Tuesday, June 29, 2004

The Real Story

It's common these days to hear that Iraq is a "failure", that Iraq is being "mismanaged", that Iraq is "another Vietnam" or a "quagmire". The New York Times used the term quagmire a scant eight days after the beginning of combat. Has expectation exceeded reality a little bit? How would we know whether things are going well or poorly? What are the criteria?

Since none of us are in Iraq we must rely on others to tell us what is going on there. This means those who are paid professionally to do this, the reporters of the mainstream media. But what happens when those reporters, their editors, and the owners of these publications, for reasons of their own, decide to present things in such a way as to win a political argument at home, the truth be damned? We know this is going on because we have another reporter who tells us so.

"But what do the abominations perpetrated at Abu Ghraib really tell us about Iraq and the faltering American-led project to plant the seeds of democracy here? And why are so many people who were against the war, or are incapable of viewing any American action as anything other than evil or stupid, greeting each fresh revelation with an almost indecent glee?

The other day, while taking a break by the Al-Hamra Hotel pool, fringed with the usual cast of tattooed defence contractors, I was accosted by an American magazine journalist of serious accomplishment and impeccable liberal credentials.

She had been disturbed by my argument that Iraqis were better off than they had been under Saddam and I was now — there was no choice about this — going to have to justify my bizarre and dangerous views. I’ll spare you most of the details because you know the script — no WMD, no ‘imminent threat’ (though the point was to deal with Saddam before such a threat could emerge), a diversion from the hunt for bin Laden, enraging the Arab world. Etcetera.

But then she came to the point. Not only had she ‘known’ the Iraq war would fail but she considered it essential that it did so because this would ensure that the ‘evil’ George W. Bush would no longer be running her country. Her editors back on the East Coast were giggling, she said, over what a disaster Iraq had turned out to be. ‘Lots of us talk about how awful it would be if this worked out.’ Startled by her candour, I asked whether thousands more dead Iraqis would be a good thing.

She nodded and mumbled something about Bush needing to go. By this logic, I ventured, another September 11 on, say, September 11 would be perfect for pushing up John Kerry’s poll numbers. ‘Well, that’s different — that would be Americans,’ she said, haltingly. ‘I guess I’m a bit of an isolationist.’ That’s one way of putting it."

One way out of the quandary is to read the Iraqi bloggers (some of whom are listed on the right--others can be found on the Oraculations website). Today on Iraq the Model, for example, we have an article which happily proclaims the people's joy in Iraq's newfound independence.

"My friends all seemed thrilled and optimistic, yet they seemed to have no interset in celebrating the event. I decided to do something so I asked one of my colleagues to cover for me for an hour; I told him that I have to get something from outside.I directly headed to the nearest bakery and ordered a nice cake and returned to the hospital as fast as I could. On the way, I didn’t see any large calibrations but I noticed that the streets were busier than usual and people looked lively and relaxed.

I invited some of my friends, one of us volunteered to get some beverages and we gathered around the cake to celebrate the happy event....

Some of us were celebrating regaining sovereignty, some were celebrating the end of occupation, others were happy because they think the new government will bring safety and order. I was celebrating a new and a great step towards democracy, but we were all joined by true hope for a better future and by the love we have for Iraq."

Granted, these people aren't representative. Even a hundred thousand bloggers might not be able to convey the truth behind what's really going in Iraq. But still, reading these blogs day after day, one cannot help but be struck by the immense difference between what's happening in their lives as they report it and what's happening in Iraq according the the mainstream media reporters. There's serious cognitive dissonance going on somewhere here.

It's human nature to deny reality in various parts which do not connect well with the "narrative" we're all constructing all the time. We all do it, not just whatever current political enemies we might have, and it's not necessarily a bad thing. Still, one would presume that at least a modicum of honesty and disinterest should be required from these very few people whose stories will have immense impact on the policies of the United States and thereby on the fate of millions.

Now today we have an explanation inthis beautiful piece from an actual marine in Iraq who is a writer himself to boot.
Iraq veterans often say they are confused by American news coverage, because their experience differs so greatly from what journalists report. Soldiers and Marines point to the slow, steady progress in almost all areas of Iraqi life and wonder why they don’t get much notice – or in many cases, any notice at all.

Part of the explanation is Rajiv Chandrasekaran, the Baghdad bureau chief for the Washington Post. He spent most of his career on the metro and technology beats, and has only four years of foreign reporting, two of which are in Iraq. The 31-year-old now runs a news operation that can literally change the world, heading a bureau that is the source for much of the news out of Iraq.

Very few newspapers have full-time international reporters at all these days, relying on stringers of varying quality, as well as wire services such as Reuters and Agence France-Presse, also of varying quality. The Post's reporting is delivered intravenously into the bloodstream of Official Washington, and thus a front-page article out of Iraq can have major repercussions in policy-making.

Before major combat operations were over, Chandrasekaran was already quoting Iraqis proclaiming the American operation a failure. Reading his dispatches from April 2003, you can already see his meta-narrative take shape: basically, that the Americans are clumsy fools who don’t know what they’re doing, and Iraqis hate them. This meta-narrative informs his coverage and the coverage of the reporters he supervises, who rotate in and out of Iraq.

How do I know this? Because my fellow Marines and I witnessed it with our own eyes. Chandrasekaran showed up in the city of Al Kut last April, talked to a few of our officers, and toured the city for a few hours. He then got back into his air-conditioned car and drove back to Baghdad to write about the local unrest."

Read the whole thing.

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