods and straw men. You may have seen the right wing attacking a Washington Post op-ed calling for Iraq withdrawal. Perhaps you caught our supposedly informed, objective, non-partisan television journalists insisting to the Democratic candidates in several debates that the surge was a success. Or possibly you read "Defining Victory Downward: No, the surge was not a success" by Michael Kinsley, an America-centric op-ed that comes to the right conclusion, but breathtakingly ignores the realities of Iraq, and in tired Beltway fashion smugly bashes those opposing the occupation for — being right, not that Kinsley's aware of it (and he's bright enough he really should get the bigger picture).
As we've said many times before — any decrease in violence is most welcome. Any progress is good. But the purported purpose of the surge was to buy time for political reconciliation between the many warring factions in Iraq. Sadly but hardly surprisingly, the Bush administration has actually taken steps that undermine such reconciliation (more on this later). Meanwhile, the true purpose of the surge was always to buy time for the Bush administration, to change the American conversation on Iraq and move the goalposts yet again. As Andrew Bacevich astutely noted in his January op-ed "Surge to Nowhere":
In only one respect has the surge achieved undeniable success: It has ensured that U.S. troops won't be coming home anytime soon. This was one of the main points of the exercise in the first place. As AEI military analyst Thomas Donnelly has acknowledged with admirable candor, "part of the purpose of the surge was to redefine the Washington narrative," thereby deflecting calls for a complete withdrawal of U.S. combat forces. Hawks who had pooh-poohed the risks of invasion now portrayed the risks of withdrawal as too awful to contemplate. But a prerequisite to perpetuating the war -- and leaving it to the next president -- was to get Iraq off the front pages and out of the nightly news. At least in this context, the surge qualifies as a masterstroke. From his new perch as a New York Times columnist, William Kristol has worried that feckless politicians just might "snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory." Not to worry: The "victory" gained in recent months all but guarantees that the United States will remain caught in the jaws of Iraq for the foreseeable future.
The situation in Iraq deserves no cheering in Washington, least of all by the architects of its chaos.
The Song Remains the Same
Keep in mind that the success of the "surge" has been touted for some time, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary. As we wrote back in December in "That Pesky Violence in Iraq":
Putting these two 'upbeat' articles together, the "drop" in violence still means roughly 575 attacks per week, 5 bodies appearing on the streets of Baghdad every day, 16 suicide bombings per month, car bombs every few days, sporadic horrific attacks where dozens of innocent people die (including children), continued troop deaths, many Iraqis afraid to leave their neighborhoods during the day and most afraid to go outside at night.
Now, granted, that was in December. However, in February, McClatchy reported an increase in the violence in Iraq. It also reports the daily violence in Iraq. Juan Cole's blog also tries to cover the daily violence, and recently fact-checked McCain on his statements about political progress in Iraq. Then there's QuestionGirl's Meanwhile, Back in Iraq series.
That's not to mention the many other entries in the BH and VS categories on Iraq, and efforts by other blogs. The most recent edition of Right-Wing Cartoon Watch provided several other useful links, including a piece by Dahr Jamail, who took the radical step of talking to the Iraqis themselves.
Surge cheerleaders could also watch Frontline's episode "The Lost Year in Iraq" online, or rent the widely-praised, Oscar-nominated documentary No End in Sight.
One critique of Iraq has remained sadly the same for years now: it's extremely bad over there, and the Bush administration rarely if ever gives an honest assessment of the situation.
American Media Coverage
Surge cheerleaders are in some cases paid hacks. Why, though, must most of the press also ignore the harsh realities of daily life in Iraq and the astonishing number of slain and displaced Iraqis? As Tom Engelhardt points out:
In the land the Bush administration "liberated," violence remains at a staggering daily level; electricity is a luxury; the national medical-care system has been largely destroyed; perhaps 4.5 million Iraqis have either fled the country or become internally displaced persons; approximately 70% lack access to clean water; and 4 million, according to the UN, don't know where their next meal is coming from. Yet, even with such a record before us, the logic of the moment in Washington and in the media remains clear: The last thing we should be doing is getting out of the country with any alacrity. After all, if we do, a disaster, a bloodbath, even genocide might happen.
During his testimony to Congress, General Petraeus did not volunteer but was pressed to acknowledge that some Iraqi neighborhoods and provinces are more peaceful now because of "ethnic cleansing" and Iraqis fleeing. Estimates of Iraqi deaths since the U.S. invaded range from 80,000 all the way up to one million. Regardless, the number is considerable, and it's not something either the Bush administration or the press discuss much.
Meanwhile, estimates of displaced Iraqis typically range from 4 to 5 million. Using U.N. stats, Refugees International claims the number is almost 5 million and that a staggering one in five Iraqis have been displaced.
Consider for comparison that most estimates of the houses damaged and people displaced by Hurricane Katrina exceeded one million. Imagine that number of people displaced in the United States four or five times over, as is the case with Iraq, and due to violence. Or consider the comparative populations of the U.S. (roughly 301 million) and Iraq (roughly 27 million), and imagine the number of Iraqis displaced proportionate to the U.S. population. Even with the more conservative estimate of 4 million displaced Iraqis, that would still come out to roughly 45 million displaced Americans. Can you imagine that not making the news, or anyone vehemently insisting that situation was a "success"?
Iraq is far from a rosy picture, yet the scale of the humanitarian crisis there rarely seems to make the television news in America. As Engelhardt observes:
For the week of February 4-10, the category of "Iraq Homefront" barely squeaked into tenth place on its chart of the top-ten most heavily covered stories with 1% of the "newshole." First place went to "2008 Campaign" at 55%. "Events in Iraq" -- that is, actual coverage of and from Iraq -- didn't make it onto the list. (The week before, "Events in Iraq" managed to reach #6 with 2% of the newshole.)
It's not that Iraq has gotten so much better, it's that apart from a few outlets, it's barely being covered.
Meanwhile, when it is covered, as at the Democratic debates, it's almost always discussed from a highly skewed, White House-friendly fantasy perspective. This may be the case for a number of reasons. As we're observed before, "Iraq Still Godawful" every day is not an appealing headline to editors. Some hawkish pundits badly want to salvage the reputations, or savage opponents. It's so dangerous in Iraq that only a select number of outlets deliver first-hand accounts. And the White House and Pentagon, despite the many lies of its public affairs office, have been banging the "surge is a success" drum loudly and persistently. Some reporters (Richard Cohen being a prime example) cannot bring themselves to show even cursory skepticism to anyone in uniform, and are much more conservative or authoritarian than popularly assumed. Even though the majority of Americans favor withdrawal, as Engelhardt notes:
...The most self-interested party in the "withdrawal" debate continues to set the terms of that debate. Imagine if, in football, the quarterback calling plays for his team also had the power to assess penalties, declare first downs, and decide whether a ball was caught in or out of bounds.
A more skeptical press could change this dynamic, but it doesn't seem they've actually "learned their lesson" as they claimed after their horrendous failures in the run-up to war. Meanwhile, although the incompetence of the Bush administration is consistent for both Hurricane Katrina and Iraq, in the case of Katrina, there's still a natural disaster that can also be blamed. We created the chaos in Iraq ourselves.
Rosen and Engelhardt
There are two important recent pieces on Iraq the surge pollyannas have ignored, "The Myth of the Surge" by Nir Rosen in Rolling Stone, and the aforementioned Tom Engelhardt piece, "The Million Year War: How Never to Withdraw from Iraq." Rosen's piece should be read in its entirety, but here's a key section (emphasis added):
Now, in the midst of the surge, the Bush administration has done an about-face. Having lost the civil war, many Sunnis were suddenly desperate to switch sides — and Gen. David Petraeus was eager to oblige. The U.S. has not only added 30,000 more troops in Iraq — it has essentially bribed the opposition, arming the very Sunni militants who only months ago were waging deadly assaults on American forces. To engineer a fragile peace, the U.S. military has created and backed dozens of new Sunni militias, which now operate beyond the control of Iraq's central government. The Americans call the units by a variety of euphemisms: Iraqi Security Volunteers (ISVs), neighborhood watch groups, Concerned Local Citizens, Critical Infrastructure Security. The militias prefer a simpler and more dramatic name: They call themselves Sahwa, or "the Awakening."
The American forces responsible for overseeing "volunteer" militias like Osama's have no illusions about their loyalty. "The only reason anything works or anybody deals with us is because we give them money," says a young Army intelligence officer. The 2nd Squadron, 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment, which patrols Osama's territory, is handing out $32 million to Iraqis in the district, including $6 million to build the towering walls that, in the words of one U.S. officer, serve only to "make Iraqis more divided than they already are." In districts like Dora, the strategy of the surge seems simple: to buy off every Iraqi in sight. All told, the U.S. is now backing more than 600,000 Iraqi men in the security sector — more than half the number Saddam had at the height of his power. With the ISVs in place, the Americans are now arming both sides in the civil war. "Iraqi solutions for Iraqi problems," as U.S. strategists like to say. David Kilcullen, the counterinsurgency adviser to Gen. Petraeus, calls it "balancing competing armed interest groups."
But loyalty that can be purchased is by its very nature fickle. Only months ago, members of the Awakening were planting IEDs and ambushing U.S. soldiers. They were snipers and assassins, singing songs in honor of Fallujah and fighting what they viewed as a war of national liberation against the foreign occupiers. These are men the Americans described as terrorists, Saddam loyalists, dead-enders, evildoers, Baathists, insurgents. There is little doubt what will happen when the massive influx of American money stops: Unless the new Iraqi state continues to operate as a vast bribing machine, the insurgent Sunnis who have joined the new militias will likely revert to fighting the ruling Shiites, who still refuse to share power.
"We are essentially supporting a quasi-feudal devolution of authority to armed enclaves, which exist at the expense of central government authority," says Chas Freeman, who served as ambassador to Saudi Arabia under the first President Bush. "Those we are arming and training are arming and training themselves not to facilitate our objectives but to pursue their own objectives vis-a-vis other Iraqis. It means that the sectarian and ethnic conflicts that are now suppressed are likely to burst out with even greater ferocity in the future."
The Bush administration has bribed its way to a short-term ceasefire in Baghdad, and in doing so, has undermined the Iraqi central government whose legitimacy is essential to creating long-term stability. In other words, they've prevented the political reconciliation the surge was supposed to allow (their purported goal) to sell the illusion of the surge working (their actual goal).
Not only is the Bush administration running out the clock on Iraq to pass it on to the next president, they're doing everything they can to make withdrawal as difficult as possible. They've repeatedly denied that they intend to stay permanently, while simultaneously spending extraordinary amounts of money on new American facilities in Iraq. They're also dragging their feet elsewhere. As Engelhardt writes:
In the surge year, when administration officials and top commanders speculated about withdrawal, they increasingly emphasized the Herculean task involved and the need to take the necessary time to carefully remove every last piece of military equipment in-country. "You're talking about not just U.S. soldiers, but millions of tons of contractor equipment that belongs to the United States government, and a variety of other things," Secretary of Defense Gates told Pentagon reporters last July. "This is a massive logistical undertaking whenever it takes place"...
When it comes to withdrawal, the highest priority now seems to be frugality in saving all U.S. property. In other words, as the Bush administration continues to dig in, each of its acts makes leaving ever more complicated.
If the subject at hand weren't so grim, this would be hilarious. An analogy might lie in an old joke: A boy murders his father and mother and then, arrested and brought to court, throws himself on the mercy of the judge as an orphan.
The administration that rashly invaded Iraq, used it as a laboratory for any cockamamie scheme that came to mind, and threw money away profligately in one of the more flagrantly corrupt enterprises in recent history, now wants us to believe that future planning for draw-downs or withdrawals must be based on the need to preserve whatever we brought -- and are still bringing -- into the country...
Getting out, when it comes, won't be elegant. That's a sure thing by now; but, honestly, you don't have to be a military specialist to know that, if we were determined to leave, it wouldn't take us forever and a day to do so. It isn't actually that hard to drive a combat brigade's equipment south to Kuwait. (And there's no reason to expect serious opposition from our Iraqis opponents, who overwhelmingly want us to depart.)
And what's the long-term political angle for the GOP on this? As Engelhardt notes:
Right now, however, any form of "walking away," itself a polite euphemism for retreat from a desperate stalemate or even a lost war, is off that "table" on which this administration has so often placed "all options." As a result, if either Clinton or Obama were to win the next election, enter office in January 2009, and follow his or her present plan -- a relatively long period of drawdown not leading to full withdrawal -- he or she would, within months, simply inherit the President's war. At that point, the present war supporters would turn on the new president with a ferocity the Democrats are incapable of mustering against the present one, attacking her or him as a cut-and-runner of the first order, even possibly even a traitor.
When and if we withdraw from Iraq, it will be bloody in the short term, in large part because the Bush administration has guaranteed exactly that by arming all the factions and undermining the Iraqi central government. Yet if you follow the news and blogs, you've probably already noticed plenty of conservatives trying to sell the stab-in-the-back myth. Such rhetoric is only going to get worse, which is why it's particularly despicable that the press coverage on Iraq is so woefully inadequate.
Questions for the "Serious" Beltway Crowd
Let us leave aside for the moment all the pre-war lies of the Bush administration, the devastating economic costs (2-3 billion per week), the drastic loss in international prestige, with its resulting damage to international trade, and the administration's lies about not building horribly expensive permanent bases in Iraq. Say we pretend against all evidence and sanity that they have been operating in good faith and are actually making things better. Several key questions remain:
1. How are we going to reconcile the deep divisions between Sunnis and Shiites in Baghdad, let alone the rest of Iraq?
2. What are we going to do about the four to five million displaced Iraqis?
3. Why do most Iraqis still not have reliable electricity and safe drinking water, and what are we going to do about it? What are doing about food, and unemployment?
4. Why have we still not investigated and punished the war profiteering by American companies in Iraq, as the Truman commission did? Why have we still not fully investigated outfits such as Blackwater or set limits and accountabilities on their actions? (This also relates to questions #1 and #3.)
5. Some people argue that the American presence is all that is preventing greater chaos. What about the argument that our presence is making things worse?
I have yet to see a single person touting "success" in Iraq that has tackled any of the above, certainly not willingly. Neither has any of them acknowledged the disastrous realities outlined by Rosen, Engelhardt, and other brave and honest reporters. Anyone who doesn't is hardly "serious." The "surge" is still not working. The American people deserve to be told the full truth, and our officials should be pressed for serious answers about the harsh realities of Iraq rather than being allowed to shill fantasies.
(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)