A New York Times Editorial Contemplates Iraq


Two voices are there: one is of the deep;
It learns the storm-cloud’s thundering melody,
Now roars, now murmurs with the changing sea,
Now dream-like pipes, now closes soft in sleep;
And one is of an old half-witted sheep
That bleats articulate monotony
And indicates that two and one are three,
That grass is green, lakes damp and mountains steep..”

As regards the half-witted sheep, J.K. Stephen could just as well have parodying newspaper editorials as about Wordsworth.

These days editorials barely matter. Few people outside the professional political classes bother to read them. It’s a form of writing as dead as the dodo, so we should find a specimen that is still in decent enough condition to be stuffed for the benefit of posterity.

By great good luck, the day after Christmas, the New York Times produced an absolutely perfect specimen of the editorial genre. Devoted to the elections in Iraq held on December 15, it should be carted off at once to the Museum of Natural History, and put in the “journalism” diorama next to the green eyeshade.

A word here about technical terms. Many newspaper readers describe opinion articles such as this one as “editorials”. Within the newspaper business this is a “column”, not an editorial, which refers solely to the unsigned expression of opinion usually appearing on the left hand side of the page, below the masthead. The editorial reflects the position of the newspaper, therefore, in the first analysis, of the owner of that newspaper.

On local issues a strong editorial can still make a bureaucrat or department czar tremble. Political endorsements in contests for judgeships and the like also count. The New York Times could call for Bush’s impeachment tomorrow. But would even that makes waves?
In the main, the editorial thunderbolt, hurled from on high with stately and effective violence is a thing of the past. Newspapers, as institutions, simply lack the credibility to be seen as tribunes of the people. The Eighties and nineties took their toll. What respect can be granted to newspaper publishers mostly preoccupied with monopolizing cities and ensuring themselves a 20 per cent rate of return?

Of course editorial writers ­ often veterans of the foreign bureaus put out to pasture — don’t see their trade in such guise. They take their labors with tremendous seriousness. They believe, wrongly, that the world is listening.

The late Murray Kempton once famously wrote that the function of editorial writers is to come down into the valley after the battle to shoot the wounded. What Murray didn’t stress that this descent into the valley is rarely marked by undue haste. Sometimes the descent is so delayed that the wounded have long since expired, their entrails consumed by vultures and their bones dried in the sun.

Nearly a week before the Times’ editorial writer squared up to the topic, informed observers had scrutinized the preliminary results of the Dember 15 poll in Iraq and noted that they confirmed pre-election presentiments. For example, writing on the CounterPunch website five days before Christmas, Patrick Cockburn concluded succinctly “The election marks the final shipwreck of American and British hopes of establishing a pro-western secular democracy in a united Iraq. Islamic fundamentalist movements are ever more powerful in both the Sunni and Shia communities.

He quoted Ghassan Attiyah, an Iraqi commentator. as saying that in “In two-and-a-half years Bush has succeeded in creating two new Talibans in Iraq.”

In fact it didn’t even require Patrick’s expertise to see that the elections, portrayed by President George W. Bush as a sign of success for US policies in Iraqin fact meant a tremendous triumph for America’s enemies, both inside and outside the country.

I did a great deal of driving during the Christmas season, hence listened a lot to the radio and more than once heard even-voiced commentators on NPR, one of them a New York Times correspondent, expressing gratification at the elections as a American triumph, launching the nation of Iraq on its first faltering stumbles along the path of liberal democracy.

The level of self delusion reminded me of similar delusions among the left, after the Ayatollah Khomeini took over in Iran in 1978 when there were confident assertions that the Ayatollah had lived in Paris, had absorbed therefrom the spirit of the Enlightenment. It took the sight of thousands of leftists hanged en masse in Teheran to make the left realized that the Ayatollah had not spent too many hours in that Paris sojourn reading Condorcet.

So the post-Christmas Times editorialist went down into the valley and did manful battle with the obvious, always excepting the fact that the US administration had had sustained a terrible defeat. “The final votes must still be counted in Iraq, but the trend is already clear,” the editorial crooned. “The biggest winners appear to be the Shiite religious parties whose politicians have run the ministries and whose militias have run the streets of southeastern Iraq for a year or more.”

Actually, the Shia militia have been running the entire south and much of Baghdad. The whole editorial nervously evades admitting how bad things are for the US.

After noting Kurdish strength in its region, the editorial sadly assessed the skimpy sub-20 per cent for America’s man, Ayad Allawi, and the less than 1 per cent for Ahmad Chalabi and delivered its expert judgment: “the biggest losers were secular parties and those who tried to appeal to all of Iraq’s communities, not just one religion or ethnic group.”

Then, with a sad wag of the head, the editorial added gloomily, “Anyone who hoped that Iraq’s broadest exercise in electoral democracy so far might strengthen women’s rights, secular protections or national unity will be disappointed.”

Say something twice, so why not three times? “Iraqi politics are settling into an unsettling pattern. Very few people vote as Iraqis; most vote as Shiites, Sunnis or Kurds.”

By law, an editorial writer is duty-bound to detect “signs of progress”, and the Times’ writer did not fail in this duty: ” It is progress that Sunni Arabs turned out in large numbers, but” (here a cautionary wag of the editorial finger,) “that may not be enough to assure them a meaningful role in reshaping a dangerously divisive constitution and forming a broad-based government.”

Already the editorial is lunging towards fantasy. Nobody in Iraq thinks the Constitution is going to be significantly amended. If the
Kurds had thought so they wouldn’t have agreed to compromise in the pre-referendum period. A few paragraphs later, the editorial writer calls for such a constitutional rewrite to ensure that oil revenues ‘flow to the central government”. Why would the Shia and the Kurds want to surrender the revenues from their own new super-regions?

But by now the editorial writer is ecstatic in his ghost dance, urging “the victorious parties” to summon “the sense to reach out to a Sunni Arab community that now has one foot in the political process and the other in the insurgency.”

The strong vote for the Shiite religious parties, the editorial writer bravely continues, “does not necessarily mean that Iraqis have abruptly turned fundamentalist.” Why not?

Then, just like those leftists in 1978 thinking Khomeini had read Condorcet, the editorialist advises the Grand Ayatollah Sistani and the equally triumphant nationalist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr that “The legal rights of women, currently in limbo between civil and religious law, need reinforcement.” As Patrick had pointed out, already most girls leaving schools in Baghdad wear headscarves. Women’s rights in cases of divorce and inheritance are being eroded.

The Times writer scatters advice with a measured hand: “The victorious Kurdish parties need to face up to their larger responsibilities” and by the same token “The Sunni parties need to face practical political realitiesThe last thing they should be talking about is reviving the electoral boycott strategy that cost them so heavily earlier this year.”

If the Sunni made such a mistake in boycotting in January why is the New York Times and US
government so keen on conciliating them, drawing them “more deeply into political life”. Obviously because they go round blowing people up.

Time for the editorial finale: “It is in everyone’s interest to draw the Sunni Arab community more deeply into political life, not to shut it out. Otherwise, Iraq’s future will be civil war and this election will have no real winners.”

There’s another way of putting this. The election was notice of Iraq’s funeral, and the triumph of Shia-style Islam. An astute editorial writer could have asked, in conclusion, How long will it be before the US is pumping arms and other supplies into the Sunni resistance as a counter-weight to the Shia? But that, though germane, would be cynical, and editorialists despise cynicism because it goes piggyback upon reality, and hence is an unfit companion for their stately excursions.



Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined!, A Colossal Wreck and An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents are available from CounterPunch.