The Peculiar Disappearance of the War in Iraq
By FRANK RICH
AS America fell into the quagmire of Vietnam, the comedian Milton Berle joked that the fastest way to end the war would be to put it on the last-place network, ABC, where it was certain to be canceled. Berle’s gallows humor lives on in the quagmire in Iraq. Americans want this war canceled too, and first- and last-place networks alike are more than happy to oblige.
CNN will surely remind us today that it is Day 19 of the Israel-Hezbollah war — now branded as Crisis in the Middle East — but you won’t catch anyone saying it’s Day 1,229 of the war in Iraq. On the Big Three networks’ evening newscasts, the time devoted to Iraq has fallen 60 percent between 2003 and this spring, as clocked by the television monitor, the Tyndall Report. On Thursday, Brian Williams of NBC read aloud a “shame on you” e-mail complaint from the parents of two military sons anguished that his broadcast had so little news about the war.
This is happening even as the casualties in Iraq, averaging more than 100 a day, easily surpass those in Israel and Lebanon combined. When Nouri al-Maliki, the latest Iraqi prime minister, visited Washington last week to address Congress, he too got short TV shrift — a mere five sentences about the speech on ABC’s “World News.” The networks know a rerun when they see it. Only 22 months earlier, one of Mr. Maliki’s short-lived predecessors, Ayad Allawi, had come to town during the 2004 campaign to give a similarly empty Congressional address laced with White House-scripted talking points about the war’s progress. Propaganda stunts, unlike “Law & Order” episodes, don’t hold up on a second viewing.
The steady falloff in Iraq coverage isn’t happenstance. It’s a barometer of the scope of the tragedy. For reporters, the already apocalyptic security situation in Baghdad keeps getting worse, simply making the war more difficult to cover than ever. The audience has its own phobia: Iraq is a bummer. “It is depressing to pay attention to this war on terror,” said Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly on July 18. “I mean, it’s summertime.” Americans don’t like to lose, whatever the season. They know defeat when they see it, no matter how many new plans for victory are trotted out to obscure that reality.
The specter of defeat is not the only reason Americans have switched off Iraq. The larger issue is that we don’t know what we — or, more specifically, 135,000 brave and vulnerable American troops — are fighting for. In contrast to the Israel-Hezbollah war, where the stakes for the combatants and American interests are clear, the war in Iraq has no rationale to keep it afloat on television or anywhere else. It’s a big, nightmarish story, all right, but one that lacks the thread of a coherent plot.
Certainly there has been no shortage of retrofitted explanations for the war in the three-plus years since the administration’s initial casus belli, to fend off Saddam’s mushroom clouds and vanquish Al Qaeda, proved to be frauds. We’ve been told that the war would promote democracy in the Arab world. And make the region safer for Israel. And secure the flow of cheap oil. If any of these justifications retained any credibility, they have been obliterated by Crisis in the Middle East. The new war is a grueling daily object lesson in just how much the American blunders in Iraq have undermined the one robust democracy that already existed in the region, Israel, while emboldening terrorists and strengthening the hand of Iran.
But it’s the collapse of the one remaining (and unassailable) motivation that still might justify staying the course in Iraq — as a humanitarian mission on behalf of the Iraqi people — that is most revealing of what a moral catastrophe this misadventure has been for our country. The sad truth is that the war’s architects always cared more about their own grandiose political and ideological ambitions than they did about the Iraqis, and they communicated that indifference from the start to Iraqis and Americans alike. The legacy of that attitude is that the American public cannot be rallied to the Iraqi cause today, as the war reaches its treacherous endgame.
The Bush administration constantly congratulates itself for liberating Iraq from Saddam’s genocidal regime. But regime change was never billed as a primary motivation for the war; the White House instead appealed to American fears and narcissism — we had to be saved from Saddam’s W.M.D. From “Shock and Awe” on, the fate of Iraqis was an afterthought. They would greet our troops with flowers and go about their business.
Donald Rumsfeld boasted that “the care” and “the humanity” that went into our precision assaults on military targets would minimize any civilian deaths. Such casualties were merely “collateral damage,” unworthy of quantification. “We don’t do body counts,” said Gen. Tommy Franks. President Bush at last started counting those Iraqi bodies publicly — with an estimate of 30,000 — some seven months ago. (More recently, The Los Angeles Times put the figure at, conservatively, 50,000.) By then, Americans had tuned out.
The contempt our government showed for Iraqis was not just to be found in our cavalier stance toward their casualties, or in the abuses at Abu Ghraib. There was a cultural condescension toward the Iraqi people from the get-go as well, as if they were schoolchildren in a compassionate-conservatism campaign ad. This attitude was epitomized by Mr. Rumsfeld’s “stuff happens” response to the looting of Baghdad at the dawn of the American occupation. In “Fiasco,” his stunning new book about the American failure in Iraq, Thomas E. Ricks, The Washington Post’s senior Pentagon correspondent, captures the meaning of that pivotal moment perfectly: “The message sent to Iraqis was far more troubling than Americans understood. It was that the U.S. government didn’t care — or, even more troubling for the future security of Iraq, that it did care but was incapable of acting effectively.”
As it turned out, it was the worst of both worlds: we didn’t care, and we were incapable of acting effectively. Nowhere is this seen more explicitly than in the subsequent American failure to follow through on our promise to reconstruct the Iraqi infrastructure we helped to smash. “There’s some little part of my brain that simply doesn’t understand how the most powerful country on earth just can’t get electricity back in Baghdad,” said Kanan Makiya, an Iraqi exile and prominent proponent of the war, in a recent Washington Post interview.
The simple answer is that the war planners didn’t care enough to provide the number of troops needed to secure the country so that reconstruction could proceed. The coalition authority isolated in its Green Zone bubble didn’t care enough to police the cronyism and corruption that squandered billions of dollars on abandoned projects. The latest monument to this humanitarian disaster was reported by James Glanz of The New York Times on Friday: a high-tech children’s hospital planned for Basra, repeatedly publicized by Laura Bush and Condi Rice, is now in serious jeopardy because of cost overruns and delays.
This history can’t be undone; there’s neither the American money nor the manpower to fulfill the mission left unaccomplished. The Iraqi people, whose collateral damage was so successfully hidden for so long by the Rumsfeld war plan, remain a sentimental abstraction to most Americans. Whether they are seen in agony after another Baghdad bombing or waving their inked fingers after an election or being used as props to frame Mrs. Bush during the State of the Union address, they have little more specificity than movie extras. Chalabi, Allawi, Jaafari, Maliki come and go, all graced with the same indistinguishable praise from the American president, all blurring into an endless loop of instability and crisis. We feel badly ... and change the channel.
Given that the violence in Iraq has only increased in the weeks since the elimination of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian terrorist portrayed by the White House as the fount of Iraqi troubles, any Americans still paying attention to the war must now confront the reality that the administration is desperately trying to hide. “The enemy in Iraq is a combination of rejectionists and Saddamists and terrorists,” President Bush said in December when branding Zarqawi Public Enemy No. 1. But Iraq’s exploding sectarian warfare cannot be pinned on Al Qaeda or Baathist dead-enders.
The most dangerous figure in Iraq, the home-grown radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, is an acolyte of neither Osama bin Laden nor Saddam but an ally of Iran who has sworn solidarity to both Hezbollah and Hamas. He commands more than 30 seats in Mr. Maliki’s governing coalition in Parliament and 5 cabinet positions. He is also linked to death squads that have slaughtered Iraqis and Americans with impunity since the April 2004 uprising that killed, among others, Cindy Sheehan’s son, Casey. Since then, Mr. Sadr’s power has only grown, enabled by Iraqi “democracy.”
That the latest American plan for victory is to reposition our forces by putting more of them in the crossfire of Baghdad’s civil war is tantamount to treating our troops as if they were deck chairs on the Titanic. Even if the networks led with the story every night, what Americans would have the stomach to watch?