How the Media Bought the Surge
By SAUL LANDAU
A man at a horse show danced joyfully in a pile of manure.
“Why are you so happy?” another attendee asked.
“There must be a pony in here somewhere!”
The U.S. media has attacked the Iraq War story by going straight for the periphery. For example, instead of focusing attention on the devastation caused by an unjust, imperial war that has endured for six plus years, the media changed the debate: “Has sending more U.S. troops to Iraq in 2007 --“the surge” -- succeeded or failed?”
“It’s no longer a close call,” wrote Peter Beinart. (Washington Post, Jan. 18, 2009) “President Bush was right about the surge.” By being “right” Beinart means that the number of Iraqi dead came to only 500 in November 2008, compared with 3,475 in November of 2006. And only 12 Americans died in Iraq in that same period, compared to a higher number in previous years. (Figures from The Iraq War Index, a Brookings Institution report by Michael O'Hanlon and Jason Campbell) The realist might have added: “That’s 12 more than should have died.”
The New York Times Op-Ed page editors seemed undaunted about printing columns on the surge’s success by the very pundits who had only recently assured the public of the biggest lies of the young 21st Century: Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and links to Al Qaeda. Among the surge proselytizers, emerged Kenneth Pollack. In The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq (2002), he wrote: “The only prudent and realistic course of action left to the United States is to mount a full-scale invasion of Iraq to smash the Iraqi armed forces, depose Saddam’s regime, and rid the country of weapons of mass destruction.” He dismissed wusses who “exaggerated the danger of casualties among American troops.”
Pollack even helped persuade Times columnist Bill Keller to support the Iraq war. “Kenneth Pollack, the Clinton National Security Council expert whose argument for invading Iraq is surely the most influential book of this season,” wrote Keller (February 8, 2003), “has provided intellectual cover for every liberal who finds himself inclining toward war but uneasy about Mr. Bush.”
After expressing absolute certainty about Saddam’s WMD, Pollack threw his enthusiasm behind the surge -- without apologizing for his role in helping to perpetuate destruction and death. Again using the Times as his propaganda organ, Pollack offered new dogma. The surge had provided “the potential to produce not necessarily ‘victory’ but a sustainable stability that both we and the Iraqis could live with.” (“A War We Just Might Win” with Michael O’Hanlon, June 30, 2007)
Like Shakespeare’s Polonius, Pollack the Pompous babbles clichés. Luckily for him, he didn’t get himself killed hiding in Barbara Bush’s bedroom while spying on W. But he shares with Polonius the characteristics of a pedantic who wields no real power. Shakespeare uses Polonius to mock obfuscators who ladle out “wisdom” like watery soup -- like Pollack’s and fellow surge zealots’ recipe for Iraq.
The surgists focused on reducing violence in Baghdad which, if successful, would serve as a model for smaller cities. By late 2007, almost a year after its onset, the Pentagon sold the surge to the usual media suckers as the U.S. “success story.” The Pentagon claimed it had reduced by 60 percent the war violence and had driven Al Qaida from Baghdad and mostly from Anbar Province as well.
The increased number of U.S. soldiers did allow U.S. forces to disarm some Sunnis in Baghdad. Then, the U.S. occupiers invited Shiite militias to invade Sunni neighborhoods and ethnically cleanse them. By mid 2007, Baghdad, once about 65% Sunni, emerged as a predominantly Shiite city. Indeed, leader of the multinational armies in Iraq General David Petraeus, now in charge of Central Command, purposely or inadvertently encouraged Shiites to drive Sunnis from their homes. Many went to Syria. (George Hunsinger, Common Dreams.org, October 23, 2008)
One mainstream media exception on surge reporting, Karen de Young, explained how many Iraqis had homes destroyed or, “the homes they left no longer exist. Houses have been looted, destroyed or occupied. Most Baghdad neighborhoods, where Shiites and Sunnis once lived side by side, have been transformed into religiously homogeneous bastions where members of the other sect dare not tread.” (Washington Post, Dec. 16, 2007)
She cited Col. William E. Rapp, a senior aide to Petraeus, who admitted the decline in violence was “the result, in part, of the city’s segregation. There are now far fewer mixed neighborhoods where religious militias can target members of the other sect.”
“In most of Baghdad,” de Young wrote, “the population shift has been at the expense of Sunnis, many of whose former neighborhoods are newly populated by poorer Shiite migrants under militia protection and, often, control.”
Alongside cleansing, came payola. The U.S. military paid some Sunni groups to stop fighting U.S. occupiers and turn their guns on “outsiders” -- meaning Al Qaeda. This payoff also reduced the number of attacks against U.S. forces.
The White House used the surge with media cooperation to shift debate from the wisdom of starting an unjustified war to how to leave Iraq with a taste of victory. No one defined the “surge” for what it was, however: the old military tactic of bribing the opponent.
From mid 2005 until November 2008, the U.S. paid thousands of “Awakening Council” Iraqis $300 a month not to fight against U.S. forces. Al Jazeera’s military analysts estimated that as many as 100,000 Awakening fighters in Iraq were responsible “for the marked reduction in violence in the country.”
By late 2008, thanks to increased oil sales, reported Al Jazeera, “The Iraqi government started paying the salaries of about 54,000 Awakening fighters at 60 locations in Baghdad on Monday.”
In other words, Bush was paying unknown quantities of U.S. taxpayers’ money to Iraqis in return for them not attacking U.S. forces. So, while the infusion of more U.S. troops played some role in cutting down violence, it didn’t compete with the part played by death squads. Bob Woodward in The War Within (Simon & Schuster, 2008) suggests that by creating Iraqi “Death Squads” the Pentagon also helped reduce fighting in Iraq. A “Top Secret” memo, according to Woodward, implies that U.S. forces targeted certain Sunni groups for systematic assassination. This operation, like the CIA’s Phoenix Program in Vietnam, called for killing those who refused to “reconcile” to U.S. reason; they wouldn’t even take bribes.
The surge fans, however, ignored such minor details. They focus on the bright side. Iraq now sells 2 million barrels of oil per day! Tie that marketing fact to 2 million Iraqis who have fled their homes and remain displaced inside the country; or the 3 plus millions who felt forced to leave their unbalanced country. They don’t tie together?
Surgites like Pollack and Beinart say, like Bush, that the $610 billion spent on the war has built a “democracy” in the region. Indeed, by knocking off Saddam, the United States opened to the entire Arab world the road to democratic reform. And pigs will fly!
Thus far, thousands of Iraqi professors, scientists, and doctors have been assassinated. Bush’s rescue of Iraq also cost the lives of some 350 journalists. Tens of thousands of prisoners remain in detention camps and, according to a UN report, “the detention of children in adult detention centers violates U.S. obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, as well as accepted international human rights norms.” (AP, May 19, 2008)
In September 2002, I visited Baghdad and other Iraqi cities. Most Iraqis enjoyed electricity, running water and functional sewage -- even though the impact of multilateral sanctions and continuous air strikes throughout the 1990s by U.S. and British war planes kept destroying parts of the already mangled post 1991 War infrastructure.
After the surge’s success, Iraqis average 3 hours of electricity daily; many water and sewage systems remain un-repaired. By 2008, Iraqis suffered some 10,000 cases of cholera -- the average over the last five years. By August 2007, Iraqis still suffered some 25 car bombs per month. (Kevin Drum, Washington Monthly, August 24, 2007)
The surge did succeed in reducing Iraq war coverage by some 60%, according to the NY Times. (“With Success of Surge, NY Times’ Iraq War Coverage Drops to All-Time Low,” Oct. 21, 2008) Reduced violence equals loss of media interest.
If not for Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert, and occasional articles by Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker, and an exceptional case like Karen de Young and a few others, the public would have little access to the facts of war. The media gives the war mongers lots of space to promote the deadly events in which few of them ever fight. But they do cheer for the troops -- almost like fans at a ballgame.
Saul Landau is an IPS Fellow, author of A BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD (Counterpunch) and director of forty films, available on dvd from roundworldproductions.com
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