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Despite the termination of George W. Bush’s presidency, continued opposition to ending the Iraq war remains in the halls of Washington and amongst media pundits. In a Meet the Press interview this month, Washington Post reporter Thomas Ricks explained that, under current thinking in Washington, the U.S. may continue “to have American troops dying in Iraq for years to come.” He specifically cited opposition to withdrawal on the part of military officials such as General Ray Odierno, who indicated his support for keeping 35,000 troops in the country through at least 2015, down from the high of 155,000 currently in Iraq. One report this month from journalist Gareth Porter highlights the opposition of military commanders to Obama’s 16 month plan for a troop reduction. Odierno, again, reportedly hoped to convince Obama of revising the Status of Forces Agreement made with Iraq, which requires a full withdrawal of troops by December, 2011. Odierno wanted to circumvent the agreement by “re-categorizing large numbers of combat troops as support troops,” potentially allowing them to remain in Iraq indefinitely. This plan seems to resemble Obama’s ambitions in Iraq in many respects, as the President has long indicated that, despite his plan for 16-month de-escalation, he may keep tens of thousands of troops in Iraq until at least 2013. General David Petraeus was also reportedly opposed to Obama’s 16 month drawdown of American troops.
Despite the public’s long-standing opposition to the war and support for a short timetable for withdrawal, Obama and his generals continue to defy public wishes as they debate whether the occupation will continue for another three years, six years, or indefinitely into the future. Much of the justification for this obstinacy is based on manipulation of available intelligence and from deceptively simplistic arguments that the 2007 troop surge “worked.” Detailed analysis reveals that this deception is wide-ranging, as support for the surge spans across liberal and conservative mainstream media outlets.
Continued celebrations of the occupation are reflected in a spate of editorials this month in one of the most prominent media outlets: the Washington Post. Charles Krauthammer argues that the “near miracle” of Iraq’s provincial elections contradicts the “general establishment/media narrative of Iraq as a ‘fiasco,’” while Jim Hoagland similarly maintains that “Iraq is closer today to being a source of regional stability than it ever was in its pre-American era.” Robert Kagan optimistically describes the security situation in Iraq as “quiet,” in light of U.S. plans to escalate the conflict in Afghanistan. Emboldened by bi-partisan defense of the surge, conservative media monitoring groups have taken it upon themselves to forward cavalier, although mostly unsubstantiated attacks on the mainstream press for not being sycophantic enough in their support for U.S. military power. One release by the Media Research Center complains that, amidst the decrease in violence in Iraq during 2007 and 2008, media outlets covered the conflict less than in earlier periods. The center takes issue with the decrease in stories on Iraq from the major three networks (ABC, NBC, CBS) from September through October 2007, when coverage declined by 62 percent as violence in Iraq was also falling. The MRC has specifically chastised the mainstream press for emphasizing “discouraging developments” while neglecting “positive stories,” and for appropriating the term “civil war” to describe the violence in Iraq.
What has systematically eluded these pundits is the possibility that the decrease in news on Iraq may in fact have worked in favor of the Bush administration, as well as to the advantage of the war-lite Obama administration. The unpopularity of the Iraq war amongst the American public is documented as a function of a number of factors which have little to do with the “good news” of decreasing violence levels. When asked about their primary reasons for opposing the war, Americans provide the following answers: 1. The war is costing too much at a time when the economy is in dire straits; 2. The war was originally supported as a means of protecting Americans from WMD and Al Qaeda threats, not as a mechanism for “democracy building,” (which was never part of the original public mandate for war). Americans are twice as likely to agree that the Iraq war is “fundamentally wrong and immoral” than to agree with the claim that it is “humanitarian in its mission and goals”; 3. Too many American troops have died during this conflict (the current number of deaths is 4,250); despite the decline in troops casualties in 2007 and 2008, Americans view the aggregate number of lives lost, and see these losses as unacceptable in light of the false pretexts that got the U.S. into war; and 4. Violence levels in Iraq have actually increased dramatically since the declared end of “combat operations” and the announcement of “mission accomplished” in 2003. None of these four points of opposition are likely to change in light of the relative change in violence levels in Iraq during mid to late 2007, when the attacks decreased from mass ethnic cleansing to the level of near-mass ethnic cleansing. In short, the decrease in news from Iraq is likely to constitute good news for Democratic and Republican policy planners, not bad news. Little public attention to Iraq can be considered beneficial in that it allows officials to conduct business in Iraq with minimal accountability.
Despite the critical evidence above, conservative and mainstream liberal pundits and politicians continue to maintain that the 2007 troop surge changed everything in Iraq for the better, and that the media needs to simply get on board with the positive changes by taking on a more cheerful approach. We should strongly question these claims on the following empirical grounds:
Despite a decline in violence in mid to late 2007, the living conditions in Iraq remain dire. Quantitatively speaking, Iraq’s electricity grid produced less electricity in 2008 than it had prior to the U.S. invasion. National unemployment has remained at 60-70 percent in post-invasion Iraq, and Iraqis have blamed the U.S. for its failure to improve the economy as well as general living conditions. Over half of Iraqis suffer from a lack of access to safe drinking water. More than 20 percent of children are estimated to suffer from chronic malnutrition, despite the promises of U.S. leaders to improve living standards.
Conservative war supporters may complain that the media doesn’t report enough on the “good things” that happen in Iraq, but their anger has little to do with observable reality on the ground. U.S. reconstruction projects in Iraq have been virtually non-existent, and this was intentional. The U.S. originally allocated a meager $18 billion for reconstruction in Iraq, and half of that money was redirected to the “pacification” of Iraqi resistance to the occupation. Despite media propaganda celebrating the U.S. commitment to democratizing and rebuilding Iraq, such goals have been far from a serious concern for U.S. leaders, as the Bush administration announced an end to their meager $9 billion commitment to reconstruction in early 2006. Reconstructing Iraq’s electric network alone would have cost nearly $ 80 billion, of which the United States’ entire reconstruction funds would have covered less than one-eighth of the financing. Such a pitiful allocation toward reconstruction is all the more disturbing considering that Iraq remains in ruins after three wars (spanning thirty years), all of which were either undertaken by, or supported by the U.S., and years of sanctions which crippled the country’s economy, prevented infrastructure reconstruction, and led to the murder of hundreds of thousands of children.
Violence levels in Iraq, contrary to the rosy picture conveyed in the mass media, remain at very high levels. While monthly attacks reached a high of 5,000-6,000 per month in late 2006 and early 2007, they remained high in late 2007 and early 2008, averaging between 2,000-2,400 per month. While Iraq Body Count provided estimates (which may very well be drastic understatements) of about 2,000 Iraqi deaths per month in early 2007, that number remained, on average, at approximately 720 deaths per month throughout 2008. In other words, the civilian dead in 2008 declined to about the same number that were being killed in late 2005 and early 2006, immediately prior to the outbreak of full-blown civil war. While it is true that violence has decreased significantly from its near genocidal high in 2006 and 2007, the number of attacks stands at 2,000 higher than in the pre-invasion period, and far higher than in 2003 and 2004. It is worth reflecting on these statistics, and speculating over how Americans would react if they were faced with similar circumstances. Iraq was forced to endure upwards of 6,000 attacks per month, and is now graced by an occupation presiding over a mere 2,000 attacks. This would be equivalent to expecting that Americans support a foreign occupation presiding over a decrease in attacks on U.S. soil from a high of 62,000 per month to a low of 21,000 per month (these numbers are arrived at, after adjusting for the population difference between both countries). While Americans would probably be screaming in the streets, predicting the end of civilization and the beginning of Armageddon, Iraqis are cynically expected to endure these conditions as the necessary price of promoting freedom and democracy.
Iraqi casualties and suffering remain at catastrophic levels, contrary to government and media propaganda. The occupation of Iraq has been accompanied by major human rights crises, in large part fueled by the increase in the number of internally displaced and refugees. By mid 2007, an estimated four to five million Iraqis had been expelled from their homes, half of which with no access to food. Despite consistent promises in the U.S. media of the success of the surge, the Iraqi Red Crescent estimated that the number of internally displaced actually increased from 499,000 to over one million after U.S. forces were increased. The Iraq Body Count’s estimate of Iraqi deaths estimated that approximately 100,000 Iraqis were killed from 2003 to 2008 under the occupation, while other surveys suggest the number climbed from 100,000 dead in 2004, to 660,000 in 2006, and 1.2 million by late 2007. Such violence, if directed against the American people, would hardly be seen as a cause for celebration.
Little consensus exists amongst journalists and experts over whether the surge had any positive impact at all on reducing Iraq’s violence. Much of the decline in violence has been attributed to the Sunni Awakening movement, in which Sunni leaders turned against Al Qaeda in Iraq in late 2006. While U.S. leaders did retain a hand in paying insurgent groups to fight Al Qaeda (rather than the U.S.), this initiative was undertaken independently of the surge, rather than reliant upon it. Much of the success in reducing Iraqi violence has also been attributed to Iran – America’s sworn enemy – due to the pressures it placed on Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi army to cease its attacks against the U.S. and to terminate its military operations in southern Iraq. Finally, in regards to the surge itself, it could not possibly have reduced violence in the Western Al-Anbar province or in southern Iraq, although violence was reduced in those areas, since the surge in troops was not concentrated in those regions. In the area where surge troops were concentrated (in Baghdad), critics take issue with whether they caused a decline in violence. Middle East expert Juan Cole criticizes U.S. troops for disarming Sunni communities in Baghdad in 2007 during the surge initiative, and allowing for Shi’a militia groups to ethnically cleanse Sunnis from mixed neighborhoods, secretly and by cover of night. Statistical evidence drawn from Iraq’s demographic records in Baghdad substantiates this claim, as mixed neighborhoods were clearly ethnically cleansed during this period. It seems that the ethnic cleansing (enabled by the tragic success of the surge in disarming Sunni mixed areas) was the primary reason for the decrease in violence in Baghdad. After the U.S. inadvertently allowed for the mass ethnic cleansing, there were simply fewer people left to kill by late 2007. Only the most cynical and dishonest of observers could look at these facts and claim that the surge was successful on humanitarian grounds.
Conservative pundits’ claims that the media does not devote enough attention to U.S. successes in Iraq are highly circumspect, for a number of reasons. The continued high levels of violence in Iraq in 2008 prohibited reporters from travelling freely throughout the country to cover the “good news” that critics claim exists. The Pew Research Center cites the continued “basic security concerns [that have] limited the scope of their reporting,” as a recent Project for Excellence in Journalism survey revealed that a “full 57 percent of those journalists reported having local staff in Iraq murdered or kidnapped” in 2006. These problems continued during the surge and post-surge periods. The Committee to Protect Journalists deemed Iraq the “deadliest nation” for reporters in 2008, for the sixth year in a row. As Reuters reported during late 2007, “Nearly 90 percent of U.S. journalists in Iraq say much of Baghdad is still too dangerous to visit, despite a recent drop in violence attributed to the build-up of U.S. forces.” Long committed to the notion that the U.S. is fighting a “humanitarian war” in Iraq, journalists would likely relish the opportunity to report how great the Iraq situation has become. There’s only one problem: Iraq is not safe enough for reporters to travel in without being murdered, mutilated, or kidnapped. Despite this constraint, it is not true, as pundits suggest, that the media does not report on reconstruction in Iraq. A brief survey of the Lexis Nexis academic database finds that a story addressing reconstruction in Iraq appeared in the New York Times, on average, once every three days in January of 2009. A longitudinal examination from 2003 to 2009 finds that, in this six year period, reconstruction was addressed in thousands of news stories in the paper. This is all the more impressive a propaganda victory for the government considering that literally no reconstruction has actually taken place in the country.
Claims that the mainstream media distorts the violence in Iraq are certainly correct, but not in the way that conservative pundits claim. The American press has systemically ignored, marginalized, or buried deep within their pages casualty reports indicating that hundreds of thousands, perhaps over one million Iraqis died during the occupation. What little reporting has been done on casualties focuses more on American lives. An analysis of the 2003-2005 period finds that the New York Times covered American casualties three times more than Iraqi civilian casualties. When violence against Iraqis has been reported, it typically portrays the victims of violence as the result of the actions of insurgents and militias, rather than also as the result of American bombing. This practice, contrary to conservative punditry claims, allows for the U.S. to be framed in a positive light, as a force fighting against civil war and sectarian violence, rather than one that is destabilizing Iraq through its own bombings (which are estimated to have killed tens of thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands). Furthermore, when the media does report casualties in Iraq (in this case American ones), its reporting is heavily dependent upon the lead of the government itself. According to one study, 75 percent of the stories filed on American casualties in the New York Times from 2003 to 2005 were based exclusively on press releases from the Department of Defense. Statistically, the study showed that, as the DOD increased its press releases on casualties (during months when larger numbers of Americans were killed), the New York Times responded to increased DOD releases by increasing its own reporting on American deaths. During times when the DOD put out fewer releases, the New York Times responded accordingly by reducing its coverage. Coverage of violence, then, is heavily influenced by the government’s own actions and agenda.
This study has merely skimmed the surface of the bi-partisan deceit that drives media and political rationalizations for the war. Fortunately, most Americans seem to have rejected these defenses as opportunistic and manipulative. Whether the American public will be able to effectively hold the Obama Presidency to its pre-election promise to quickly end the war in Iraq is uncertain. One thing, however, is clear. If the public doesn’t place continued pressure on this administration, the U.S. will likely remain in Iraq for many years to come.
ANTHONY DiMAGGIO is the author of the newly released: Mass Media, Mass Propaganda: Understanding American News in the “War on Terror” (2008). He teaches American Government at North Central College in Illinois, and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org References
Charles Krauthammer, “Iraq: Good News is No News,” Washington Post, 13 February 2009, 17(A); Jim Hoagland, “Iraq’s Example,” Washington Post, 9 February 2009, 17(A); Robert Kagan, “No Time to Cut Defense,” Washington Post, 3 February 2009, 15(A).
Rich Noyes, “TV Keeps Pushing Bad News Agenda on Iraq,” Media Research Center, 21 July 2008, http://www.mediaresearch.org/realitycheck/2008/fax20080721.asp; Rich Noyes, “Good News = Less News on Iraq War,” Media Research Center, 4 December 2007, http://www.mrc.org/realitycheck/2007/fax20071204.asp
The public’s primary reasons for opposing the war are explained at length in Chapters 7 and 8 my book: When Media Goes to War: Hegemonic Discourse, Public Opinion, and the Limits of Dissent, which will be released from Monthly Review Press in late 2009.
John Hendren, “‘Sunni Awakening’: Insurgents Now Allies,” ABC News, 23 December 2007, http://abcnews.go.com/International/Story?id=4045471&page=1
Juan Cole, “Kahl: Iran Tamed Mahdi Army,” Informed Comment, 16 August 2008, http://www.juancole.com/2008/08/kahl-iran-tamed-mahdi-army-al-maliki.html
Juan Cole, “A Social History of the Surge,” Informed Comment, 24 July 2008, http://www.juancole.com/2008/07/social-history-of-surge.html; Matt Duss, “Escalation Architect Fred Kagan Doubles Down On His Claim That Sectarian Cleansing In Baghdad Is A ‘Myth,’” Think Progress, 25 March 2008,
http://wonkroom.thinkprogress.org/2008/03/25/kagan-cleansing-myth/; Karen DeYoung, “Balkanized Homecoming,” Washington Post, 16 December 2007, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/12/15/AR2007121501921_pf.html; Matt Duss, “CNN’s Ware: Sectarian Cleansing In Baghdad ‘One Of The Key Elements To The Drop In Sectarian Violence,’” Think Progress, 3 April 2008, http://wonkroom.thinkprogress.org/2008/04/03/ware-sectarian-cleansing/
Reuters, “Reporters Say Baghdad Too Dangerous Despite Surge,” Reuters, 28 November 2007, http://www.reuters.com/article/latestCrisis/idUSN27496676; Committee to Protect Journalists, “For Six Straight Year, Iraq Deadliest Nation for Press,” Committee to Protect Journalists, 18 December 2008, http://cpj.org/reports/2008/12/for-sixth-straight-year-iraq-deadliest-nation-for.php