September 27, 2004
As a rule, I don’t repost other commentary. However, the recent “Talk of the Town” piece in the September 27th New Yorker (“The Political War”) by George Packer not only splits wide the administration’s fictionalization of the Iraqi campaign, it does so in a way that also implicates the press and Senator Kerry (on behalf of the Senate, as well as himself, I assume) for the lack of sound.
If I can be excused the liberty (surely, no challenge to Dangermouse), I have “mixed in” a couple of BAGnews editions I created following 9/11 in which I sought (in my humble way) to point out the scorpions.
THE POLITICAL WAR
Earlier this year, the United States Agency for International Development, or U.S.A.I.D. hired a team of independent experts to go to Iraq and evaluate the agency’s programs there The experts came back with a mixed review that included plenty of reason for worry: the reconstruction of Iraq was taking place in an ad-hoc fashion, without a consistent strategy, without the meaningful participation or advice of Iraqis, within paralyzing security constraints and amid unrealistic claims of success. But something happened to the report on the way to publication. U.S.A.I.D. kept sending parts of it back for revision, draft after draft, weeding out criticism, until the agency finally approved a version for internal use which one member of the team called “a whitewash” of his findings Another expert said, “It’s so political everything going on out there. They just didn’t want to hear any bad news.” Pointing out that some of the numbers posted on the agency’ Web site were overly optimistic, he concluded, “They like to make their sausage their way.
This would be a minor footnote in the history of the Iraq war, if only the entire story didn’t read the same. President Bush has been making the sausage his way from the beginning, and his way is to politicize. He forced a congressional vote on the war just before the 2002 midterm elections. He trumpeted selective and misleading intelligence. He displayed intense devotion to classifying government documents, except when there was political advantage in declassifying them. He fired or sidelined government officials and military officers who told the American public what the Administration didn’t want it to hear. He released forecasts of the war’s cost that quickly became obsolete, and then he ignored the need for massive expenditures until a crucial half year in Iraq had been lost. His communications office in Baghdad issued frequently incredible accounts of the progress of the war and the reconstruction. He staffed the occupation with large numbers of political loyalists who turned out to be incompetent. According to Marine officers and American officials in Iraq, he ordered and then called off critical military operations in Falluja against the wishes of his commanders, with no apparent strategic plan. He made sure that blame for the abuses at Abu Ghraib settled almost entirely on the shoulders of low-ranking troops. And then, in the middle of the election campaign, he changed the subject.
No one can now doubt the effectiveness of the President’s political operation. Here’s one measure: between May and September, the number of Iraq stories that made page 1 of the Times and the Washington Post dropped by more than a third. During the same period, the percentage of Americans who support the President’s handling of the war increased. It’s the mark of a truly brilliant reëlection campaign that these trends at home are occurring against a background of ever-increasing violence and despair in Iraq. The latest reports from mainstream think tanks, such as the Center for Strategic and International Studies, show every indicator of progress moving in the wrong direction. In July, the National Intelligence Council issued a classified and quite gloomy analysis of Iraq which had no effect on the President’s rhetoric or on his policy. After a year and a half of improvising and muddling through, there seems to be no clear way forward and no good way out. But because the President—as his chief of staff, Andrew Card, recently said—regards Americans as ten-year-old children, don’t expect to hear an honest discussion about any of this from the White House. (The President’s party, however, is trying to force congress to vote, just before the election, on a constitutional amendment to ban flag burning—no doubt to bring the country a little closer to victory in Iraq.)
The problem with making sausage the President’s way—other than the fact that it deceives the public, precludes a serious debate, bitterly divides the body politic when war requires unity, exposes American soldiers to greater risk, substitutes half measures for thoroughgoing efforts, and insures that no one will be held accountable for mistakes that will never be corrected—is that it doesn’t work. What determines success in this war is what happens in Iraq and how Iraqis perceive it. If U.S.A.I.D. releases a report that prettifies the truth, officials here might breathe easier for a while, but it won’t speed up the reconstruction of Iraq. Covering up failures only widens the gap in perception between Washington and Baghdad—which, in turn, makes Washington less capable of grasping the reality of Iraq and responding to it. Eventually, the failures announce themselves anyway—in a series of suicide bombings, a slow attrition of Iraqi confidence, a sudden insurrection. War, unlike budget forecasts and campaign coverage, is quite merciless with falsehood.
In refusing to look at Iraq honestly, President Bush has made defeat there more likely. This failing is only the most important repetition of a recurring theme in the war against radical Islam: the distance between Bush’s soaring, often inspiring language and the insufficiency of his actions. When he speaks, as he did at the Republican Convention, about the power of freedom to change the world, he is sounding deep notes in the American political psyche. His opponent comes nowhere close to making such music. But if Iraq looks nothing like the President’s vision—if Iraq is visibly deteriorating, and no one in authority will admit it—the speeches can produce only illusion or cynicism. In what may be an extended case of overcompensation, so much of the President’s conduct in the war has become an assertion of personal will. Bush’s wartime hero, Winston Churchill, offered his countrymen nothing but blood, toil, tears, and sweat. Bush offers optimistic forecasts, permanent tax cuts, and his own stirring resolve.
As the campaign moves toward its finish, Senator Kerry seems unable to point any of this out, let alone exploit it. On Iraq, he has said almost everything possible, which makes it difficult for him to say anything. It’s understandable that the war fills him with ambivalence. The President’s actions have led the country into a blind alley; there’s no new strategy for Kerry to propose, and the press should stop insisting that he come up with one when the candidate who started the war feels no such obligation. But the Senator has allowed the public to think that the President, against all the evidence of his record, will fight the war in Iraq and the larger war against radical Islam with more success. If Kerry loses the election, this will be the reason.
— George Packer