Joe Conason's Journal

Blaming the media won't bail out the Bushies this time.

Published November 4, 2003 11:23PM (EST)

It isn't the "filter"
If the deaths of American soldiers and Iraqi civilians went unreported by the news "filter," would those people still be alive? If the critics of U.S. policy in Iraq kept quiet, would that policy be working rather than failing? If U.S. policy is failing, at the cost of American and Iraqi lives, is the duty of patriots to pretend otherwise or to speak out?

I only ask because -- until the terrible week that culminated in yesterday's Chinook helicopter downing -- the line from the White House and the Pentagon was that America's worst problems in Iraq were "negative" news coverage and domestic "political" sniping. That propaganda trope is no longer plausible even to those who fervently support the administration and the war. Americans are losing confidence in the president's war policy not because of media coverage or political criticism, but because the administration misled them about the reasons for the war and the costs and consequences of invading Iraq.

While complaints about media coverage and partisan adversaries will stir up the Republican base (and the Fox newsroom), such responses are wholly inadequate to answer the thorough indictment of arrogance and incompetence in David Rieff's Sunday New York Times Magazine essay. Rieff argues that almost every major policy decision, from the sponsorship of Ahmed Chalabi to the mishandling of the U.N. Security Council to the rejection of a larger ground force, pointed toward the current situation -- a situation that, as Paul Bremer finally admitted, is getting "worse." Each of those decisions contributed to the increasing peril of our troops as well as the insecurity, suffering and festering hostility of the Iraqis.

Rather than blame their critics, Rumsfeld and his civilian Pentagon associates should be pondering what they must answer for -- especially in their reckless insistence on a "lean" troop commitment after the brass told them many more soldiers would be needed to maintain order following the Baathist dictatorship's destruction. Implicit in that dispute was a dire warning that came true almost immediately, in the looting of unguarded museums, offices and ammunition dumps. Where do the terrorists and guerrillas get their weapons, including those surface-to-air missiles, if not from arsenals that Pentagon planners neglected to safeguard?

As men who will never admit error, no matter how many bodies are shipped home in darkness, Bush and Rumsfeld still insist that no more U.S. troops should have been deployed. In fact, the defense secretary said on Sunday that he expects the number of American personnel in Iraq may soon decrease. According to him, they will be replaced by the rapid expansion of coalition-trained Iraqi security forces. Yet whether those forces are expanding quite so rapidly as Rumsfeld claims is another question: His optimistic numbers don't match those cited by Paul Bremer and other administration sources in recent weeks. Rumsfeld's credibility is now so poor that almost nothing he says about Iraq can be accepted at his own word.

Worse than the constant insinuation that reporters and political opponents are the proximate causes of trouble in Iraq is the implication that we have only two choices: "Cut and run," or support the president's failing policies. At the New American Strategies conference in Washington last week, former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski enunciated an alternative:

"In Iraq we must succeed. Failure is not an option. But once we say that we have to ask ourselves what is the definition of success? More killing, more repression, more effective counter-insurgency, the introduction of newer devices of technological type to crush the resistance or whatever one wishes to call it -- the terrorism?

"Or is it a deliberate effort to promote, by using force, a political solution? And if there's going to be a political solution in Iraq, clearly I think it is obvious that two prerequisites have to be fulfilled as rapidly as feasible: namely, the internationalization of the foreign presence in Iraq, regarding which too much time has been lost and which is going to be increasingly difficult to accomplish, in spite of the somewhat dialectical successes with which we are defining progress in Iraq lately. [Laughter.]

"In addition to the internationalization of Iraq, we have to transfer power as soon as is possible to a sovereign Iraqi authority." (And not, it must be added, a sovereign authority led by the unelected likes of Chalabi.)

In the past, Brzezinski has been wrong about many things, but his credentials are not in doubt -- and he is right to warn that the only decent route out of Iraq will require support from the same allies whose concerns and advice have always been spurned by the Bush administration. Its bad decisions and stupid swaggering are now costing more and more lives.

This hectic life, Philly loaded
Philadelphia may not feel much brotherly love in the aftermath of its weird mayoral election, but that's where I will be on Wednesday at 7 p.m. for a book signing at the Friends Select School (scroll way down).
[3:30 p.m. PDT, Nov. 3, 2003]

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By Salon Staff

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