Posted by lex, on May 24, 2006
In yesterday’s WSJ, White House staffer Peter Wehner has the unmitigated gall to challenge the emergently conventional wisdom on Iraq – Chiefly that, 1) The president lied us into to war, 2) the administration pressured intelligence professionals to bias their judgments in favor of the war, 3) the failure to find WMD proves Saddam posed no threat, “imminent” or otherwise, and 4) finally, that the goal of promoting democracy in the heart of the Arab Middle East was a post-war rationalization, made up on the fly after that whole “WMD thing” didn’t pan out.
He does so by trotting out fact after tedious fact, a tactic that’s bound to drive partisan critics into spittle-flecked rage. There’s nothing really new here of course, just common sense and history lessons, so it won’t change any minds that are already closed made up, or open the eyes of the wilfully obtuse.
Wehner doesn’t deal with the next-tier critique, slightly more challenging – because it’s based on opinion rather than error – but still rebuttable: The assertation on the part of many who were on-side to begin with, but who have since developed feet of clay that, well, removing the Saddam regime was a good idea of course, but the post-war execution has been horribly bungled. This argument goes to administration competence, which was the core of the administration’s grey-head branding prior to the war. Making the counter-argument to this point is a tough thing to do for a sitting politician, because it means drawing comparisons between previous campaigns – more history, in other words – and the present. Although this is a useful approach for those who would rather weigh facts than cast aspersions, it can be a seemingly insensitive line of argument when present day soldiers are fighting and all too often dying in the field. Added to that is the fact that comparisons between wars, like comparisons in general, tend to be inherently invidious.
But, the problem with planning, even post-war planning, is that the enemy gets a vote too. This is why military planners understand going in that while planning is essential, plans are basically useless – no plan withstands contact with the foe. We can argue forever about what many have labelled the post-war occupation’s original sins, mainly the size of the invasion force, the disbanding of the Iraqi Army, and the failure to clamp down hard on post-kinetic phase instability in the form of looting. Size matters, and it’s certainly possible that having an occupation force of 500,000 might have prevented the rise of the insurgency, but it’s certainly not a dead solid lock that this is true. Tooth-to-tail ratios mean that we’d be have been paying a great deal more for a marginal increase in trigger pullers for one thing, while creating a greater number of targets and encouraging a lamentable state of military dependency. Nor has anyone who thinks that force ratios were inadequate explained to my satisfaction how they can simultaneously posit that rotating 135k troops into the desert every year for three years is somehow breaking the force, but that leaving 500k over there would have been the right thing to do, because the natural consequence of arguing that the Army is straining to support a rotational presence is to take a position of leaving the larger force in place for the duration.
And while it’s relatively clear now that turning several hundred thousand recently humiliated men with weapons training out into the street might have been a bad idea, it’s not at all clear how keeping the old Iraqi Army under arms and in ranks would have read in Samarah – from the point of view of the Iraqi citizenry, it had been seen as little more than a tool of brutal domestic repression. Nor is it clear that the locals would have welcomed US forces gunning their friends and neighbors down en masse immediately after the regime fell, which is how the story would no doubt have been spun. My point being that there are often hard choices to make in war, and that sometimes our only choices are revealed to be between the unpalatable and the distasteful, with final consequences are only visible in retrospect. But if the standard for evaluating great attempts in the world is perfect execution, well, we might as well go ahead and cancel all international fights, fortify the borders and hope for the best.
Still, with three elections in Iraqi hands, a (finally) functional government and an emergently potent free Iraqi Army, it’s useful to have someone raise the voice of reason. Even if it is whispering in the hurricane, perhaps.
Speaking of which, and going again to competence, how’s about that whole Katrina meme now? Well, no one came out of that mess with reputations whole and unbesmirched – problem is, the feds took their lumps up front, while the press – who still bathe themselves in self-congratulation on the way the story was woven for the American public, are only now starting to have their record examined. According to Jonah Goldberg in the NRO:
On a recent edition of Larry King Live, liberal Republican Congressman Christopher Shays, eager to put some distance between himself and the president, explained what he thinks is George Bush’s real albatross. “Let me just say that I think the thing that has hurt the president most is not Iraq. It’s Katrina,” Shays said. “People saw an arrogant but confident administration, but when they saw Katrina, they saw arrogance and frankly incompetence, and that was very unsettling.”
This sentiment is pervasive… Time writes matter-of-factly that “the government’s inept response to Hurricane Katrina” is a major liability for Republicans in ‘06… But it is worth reminding people that the Katrina they think they remember wasn’t the Katrina that actually took place. In fact, it is difficult to think of a bigger media scandal in my lifetime than the fraudulently inaccurate coverage of Hurricane Katrina.
Where to begin? As I’ve written before, virtually all of the gripping stories from Katrina were untrue. All of those stories about, in Paula Zahn’s words, “bands of rapists, going block to block”? Not true. The tales of snipers firing on medevac helicopters? Bogus. The yarns, peddled on Oprah by New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and the New Orleans police chief, that “little babies” were getting raped in the Superdome and that the bodies of the murdered were piling up? Completely false. The stories about poor blacks dying in comparatively huge numbers because American society “left them behind”? Nah-ah. While most outlets limited themselves to taking Nagin’s estimate of 10,000 dead at face value, Editor and Publisher—the watchdog of the media—ran the headline, “Mortuary Director Tells Local Paper 40,000 Could Be Lost in Hurricane
In all of Louisiana, not just New Orleans, the total dead from Katrina was roughly 1,500. Blacks did not die disproportionately, nor did the poor. The only group truly singled out in terms of mortality was the elderly. According to a Knight-Ridder study, while only 15 percent of the population of New Orleans was over the age of 60, some 74 percent of the dead were 60 or older, and almost half were older than 75. Blacks were, if anything, slightly underrepresented among the dead given their share of the population.
This barely captures how badly the press bungled Katrina coverage. Keep in mind that the most horrifying tales of woe that captivated the press and prompted news anchors to scream—quite literally—at federal officials occurred within the safe zone around the Superdome where the press was operating. Shame on local officials for fomenting fear and passing along newly minted urban legends, but double shame on the press for recycling this stuff uncritically. Members of the press had access to the Superdome. Why not just run in and look for the bodies? Interview the rape victims? Couldn’t be bothered? The major networks had hundreds of people in New Orleans. Was there not a single intern available to fact-check? The coverage actually cost lives. Helicopters were grounded for 24 hours in response to media reports of sniper attacks. At least two patients died waiting to be evacuated.
And yet, an ubiquitous media chorus claims simultaneously that Katrina was Bush’s worst hour and the press’s best. That faultless paragon of media scrupulousness Dan Rather proclaimed it one of the “quintessential great moments in television news.” Christiane Amanpour explained, “I think what’s interesting is that it took a Katrina, you know, to bring us back to where we belong. In other words, real journalists, real journalism, and I think that’s a good thing.”
Well, maybe, and anyone can make mistakes. It’d just be useful to find a case where the press made a mistake in favor of the government in a time of war. For example, when Afghanistan’s Taliban guerrillas sortie out of the shadows in large numbers and the media report uncritically that dozens of people died as a result, it might be useful to report that the folks doing the lion’s share of the dying were the bad guys.
And don’t even get me started on Jesse MacBeth.