Bush Says Weâ€™ll Be in Iraq for 50 Years, But Reporters Don't Bother to Ask Iraqis to Comment
On May 25, George Bush signed a defense bill that outlawed the construction of (new) permanent bases in Iraq. But only five days later, White House press flack Tony Snow told reporters that the president is now modeling the future of his bloody signature project on the half-century U.S. experience in South Korea, with troops in Iraq for the long haul to provide, in Snow's words, "a security presence" and to serve as a "force of stability."
Asked how long that commitment would last, Snow said, "A long time." Tens of thousands of U.S. troops have been stationed in South Korea since 1953 -- for 54 years.
In the days that followed Snow's revelation, senior Pentagon officials weighed in with their support for applying the Korea Model to Iraq: keeping a few divisions of U.S. troops in-country for the next five decades or so sounded just about right to them.
It was such a naked acknowledgement of America's long-term designs on carving out a strategic foothold in the region that even the milquetoast American press had to acknowledge it, and most of the major news outlets ran stories in the last week that at least touched on the Iraq hawks' shiny new analogy.
But we noticed something fascinating when reading those articles: In story after story, U.S. reporters were quick to seek comment from White House officials and to "balance" those comments with quotes from congressional Democrats and from analysts at various D.C. think tanks who are critical of the administration. They talked to foreign policy and military experts, historians and even Korea experts.
But here's the rub: None of the reporters we read bothered to pick up a phone and call Baghdad to get reactions from, well, actual Iraqis.
So we did -- we called Iraqi lawmakers from different parties representing the country's different ethnic and sectarian groups, and found that, without exception, just hearing that there were official whispers in Washington about plans for a decades-long U.S. troop presence in their country shocked and awed them, and not in a good way.
But it didn't only inflame the Iraqi nationalists with whom we spoke -- politicians who have long opposed the occupation -- it also absolutely incensed those officials who have been among the coalition's most vocal supporters. Even those who approve of George Bush's Middle East adventurism were infuriated by the idea and insulted that the administration would make the statement publicly.
But that was one viewpoint that didn't find its way into any of the stories we read. Which leads to a question: What would the reporting out of Iraq look like if all reporters embraced the simple idea that Iraqis' views on the future of their country are worth a few column inches or a couple of seconds on American television screens?
The New York Times' David Sanger, for example, wrote an analysis in which he quoted Tony Snow, Defense Secretary Robert Gates -- Gates said, "The idea is more a model of a mutually agreed arrangement whereby we have a long and enduring presence but under the consent of both parties" -- and a few anonymous "administration officials and top military leaders," all of whom favored the idea.
Among the "critics on the left" who Sanger quoted was Leslie Gelb, the former president of the Council of Foreign Relations. Gelb, who has on his resume a stint with the State Department and another with the Pentagon during Vietnam (Gelb was director of the project that produced the infamous Pentagon Papers), wasn't fazed by the plan's unmistakable whiff of empire; he simply had issues with the analogy. "It's just that Korea bears no resemblance to Iraq," he said, "There's no strategy that can create victory."
Sanger also quoted Donald L. Kerrick, whom he described as a "retired general who Ã¢â‚¬Â¦ has now emerged as one of a cadre of generals criticizing Mr. Bush's strategy." But Kerrick must not have been in a terribly critical mood that day, as Sanger quoted him as saying only that "If we can make this like Korea, then we have been successful."
Sanger might have called Dr. Alaa Makki, a senior official in the reliably pro-occupation Iraqi Islamic Party, for his reaction. We reached him in Baghdad, and he was taken aback to hear of the talk coming out of the White House and the Pentagon. "I haven't heard about this," he said, "and I'm very surprised they'd make such statements without consulting with the Iraqi side." After asking us to send him copies of the statements made by the White House and the Pentagon, he told us that his party is "against leaving any permanent bases in Iraq; in fact, we are for setting a timetable for a complete withdrawal of the MNF from Iraq." That was, again, a representative of the pro-occupation Iraqi Islamic Party.
Washington Post staffer Ann Scott Tyson also chose to quote Snow and Gates for her piece, along with Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, who oversees daily military operations in Iraq. Odierno thinks staying in Iraq for a few dozen years is a grand idea. "That would be nothing but helping the Iraqi security forces and the government to continue to stabilize itself," he assured reporters at a Pentagon news conference. Most of the article focused on more details of the DoD's long-term designs as laid out by Odierno, but Tyson did get a dissenting view from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a man who knows a lot about Beltway politics but presumably very little about the daily humiliation of living under foreign occupation.
Tyson might have put in a call to Dr. Mowaffak al Rubaie, Iraq's National Security Advisor and a close advisor to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Rubaie is neither a nationalist nor an opponent of the U.S. occupation -- in fact he traveled to D.C. last month to lobby members of Congress against pulling out U.S. troops (he reportedly had a nice sit-down with neocon Joe Lieberman). At the time, he told the Times' Michael Gordon that he felt Iraq was "on the last mile of a walk toward success, and if they [Congress] let go and don't take our hand, I feel that we are going to lose everything.''
But al Rubaie, too, was shocked when we asked him his reaction towards the Korea model. "I'm very surprised by these statements regarding leaving U.S. bases until the Judgment Day," he said. "This is a forced marriage -- shouldn't they ask the bride first?" Rubaie said that he would get in touch with his contacts in the United States to inform them that the plans were simply "not acceptable."
We found the same theme in story after story. Paul Richter's Los Angeles Times piece quoted the administration's flacks and Michael O'Hanlon from the Brookings Institution. The AP's Terence Hunt apparently couldn't find even one person who was critical of the Korea model for a quote, either in the United States or in Iraq, for his story, and while the Seattle Times staff got a quote from an unnamed aide to nationalist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, it was on a different topic entirely.
There were no comments about the Korea model by Iraqis in any of the stories we read. None of the reporters talked to Nassar al-Rubaie, the head of the Al-Sadr bloc in Iraq's parliament, who told us: "There is no Iraqi who will agree to keep permanent U.S. bases. Even the ones who are against the timetable for withdrawal oppose a long-term U.S. presence." He added: "These White House and Pentagon statements are completely unacceptable."
And none of them spoke with Saleh al Mutlaq, the powerful leader of the Iraqi National Dialogue Front, who said of talk of a Korea model: "This will make the few Iraqis who still believe in a political solution lose hope." He warned that "planning to leave permanent bases will only increase our political and military problems."
We tried to reach all of the reporters cited in this story. Sanger and Hunt were out of town -- presumably traveling with Bush in Europe -- and Richter didn't return our calls by press time.
When we reached the Washington Post's Ann Scott Tyson and asked her why there were no Iraqi voices in her story, she was somewhat taken aback by the question. She hadn't considered getting the views of any Iraqis, "because the story was focused on a shift in the administration's thinking here in Washington. It wasn't really focused on Iraqis, or their reaction." She later added: "There's a limited number of viewpoints you can include." Tyson explained that it wasn't always possible to reach people in Iraq for a quote before deadline. It's a valid point, except that several of the articles we reviewed were analyses written several days after talk of the Korea model started kicking around D.C. When we asked if that were true in this case, she said it wasn't -- it was primarily because the story wasn't "taking place in Iraq."
If Tyson and the other reporters had made some long-distance calls, they might have added a crucial bit of context to their stories: that regardless of what the White House may or may not have planned for the future of Iraq, the fact that they would even mention a 50-year strategy in public was profoundly bone-headed -- far more so than Bush's infamous challenge to Iraqi insurgents to "bring 'em on!"
They would quickly have realized that talking about the Korea model is a godsend for the recruiters of Iraq's armed resistance groups and a profound betrayal of even the White House's closest allies in Baghdad -- many of whom returned from exile during the Saddam era and are now struggling to convince the population that they're not merely puppets of the Anglo-American occupation.
But they didn't make those calls, and that's an important part of how consent for throwing thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars into an occupation of a distant land is manufactured here at home: It starts with the assumption that the story of the U.S. "intervention" in Iraq can be told by talking to military analysts and "senior administration officials" in D.C., but without ever hearing from the people living on the fringes of the American Empire. It not always intentional; it's a facet of our media culture: You talk to "serious" analysts in Washington if you want to be seen as serious yourself.
The result is that while more than six in ten Americans favor setting a timeline for getting troops out of Iraq (PDF), another one in three labors under the illusion that American soldiers are welcome in Iraq -- that there are insurgents on one hand and Iraqis who support the coalition on the other. Where would the political fight over this four-year occupation be if it were widely understood that the vast majority of Iraqis -- of all ethnicities and religious faiths and across the ideological spectrum -- are united in at least one thing: their desire not to live under open-ended U.S. occupation.