The Amazing Disappearing War

Today Glenn Greenwald blogged about “the very sudden, and virtually complete, disappearance of the war in Iraq from the media radar.”

That country is literally falling apart, engulfed by what even war proponents are acknowledging increasingly appears to be an inevitable civil war and growing anarchy. And yet for the last week, Iraq was barely discussed, save for a completely inconsequential gossipy sideshow about whether the Democrats did something which the Republicans would never, ever do — namely, exploit a national security matter (Prime Minister Maliki’s condemnation of Israel) for political gain.

In Sunday’s New York Times, Frank Rich also writes about the “disappearance” of Iraq. But Rich documents that Iraq has been fading for a while.

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. …

… 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.

If you are locked outside the NY Times subscription wall, Frank Rich’s column will probably turn up on True Blue Liberal in the next few hours. [Update: Yep. Here it is, in its entirety.]

Earlier this week I linked to this Michael Hirsh column in which Hirsh discusses the new book Fiasco by Thomas Rick —

Reading “Fiasco,” Thomas Ricks’s devastating new book about the Iraq war, brought back memories for me. Memories of going on night raids in Samarra in January 2004, in the heart of the Sunni Triangle, with the Fourth Infantry Division units that Ricks describes. During these raids, confused young Americans would burst into Iraqi homes, overturn beds, dump out drawers, and summarily arrest all military-age men—actions that made them unwitting recruits for the insurgency. For American soldiers battling the resistance throughout Iraq, the unspoken rule was that all Iraqis were guilty until proven innocent. Arrests, beatings and sometimes killings were arbitrary, often based on the flimsiest intelligence, and Iraqis had no recourse whatever to justice. Imagine the sense of helpless rage that emerges from this sort of treatment. Apply three years of it and you have one furious, traumatized population. And a country out of control.

As most U.S. military experts now acknowledge, these tactics violated the most basic principles of counterinsurgency, which require winning over the local population, thus depriving the bad guys of a base of support within which to hide. Such rules were apparently unknown to the 4th ID commander, Maj. Gen. Ray Odierno. The general is a particular and deserving target of Ricks’s book, which is perhaps the most exhaustive account to date of all that went wrong with Iraq. Nonetheless—according to that iron law of the Bush administration under which incompetence is rewarded with promotion, as long as it is accompanied by loyalty—Odierno will soon be returning to Iraq as America’s No. 2 commander there, the man who will oversee day-to-day military operations. (Odierno, asked by Ricks to respond to criticism, replied that he had studied the insurgency and “adapted quickly.”)

Frank Rich brings up Fiasco also —

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.

Hey, we’re having trouble keeping electricity turned on in the U.S.

Rich goes on to say that the simple answer to the question of why “the mission” in Iraq was such a failure is that the Bush Administration didn’t care enough about Iraq or Iraqis to get the job right. And although I’m sure that’s true, it begs the question — why didn’t they care? We’ve heard time and time again that Bush “rolled the dice” and “gambled his presidency” on Iraq. You’d think he would have been at least mildly interested.

I think the more essential reason for the Bush Administration’s failure is that the Bushies were never clear in their own minds what the mission — and the motivation for invading Iraq — really was. We know that eliminating Saddam Hussein’s fictitious WMDs was not the real reason for the invasion. Converting Iraq to a pro-western democracy was the neocons’ reason, but if the Bushies had been serious about nation building in Iraq you’d think they would have planned some nation-building activities for the “postwar” period. Instead, they seem to have believed that deposing Saddam Hussein would all by itself cause democracy to root and bloom like dandelions in June.

In 2003 and a large part of 2004 the Bushies dragged their feet on even planning for a sovereign and democratic Iraq, as if they had all the time in the world. They dragged their feet even as what little opportunity they might have had to accomplish something was slipping away. You’d think that if establishing a new Iraq was a priority for the Bush Administration, then the White House would have been energized and focused on the project. But, clearly, it never was. What’s left? Oil, of course, and contracts for Halliburton. But I suspect there are other, more primal, motivations in the murky depths of the Bushie collective psyche. Bottom line, the Bushies invaded Iraq because they wanted to invade Iraq. But I don’t think they are self-reflective enough to understand themselves where that desire was coming from. It just seemed like a good idea at the time.

So now we’re over there with no objectives, no plans, no hope, and it’s not on television because it’s such a bummer.

Glenn Greenwald points out that even Joe Lieberman wants to “move on.”

Via Atrios, it seems that Lieberman himself yesterday “suggested that he wanted to move the debate away from the war. ‘We’re going to try hard to focus this back on the issues that I think really are ultimately more important to the future of families in Connecticut: jobs, health care, education,'” he said.

Somehow, the war went from having “enormous consequences for the people of Iraq, America and the world” to being something that isn’t really all that important to talk about.

Frank Rich concludes, “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.” It’s a horrible mess that makes no sense and has no possibility for a good ending. Who wants to watch that?

Once upon a time news stories from Vietnam were broadcast on television every night, whether we wanted to watch them or not. But in those days, news was news. Now, news is entertainment. The Iraq War just isn’t entertaining. Maybe it could be re-packaged as a reality show.

8 thoughts on “The Amazing Disappearing War

  1. Another great post. I remember when we pulled down the statue of Saddam. I thought we might have a chance at pulling this thing off. But then the news of Abu Ghraib came out. I couldn’t believe what we were doing over there. It is the most counter-intuitive thing I can imagine. We are trying to build a democracy and have the Iraqis see us as ‘liberators’. Then we treat them with utter disdain. Instead of our administration denouncing the actions and showing leadership and foresight, they actually defended them. They were more upset about the pictures getting into the press, than the horrible things we were doing to the Iraqis. All we have managed to do is create more generations of angry people who hate us with every breath they take. And that is all Israel is accomplishing in Lebanon. It will take decades just to get back to where we were five years ago. And that is only if we actually have any kind of effective leadership in Washington. I know this is a progressive blog, but I can’t tell you how disappointed I am in the elected democrats. They should all be giving the republicans hell right now, but they seem terrified to say anything. And when one of them does have the courage to stand up (Murtha, Feingold), the rest of them just disappear and let the republicans jsut rip them apart and destroy their credibilty. They just let the republicans decide the terms of the debate. When the republicans call them “cut and runners”, they just take it. Instead of responding by calling the republicans “hate-filled war mongers” or fill in your own dirisive name. And demonstrating that everything the republican hawks have done is strengthen Iran and made them the dominant force in the region. The republicans have ruined are standing in the world, destroyed the U.N.’s effectiveness and are rapidly wiping out our middle class. 32% of the wealth in this country belongs to the top 1%. Real wages are dropping. Energy costs, rising interest rates, falling home values, outsourcing, eye-popping national debt, unchecked deregulation causing power outages and media monopolies, civil liberties being wiped away, constitution being thrown under the rug, social security under attack, pension funds going bankrupt, etc… All of these things and more, the democrats could be bashing the heads of republicans with, but they don’t. It drives me nuts. What does it take to get a little passion and outrage? The republicans are asking to be taken down, but I don’t see the candidates that can do it. The democrats all seem to be dancing some crazy political kabuki; instead of deciding on their positions and driving them home. Alright. I’m done venting. I need to go to bed. Thanks Maha.

  2. You should write a book about Bush and Iraq, Maha…You can title it…Anatomy of a Failure..this way, you can kill two birds with one stone.

  3. The Bush Admin. knew that if Iraq devolved into chaos that it would essentially take Iraqs 2 trillion dollars worth of oil off the market increasing the profits for American oil companies (the Saudis and Kuwait monarchies too). Take a gander at their profits lately? Throw in Halliburton and Bechtels no-bid billions paid for by the taxpayer thereby socializing the costs and keeping all the profits. Hey, it also gets them re-elected in ’04.

    Sure they had a plan. The biggest scam of all time.

  4. This past week I watched the PBS American Masters program on Walter Cronkite. He put on a helmet and flak jacket and went to Vietnam when he was already the most famous face in America, “Uncle Walter.”

    First thing he heard was the typical prepared script, how Charlie was a coward and for that reason the U.S. invasion would eventually succeed. Then Uncle Walter talked to folks living in the real world, and it opened his eyes. I believe he also witnessed the Tet Offensive firsthand, and was appropriately disturbed by the blood and chaos. This wasn’t Hitler buzz-bombing England; no one could tell the good guys from the bad anymore.

    CBS did one primetime examination of the Vietnam War-in-Progress that, apparently, did much to turn public opinion. (I don’t remember that; I was an adolescent then, more obsessed with Bobby Sherman than Ho Chi Minh and Westmoreland.) From then on, Cronkite’s nightly newscasts led off, every night, with grim descriptions of our latest failures in SE Asia. Where I come from, a lot of people still consider Cronkite a traitor for telling the truth about Vietnam. (And they use up a lot of Ben-Gay on those jerking knees, so they can bow before Dubya.)

    It’s hard to imagine how the msm of today could effect that kind of change. If a house fell on Katie Couric and knocked some brains into her, so that she crusaded against the war as if it were colon cancer…. But no, that’s just Republicanesque magical thinking. Right now all the networks want to do is promote their fall lineup of Novocaine for our brains.

  5. The most important lesson to be drawn from this mess is that Bush is a mentally damaged man who cannot discharge the duties of his office.

    There is a great resistance to this view, even here in the blogosphere, as it leaves our nation and the world in a very dangerous and scary place.

    The solution is simple in theory, hard in practice. We the People of the United States must force the House of Representatives to impeach his dumb ass.

  6. “War news from Vietnam was on the TeeVee news every night…”

    Well Maha…It was and then it wasn’t…

    After it became obvious that Nixon’e “Vietnamization” of the war was just as big a fiasco as every other idea we’d tried…Which took less than a year, I’d say…The “news” from Vietnam slowly faded off the tube…

    From that point on…Henry Kissinger’s grandstanding in Paris got as much air time as the “war” itself…

    I remember…I was watching very closely…

  7. I remember in New York about 68-69 that the television stations would carry a special segment called the” Roll of Honor”. It listed the causualties from the day. Initally is started small with maybe 3 to 5 names a day and grew to the point where it comsumed to much air time listing the hundreds that were being killed during the peak death years and the producers canceled the tribute citing the true reason for cancelation.

    Also does anybody remember the TV documentary titled..Same mud, Same blood. That was a heart wrenching documentary shown during the war that showed the death of an American Marine dying on the operating table in a field hospital in Danang..It was numbing and provoked the question..”what are we fighting for!” America needs to see the young men dying and maybe it could till their hearts with reason.

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