Thursday, October 20, 2005

In The Middle: Iraq as a "Media War"

From: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right
To: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left
Subject: Iraq as a "Media War"

Let's talk about Iraq.

Saddam Hussein's first trial began yesterday, while the votes are still being counted from last weekend's surprisingly peaceful constitutional referendum. On the other hand, while there was much less violence (and much more Sunni participation) than expected this weekend, there are still nearly 2000 American soldiers dead in this fight. People are asking themselves if this is worth it, and perhaps primarily because of that, President Bush's approval rating is at a record low.

I have a theory that no major war can ever be fought again in the age of near-omnipresent news coverage. That the American people in an age of edgy prime-time TV just aren't willing to accept even a single human life spent on any war that isn't taking place on American soil. And that the natural way of things (not any sort of conspiracy or bias, just business) will always result in the news reports being dominated by the bad news, while the good news is rarely reported. I don't intend to complain about this, because I think it is just the way things are. I'm the same way about many things: I expect instant results and get concerned about things I hear without checking them out in detail for myself.

However, I think things are actually going remarkably well in Iraq, considered from a historically-aware perspective. Unfortunately, that perspective suggests to me that we may have several years go by and several hundred (or even thousand) more U.S. soldiers killed before we see the sort of stability we would all like to see in the Middle East. What worries me, then, is that the American people will lose their collective nerve and pull out of Iraq precipitously, leaving behind nothing but ill-will, and sowing the seeds of our destruction in the future.

How much effect do you think that non-stop media coverage is having on the general American perception of Iraq?

From: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left
To: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right

I'm reminded of a line from the brilliant Three Kings, a film that took place during the first Gulf War:

"This is a media war, and you better get on board!"

But that cuts both ways, doesn't it? While we don't see a lot of good news from Iraq, things like building schools and bridges and that sort of thing, we also don't see the body bags and severed limbs that were standard evening fare during the Vietnam era. While there's lots of media coverage, the American public doesn't get to actually see a lot. The result is a 24/7 cable news and Internet vacuum that inevitably gets filled with speculation, analysis, and the occasional smattering of truth-wielding.

That said, I see increased media coverage of all stripes as a good thing. The threshold for going to war should be very high, and I think much of the downbeat feeling in this country toward the war and the Bush administration can in many ways be traced back to the reasons we went over there in the first place. Whether it was WMDs or spreading democracy or fighting 'em (whoever the nebulous "'em" might be) over there so we won't have to fight 'em here, we're now several years in with thousands of American lives lost and seriously wounded.

So to answer your question, I think the "non-stop media coverage" has only sped up a process that grew organically out of the reasons we were given for going to war and, particularly, the messy and many unexpected consequences we've encountered since.

While I don't think pulling out our troops at this time would be useful, and it would likely precipitate a massive and destructive civil war, it is possible that dreadful scenario will occur nonetheless.

That's why I think it really is time for a serious and thoughtful debate on the wisdom of developing a timetable for withdrawal.

I disagree with your assessment that things are going "remarkably well" in Iraq, but I'll let you respond first before getting into that!

From: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right
To: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left

I love Three Kings; fantastic movie!

I agree completely that our President's poor communication skills are largely responsible for the current generally negative attitude toward the war effort in Iraq. Just after 9/11, he made a case to the American people that instead of just going after the perpetrators of that heinous attack, we would instead go after all sources of terrorist activity around the world. On the basis of that argument, Saddam Hussein was an easy target, but that isn't the basis most people remember. Most people remember Powell's speech to the United Nations Security Council, easily one of this administration’s biggest mistakes.

That said, I'm not sure that I can agree that the rest is inevitable. In the current mix I see more political posturing — on both sides of the issue — than actual thoughtful analysis. People make quick and easy (and often inaccurate) comparisons to America's war in Vietnam, but avoid any comparisons to America's involvement in World War II. Why? I think it is because thoughtful analysis doesn't play well on TV, or even on NPR. Blogs and newspapers should have an advantage here, but TV seems to drive the pace of everything these days, and so the thoughtful analysis takes a back seat.

We lost in Vietnam for many reasons, but one of them is surely the very images you mentioned. More than 58,000 Americans died in the Vietnam war, an average of 526 per month, and the war went on for more than seven years. So far in Iraq we've lost fewer soldiers than in any other major war, less than a third of the soldiers we lost every single month during World War II, but it seems to matter more now. Because of the way we got into the war? I think it might have more to do with the coverage than that.

Of course, if one of the soldiers killed in action is a friend or family member, it hardly matters at all that he or she is part of a very small group of people. Each death weighs heavily in the scales of war, and people want to see things done. Completely. Now. I understand that.

And yet consider: the Civil War lasted four years, as the Union pursued what must have seemed to many to be a pointless goal. More than 3800 people died per month for four years! But we fought, and "we" won. Our part in World War I lasted nearly two years and resulted in more than 100,000 dead American soldiers. World War II is perhaps the most drastic example, as that nearly four year war took more than 400,000 young American men. Today few would argue that the cause wasn’t worthwhile, but the protests were strong at the time. Even after the "end" of the war, insurgents fought on for years, and we still have American troops in Germany today, more than 50 years later!

Is this war more like Vietnam, or more like World War II? It's easy to pick and choose points of comparison, but no war is exactly like any other. This war has so far demanded the lives of many fewer soldiers than either of those wars, and the gains have so far come more quickly than in either of those wars, too.

If CNN had been broadcasting from London or Berlin in 1943, I don't think we would have continued as we did. While in Iraq today we control more geography than ever before and continually make progress against insurgents (as they also become increasingly effective against us), things seemed to actually get worse daily during World War II. Yet in the end we won, while I fear that the collective will of the American people is not strong enough to stay the course in Iraq. That is, according to various reports, exactly what some leadership on "the other side" is counting on.

Times change, and so Iraq isn't allowed to take as long as we did to write up a Constitution, and we aren't allowed as long to bring peace to Iraq as we took to bring peace to Europe in World War II. I understand the need for progress, but I wonder if people are expecting a resolution in under two hours, just like in the movies, not realizing that while life is nasty, brutish, and short, war can be dreadfully, painfully, long.

From: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left
To: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right

If CNN had been broadcasting from London in 1939, I believe it would actually have stirred the American public to want to go to war faster. We would have seen, I believe, England as the last bastion of democracy in Europe holding on against the terrible and imminent peril of Nazi Germany.

This gets into the question of what is a "good war" with World War II on the good end of the spectrum and Vietnam on the bad.

I think it's fair to make the comparison that the United States finds itself in a situation in which a large number of its soldiers are deployed in a foreign nation without a clearly defined path to victory, let alone resolution. This state of affairs rejects the Powell Doctrine, which really makes the former Secretary of State's story a tragic one in light of the United Nations speech you mention and his part in leading the nation to war.

You've referred several times, Phillip, to the "gains" we've made in Iraq. I'm curious to hear what those are, exactly. Then, I'd like to know what you would consider a successful resolution to the Iraq War.
Would the creation of a (democratically elected) theocratic Republic with close ties to Iran be considered a success? Would losing X number of American troops and no more be considered a success?

While I feel the world and Iraq are better off without Saddam Hussein, it's clear now that there were no WMDs and that Iraq had no real ties to Al Qaeda. So the much-ballyhooed "central front in the war on terror" is very possibly a self-fulfilling prophecy, isn't it?

Is our presence making things worse instead of better? We won't and can't stay there forever. So the real question now is when and how we will get out.

It's the job of a good journalist to ask the right questions. I think this administration can do a better job with providing some answers.

From: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right
To: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left

I think that a sizable percentage of the American public sees the current "war on terror" in terms very similar to how you describe World War II: with the rise of Islam, most worrisomely the militant subset of Islam, threatening to dominate all of Europe, and England standing as one of our few allies in recognizing the threat. Instead of tanks and bombs, the attack is on liberality and freedom. Instead of always from without, the attack is sometimes from within. And England has seen homegrown terrorists strike on British soil, which is a bit of a different from the 1940s as well.

In World War II, I think most people now believe that no amount of American soldiers lost would have meant retreat or surrender, because the evil was so great and the stakes were so high. Is it fair, I wonder, to view our current conflict in the same way? Leaving aside Iraq as the theater for now and considering the wider war on terror in general, is this a war we can lose? I'd like to hope for the two-hour happy ending as much as anyone, but I fear that we might be seeing a repeat of the militant Muslim encroachment of a thousand years ago that was ended only by the Crusades, and that nothing less than a military defeat will allow moderate and liberal Muslims (whom I believe make up the mostly-silent majority) to regain their religion and live in peace with non-Muslims.

Of course, it's possible that things aren't so dire, and that we could safely lose this war. It's also possible that we could have safely lost World War II, separated as we were from Europe by an ocean. I personally don't think either is a safe bet.

With that as background, I'm saying that the way forward is to win the war. Not because of political considerations, but because I don't want to think about the world my kids will live in if we lose. I believe we need to see a "tipping point" in the world's perception of terrorism. I don't think we truly have any other option, not long-term. And yes, for me that means winning at nearly any cost, though our costs have been relatively low so far.

War is nasty and terrible, and I loathe it. Having committed ourselves to it, however, I think we need to fight it and win it so that we don't have to fight another one in coming decades. World War II followed World War I, after all.

You get the last word this week, so I'll try to answer your specific questions briefly.

In my mind (and hopefully somewhere in the Pentagon) is a map of Iraq, with markers identifying attacks on coalition forces and known locations of insurgents. When I consider that map at the time of the initial incursion into Baghdad, and compare it to that same map now, I think we've made major progress. Every few months, coalition forces circle around another insurgent stronghold and close in, gaining control of a new city. As they do, they nab insurgents and weapons, and (often, but not always) build good will with the local Iraqis. If you split the map up with two colors, our color is spreading over the map, while the other color is shrinking with time. This is the kind of long-term strategic thinking that I believe military commanders are doing, but which our media sources aren't. And for that matter, I don't know why the Bush administration isn't communicating these sorts of things to the American people as well. I blame President Bush's poor communication again, and political miscalculation on his part.

Since I consider the war on terror a must-win war, I don't have any idea about the loss of X number of American troops. I know a couple of people fighting in Iraq, and if they lose their lives it will hurt people I know very deeply. I'm eager for the war to end and for all of our troops to come home. But I don't want them to come home defeated, but rather as victors.

Our victory in the war on terror, and therefore in Iraq, is the end of terrorism as a successful tactic. I look for a tipping point in world consensus on the "wisdom" of negotiating with terrorists. I look for people around the world to call for a cease-fire, as Hamas has recently done with Israel. The peaceful trial of Saddam Hussein is also good, as are two successful elections in Iraq.

As I mentioned at the beginning, Saddam Hussein was an easy target in the war on terror, as he was a known sponsor of terrorism. Not with Al Qaeda, it turns out embarrassingly, but in Palestine. After Saddam was removed from power, not only were the people of Iraq better off, so were the people of both Palestine and Israel, as the dried-up funding and support led quickly (among other factors) to a sharp reduction in suicide bombing in Gaza.

I think that the question about the effect of our presence is not phrased well. This isn't a hypothetical situation in which we can debate the merits of invading or not invading Iraq. That's done, and while you and I may disagree over whether that was the right thing to do, the question now is "What would happen if we pulled out of Iraq before defeating terrorism there?" Remember that we have had troops in Germany for more than 50 years! I can see that happening with Iraq as well, though I expect that 50 years from now people will want to be stationed there, as they do now in Germany, to enjoy the culture and the food and the music and so on.

I agree that the administration has done a lousy job communicating. That's my number one complaint about President Bush, and has been since even before 9/11. In my view, the administration should hire people like Victor Davis Hanson to help get their message across. I also agree that a good journalist should ask the right questions. I don't think most journalists are doing so right now.

From: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left
To: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right

So I see you're the one who decided to go Big Picture on us this week!

I see the struggle against terrorism as more like The Cold War than World War II. The main difference is that there will never be a true military defeat, and events will play out — many behind the scenes — over decades. That's why I've always supported the bolstering of our intelligence services and Special Forces.

The problem with attempting to achieve a complete military victory is that you run the risk of creating more enemies than you defeat. And that's a real danger with the way we've gone about business in Iraq. I think the government has realized over the last year the need to have friends all over the world.

Looking forward, we both agree that we have to win the war in Iraq. But I'm still confused about what that even means at this point. Even many of the staunchest "Neocons" now admit that the original goal of the war — a secure, stable, and democratic Iraq — may be well out of reach for the foreseeable future.

Phillip, while you may see a map in your mind with little circles and arrows denoting the progress of Allied forces (a la Europe, 1944-45, perhaps?), this isn't the reality on the ground. As this Bloomberg piece relates:

Roadside bombs are killing more American troops in Iraq, as the frequency and sophistication of insurgent attacks may be outstripping U.S. efforts to increase protection for soldiers.

This is an area where there are clear similarities to the conflict in Vietnam. We have the military capacity to defeat any enemy in a straight up battle. But the trick, trick, trickle of guerilla-style attacks will undeniably affect morale and force us to constantly reassess the sanity of our mission.

I must also point out, Phillip, that you seem to refer to the war in Iraq and the wider war on terror interchangeably. This implies that you bought into and continue to buy into the Bush administration's philosophy on this issue. In my mind, they're two different things. Saddam Hussein, heinous tyrant that he was, did not ally himself with Islamic terrorists. Pulling troops out of Iraq right now will likely trigger a civil war and destabilize the region. It would also allow Iraq to become a haven for terrorists and Al Qaeda. So I draw back to the self-fulfilling prophecy of our involvement in Iraq.

You've also pointed out several times that your main problem (or so it seems) with the current administration is that they've done a poor job communicating with the public. I actually disagree with you here! I think they sold the public on the war, sold the public on Bush as Protector to defeat Kerry in 2004, and only in late 2005 is the broad mainstream of the American populace starting to take a hard look at many of the assumptions that were made during the dark days after 9/11.

I do agree that over the long term, there might be an overall and profoundly positive impact caused by the invasion. However, I think there's a rocky road ahead, with the biggest obstacle being the threat of civil war between Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish factions over the next few years. That tension will be matched by a strong desire by both the American right and left to begin announcing troop reductions leading up to the 2006 and 2008 elections.

In the meantime, our soldiers are caught over there in the morass.

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Previous articles from the In The Middle crew address Bill Bennett and Harriet Miers.

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