The uproar over Bob Woodward's new book has intensified
the media focus on a basic controversy that's summed up this way: Is Iraq a
Like many other debates that flourish in American
mass media, the
standard answers on both sides are wrong because
the question bypasses
Most obviously, Iraq is not a swamp; it's a place
where real people
live and die. They are not metaphors, and neither is
their country. Iraqi
people exist quite apart from the roles imputed to
them by politicians and
journalists in Washington.
But "quagmire" serves as a kind of mental
framework for where most
U.S. media coverage has remained.
Forget the American Century. This is the American
You see, no matter what happens in Iraq, it's
mostly about us
spelled U.S.; the United States. We're encouraged to
perceive that Iraq is
most important, at least implicitly, because of what
it means for the USA:
its image in other countries, the deaths and wounds of
its soldiers, the
political strength of the president and, this fall,
the likely effects on
the midterm congressional elections.
During September, as the Nexis media database attests, the USA's sizable newspapers
and wire services ran articles referring to Iraq as a "quagmire" several
times a day. Readers of the New York Times have seen such references
on an average of once a week this year. Overall, major U.S. media outlets have
associated Iraq with the term "quagmire" thousands of times in 2006.
Some of those references are from war supporters eager to dispute the notion
that "quagmire" is applicable to what's going on in Iraq. They challenge
the relevance of the word yet do not hesitate to recycle other clichés
that were also used in public debate about the Vietnam War four decades ago
and so we hear that the United States must "stay the course"
and must not "cut and run."
But to focus arguments on whether the Iraq war
should be called a
"quagmire" is to flatten moral issues, transmuting
them into matters of
strategy and efficacy. That may sound like appropriate
attention to practical politics. However, if a war is
wrong, the wisdom of
supporting it shouldn't hinge on whether it's a
quagmire or a cakewalk.
Criticisms of the war that accuse it of being a "quagmire" can be
disputed with lofty calls to persevere doing the difficult right thing
until conditions on the ground change, the Iraqi government gets stronger,
and so forth. But opposition to the war that turns on morality cannot be so
easily deflected in such ways.
The extreme American self-absorption of the
"quagmire" debate lends
itself to ostensible solutions that shift but
perpetuate the U.S.
government's central role in the carnage. Reigning
Karl Rove, whose Machiavellian electoral calculations
extraordinary leverage over the current
administration's foreign policy, is
very likely to seek further U.S. reliance on air power
that uses the latest
Pentagon technologies as blunt and lethal instruments
A key goal will be to bring down U.S. casualty
rates and reduce
American troop levels in Iraq while the people of that
further deaths and destruction.
If the Iraq war is primarily framed as a problem
because of what it's
doing to Americans, the "solutions" could make the war
seem like less of a
quagmire even while more Iraqi people pay with their
lives. Media arguments
over whether Iraq is a quagmire turn the spotlight
away from the human
calamities that Iraqis are experiencing on a daily
basis, while American
taxpayers continue to subsidize Uncle Sam's deadly
Sometimes the fancy words don't provide the kind
of clarity that we
need. "Quagmire" may sound sophisticated and
realpolitik; many journalists
and pundits seem to think so. But that doesn't really
get to the essence of
It's not a quagmire.