How the Right Still Frames Iraq
President Barack Obama’s instruction to “turn the page” on the Iraq War has set off a new wave of frustration on the American Left, which believes that the architects of this war of aggression should face some accountability for the death and destruction.
But Obama’s non-partisan olive branch – hailing all sides as “patriots” and praising the troops for carrying out a difficult assignment – may reflect his realistic assessment that the balance of national political/media power still tilts sharply to the neocon and right-wing side.
Indeed, the biggest controversy around Obama’s speech Tuesday night was not whether the United States should acknowledge war crimes in Iraq but whether Obama should praise former President George W. Bush for supposedly salvaging the war effort by ordering a “surge” of 30,000 more troops in 2007.
In coverage of the speech, every major U.S. news outlet repeated the now-enshrined conventional wisdom that the “surge” turned the tide of the war. For instance, the Washington Post noted that Obama had called Bush before the speech but added that Obama’s aides wouldn’t comment on whether “Obama gave Bush credit for his decision … to order the 2007 troop surge that led to a reduction in violence.”
Though the U.S. press did carry some critical commentary about the overall consequences of the Iraq invasion, particularly its death toll and trillion-dollar price tag, there were no suggestions in the mainstream media that Bush and his neocon aides deserved a long visit with the International Criminal Court at The Hague.
In practical terms, the conventional wisdom on the “successful surge” has meant that there will be no meaningful accountability of any sort against the neocons who used “stove-piped intelligence” on WMD to create a false casus belli, the Bush administration officials who carried out the unprovoked invasion, or the mainstream U.S. journalists who played along with the deceptions to protect their careers.
Rather than any accountability, the neocons and other hawks have retained positions of influence in Washington. Their jobs at prominent think tanks and their access to influential op-ed pages also ensured that when the level of violence in Iraqi violence began declining in late 2007 and early 2008 – from catastrophic to simply horrific – they could quickly give credit to the “surge.”
Although other military factors were of equal or greater importance in this decline, anyone who pointed out the more complex reality was shouted down and made to admit that Bush’s supporters had been “right” about the “surge.”
During Campaign 2008, Democratic presidential nominee Obama was one of the few politicians who tried to make the more nuanced case, placing the “surge” among a number of developments, including some key ones – like the Sunni Awakening – that pre-dated or were unrelated to the “surge.”
However, Obama was browbeaten by mainstream “journalists.” In separate interviews, CBS anchor Katie Couric and ABC’s George Stephanopoulos demanded to know why Obama wouldn’t just admit that his rival, Sen. John McCain, had been “right” about the “surge.”
Finally, Obama chose to surrender to this conventional wisdom, however misguided. He confessed to Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly that the surge "succeeded beyond our wildest dreams."
Obama’s cave-in allowed the neocons and their sympathizers to further ridicule anyone who wouldn’t go along. But it also demonstrated the real power of the media machine that the Right and the neocons have built over the past several decades. [For details, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]
A Deformed Conventional Wisdom
To fit with the prevailing conventional wisdom, even the New York Times altered the chronology of events to give the “surge” primacy as the key factor in the declining violence. Although the Sunni Awakening, in which Sunnis turned against al-Qaeda and received U.S. payments, took root in 2006, the Times routinely began to cite the “surge” of 2007 first and the Sunni shift second, as if that were the real order of events.
Still, some military analysts continued to insist that Bush’s “surge” was at best a minor factor in improving Iraq’s security climate. For his book, The War Within, the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward interviewed a number of military officials and concluded:
“In Washington, conventional wisdom translated these events into a simple view: The surge had worked. But the full story was more complicated. At least three other factors were as important as, or even more important than, the surge.”
Woodward reported that the Sunni rejection of al-Qaeda extremists in Anbar province (which preceded the surge) and the surprise decision of radical Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr to order a unilateral cease-fire by his militia were two important factors.
A third factor, which Woodward argued may have been the most significant, was the use of new highly classified U.S. intelligence tactics that allowed for rapid targeting and killing of insurgent leaders. Woodward agreed to withhold details of these secret techniques from his book so as not to undercut their continued success.
Other brutal factors further explained the decline in violence:
--Vicious ethnic cleansing had succeeded in separating Sunnis and Shiites to such a degree that there were fewer targets to kill. Several million Iraqis were estimated to be refugees either in neighboring countries or within their own.
--Concrete walls built between Sunni and Shiite areas made “death-squad” raids more difficult but also “cantonized” much of Baghdad and other Iraqi cities, making everyday life for Iraqis even more exhausting as they sought food or traveled to work.
--During the “surge,” U.S. forces expanded the round-up of so-called “military age males” and locked tens of thousands in prison. Loose rules of engagement also permitted the killing of “MAMS” if they simply looked suspicious, as a video distributed by WikiLeaks revealed. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Watching Innocent Iraqis Die.”]
--Awesome U.S. firepower, concentrated on Iraqi insurgents and civilian bystanders for more than five years, had slaughtered countless thousands of Iraqis and had intimidated many others to look simply to their own survival.
--And, the biggest decline in violence came after it was made clear in 2008 that the Iraqi government was serious about setting a timetable for a U.S. military pullout. As U.S. troops first withdrew from the cities and then started heading for the exits, the number of attacks on Americans dropped to near zero.
In other words, the scaling back (and the promised end) of the U.S. occupation may have been the most significant factor in stanching the bloodshed, although the level of Iraqi political violence remains horrible to this day.
Controlling the Debate
Still, by controlling the “surge” debate, the neocons rehabilitated themselves in the eyes of Official Washington and essentially guaranteed that they would face no accountability, either before some international war crimes tribunal or in their career prospects. They then used their strong position in policy circles to push Obama into another “surge” – for Afghanistan.
Washington’s deformed reality also shaped the debate prior to Obama’s speech announcing the end of American combat operations. The only media question that seemed to get any traction was whether Obama should thank Bush for all he did for Iraq and particularly for the “surge.”
In the end, Obama didn’t go that far, but the American Left should take note that its media weakness – in the face of the neocon/right-wing media powerhouses – is a clear and present danger to American democracy and the security of the world.
Despite the Iraq War’s many disasters, the complicit (or subservient) U.S. news media has continued to let the neocon/Right frame the national debate, and the American Left invests almost no money in trying to restore some balance.
Considering how dependent modern politics is on media -- to get out a message or to present a coherent narrative that lets voters put issues into a meaningful context -- it remains remarkable how low a priority progressives make building a media infrastructure.
In many ways, this imbalance of media power continues to slip further in the direction of the neocons and the right-wing, as they use their dominance of talk radio and cable news to reach into the homes of working-class people, appealing especially to white men.
And the situation could get worse. Earlier this year, after wealthy progressives pulled the plug on the Air America radio network, the Left’s primary media outlet became MSNBC’s evening line-up of liberal hosts – Ed Schultz, Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow.
In other words, the Left is now heavily dependent on General Electric, a charter member of the military-industrial complex, for reaching the American public. And GE only allowed this experimental line-up on MSNBC after trying almost everything else, including an attempt to out-fox Fox News by pandering to the Right.
It’s also not clear what might happen to this fragile oasis of liberal opinion if the Republicans reclaim the Congress next year and thus hold the purse strings to GE’s lucrative military contracts. Or what might change if the deal goes through to sell a majority interest in NBC Universal to Comcast.
To put it mildly, neither GE nor Comcast’s corporate leadership has the kind of ideological commitment to MSNBC’s liberal evening programming that, say, News Corp.’s Chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch has toward Fox News’ right-wing content.
Indeed, the “free-market” orientation of CNBC and the more conservative bent of MSNBC’s daytime shows, like “Morning Joe” with former Republican Congressman Joe Scarborough, are more in line with GE’s corporate interests.
The Right and the neocons also continue to invest heavily in building up their presence on the Internet, as many worthy independent and progressive Web sites struggle for survival or go under.
So, the Left shouldn’t be surprised when the frame of the national debate is constructed by neocon, center-right and far-right elements – or when President Obama ducks a fight over the accountability that Bush and the neocons should face for a cruel and unnecessary war.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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