Curiosity may occasionally kill a cat. But lack
of curiosity is apt to terminate journalism with extreme prejudice.
"We will not set an artificial timetable for leaving Iraq, because that
would embolden the terrorists and make them believe they can wait us out,"
President Bush said in his State of the Union address. "We are in Iraq
to achieve a result: A country that is democratic, representative of all its
people, at peace with its neighbors and able to defend itself."
President Johnson said the same thing about the escalating war in Vietnam.
His rhetoric was typical on Jan. 12, 1966: "We fight for the principle
of self-determination – that the people of South Vietnam should be able
to choose their own course, choose it in free elections without violence, without
terror, and without fear."
Anyone who keeps an eye on mainstream news is up to speed on the latest presidential
spin. But the reporters who tell us what the president wants us to hear should
go beyond stenography to note historic echoes and point out basic contradictions.
A couple of days before the voting in Iraq, the lead story on the front page
of the New York Times – summing up the newspaper's exclusive interview
with President Bush – had reported his assertion "that he would withdraw
American forces from Iraq if the new government that is elected on Sunday asked
him to do so, but that he expected Iraq's first democratically elected leaders
would want the troops to remain."
Logically, the president's statement should have set off warning buzzers –
along the lines of "What's wrong with this picture?" For instance:
Public opinion polls in Iraq are consistently showing that most Iraqis want
U.S. troops to quickly withdraw from their country. Yet Bush asserted that the
Iraqi election would be democratic – even while he expressed confidence
that the resulting government would defy the desires of most Iraqi people on
the matter of whether American military forces should remain.
The easy way for journalists to reconcile this contradiction is to ignore
it – a routine approach in news reporting.
Military power has a way of creating some political constituencies for itself.
And that is certainly true of the Pentagon's massive footprint in Iraq, where
the Jan. 30 voting was part of a mystified process – with a U.S.-selected
election commission and ground rules that kept candidates' political stances,
and even their names, mostly secret from the voters. In the coming months, the
potential for a disconnect between voters and the policies of the new government's
leaders is enormous.
Since last summer, the leadership of the "interim" government in
Baghdad has been largely comprised of Iraqis opting to throw their lot in with
the occupiers. At this point, their hopes for power – and perhaps their
lives – depend on the continued large-scale presence of American troops.
Naturally, the current prime minister Ayad Allawi, installed by the U.S. government
last June, now claims the insurgency will be defeated if the American troops
stay long enough. Even President Ghazi al-Yawer, who has been critical of some
aspects of U.S. military operations in Iraq, is now touting the need for Uncle
Sam's iron fist. As February began, al-Yawer declared at a news conference:
"It's only complete nonsense to ask the troops to leave in this chaos and
this vacuum of power."
Writing in the Boston Globe of Feb. 1, columnist James Carroll put
his finger on a key dynamic: "The chaos of a destroyed society leaves every
new instrument of governance dependent on the American force, even as the American
force shows itself incapable of defending against, much less defeating, the
suicide legions. The irony is exquisite. The worse the violence gets, the longer
the Americans will claim the right to stay. In that way, the ever more emboldened
– and brutal – 'insurgents' do Bush's work for him by making it extremely
difficult for an authentic Iraqi source of order to emerge."
Meanwhile, the London-based Guardian published a devastating essay
by a university lecturer who left Iraq during Saddam Hussein's rule. Sami Ramadani
wrote: "On Sept. 4, 1967, the New York Times published an upbeat
story on presidential elections held by the South Vietnamese puppet regime at
the height of the Vietnam War. Under the heading 'U.S. encouraged by Vietnam
vote: Officials cite 83 percent turnout despite Vietcong terror,' the paper
reported that the Americans had been 'surprised and heartened' by the size of
the turnout 'despite a Vietcong terrorist campaign to disrupt the voting.' A
successful election, it went on, 'has long been seen as the keystone in President
Johnson's policy of encouraging the growth of constitutional processes in South
Vietnam.' The echoes of this weekend's propaganda about Iraq's elections are
so close as to be uncanny."
During the first days after the balloting in Iraq, few discomfiting facts
have intruded into mainstream coverage in the United States. But the fairytale
storylines that have sailed through the reporting and commentary will soon run
aground onto hard reefs of reality. The U.S. government is set to keep large
numbers of troops in Iraq for a long time to come. And no amount of thunderous
applause and media praise for State of the Union verbiage can change the lethal
discrepancies between democratic rhetoric and military occupation.