Is the surge in Iraq working? 

Don't Panic! ... Your war questions answered

Since the War On Terror™'s start in late 2001, there's been a metaphorical ping-pong match in the press about mainstream media coverage of the war.

One side says the press is overly critical of the war, downplaying and often ignoring its successes. The other side is critical of the press for eschewing serious analysis of the war in favor of White House spin and/or mindless fluff that takes the public's focus away from the war.

I'm sympathetic to both sides of the argument.

On the one hand, TV news coverage is indeed biased toward dazzling visual content. Explosions are more likely to get on TV than not-explosions. That's why you never hear anything about Canada on TV news. "Nothing burning here in Ottawa, Katie. Back to you in New York."

On the other hand, I've seen more in-depth, thoughtful analysis of Miley Cyrus' bare right shoulder on TV news programs than I have of any political news in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Iran or Pakistan.

For the first half of the year, the ping-pong match was displaced in the public consciousness by the presidential primaries. With campaign coverage now in its traditional summer lull, the ping-pong match is back.

The loudest paddle-whackers for the pro-war team this time are Jason Campbell, Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, and conservative columnist David Brooks of the New York Times.

With the help of graphic designer Amy Unikewicz, Campbell and O'Hanlon published a chart and short essay in the June 22 New York Times showing an overall improvement of conditions in Iraq.

There were 550 civilian deaths from violence in Iraq in May 2008, according to the chart, down from 2,600 in May 2007, and 2,700 in May 2006. The chart also noted a sharp decline in U.S. troop deaths, daily attacks by insurgents, and the number of civilians displaced by violence.

The reduction in violence, the essay says, gives "reason for hope that the major improvement in security resulting from the surge of American forces may endure even as the surge itself ends."

Two days later, also on the Times' op-ed page, columnist Brooks suggested that people who deny the surge's success are in a state of "intellectual denial" and that President Bush was "courageous and astute" for initiating the troop escalation, which began in spring 2007.

That's the pro-war ping. Here's the pong.

Violence is indeed down in Iraq and the U.S. troop escalation, as led by Gen. David "Don't Call Him Betray Us" Petraeus, undoubtedly contributes greatly to the reduction of violence.

But to describe the situation in Iraq as hopeful bends the definition of the word beyond recognition.

The pro-war crowd will have you believe that Iraq is like a ship. For a while it was headed in the wrong direction. Now it's headed in the right direction.

A more apt metaphor is that Iraq is like a big apartment building. The U.S. set it on fire in 2003 and regularly dumped gasoline on the fire for four years. The fire's less intense today because it's running out of fuel.

Several hundred thousand, possibly up to a million, Iraqis have already died. Another 4.7 million are now refugees. More than 2 million Iraqis have fled the country. Another 2.4 million were forced from their homes to other, less immediately dangerous parts of Iraq.

To call the partial reversal of Bush's Iraq war policies "courageous and astute" is a bit like calling someone a hero for shooting you in the chest, then driving you to the hospital. Fewer people are dying in Iraq in large part because there are fewer people around to die.

Less violence is better than more violence, no doubt, but the U.S. has no viable end strategy. The U.S. lacks the money, manpower, and will to stay forever. When it goes, it will leave behind religious sects that have not reconciled. And thanks to the U.S.'s simultaneous arming of Shi'ite-controlled government forces and Sunni tribal militias in the past 18 months, the sects will be more capable than ever of killing one another.

Unless you define success to mean that Bush's successor will be left to deal with a catastrophic catch-22, the surge is not a success.

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