Improvement in Iraq: Trust Joe Klein and his secret sources

One great myth in our current political discourse is that, come September, there will be a real day of reckoning in Iraq for the Bush administration.

Published May 24, 2007 11:55AM (EDT)

(updated below - updated again)

Q. If you're a Bush administration official and you want to create a prominent headline in Time Magazine proclaiming what great improvement there is in Iraq, what do you do?

A. Have someone with a shiny military uniform go and flatter Joe Klein by whispering "secrets" in his ear all while demanding anonymity, and then he'll dutifully run to the pages of Time and mindlessly repeat what he's been told as though he has discovered some great journalistic scoop, which is how Time will treat it.

Klein's article -- entitled "Is al-Qaida on the Run in Iraq"? -- is, according to Time's site, the single most popular article in that magazine. And, predictably enough, it is being hailed by every standard war proponent.

Is there a single principle of good journalism which Klein, in his short piece, failed to violate? The first sentence declares that "there is good news from Iraq, believe it or not," and that is all based on the claim that "the level of violence [in Anbar] has plummeted in recent weeks." And how does Klein know that?

A senior U.S. military official told me -- confirming reports from several other sources -- that there have been "a couple of days recently during which there were zero effective attacks and less than 10 attacks overall in the province (keep in mind that an attack can be as little as one round fired). This is a result of sheiks stepping up and opposing AQI [al-Qaeda in Iraq] and volunteering their young men to serve in the police and army units there."

As always, the very idea of granting anonymity to government sources to do nothing other than repeat pro-government claims is both manipulative and moronic on its face. What possible journalistic value could there ever be in cloaking someone with anonymity in order to say something that Tony Snow would happily say, and does say, every day from the White House Press Briefing Room?

That was one of the principal though-still-unlearned lessons of the Judy Miller Saga: when a journalist does nothing but mindlessly repeat the claims of government sources which are completely consistent with -- or designed to bolster -- the claims being made by the administration itself out in the open, the journalist is doing nothing more than turning himself into a willing propaganda tool. Again, what conceivable journalistic justification is there for granting anonymity to government sources to recite the Government Line? It has no value other than to lend the government position enhanced though unmerited credibility ("It isn't just Bush saying things are getting better in Iraq; Time has a leaking, brave anonymous source who also says that, so it must be true").

And then there is Klein's assurance that what his special military friend told him is consistent with what was said by "several other sources." There is, of course, no need to provide any information about these "several other" corroborating sources -- government? military? those invested in the pro-war position? AEI "war scholars"? -- because Klein knows who they are and thinks they're credible and you can and should just trust his judgment.

Hence we have a major headline in Time declaring how great things are in Iraq -- "Al Qaeda on the run" -- all based on what an unnamed military official secretly told Klein, as well as the same statements from a few unnamed individuals about whom we know exactly nothing. These are followed by the standard "still-serious-problems-in-Iraq" caveat which, I have no doubt, in Klein's mind demonstrates balance. And all of this is to say nothing about the endlessly exploited and indescribably irrational practice of interpreting some short-term and isolated lull in violence as Real Progress. How many more years do we have to endure that tactic to justify our ongoing occupation?

That Klein and Time continue to churn out shoddy, gullible "journalism" is hardly news. But what is notable here is that this is a mere glimpse of the Beltway script that will be clung to over the next few months -- until the arrival of Glorious September.

The single greatest and most transparent delusion in our public discourse right now -- and that is a distinction for which there is always an intense competition -- is that Something Weighty and Significant is Going to Happen In September with regard to the Iraq War.

September, you see, is the real turning point, the real Day of Reckoning. Finally, our political elites are going to face the cold, hard truth in an unvarnished and hard-nosed way about The Facts on the Ground. That is the read deadline for George W. Bush. No more leniency for him come September. Republicans, Democrats and their pundit and opinion-making comrades alike have all banded together -- strength in numbers -- and boldly decreed: "No More." Either we have Real Progress in September, or that is the end of the line.

That's what one hears over and over from all of our Serious and Sober Beltway denizens -- the ones who advocated the war in the first place and assured us it was going well for the last four years (and therefore have great credibility on such matters). As but just one example, the very serious, sober, smart expert Michael O'Hanlon, bearing the title of Senior Fellow of Foreign Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution, was on Fox News yesterday explaining how "smart" the Democrats were for funding the war with no limits because their real opportunity is September, when -- if things are not going well -- everyone will support them in imposing real limits.

But all that is going to happen In September is that we are going to await with bated breath for General David Petraeus -- he of infallible wisdom, judgment and honesty, and unquestionable objectivity -- to descend upon Washington and reveal whether there is Real Progress being made (by him) in Iraq. We are all going to leave partisanship and politics to the side and turn to the source who resides above all of that, the one who can be counted on to speak the Real Truth -- General David Petraeus.

And, needless to say, General Petraeus will, cautiously though emphatically, declare that progress is being made, though there is much work that remains to be done. And therefore we must redouble our resolve and stay until The Job is Done.

Do Generals ever say that they are failing in their mission and that their wars have become hopeless? Petraeus himself has repeatedly said that his Surge Strategy will require far more than a few months to succeed. By its very terms, it cannot have failed by September. He has already come to Washington and declared improvements, and his senior military officials are sending their pets, such as Joe Klein, to Time with exciting new reports about Al-Qeada being on the run. That is but a preview of the dramatic and electrifying film to be released in September.

And with General Petraeus heralded as the Objective Source of Honor to be Trusted, the White House and Congressional Republicans and Fred Hiatt will immediately proclaim that it would be irresponsible and reckless (and terribly unserious) not to continue with our Great Progress, that we should leave such judgments to the Generals on the Ground, not Politicians in Washington. Joe Lieberman and Bill Kristol will warn that anyone who speaks out in dissent at this Important Time of Opportunity is Emboldening Al Qaeda, and General Petraeus will agree.

And in September, when the great (though incomplete) progress is unveiled by General Petraeus, our pundit class will continue their canonization of The General, and thus, that there is Progress in Iraq will be the conventional wisdom which all serious and responsible people recognize ("Finally, after four years of frustration, General David Petraeus, in dramatic testimony before Congress, highlighted the great improvement the U.S. is seeing in its war against Al Qaeda in Iraq"). And a sufficient number of Democrats will either be persuaded by this ritual or will be sufficiently afraid of it to do anything other than let the entire spectacle continue.

The central unyielding truth in our political landscape is that -- no matter what -- the War in Iraq is not going to end before the end of the Bush presidency. That has been obvious for a very long time, and that is why it is so bizarre to watch the Beltway establishment continue to pretend that there is some Big Decision Day coming in September -- the day when Republicans take a stand and our political elite put their foot down.

Nothing has changed. Republicans and media-war-proponents are far too invested in the war to do anything other than claim it is finally going well. And there are more than enough Democrats who either (a) believe we should stay in Iraq indefinitely, (b) perceive political benefits from staying, and/or (c) fear forcing withdrawal.

And most of all, the Bush administration has all of the Joe Kleins and Time Magazines they need to keep conventional Beltway wisdom on their side and spew just enough War Progress Stories to sustain the support they need. They have an open column in Time -- among many other places -- to continue to shape our the public debate over withdrawal.

UPDATE: Glenn Reynolds defends Joe Klein and "responds" to my post by (a) accusing me of rooting for the U.S. to lose and (b) re-printing an e-mail he received from Michael Yon who claims that, in Anbar, "the guns are mostly quiet now" and the Infantry Task Force with which he is embedded "hardly have fired their weapons." Yon claims that things are so peachy in Anbar that the meetings of the Task Force are "more administrative than combat oriented."

Associated Press reports today (h/d David Sirota):

Two US soldiers were killed while conducting combat operations in Iraq's volatile Anbar Province, the military announced Thursday.

The soldiers, assigned to Multi National Force-West, were killed Wednesday, the military said.

The military declined to release the names of those killed pending notification of their relatives.

The deaths raised the number of members of the US military who have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003 to at least 3,433, according to an Associated Press count.

And then there is this. And this. But the real fault lies with anyone who points any of this out, because they want the U.S. to lose. What is most amazing is that the same people (like Reynolds) who have been lying to the country for four straight years about all of the Glorious Progress being made in Iraq continue to expect that when they speak, anyone other than the shrinking band of hard-core war supporters will listen.

Many, many times over the last four years -- in numerous places in Iraq -- violence has ebbed temporarily. Yet Iraq, contrary to the ongoing claims from the Bush administration and its followers, has inexorably descended into total chaos and violence. Pointing to three-day lapses in violence in a single place as proof that things are improving is so transparently irrational that, particularly at this point, it merits as much response as the desperate claim that anyone who opposes the war "wants the U.S. to lose."

UPDATE II: It is worth noting, as sysprog does in Comments, that this country during the Vietnam War was plagued by the 1960s version of our Joe Kleins, Glenn Reynolds, and pro-war Time Magazine reports, which is one significant reason why the war dragged on throughout the entire decade:

Time Magazine, Friday, May 17, 1963:

How is the war actually going? Measured against the desperate situation that faced General Maxwell Taylor on a fact-finding mission for the President 19 months ago, there is room for qualified optimism. When Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara returned from a conference with service chiefs in Pearl Harbor last week, the Pentagon said "the corner has definitely been turned toward victory."

No one was setting any timetable, but U.S. military chiefs and South Viet Nam's President Ngo Dinh Diem say that the war should be won "within three years." There are many soldiers in South Viet Nam who consider this wildly optimistic; some believe that the war may never be won. But almost everyone agrees that things have improved.

Time Magazine, Friday, March 31, 1967:

Nonetheless, a note of optimism permeated the conference. "There are many signs that we are at a favorable turning point," the President said at the outset. That theme was elaborated in detail as U.S. and South Vietnamese officials met on Nimitz Hill, the U.S. naval headquarters overlooking the Philippine Sea. . . .

The military situation in Viet Nam gave ample cause for confidence. South Viet Nam's Premier Nguyen Cao Ky said that the Communist forces in his country are "on the run" and pictured the supply system in the North as "in near paralysis."

Time Magazine, Friday, March 28, 1969:

"Progress" in Viet Nam is a relative and fragile thing at best. But within limits, a prognosis of progress seems more valid than at any time since the U.S. arrived.

The history of the war is all too painfully graven in false optimism. Again and again, U.S. hopes have been raised by officials armed with gleaming statistics and pollyanna rhetoric. First the U.S. "turned the corner" in Viet Nam; then there was "light at the end of the tunnel," "the enemy was on the run," and the attrition rates, the kill ratios, and all the other jargon of victory rolled on and on.

Since they have been proved wrong so often in the past, U.S. experts are careful not to parade their latest positive assessments; indeed, they almost tend to conceal them. But those currently in charge of the war in the field are convinced that "the curve is up" at last.

More than a year ago, I compiled many similar statements here.

It is truly amazing how identical the statements are that issue from today's war propagandists. It is likely that the reason why the claims of the Iraq war cheerleaders have fallen on such deaf ears among huge swaths of Americans is because so many of them have heard it all before and are not going to fall for the deceit a second time.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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