Monday, January 14, 2008

What Have You Spun for Me Lately?, Part I

Once the awe inspired by the fiery chimera of an accomplished mission subsided, and the reality of what he had wrought in Iraq emerged in all its relentlessly gruesome detail, a steady stream of mea culpas issued forth of varying conviction and honesty, from periodicals and pundits alike. However, such ex post facto correctives are only of value to the extent that they instruct subsequent behavior because, to state a tautology, a mea culpa is by definition an admission of responsibility for prior events. While it may provide one with a flutter of vindication to read a respected newspaper document the ways in which it failed in its journalistic duty by abandoning critical faculties in assessing pre-war intel about WMD and al-Qaeda connections, it is a fleeting and shallow pleasure.

In the coming weeks/months the media and punditocracy will be tested again - actually, the test has already begun, though too many seem frightfully unaware. Proving that old habits die hard, the Bush administration, the GOP (including and especially the Republican contenders for president - save Ron Paul) and their allies in the media (both the ideologues and unwitting enablers) have been pushing a tendentious storyline about the "success" of The Surge.

Not only does this new groupthink in error misread the actual levers contributing to the decline in violence in Iraq (from a shift in military tactics, to the grim benefits of past sectarian cleansing, to accommodation with Sunni insurgent groups and Moqtada al-Sadr's forces) but it consistently ignores the fundamental purpose of The Surge: to foster political reconciliation (in the words of President Bush himself). Not to mention the callous downplaying of the grisly volume of violence occurring even under current "reduced" levels.

The reduction in violence facilitated by the shift in military posture (and, to some extent, force size) is good news, but there are no military solutions for what ultimately ails Iraq - as General Petraeus is wont to remind us. The sine qua non of sustainable stability in Iraq remains the forging of credible power sharing arrangements that the vast majority of combatants can trust enough to cease firing. Without those, gains made in terms of tamping down the fighting will prove ephemeral at best, though tactics such as arming the Sunnis could result in even more intense fighting down the road. Therefore, on its own terms as enunciated by its chief proponents and implementers, The Surge has not succeeded, but rather failed to achieve its objectives...thus far.

The good news is that the media is doing better in terms of questioning the validity of the "successful surge" narrative than it did in questioning biased claims in the months preceding the Iraq war. The bad news is that we are dealing with a lowered bar and other caveats of relativity, so "better" isn't necessarily good enough. The bad(der) news is that the journalistic institution with the most to atone for in terms of the sins of irresponsible Iraq war cheerleading - the New York Times - has recently hired dedicated pro-war propagandist William Kristol who has wasted no time in fulfilling his mandate. Meanwhile, the media has not done enough to challenge claims of "success" as repeated by newly minted GOP front runner John McCain, amongst others. The appearance of this meme during a Fox News hosted debate is not exactly noteworthy, but Charlie Gibson's "taunting" was as disappointing as it was telling.

For now, it is unclear whether the media at large will ultimately pass or fail this exam. However, the test itself is about to get more difficult as The Surgents will now have a bit of sham political progress to attach to the dubious claims of larger strategic success: the recently passed, though watered down, repeal of the de-Baathification laws (which I will explore at greater length in Part II). This mostly empty political gesture (rejected by those that it was supposed to placate) will succeed in further muddying the waters for many US media institutions and could lead to equivocation on the part of even well-intentioned pundits and reporters - with some either accepting the storyline uncritically, or retreating to he said/she said faux balance. But journalistic ethos requires more. The facts are out there, as they were with respect to phantom Iraqi nuclear programs and non-existent al-Qaeda connections. Simply applying a basic level of scrutiny to events and trends is all that is required, but possibly more than is expected.

Over the course of the next 10 months, against the backdrop of a contentious presidential campaign, America will soon be in a position to determine the quality of the penitence offered up by supposedly contrite media organs. The question remains: Will a press corp that was shamefully complicit in convincing Americans to support such an enormously destructive war abet an extension of that war and, in the process, bestow political rewards on the very politicians that set fire to the conflagration? Should we offer partial credit?

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