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September 10, 2007

Launching Brand Petraeus


by Tom Engelhardt


TomDispatch

[Note for Readers: This is the third in TomDispatch's "by the numbers" series, leading up to this week's White House "Progress Report" from the U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, and the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker. The first, in July, was "Iraq by the Numbers"; the second, in August, was "Escalation by the Numbers." You can check them for topics missing this time around. Tom]

"Progress" by the Numbers

It was about this time of year in 2002, in the halcyon days of the Bush administration, that White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card offered a little political marketing advice to the world. In explaining why the Bush administration had not launched its "case" against Iraq (and for a future invasion) the previous month, he told a New York Times reporter, "From a marketing point of view, you don't introduce new products in August."

It's a piece of simple business wisdom, and when it comes to manipulating the public, the Bush administration is still sticking to it five years later. The corollary, which Card didn't mention, is: Do your market research and testing in the dog-bites-man news months of July and August. And that's just what the Bush administration did in the run-up to what will certainly be its victorious battle with congressional opponents to extend its surge plan into next spring and its occupation of Iraq into the distant future. (As present White House Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten said in a meeting with the USA Today editorial board last week, he doesn't think "any 'realistic observer' can believe that 'all or even most of the American troop presence' will be out of Iraq by the end of Bush's presidency.")

The core marketing decision was, of course, finding the right spokesman for the product. As Robert Draper, author of the new book Dead Certain, reported recently, the president was "fully aware of his standing in opinion polls" and so, earlier this year, decided that "his top commander in Iraq, Gen. David H. Petraeus, would perhaps do a better job selling progress to the American people than he could." As Bush put it, ""I've been here too long. Every time I start painting a rosy picture, it gets criticized and then it doesn't make it on the news." Indeed.

So launching "Brand Petraeus" and providing him with some upbeat Iraqi news (Sunnis in al-Anbar Province ally with U.S.) and numbers (violence down in August) were the two necessities of the summer. In July, the celebrity surge general, who had already shown a decided knack on earlier tours of Iraq for wowing the media, was loosed. Petraeus, in turn, loosed all his top commanders to enter vociferously into what previously would have been a civilian debate over U.S. policy and the issue of "withdrawal." This campaign, by the way, represents a significant chiseling away at traditional prohibitions on U.S. military figures entering the American political arena while in uniform.

Like any top-notch PR outfit, the administration also put various toes in the water in August and wiggled them vigorously – including offering rousing presidential speeches and radio addresses, especially a "Vietnam speech" to the Veterans of Foreign Wars. At the same time, an allied $15 million, five-week ad campaign was launched by a new conservative activist group, Freedom's Watch, led by former White House press spokesman Ari Fleischer. The ads, "featuring military veterans," were aimed directly at congressional opposition to the president's surge strategy. In the meantime, key pundits and experts like Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution (who helps produce that organization's anodyne, New York Times-published tabulation of numbers from Iraq) and former invasion enthusiast Kenneth Pollack (both of whom re-billed themselves as "critics"), not to speak of New York Times columnist Tom Friedman and others, arrived in Iraq. There, they were given well-organized, well-scripted, Green Zone-style Pentagon-led tours and sent back home to write Petraeus-style news releases about modest, but upbeat, "progress."

Next, of course, came the full-scale September launching of the campaign. This involved a "dramatic" presidential secret exit from the White House and secret Air Force One flight to al-Asad Airbase in Iraq's isolated western desert, one of our giant "enduring" bases (whose imposing nature U.S. reporters tend to be oblivious to, even when reporting from them). With Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and hand-picked reporters along, Bush performed what was, as PressThink's Jay Rosen has written, not just a photo-op, but "a propaganda mission that required the press to complete the mission for him." And so they did, as he met Brand Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker, along with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and various Sunni tribal sheiks from al-Anbar province – with smiles and handshakes all around.

Even CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric flew into Iraq to deal with her dreadful ratings by – guess what? – interviewing Brand Petraeus et al. and reporting on the reports of "progress." Finally, the military completed its early September groundwork by releasing a spate of new numbers from Iraq – doubted by pundits and experts of many stripes. Military officials claimed (could anyone be surprised?) that, by their count, a miraculous August turnaround had occurred; and here's another shock, credulous reporters like Michael Gordon of the New York Times swallowed, and front-paged, this one, too (though the Times also had a far more sober report the following day).

Under the circumstances, you couldn't do it much better. And this week, we have the full-scale media spectacle of testimony to Congress by General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker, along with the delivery of the so-called "Progress" or Petraeus Report which, thanks to the Los Angeles Times, we now know – though the mainstream media has made nothing of it – was actually written not in Baghdad by the general and ambassador, but in the White House. (There's yet another shock for us all!)

Why anyone in the media or Congress takes this situation seriously as "news," or even something to argue about, is hard to tell. Think of it this way: The most political general in recent memory has been asked to assess his own work (as has our ambassador in Iraq), and then present "recommendations" to the White House in a "report" that is actually being written in the White House. You couldn't call it a political version of "the honor system"; but perhaps the dishonor system would do.

Numbers in Iraq are a slippery matter at best, though again, why anyone pays serious attention to U.S. military numbers from that country is a mystery. On countless occasions in the past, these have been ridiculous undercounts of disaster.

In the midst of such chaos, mayhem, and pure tragedy, of course, who exactly is counting? Nonetheless, wherever you look, numbers, however approximate, are indeed pouring out – and, when you consider them, there is no way on Earth to imagine that the situation is anything but grim and deteriorating: first for the Iraqi people; second for the overstretched U.S. military; and finally, for the rest of the region and us.

So here, on the eve of the orbiting of Brand Petraeus, is my best attempt at "progress" by the numbers:

Number of U.S. troops in Iraq before the president's "surge plan" or "new way forward" was launched in February 2007: 130,000

Number of U.S. troops in Iraq by September 2008, if General Petraeus' reported "drawdown" plan is followed: Approximately 130,000, according to a "senior official" quoted by the Washington Post.

Number of American troops in Iraq when President Bush declared "major combat operations" to have "ended" on May 1, 2003: Approximately 130,000.

Number of American troops Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and other Pentagon civilian strategists predicted would be stationed in Iraq in August 2003, four months after Baghdad fell: 30,000-40,000, according to Washington Post reporter Tom Ricks in his best-selling book Fiasco.

Number of U.S. troops in Iraq in July 2007: 162,000; in September 2007, 168,000; later in the fall of 2007, an expected 172,000 – each an all-time high in its moment.

Number of British troops in southern Iraq, May 1, 2003: 45,000 in four provinces.

Number of British troops in southern Iraq, August 2007: 5,000, all gathered in a heavily fortified, regularly mortared base at Basra airport; number of British troops expected to be in Iraq by spring 2008, 3,000.

Number of nations that have withdrawn their troops from the Bush administration's "coalition of the willing" in Iraq: At least 17, according to GlobalSecurity.org. Poland is expected to withdraw its drawn-down forces by year's end and other countries have been drawing down their minimal forces as well. Among the remaining powers in the "coalition": Albania, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, El Salvador, Estonia, Mongolia, and Ukraine.

Number of months before the Iraqi army can "independently fulfill [its] security role": At least 24, according to a report recently issued by a congressionally-appointed commission of retired senior U.S. military officers. (Donald Rumsfeld, October 2003: "In less than six months we have gone from zero Iraqis providing security to their country to close to a hundred thousand Iraqis. … Indeed, the progress has been so swift that … it will not be long before [Iraqi security forces] will be the largest and outnumber the U.S. forces, and it shouldn't be too long thereafter that they will outnumber all coalition forces combined." George Bush, November 2005: "Our coalition has handed over roughly 90 square miles of Baghdad province to Iraqi security forces. Iraqi battalions have taken over responsibility for areas in south-central Iraq, sectors of southeast Iraq, sectors of western Iraq, and sectors of north-central Iraq. … The Iraqis, General Dempsey says, are 'increasingly in control of their future and their own security – the Iraqi security forces are regaining control of the country.'" Commander of Multinational Forces IraqGen. George Casey, October 2006: "And the third step is you make [the Iraqi army] independent, and that's what you'll see going on here over the better part of the next 12 months.")

Amount President Bush is to request from Congress in September to pay for his "surge" plan: Up to $50 billion – in addition to a pending $147 billion "supplemental" bill to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan this fiscal year. ("The decision to seek about $50 billion more appears to reflect the view in the administration that the counteroffensive will last into the spring of 2008 and will not be shortened by Congress.")

Cost of the war in Iraq per week, if this $197 billion joint request is granted by Congress: More than $3 billion.

Cost to Pentagon of shipping two 19-cent metal washers to a key military installation abroad, probably in Iraq or Afghanistan: $998,798.00 in "transportation costs," according to the Washington Post. This was part of a defense contractor's plan to bilk the Pentagon, based on its weak system of financial oversight.

Amount paid by the U.S. military to two British private security firms, Aegis Defence Services and Erinys Iraq, to protect U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reconstruction teams in Iraq: $548 million, more than $200 million over budget, according to the Washington Post based on "previously undisclosed data." The contracts to the two companies have a combined "burn rate" of $18 million a month and support a private army of approximately 2,000 hired guns, the equivalent of three military battalions.

Cost of Aegis' armored vehicles and the guards manning them: Approximately $150,000 per vehicle and $15,000 a month per guard.

Percentage of team members in the $2 billion U.S. civilian-military Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) program with "the cultural knowledge and Arabic-language skills needed to work with Iraqis": 5 percent or just 29 out of 610 PRT members, according to Ginger Cruz, the deputy special inspector for Iraq reconstruction

Number of U.S. criminal investigations underway for contract fraud in Iraq, Kuwait, and Afghanistan: 73, according to an Army spokesman.

Percentage of U.S. military deaths by roadside bomb (IED), 2004: Approximately 33 percent.

Percentage of U.S. military deaths by roadside bomb (IED), 2007: Approximately 80 percent.

Amount Pentagon invested in counter-IED jamming technology in the last year: $1.6 billion; $6 billion since the war began.

Amount needed to make a typical IED (which can be built from instructions on the Internet): "About the cost of a pizza," according to Newsweek magazine.

Cost for hiring Iraqis to plant a successful IED in 2005: $100.

Cost for hiring Iraqis to plant a successful IED in central Iraq in 2007: As low as $40.

Percentage of the West Point class of 2001 who chose to leave the U.S. Army last year: Nearly 46 percent, according to statistics compiled by West Point. More than 54 percent of the class of 2000 had chosen not to re-up by January 2007. Over the previous three decades, the percentages for those departing the service at the five-year mark after graduation ranged from 10-30 percent. The major reason given now: wear and tear from multiple deployments to Iraq.

Number of U.S. Army suicides, 2006: 99 (more than one quarter while serving in Iraq or Afghanistan), according to the Army, or 17.3 per thousand, the highest rate in 26 years (during which the average rate was 12.3 per thousand). 118 U.S. military personnel have committed suicide in Iraq itself since 2003, according to Greg Mitchell, editor of the Editor & Publisher Web site; and Army suicide numbers do not, Mitchell notes, include "many unconfirmed reports [of suicides], or those who served in the war and then killed themselves at home."

Percentage of 1,320 soldiers interviewed in Iraq who ranked their unit's morale as "low or very low": 45 percent, according to the Los Angeles Times. Seven percent ranked it "high or very high."

Percentage increase in U.S. Army desertions in 2006: 27 percent or 3,196 active duty soldiers, according to figures corrected by the Army, which had inaccurately been reporting much lower numbers. The percentage rise for 2005 had been 8 percent. From 2002 through 2006, the average annual rate of Army prosecutions of deserters tripled (compared with the five-year period from 1997 to 2001) to roughly 6 percent of deserters, Army data shows.

Number of states authorized by the Army National Guard to accept "the lowest-ranking group of eligible recruits, those who scored between 16 and 30 on the armed services aptitude test": 34 (plus Guam), according to the New York Times. ("Federal law bars recruits who scored lower than 16 from enlisting.")

Percentage of Army recruits since late July who have accepted a $20,000 "quick ship" bonus to leave for basic combat training by the end of September: 90 percent, part of an Army campaign to meet year-end recruiting goals after a two-month slump. A soldier coming out of basic training is paid on average $17,400 a year.

Percentage of U.S. military equipment destroyed or worn out in Iraq (and Afghanistan): 40 percent or $212 billion worth.

Percentage of Iraqi national police force which is Shiite: 85 percent.

Number of Iraqis in American prisons in Iraq: 24,500 (and rising), up 50 percent since the president's surge plan began in February, according to Thom Shanker of the New York Times; nearly 85 percent of these prisoners are Sunnis. (U.S. holding facilities at Camp Bucca in southern Iraq and Camp Cropper near Baghdad are still being expanded.)

Number of foreign suspected jihadists held in those prisons: 280.

Number of juveniles, aged 11-17, held in those prisons: Approximately 800 (also 85 percent Sunni).

Number of U.S. reconstruction projects officially considered "completed" in al-Anbar Province by July 2007: 3,300 projects "with a total value of $363 million," according to the U.S. embassy in Baghdad; 250 more projects at a price tag of $353 million are supposedly under way.

Percentage of U.S. reconstruction money estimated to go to Sunni insurgents and al-Qaeda-in-Iraq militants for "protection" for any convoy of building materials entering al-Anbar Province: 50 percent or more, according to reporter Hannah Allam of the McClatchy Newspapers. ("Every contractor in Anbar who works for the U.S. military and survives for more than a month is paying the insurgency," according to a "senior Iraqi politician.")

Estimated number of full-time al-Qaeda-in-Iraq fighters: 850 or 2-5 percent of the Sunni insurgency, according to Malcolm Nance, author of The Terrorists of Iraq, who "has worked with military and intelligence units tracking al-Qaeda inside Iraq."

Number of times President Bush mentioned al-Qaeda in a speech on the Iraqi situation on July 24, 2007: 95.

Percentage of unemployed in the now-"secure" city of Fallujah, three-quarters of whose buildings were destroyed or damaged by U.S. firepower in November 2005 in al-Anbar Province: More than 80 percent, according to local residents.

Percentage of U.S. military supplies carried on the vulnerable "Route Tampa," the 300 miles of highway from Kuwait to Baghdad: 90 percent of the food, water, ammunition, and equipment, according to John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org.

Percentage increase of alcoholics in care in Iraq: Up 34 percent in May-June 2007, compared to previous year, according to the Iraqi Psychologists Association, based on a study of 2,600 of patients and inhabitants of Baghdad's suburbs.

Amount spent by the average household in Baghdad for a few hours of electricity a day: $171 a month in a country where $400 is a reasonable monthly wage.

Number of Iraqi civilian deaths in August: 1,809, according to an Associated Press count, the highest figure of the surge year so far. Surge commander Gen. Petraeus is evidently going to claim a 75 percent drop in sectarian killings as well as a drop in civilian deaths (especially in Baghdad) in his upcoming report. To the extent that those questionable figures are accurate, they may, in part, result from the fact that, in the surge months, the ethnic cleansing of the capital actually increased significantly. Experts also believe the U.S. military's figures for "surge success" rely on carefully defined and cherry-picked numbers. The AP, in fact, claims that sectarian deaths have nearly doubled since a year ago. All such figures are, in any case, considered significant undercounts in a country where it is no longer possible to report anywhere near the total number of deaths from violence.

Average number of deaths per day from political violence in 2007: 62, according to the AP count.

Average number of deaths per day from political violence in 2006: 37, according to the AP count.

Number of daily attacks on civilians, February to July 2007: Unchanged, according to the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office.

Number of Iraqis fleeing their homes on average during each surge month, February to July 2007: 100,000, according to the Iraqi Red Crescent Society. The United Nation's International Organization for Migration offers the lower, but still staggering figure of 50,000 Iraqis fleeing their homes each month.

Number of internally displaced Iraqis during the surge months: Over 600,000, more than doubling the number of internal refugees to 1.14 million, according to the Red Crescent Society. (The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has offered the higher estimate of 2.2 million internal refugees.)

Percentage of Iraqis who fled their neighborhoods in the surge months due to direct threats on their lives: 63 percent, according to the UN. ("More than 25 percent said they fled after being thrown out of their homes at gunpoint.") Iraqis leaving their homes in Baghdad in the same time period "grew by a factor of 20."

Number of Iraqi "bus people" now in exile in neighboring lands: 2.5 million, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. This is the fastest growing – and already the third-largest – refugee population in the world.

Number of Iraqi refugees admitted to the U.S. in August: nearly 530, more than all those admitted in the previous 11 months. Number of Iraqi refugees estimated to be in Syria alone: 1.5 million.

Total number of Iraqis killed, sent into exile, or turned into internal refugees: More than 4 million by a conservative estimate, or somewhere between one out of every five and one out of every six Iraqis. (There is no way even to estimate the numbers of Iraqis who have been wounded in these years.)

Total number of Americans who would have been killed or turned into refugees, if these numbers were extrapolated to the far more populous United States: 50 million, according to Gary Kamiya of Salon.com, a figure "roughly equal to the population of the northeastern United States, including New York, New Jersey, Maryland, and all of New England."

Percentage of people across the globe who "think U.S. forces should leave Iraq within a year": 67 percent, according to a just-released BBC World Service poll of 23,000 people in 22 countries. Only 23 percent think foreign troops should remain "until security improves."

Percentage of people across the globe who think the United States plans to keep permanent military bases in Iraq: 49 percent.

Percentage of Americans who think U.S. forces should get out of Iraq within a year: 61 percent, according to the same BBC poll, including 24 percent who favor immediate withdrawal and 37 percent percent who prefer a one-year timetable; 32 percent of Americans say U.S. forces should stay "until security improves." In a recent Harris poll, 42 percent of Americans favored U.S. troops leaving Iraq "now"; 30 percent in a recent CBS poll (with another 31 percent favoring a "decrease").

Percentage of citizens of U.S.-led "coalition" members in Iraq, who want forces out within a year: 65 percent of Britons, 63 percent of South Koreans, and 63 percent of Australians, according to the BBC poll. Even a majority of Israelis want either an immediate American withdrawal (24 percent), or withdrawal within a year (28 percent); only 40 percent opt for "remain until security improves."

Percentage of Americans who believe, "in the long run," that "the U.S. mission in Iraq [will] be seen as a failure": 57 percent, according to a poll by Rasmussen Reports. Only 29 percent disagree.

Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com, is the co-founder of the American Empire Project. His book The End of Victory Culture (University of Massachusetts Press) has just been thoroughly updated in a newly issued edition that deals with victory culture's crash-and-burn sequel in Iraq.

[Note: Let me thank, yet again, the many Web sites which collect crucial Iraq material and so make a piece like this possible, especially Antiwar.com, Juan Cole's Informed Comment, and Paul Woodward's the War in Context.]

Copyright 2007 Tom Engelhardt


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An editor in publishing for the last 25 years, Tom Engelhardt is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism in the Cold War era, now out in a revised edition with a new preface and afterword, and Mission Unaccomplished, TomDispatch Interviews with American Iconoclasts and Dissenters. He is at present consulting editor for Metropolitan Books, a fellow of the Nation Institute, and a teaching fellow at the journalism school of the University of California, Berkeley. Visit his Web site.

 


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