Challenging the Times
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What will it take, exactly, for The New York Times to declare on its editorial page that the United States should begin to bring to a close its adventure in regime change and national building Iraq? Other newspapers face the same question, of course, but as the nation's leading journal, and with plenty of influence -- at least in elite and left-liberal circles -- any shift by the Times is sure to have wide repercussions.
It wasn't long ago that the Times was actually calling for more U.S. troops in Iraq. Lately it has made no sweeping calls, up or down. But considering recent events, you'd expect a ringing call to disengage at any moment, especially since there is some evidence that at the Times -- in contrast to, say, The Washington Post -- the editorialists actually ponder what's in their own news pages. And those pages have been filled with plenty of fodder for arguing in favor of a phased withdrawal.
Just yesterday came news of the murder of a Times reporter/photographer, Fakher Haider, in Iraq. Surely this is not reason enough for the U.S. to withdraw from Iraq -- but look at the circumstances. Haider was apparently killed not by insurgents or terrorists or even run-of-the-mill Sunnis or Baathists, but by Shiite militia and police ostensibly aligned with "our" side. Freelance American journalist Steven Vincent died under the same circumstances in August.
These two killings took place in Basra, long described as one of the major success stories in Iraq. In today's edition, the Times said the city "has grown increasingly violent, with a complex web of sectarian agendas playing itself out almost daily on the streets." Shiite militias, reporter Robert Worth noted, are even fighting British troops.
Just last week, the Times looked inside another "model" city, Najaf, and found similar or worse problems there, with reconstruction projects "hobbled by poor planning" and "corrupt contractors." Sure, these cities are relatively calmer than Baghdad, but is this reason enough to justify a never-ending U.S. presence? And what of all the new tales of rampant corruption or missing billions elsewhere in that land?
Then there's the cost of the Katrina catastrophe. The Times has lamented the true budgetary trainwreck that the hurricane will cause under the current Bush plans, or maybe under any scheme. If it was once true that we could not afford to fight a foreign war while also boosting homeland security, it is now certain that the hurricane recovery makes this impossible. Added to the possible costs: Some people actually want to spend a lot more money on reducing poverty.
The longterm post-Katrina threat to the American economy and our children's futures is enormous. So: Will the Times declare that it is not just desirable, but imperative, that we start to end our hideously costly occupation of Iraq?
If it did that, it could (and no doubt would) say that it does this with a heavy heart -- while pointing out that several years of sacrificing our treasury, and the lives and limbs of thousands of Americans, is quite enough to give the Iraqis a good head start on solving their own problems. And, more than ever, our own people need our help now.
The American public, if not the editorial boards of most newspapers, seem to understand this well enough. Polls in the past week clearly show that they want to shift spending from the New Iraq to the Old South.
Now, it's true that neither newspaper editors nor public officials should blindly follow public opinion on any matter. Yet it is startling to note the disconnect between public views of Iraq, as gathered by pollsters, and what opinion leaders and, even most Democratic politicians, are willing to declare.
Every major poll, for quite some time now, has revealed that the majority of American people feel that 1) invading Iraq was a mistake 2) based on misleading information or lies and that 3) things are going poorly for the U.S. in Iraq because 4) President Bush is handling the war badly so 5) we should immediately begin withdrawing. About 1 in 3 Americans take the "radical" position of a complete pullout ASAP.
The Times editorial board surely agrees with points one through four -- yet has not yet make the logical conclusion that is #5.
I haven't even mentioned other concerns, such as the loopholes in the Iraqi constitution, the new Iraqi leaders' possible alignment with Iran, and the coming threat to women's rights (all previously denounced by the Times). And if the Times needs just one more reason to shift course, surely it is provided in the fresh evidence, from the federal response to Katrina, that this gang occupying the White House does not deserve, and can not be trusted, to continue to carry out our open-ended commitment in Iraq. How many more years of "Rummy, you're doin' a great job," can we take?
For the sake of our physicial and financial security here at home, something has to give: and that something must be Iraq. Come on, New York Times board. We know you can say it. Probably, you even want to.
Greg Mitchell is editor of E&P and author of seven books on politics and history.