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The Surge Pushers

The War and the New York Times

by ALEXANDER COCKBURN

The war in Iraq, one of the most disastrous military enterprises in the history of the Republic, has the New York Times’ fingerprints all over it. The role the newspaper played in fomenting the 2003 attack is now one of the best known sagas in journalistic history, as embodied in the reports of Judy Miller, working in collusion with Iraqi exiles and US spooks to concoct Saddam’s imaginary arsenal of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.

But so fixated have many Times critics been on the WMD/ Miller saga, that they have failed to notice that across the past sixth months the Times has been waging an equally disingenuous campaign to escalate American troop levels in this doomed enterprises.

The prime journalistic promoter of the escalation ­- it is time to retire the adroitly chosen word "surge" — now being proposed by the White House is Michael Gordon, the Times’ military correspondent, a man of fabled arrogance and self esteem.

Gordon’s has been the mouthpiece for the faction ­-led by Gen. David H. Petraeus — inside the U.S. military in Iraq that has been promoting the escalation. As Gordon himself triumphantly announced in the New York Times this weekend, Gen. Petraeus has been picked by Bush to lead the open-ended escalation of the war that Petraeus has long campaigned for.

Throughout his time in Iraq Gen. Petraeus himself has been very adroit at fostering good relations with carefully selected reporters, like Gordon. That strategy has been vindicated by the steady stream of stories in the Times–not just by Gordon–reflecting his views.

On the face of it, the idea that the addition of some 25,000 to 30,000 troops will do anything more than add to the cumulative disaster is exactly the sort of crackpot realism "Crackpot realism" defined by the great Texan sociologist, C. Wright Mills in 1958, when he published The Causes of World War Three, also the year that Dwight Eisenhower sent the Marines into Lebanon to bolster its local factotum, Lebanese President Camille Chamoun.

"In crackpot realism," Mills wrote, " a high-flying moral rhetoric is joined with an opportunist crawling among a great scatter of unfocused fears and demands. .. The expectation of war solves many problems of the crackpot realists; … instead of the unknown fear, the anxiety without end, some men of the higher circles prefer the simplification of known catastrophe….They know of no solutions to the paradoxes of the Middle East and Europe, the Far East and Africa except the landing of Marines. … they prefer the bright, clear problems of war-as they used to be. For they still believe that ‘winning’ means something, although they never tell us what…"

Just as it seemed beyond the realm of possibility a month ago that the US could contrive a situation in which Saddam Hussein would be resurrected as a martyr, so now it still seems incredible that two months after an election on November 7 in which the voters punished Bush for the Iraq disaster by giving Congress back to the Democrats , Bush should be pressing for an escalation, backed by almost daily doses of crackpot realism in the New York Times.

A realistic appraisal of the situation in Iraq instructs us that the Shi’a control most of the country, with the exception of the Kurdish areas and the Sunni enclaves. Insofar as Iraq has a government, it is a Shi’a government. The country is already effectively divided. The option of a non-sectarian national army has long gone. So the idea of lengthening US tours of duty, to up the US military presence in Baghdad is the essence of crackpot realism. Of the 30,000 maybe a sixth will actually be combat troops. This little force is supposed to make a long-term difference in a savagely divided, vast city–an urban theater ideal for a guerilla insurgency.

On New Year’s Day the Times ran a piece by John Burns and Mark Santora clearly dictated by US officials in Baghdad trying to recoup from the PR disaster of Saddam’s hanging. It was a comical essay in Pilate-like handwashing, filled with self-serving accounts of how the Americans had vainly counseled the Maliki puppet regime to observe a more dignified schedule, in accordance with legal proprieties. Of course, the United States controlled the trial and outcome from start to finish, even postponing the announcement of the guilty verdict to November 5, right before election day. The rush to execution was intended to produce headlines overshadowing the 3,000th American death of the war.

I have discussed here more than once the strenuous efforts over the past few months of the Times’ military correspondent, Michael Gordon, to promote a hike in US forces in Iraq. A long piece on January 2, under the byline of Gordon, John Burns and David Sanger, made these promotion efforts particularly clear. The piece was a prolonged attack on Gen. George Casey, top military commander in Baghdad, depicted in harsh terms as espousing a defeatist plan of orderly withdrawal.

Finding favor in the reporters’ eyes was the military/policy-making faction urging the escalation ceaselessly promoted by their tool, Gordon,

Gordon managed to dodge the fall-out from the WMD debacle he played a major part in contriving. For example, he co-wrote with Miller the infamous aluminum tubes-for-nukes story of September 8, 2002, that mightily assisted the administration in its push to war, In the latter part of 2006 he became the prime journalistic agitator for escalation in troop strength.

On September 11, 2006, the Times ran a Gordon story under the headline, "Grim Outlook Seen in West Iraq Without More Troops and Aid". Gordon cited a senior officer in Iraq saying more American troops were necessary to stabilize Anbar. A story on October 22 emphasized that "the sectarian violence [in Baghdad] would be far worse if not for the American efforts" There were of course plenty of Iraqis and some Americans Gordon could also have found, eager to say the exact opposite.

When John Murtha — advocate of immediate withdrawal — was running for the post of House majority leader in the new Democratic-controlled Congress, Gordon rushed out two stories, both front-paged by the New York Times. In "Get Out Now? Not So Fast, Some Experts Say" (11/14/06) Gordon sought out the now retired General Anthony Zinni and others, who "say the situation in Baghdad and other parts of Iraq is too precarious to start thinning out the number of American troops," while "some military experts said that while the American military is stretched thin, the number of American troops in Iraq could be increased temporarily"

The next day, November 15, 2006, a second Gordon story was headlined "General Warns of Risks in Iraq if GIs Are Cut" Gordon cited Gen. Abizaid’s warnings that phased withdrawal of troops would lead to an increase of sectarian violence, and that more troops might be necessary temporarily.

At the start of December, the infighting in Washington rose to feverish intensity. With Baker and Hamilton about to issue thneir bipartisan Iraq Study Group report, the White House–as the New York Times’ Jan 1 story acknowledged–was desperate to have a "victory" strategy ready to counter the gloomy assessment of Baker and Hamilton. This is what Gordon and the Times had helped provide.

On December 4, with the Iraq Study Group about to issue its report, Gordon returned to General Zinni. In a story headlined, "Blurring Political Lines in the Military Debate" Gordon gave warm, supportive coverage to Gen. Zinni’s plan for temporary increase of troops on the grounds that they are needed to offset Iranian influence. The story promoted the line that any precipitate withdrawal would destabilize Middle East and leave Iraq in chaos.

On December 7, Pearl Harbor Day, Gordon was at it again, flailing away at Baker and Hamilton’s Report. Headline: "Will it Work on the Battlefield?" Lead: "The military recommendations issued yesterday by the Iraq Study Group are based more on hope than history and run counter to assessments made by some of its own military advisors." Precipitous withdrawal, Gordon charged, would leave Iraqi armed forces unprepared to take over security burden.

Reporter with a propaganda mission can always find the mouthpieces to say what they want. Gordon’s "troop surge" campaign has been politically much more influential than the mad-dog ravings of the right-wing broadcasters.

One of the most famous lines in the history of journalism is William Randolph Hearst’s 1897 cable to his artist, Frederic Remington, in Cuba, who was complaining there no war for him to draw pictures of. "You furnish the pictures," Hearst cabled his man." I’ll furnish the war."

The Times helped furnish the 2003 U.S. attack on Iraq. Now it has played a major role in furnishing a likely escalation. There is blood on its hands, and grieving mothers like Cindy Sheehan have as much cause to demonstrate outside its offices as outside Bush’s ranch in Crawford.

In his syndicated column published January 2, Robert Novak reported that barely more than a dozen Republican senators favor escalation. The rest remain impressed by the November 7 verdict of the electorate and fearful of worse in 2008. the Democrats’ leaders in Congress–Reid and Pelosi–waver. One day they profess to oppose any escalation. The next, they refuse to countenance any effort to cut off funds for the war. They need 20,000 Cindy Sheehans in their faces, day after day, reminding them forcefully that they have one prime mandate: to bring the troops home.