Thursday, September 16, 2004

Pollyanna Wants A Cracker

Bush administration officials, right-wing politicians and the conservative media at large, have been issuing, and repeating, a charge that the situation in Iraq has become politicized. Specifically, that the facts on the ground are not as bad as the media presents them to be, and that the news coverage has focused on the negatives, to the detriment of the positive developments, in order to score political points against Bush. According to this view, while the media is obsessing over their depictions of chaos and making their doom and gloom predictions for the future, Iraq is rebuilding schools and hospitals, the economy is thriving and democracy is just around the corner (never mind the notion that rebuilding something that was destroyed in the invasion should never count as progress, just a return to pre-war status quo).

Despite the fact that this meme has become firmly entrenched in the psyche of the conservative punditry and the right-wing blogosphere, its sanguine assessment of the situation is not supported by empirical facts. This peculiar detachment from reality prompted
this comment from neo-conservative Francis Fukuyama, who challenged recent arguments made by his friend and fellow neoconservative Charles Krauthammer:

[Krauthammer's] 2004 speech is strangely disconnected from reality. Reading Krauthammer, one gets the impression that the Iraq War-the archetypical application of American unipolarity-had been an unqualified success, with all of the assumptions and expectations on which the war had been based fully vindicated. There is not the slightest nod towards the new empirical facts that have emerged in the last year or so: the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the virulent and steadily mounting anti-Americanism throughout the Middle East, the growing insurgency in Iraq, the fact that no strong democratic leadership had emerged there, the enormous financial and growing human cost of the war, the failure to leverage the war to make progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front, and the fact that America's fellow democratic allies had by and large failed to fall in line and legitimate American actions ex post.
Other conservative pundits have started to notice the preference for propagandized fantasy over reality being promulgated by the Bush administration. Here is conservative commentator Andrew Sullivan on the Republican National Convention:

I understand the political need to put a gloss on things. But the surrealism of the rhetoric is, in some respects, an insult to the American people, who deserve a real accounting of where we are. Of all the difficult choices we have to make - in Iraq, Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Russia - nothing is spoken. There is not even a nod to reality. Just an assertion that only the Republicans have the balls to fight this war. It may well work in the election. But it speaks to the character of our leaders that they prefer bromides and denial to a real accounting and real leadership.

I agreed with almost everything in the foreign policy section of [Bush's] speech, although the president's inability to face up to the obvious sobering lessons from Iraq is worrying. I get the feeling that empirical evidence does not count for him; that like all religious visionaries, he simply asserts that his own faith will vanquish reality. It won't. [emphasis added]
Although these moments of clarity on the political right are a welcomed sign that some have not wholesale sacrificed their objectivity at the alter of partisanship, sometimes you have to turn to the jester for the truth, as Shakespeare so brilliantly depicted in King Lear. In that vein, I think the Daily Show summed up this puzzling disconnect between the Bush apologists' description of events in Iraq and the actual facts themselves, in as succinct and incisive a manner as any:

Rob Corddry: How does one report the facts in an unbiased way when the facts themselves are biased?

Jon Stewart: I'm sorry, Rob, did you say the facts are biased?

Corddry: That's right Jon. From the names of our fallen soldiers to the gradual withdrawal of our allies to the growing insurgency, it's become all too clear that facts in Iraq have an anti-Bush agenda.
The New York Times is reporting on the latest installment of empirical analysis that indicates that the situation in Iraq does not comport with the impression being spun by Bush's supporters. The credibility of the latest report will be hard to disparage as liberal bias since it has been prepared by the government's own intelligence personnel.

A classified National Intelligence Estimate prepared for President Bush in late July spells out a dark assessment of prospects for Iraq, government officials said Wednesday.

The estimate outlines three possibilities for Iraq through the end of 2005, with the worst case being developments that could lead to civil war, the officials said. The most favorable outcome described is an Iraq whose stability would remain tenuous in political, economic and security terms. [emphasis added]
Despite the fact that Bush and his cabinet were briefed on the contents of the estimate over a month ago, they don't seem to have let the reality of the situation interfere with the tenor of their campaign posturing.

As described by the officials, the pessimistic tone of the new estimate stands in contrast to recent statements by Bush administration officials, including comments on Wednesday by Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman, who asserted that progress was being made.

"You know, every step of the way in Iraq there have been pessimists and hand-wringers who said it can't be done," Mr. McClellan said at a news briefing. "And every step of the way, the Iraqi leadership and the Iraqi people have proven them wrong because they are determined to have a free and peaceful future."
While their words tell of ever-improving conditions, and a steady progress toward democracy and stability, their actions betray the reality of the situation. The recent decisions regarding the diversion of funds earmarked for reconstruction to be used on security indicate that not all is well, and this has raised eyebrows on both sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill.

Separate from the new estimate, Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee issued other warnings on Wednesday about the American campaign in Iraq, saying the administration's request to divert more than $3 billion to security from the $18.4 billion aid package of last November was a sign of trouble.

The situation in Iraq prompted harsh comments from Republicans and Democrats at a hearing into the shift of spending from reconstruction to security. Senator Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, called it "exasperating for anybody look at this from any vantage point," and Senator Chuck Hagel, Republican of Nebraska, said of the overall lack of spending: "It's beyond pitiful, it's beyond embarrassing. It is now in the zone of dangerous."

"Although we recognize these funds must not be spent unwisely," Mr. Lugar said, "the slow pace of reconstruction spending means that we are failing to fully take advantage of one of our most potent tools to influence the direction of Iraq."
Senator Lugar's warning about the failure to spend, and spend wisely, on the reconstruction is prescient, and his conclusions have been backed up by three reports released recently from various well respected and non-partisan foreign policy think tanks: the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) (the group that Bremer and Rumsfeld used for studies on the progress of Iraq last July), the International Crisis Group (ICG) and the Chatham House (part of the Royal Institute of International Affairs), which I summarized here. These are not liberal media groups. They are in the business of realism, not pessimism or partisanship, and they are not interested in campaign slogans.

Part of the reconstruction debacle these reports describe can be traced to the overall strategy and ideologies at play in the grand Iraq experiment, specifically the extreme attachment to conservative economic policies. The neoconservative foreign policy "experts" were intent on making Iraq the proving ground for a whole host of theories, not only democratization through preemptive invasion. In addition, Iraq was also going to be the shining example of how the unfettered application of conservative, free-market, privatization and supply-side economics would provide a superior economic model to those that are encumbered by public ownership, social welfare programs, government regulation and the influence of labor unions. In pursuing these goals the economic team showed, not surprisingly, a large degree of myopic hubris, a penchant for putting cronyism and loyalty ahead of expertise, and a rigid adherence to their ideological imperatives despite empirical evidence suggesting the wisdom of a change of course. The results, which I summarized in depth
here have been, predictably, disastrous.

The discouraging part is that, as is all too often the case in the Bush administration, nobody seems to admit fault or counsel a realignment of priorities. This stubbornness does not bode well for Iraq's future, as spelled out in the three reports.

All three reports note how the deteriorating economic situation has increased support for the insurgency, and how the standard of living in terms of employment and availability of basic services is dangerously low. Unless the administration admits its mistakes and makes the necessary adjustments, the future is bleak. Here is the ICG report's take:

Amid political instability and violence, Iraq's economic problems have been viewed as secondary and unrelated. They are not. U.S. and Iraqi institutions have systematically lost and the insurgency gained momentum as living conditions failed to improve. Economic hardship and violence (political and criminal) feed on each other: heightened popular dissatisfaction and unemployment swell insurgent ranks and the growing insurgency further hampers development. Without genuine reconstruction and a sustained recovery plan, any political success will be short-lived. Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) performance fell far short of expectations and needs and offers a fragile, dysfunctional legacy on which to build.
Of note, unemployment has been hovering around 30-60%. To put that in perspective, unemployment at the height of the Great Depression in the US was 25%. According to CSIS report (summarized in The New Republic), "the average Iraqi cannot yet say 'I have enough money to meet only my basic needs,'" with the trend getting worse in recent months.

On basic services (water, electricity, sanitation), the CSIS came to these conclusion: "the average Iraqi cannot yet say 'I have sufficient access to basic services.' Essentially, the picture in this sector is mixed...hovering somewhere between 'My access to water, power, and sanitation is limited' and 'I have sufficient access to basic services.' When mapped by time, the picture is troubling, suggesting Iraq is not progressing on a positive trend line.'"

All three reports also paint a disturbing picture regarding the deteriorating security situation, echoing the concerns in the National Intelligence Estimate prepared by US intelligence officials. The Chatham House report goes as far as to say that some form of fragmentation and civil war is the most likely outcome given the current trajectory of events.

In that light, we should consider these words from Senator Joe Biden, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee:

The president has frequently described Iraq as, quote, 'the central front of the war on terror.' Well by that definition, success in Iraq is a key standard by which to measure the war on terror. And by that measure, I think the war on terror is in trouble.

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