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Friday, April 27, 2007

CW and the Iraq Supplemental

After watching Bill Moyers must-see Buying the War it is fascinating to read an article like this one by the NYT's veteran political reporter David Sanger: "The White House Scales Back Talk of Iraq Progress."

Sanger's article creates a powerful CW, or conventional wisdom, about the war in Iraq and the debate over that war in Washington. With this piece, you can literally watch the conventional wisdom being manufactured before your very eyes:

In interviews over the past week, [...] officials made clear that the White House is gradually scaling back its expectations for the government of President Nuri al-Maliki they are now discussing suggest that the White House may maintain the increased numbers of American troops in Iraq well into next year.

That prospect would entail a dramatically longer commitment of frontline troops, patrolling the most dangerous neighborhoods of Baghdad, than the one envisioned in legislation that passed the House and Senate this week. That vote, largely symbolic because Democrats do not have the votes to override the promised presidential veto, set deadlines that would lead to the withdrawal of combat troops by the end of March 2008.

That's a fascinating turn of phrase, a "largely symbolic" vote. As if a bill passed by the House and Senate which a President has pledged to veto is always merely a symbol. Clearly, Sanger and the NYT are conveying that the Iraq Supplemental is Dead On Arrival; they are manufacturing Conventional Wisdom before our very eyes. Bills voted on by majorities of the U.S. Congress are symbols, nothing more. Not like the confidential and confident words of "senior administration officials."

Sanger has interviewed some of these "senior administration officials" and those officials are eager to use Sanger and the New York Times to convey, among other things, the message that the "surge," which began in January of this year and was supposed to last a period of months, will now extend "well into next year." Now, I wouldn't call that "scaling back expectations of the government of Iraq" as this article has characterized it; I would call that news something else. A different headline for this piece could have been: "Facing Failure: The Bush Administration plans to extend the surge well into 2008." Sanger and the Times have chosen to hide that significant story and report this information as if this revelation marks a mere minor change of course for the Bush Administration. You see, according to the New York Times, what we have here is merely a change in Bush's expectations of the Iraqi government. Those silly Iraqis.

Let's take a step back, however, and review what George Bush said when announcing the surge just a little over four months ago:

...over time, we can expect to see Iraqi troops chasing down murderers, fewer brazen acts of terror, and growing trust and cooperation from Baghdad's residents. When this happens, daily life will improve, Iraqis will gain confidence in their leaders, and the government will have the breathing space it needs to make progress in other critical areas. Most of Iraq's Sunni and Shia want to live together in peace. And reducing the violence in Baghdad will help make reconciliation possible. [snip]

America will hold the Iraqi government to the benchmarks it has announced. To establish its authority, the Iraqi government plans to take responsibility for security in all of Iraq's provinces by November. [snip]

Let me be clear: The terrorists and insurgents in Iraq are without conscience, and they will make the year ahead bloody and violent. Even if our new strategy works exactly as planned, deadly acts of violence will continue - and we must expect more Iraqi and American casualties. The question is whether our new strategy will bring us closer to success. I believe that it will.Victory will not look like the ones our fathers and grandfathers achieved. There will be no surrender ceremony on the deck of a battleship. But victory in Iraq will bring something new in the Arab world - a functioning democracy that polices its territory, upholds the rule of law, respects fundamental human liberties, and answers to its people.

So, four months after George Bush announced this policy, it is already, essentially, a failure. Goals are unmet or deferred, rosy predictions have not come to pass. Even the one hard goal Bush named in his speech, an Iraqi security takeover in every province by November has flown out the window. But that's not how the New York Times is choosing to report this story. As Bill Moyers documented, the press, even the New York Times, allows this administration to create its own reality. Given Sanger's reporting, highlighting the incompetence of the fractured Maliki government, we can see that Bush's final paragraph is and was nothing more than a fabric of lies.

What a great deal for Bush! Mere talk of his veto evaporates an entire bill from Congress. Mere whispers from his nameless officials means "fait accompli" coverage on the front page of the Paper of Record. The only way to realize that the real import of this story...that the surge, like everything else Bush has done in Iraq, has failed, is to contrast what we are reading in today's New York Times with Bush's own words and our own command of recent history. That's something the New York Times won't do. They leave that work to others.

Here's another passage from Sanger's article where you can read the CW being manufactured in newsprint:

In interviews, his aides said Mr. Bush is convinced that once he vetoes the troop funding plan, because of its timetable for withdrawal, he will have the upper hand in negotiations.

“There is a segmented market” among the Democrats, the senior American official said. “Harry Reid has declared the war is lost, but there are a lot of people in his own party who have said they do not agree. Some of them are telling us privately that if they see some progress by the fall they would support us, because they do want this to succeed.”

That's the kind of thing you have to do a double/triple take to figure out: a nameless Bush official characterizes Democrats as segmented, describes Reid as declaring "war is lost," suggests a Democratic Congress full of folks offering to support the Bush Administration if they see progress by the fall, and, of course, implies that most Democrats don't want "success" in Iraq. In other words, Sanger allows a nameless Bush official to concoct a "partisan fairy tale world" in the midst of a story that's really about Bush's failure in Iraq.

The Democrats are divided and want to take a "wait and see" approach? I guess that's why 218 members of the House and 51 members of the Senate just voted for a bill that would begin a withdrawal of U.S. troops in July if the Iraqis fail to meet their benchmarks. There's no mention of that in the article, despite the fact that it is germaine to the matter at hand. And, of course, since that bill is merely "symbolic", we might as well allow a nameless Republican in the White House to convey the impression that Bush will have the upper hand in negotiations when he vetoes this "symbolic bill" that Sanger mentions only in passing.

It's nothing but heartbreak and defeat for Democrats from David Sanger. Easy to see how this becomes the conventional wisdom, period. It's pernicious.

What's important here? What is the New York Times telling us? The NYT is telling its readers to buy the spin from the GOP, to accept the inevitable Bush veto of the "symbolic" bill out of hand. Simply put, this is a piece of deeply irresponsible journalism that serves the function of keeping us in Iraq.

The upshot of this story, it's most significant "reality" is that it tells us that George Bush, in announcing his surge in January of 2007, the fourth year of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, was in reality committing the United States to two more years of escalation in Iraq no matter what. It does and didn't matter what the Iraqi government does or doesn't do. That's clear. Sanger's article is also telling us, implicitly, that this is the way that it will be. In effect, CW, as manufactured by the New York Times, says that years five and six of the US Occupation of Iraq are a fait accompli.

And the only thing that might stop this inevitability, a check on Bush's war authority from the United States Congress, is a mere symbol. Sanger brooks no discussion of the possibility that the fallout of a Bush veto might not be what his Republican informants think it will be. And that highlights something else that's missing here, too: an examination of the will of the voters in 2006 and the results of every single public opinion poll regarding this war in 2007. These factors that might challenge the powerful CW Sanger is creating are invisible, mere figments of a dreaming mind.

It doesn't have to be this way. But for things to change, folks have to demand that things change.

When it comes to the war in Iraq, as Bill Moyers so powerfully pointed out, the New York Times has often been nothing more than a conventional wisdom factory keeping us in Iraq. David Sanger's piece today is a case in point.

Update: David Kurtz has a must-read on this same Sanger piece at TPM. His conclusion is damning, but read the whole thing, especially the reader comment at the end:

The somber, measured tone of Sanger's piece in the The Times, without a hint of irony in it, conveys that we are all supposed to just play along with what everyone--from congressional Republicans to Petraeus to the poor grunts on the streets of Baghdad--knows to be a huge charade.


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