Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

That Pesky Violence in Iraq

(Blue skies, smilin' at me...)

When I hear someone say something like this, in this case from Howard Kurtz' 11/21/07 column "Belated Reaction?":

It's official: Things are getting better in Iraq.

The New York Times says so.

I feel something like this:

Of course, I'm exaggerating, whereas Kurtz writes, "I'm being only slightly facetious here." For goodness' sake, can we please have some accurate reporting about arguably the most pressing issue of the day? Can accounts please include some essential context?

Quite a few pundits and journalists (mostly right-leaning or hawkish) have echoed Kurtz' sentiment for the past month or so. Meanwhile, right-wing bloggers such as Glenn Reynolds have been declaring victory constantly since 2003. At least Kurtz didn't invoke "surrender" or say we're "winning."

Let's be very clear. Any decrease in violence is obviously welcome. I certainly hope that trend continues. However, if you read the actual stats, and independent accounts, this simply means the situation in Iraq has gone from astoundingly horrible back to… simply horrible. The violence is still obscenely high, and the many warring factions are no closer to the political reconciliation the escalation or "surge" was supposed to allow. As we wrote in RWCW #26 back on 11/16/07:

Bush keeps moving the goalposts, and now "less violence" means success, nevermind that his own November 2005 National Strategy for Victory in Iraq defined victory as a "peaceful, united, stable and secure" Iraq (hattip to a commenter here). For a quick debunk, check out the latest of Questiongirl's Meanwhile Back in Iraq series and this Glenn Greenwald piece. There's also the more involved responses of this Small Wars Journal discussion about what actual "success" would entail, and Dan Froomkin comparing Bush's rhetoric to reality. 'Cause ya know, it must not be a horrendous Charlie Foxtrot if it's a shade less than a total disaster.

In fact, the Greenwald piece linked above dissects a Kurtz column warning the Democrats could be in political trouble for urging withdraw from Iraq (!!!), along with some rosy assessments of Iraq in denial of reality by the usual hawks. (Ugh. I need to take another look at that animation!)

Furthermore, as we noted in the same RWCW post, no one is saying that there's no progress anywhere in the whole of Iraq, although it's a common right-wing tactic to make that straw man charge. The real question is whether Iraq is actually in good straits and is anywhere close to peace and stability.

To be fair, in the more recent piece, Kurtz does add a few caveats to his "things are getting better," such as when he writes, "And let's get this straight: Americans are still fighting and dying in Iraq, and modest progress at this late date doesn't magically erase 4 1/2 years of a mismanaged war or change the public's verdict on that war." However, he instantly follows this by writing, "But if attacks and casualties are dropping, that is news, just as it inevitably would be if attacks and casualties were increasing." Sure, but it would be nice to put those in context, wouldn't it? Perhaps to write a lede that wasn't highly misleading? It would also be nice if Kurtz abandoned framing everything from the point-of-view of right-wing blogs, but no such luck:

It's hard to overestimate the impact of the Times on the media agenda, especially on the network newscasts. And because the paper's editorial page has been harshly critical of President Bush and demanding a pullout from Iraq, when it reports something positive, critics are quick to intone: Even the New York Times. . .

So the lead story in yesterday's paper--a four-column spread with pictures of a couple getting married and a thriving restaurant, with the headline "Baghdad Starts to Exhale As Security Improves"--has the feel of a turning point. Not in the war, necessarily, because who knows how long this will last, or whether Iraq's fragile government will ever be able to achieve reconciliation. But it is a noteworthy event in terms of the war's coverage.

Yes, lord knows reality is less important than the coverage. Whether "Iraq's fragile government will ever be able to achieve reconciliation" is less consequential to Kurtz, never mind that it's the central question that should be the gauge of whether any discussion of Iraq is actually serious versus bullshit. Kurtz is basically confessing right here that this is a shallow column with all the weight of a marshmallow. Does he get any slack for being a media critic, writing about media coverage? I say no, because his primary job is to assess whether the press is accurate or not. Noting the coverage has changed must be put into a meaningful context. Instead, he's mostly echoing and quoting right-wingers, hawks and other Bush cheerleaders. Some reporters write this sort of drivel simply because they want a new headline — writing "Iraq still Godawful" every day for several years doesn't appeal to them or their editors, true though it may be. On one level, Kurtz is just filling a column. But his starting point is almost always right-wing blogs, and here he's highly misleading. Iraq is simply not a glass half-full situation, unless one notes that the glass is half-full of blood.

Let's look at his column and the context Kurtz ignores first. From the NYT's "U.S. Says Attacks in Iraq Fell to Feb. 2006 Level," Kurtz quotes the lede:

The American military said Sunday that the weekly number of attacks in Iraq had fallen to the lowest level since just before the February 2006 bombing of the Shiite shrine in Samarra, an event commonly used as a benchmark for the country's worst spasm of bloodletting after the American invasion nearly five years ago.

There are other sections about the significant drop in reported violence (and you can read the article for yourself; it's short), but the NYT piece also says:

The data released Sunday cover attacks using car bombs, roadside bombs, mines, mortars, rockets, surface-to-air missiles and small arms. According to the statistics, roughly 575 attacks occurred last week.

That is substantially fewer than the more than 700 attacks that were recorded the week that Sunni militants set off a wave of sectarian violence in Iraq by blowing up a Shiite shrine in Samarra in February 2006. And it represents a huge drop since June when attacks soared to nearly 1,600 one week.

American officials said other measures indicated that civilian deaths had dropped. Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, a spokesman for the command, said civilian deaths had dropped by 60 percent since June…

To be sure, the level of violence in Iraq is still high. Even as military officials announced the figures, Iraq had one of its deadliest days in weeks, with at least 22 people killed. Among the killed were nine civilians in Karada, a mixed neighborhood in central Baghdad, when a car bomber rammed a convoy carrying Iraq’s deputy finance minister. The official was not hurt, but a guard was among the wounded.

Also on Sunday, three children were killed and seven were wounded in Baquba, to the north, in an explosion in a small garden where American soldiers were handing out candy, ballpoint pens and soccer balls. Three American soldiers were also killed. Their names were not released.

Some experts said the data indicated a downward trend in violent attacks, albeit from relatively high levels — 2006 was one of the most violent years in the war.

The most pressing issue, they said, was how to keep them down and reduce violence further given the failure of Iraqi leaders to achieve reconciliation…

Military officials stressed that attack levels might fluctuate in the future and that it was too soon to say that the United States had turned the corner in Iraq. Past periods of relative calm in Iraq have also been shattered by violence. And American officials have complained that the Iraqi government is not taking the opportunity in the current lull to attempt serious political progress.

“While violence is turning in the right direction, a tough fight remains ahead and progress will be uneven,” Admiral Smith said. “Violence is still too high in many areas of Baghdad and across Iraq.”

The article ends on a hopeful note, but again, you can read it for yourself and judge how accurately Kurtz conveys its content. As for the article itself, it presents much more nuance than Kurtz, but comparing the current level of violence to the absolute worst points hardly gives an honest picture.

From the second NYT article Kurtz features, "Baghdad’s Weary Start to Exhale as Security Improves," he quotes:

The security improvements in most neighborhoods are real. Days now pass without a car bomb, after a high of 44 in the city in February. The number of bodies appearing on Baghdad's streets has plummeted to about 5 a day, from as many as 35 eight months ago, and suicide bombings across Iraq fell to 16 in October, half the number of last summer and down sharply from a recent peak of 59 in March, the American military says.

As a result, for the first time in nearly two years, people are moving with freedom around much of this city. In more than 50 interviews across Baghdad, it became clear that while there were still no-go zones, more Iraqis now drive between Sunni and Shiite areas for work, shopping or school, a few even after dark. In the most stable neighborhoods of Baghdad, some secular women are also dressing as they wish. Wedding bands are playing in public again, and at a handful of once shuttered liquor stores customers now line up outside in a collective rebuke to religious vigilantes from the Shiite Mahdi Army.

It's a very different piece, with a more human, personal angle, and it's heartening to know that one of the families profiled "can joke because they no longer fear that the violence will engulf them." However, putting these two 'upbeat' articles together, the "drop" in violence still means roughly 575 attacks per week, 5 bodies appearing on the streets of Baghdad every day, 16 suicide bombings per month, car bombs every few days, sporadic horrific attacks where dozens of innocent people die (including children), continued troop deaths, many Iraqis afraid to leave their neighborhoods during the day and most afraid to go outside at night. How much press did the Virginia Tech shootings get in America? Can you imagine if even a fraction of the type of violence typical to Iraq was occurring in the United States?

Again, a decrease in violence is obviously a good thing. But it also seems pretty obvious that the violence remains extremely high. Additionally, when the second article says that "Mrs. Aasan said she was thrilled and relieved just a few days ago, when her college-aged son got stuck at work after dark and his father managed to pick him up and drive home without being killed," it's quoted as a sign of progress. We can all be grateful that the Aasans are all right, but that is not an anxiety one would have in a peaceful country. I really do hope the days are gone when merely going to the morgue to claim a dead loved one would result in one's own death, but it's hard to forget a Fresh Air interview earlier this year and the line, "Today, in Iraq, to die naturally is considered a blessing."

I find Captain Ed's reaction to the NYT coverage as quoted by Kurtz interesting (perhaps it's where Kurtz picked up his framing, since Ed's post is named "Progress Must Be Real If The Gray Lady Reports It.") Ed feels that the NYT "uses the hoary device of individual anecdotes to temper the news, as if to assert that even success cannot be enjoyed if even one individual feels fear of entering a specific neighborhood." I'd argue that actually, with the second article, the NYT is asserting things are better by anecdote, although overall the situation remains horrible. As for his contention that "One wonders how many Times execs wander freely through the Bronx at night, or even in the daytime," it's not a bad quip, but it's a straw man argument, as is his claim that the NYT is using a "no fear by anyone anywhere" standard. Kurtz also quotes a post at Red State by Pejman Yousefzadeh, who muses, "Kinda makes you wonder why it is that the 'reality-based community' hasn't taken much notice of these improvements." I know, really. Down to only 575 attacks per week! Break out the champagne, you dirty hippies!

Then there's the passage Kurtz uses from Christopher Hitchens, who's more skeptical about progress:

I am not at all certain that any of this apparently good news is really genuine or will be really lasting. However, I am quite sure both that it could be true and that it would be wonderful if it were to be true. What worries me about the reaction of liberals and Democrats is not the skepticism, which is pardonable, but the dank and sinister impression they give that the worse the tidings, the better they would be pleased. The latter mentality isn't pardonable and ought not to be pardoned, either.

"Go to hell" is among the more polite responses this merits. Perhaps somewhere in America, a tiny minority of twisted people actually exist who long for Iraq to grow worse. I certainly don't know any anti-war people that fit that bill. No one on the national stage, no prominent liberal or anti-war blogger holds such monstrous views. We're the bleeding hearts, remember? Get your offensive stereotypes straight! We decry needless death and destruction. Many of us opposed this debacle to begin with, and others have since come to their senses. I'm rather sick of conservatives and hawks projecting their own callousness and slandering the folks who got it right and still have it right. They can't even take ownership of their own mayhem, and stoop to ye old straw man-ad hominem combo, excoriating their perceived foes for evil views they don't actually hold. If you want to talk about inhumanity and a lack of commitment to freedom and democracy, besides Bush repeatedly laughing and joking about Iraq, there's the imperialist views of Norman "Iraqis' views don't matter" Podhoretz and the respectful approach of Rush "phony soldiers" Limbaugh. It makes me think of a great Digby post (previously linked here) about similar scolding:

I love these lectures and feelings of "disgust" coming from people who apparently still maintain that it was perfectly fine to ignore international law and invade a country for no good reason and turn it into a chaotic hellhole. No moral culpability required for that, no admission of guilt, but lots and lots of sanctimonious posturing about how we will have blood on our hands if the US admits its mistake and withdraws. The obtuseness of that position takes my breath away. We already have so much blood on our hands that it's dripping into everything we touch.

Kurtz does later quote a decent DailyKos entry on how many lulls in violence there have been in the past, and quotes John Murtha briefly, but his column overall is severely lacking.

Let us turn to some other sources, shall we, for that context thing? A McClatchy account from 10/31/07 notes the decrease in troop fatalities and reported civilian deaths, but adds:

Even so, the capital remained a dangerous place. While car bombs declined to 15 from September's 19, the number of blasts caused by improvised explosive devices increased by more than 60 percent, from 30 to 48. The number of people injured in explosions in the capital rose 19 percent, from 378 in September to 450 in October, according to the McClatchy statistics, which are gathered daily from police and other official sources, but which probably undercount violence in the capital…

There's no consensus about why violence has declined so rapidly in the capital or why U.S. combat casualties have dropped so dramatically.

Bush's backers obviously attribute all decreased violence to the "surge," and likely it plays a significant role, along with a number of cease-fires. But the article also notes that "Some residents believe the drop in Iraqi deaths in the capital has happened because so much ethnic cleansing has left simply fewer people to kill."

Similarly, a fairly upbeat BBC account, "Is Iraq getting better?" (11/11/07), notes the downturn in violence as well and closes by saying "there can be no denying that many Iraqis, especially in Baghdad, are more optimistic now than they would have dared believe possible a year ago." Yet it also observes that:

Everybody agrees that military and security measures on their own can only go so far if not buttressed by economic, social and political progress…

The Americans and Iraqi government are well aware of the need to follow up with services - electricity and water supplies are still sporadic - and job-creation schemes if they are to hold the ground they are clearing.

But virtually none of the key pieces of required legislation has yet been passed by a fractious Iraqi parliament which has been wracked by factional disputes.

There is still no shared and agreed vision of Iraq's future. Kurds and some Shias want a loose, federal arrangement, while Sunnis and some others want a stronger, more centralised state.

It matters. To which Iraq are people signing up with the security forces swearing allegiance?...

Despite the progress in the security arena, the story is far from over. The casualty figures are down, but people are still being killed every day.

London's Financial Times notes the reports of decreased violence, but also observes:

While the military displays cautious optimism, however, some experts are less convinced. Anthony Cordesman, a defence expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the statistics did not capture the true picture of violence in Iraq.

“The [numbers] that the coalition counts tend to omit most of the violence in the south, which is Shiite-on-Shiite, and lower-level tensions between Arabs and Kurds. It also doesn’t seem to count Sunni-on-Sunni unless it is al-Qaeda versus anti-al-Qaeda.”

How reliable are the figures? Anecdotal evidence supports a downturn in violence, but Petraeus' testimony was at times misleading, and earlier Pentagon numbers did not count "1) Sunni on Sunni violence. 2) Shi’a on Shi’a violence 3) Car bombs 4) Getting shot in the front of the head." Of course, this is the same Pentagon that left 20,000 troops with brain injuries off the official wounded list and has been reluctant to report suicide rates among returning troops (which opens a whole host of other issues).

There's also a “wave of violence that’s gone largely unreported lately against women in Iraq.”

Meanwhile, McClatchy does a daily tally of violence in Iraq and Questiongirl's Meanwhile, Back In Iraq series chronicles a number of developments.

Just yesterday, NPR ran not one but two stories about Iraqi refugees returning from Syria (we've covered the severe refugee crisis before).

Also yesterday, Juan Cole wrote a splendid piece for Salon summing up the situation, "Why Bush's troop surge won't save Iraq." It's worth reading the whole thing, but as Cole writes:

[Senator Jim] Webb was correct to point out that the only truly good news to come from Iraq would be good news regarding the political landscape. In recent days, parts of northern Iraq have been invaded by Turkey, an ally of the United States. In Baghdad, Sunni members of parliament staged a walkout to defend their leader, whose bodyguards were implicated in fashioning car bombs. Proposed legislation reducing sanctions against Sunni Arabs who once belonged to the Baath Party nearly produced a riot in parliament. Meanwhile, Britain and Australia, among Bush's few remaining allies with combat troops in Iraq, are planning to depart in 2008, raising questions about security in the key southern port city of Basra, the major route for the country's lucrative oil exports.

What the recent publicity about the "success" of the troop surge has ignored is this: The Bush administration has downplayed the collapsing political situation in Iraq by directing the public's attention to fluctuating numbers of civilians killed. While there have been some relative gains in security recently, even there the picture remains dubious. The Iraqi ministry of health, long known for cooking the books, says that a few hundred Iraqis were killed in political violence in November. However, independent observers such as Iraq Body Count cite a much higher number -- some 1,100 civilians killed in Iraq in November. They reported that bombings and assassinations accounted for 63 persons on Saturday, the first day of December, alone.

Indeed, the "good news" of a lull in violence is relative at best. In fact, Iraq's overall death rate makes it among the worst civil conflicts in the world. Even if one accepted the official Iraqi government statistics, the average number of Iraqi deaths directly attributable to political violence in the past three full months has been around 700 per month. That pace, if maintained, would work out to about 8,400 deaths a year. (I am citing the kind of war statistics produced by passive information gathering such as in newspapers. Using a more comprehensive public health study such as the one that appeared in the Lancet last year, which takes into account deaths from criminal violence and insecurity generally, would result in much higher numbers.) In all of Northern Ireland's troubles over 30 years, only about 3,000 persons are thought to have been killed. In Kashmir since 1989, some 40,000 to 90,000 persons have been killed in communal and guerrilla violence; if we take the higher number, that's roughly 419 killed per month. Perhaps only Somalia and Sudan witness killings on that scale, and no one would say that "good news" is coming out of either of those places.

The current "good news" campaign from the Bush administration regarding the troop surge is only the latest in a long history of whitewashing the war since the 2003 invasion. First, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld denied that there was massive looting following the fall of Baghdad. Then he denied that there was a rising guerrilla war. Then, after the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani maneuvered an unwilling Bush administration into holding relatively free elections, the victory of Shiite fundamentalists close to Iran was obscured by the "purple thumb" good news campaign. That is, the administration focused on the democratic process and relative success of the voting, diverting attention from the bad news that the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq had taken over.

Later, it was good news when the Iraqi parliament produced a theocratic constitution with all the weaknesses of the U.S. Articles of Confederation, even though all three Sunni-majority provinces rejected it in the subsequent referendum. What was in the constitution was not important, only that it existed. The Bush administration has heralded any number of such "milestones" reached, but not whether they led to worthwhile results.

Obscured by these "milestones" is that the orgy of violence in Iraq has displaced 2 million persons abroad and another 2 million internally, and left tens of thousands dead. But now the "good news" is that the guerrillas appear not to have been able to keep up the pace of violence characteristic of 2006 and early 2007, even if the pace they maintain today is horrific.

Ah, context! There's no reason Howard Kurtz couldn't provide the same. There's nothing wrong with noting a decrease in violence, but accounts such as Kurtz' inflate a bit of good news to present a grossly distorted picture that adds to the bullshit rather than diminishing it.

The Bush administration and their backers already produce bullshit at an astonishing rate without help. They all but refuse to accurately describe the situation in Iraq, but reporters don't need to do the same. Given the Bush administration's deliberate obfuscations, it's all the more crucial that they don’t. Without honest assessments, it's extremely difficult to achieve any of the meaningful progress in Iraq the Bushies claim they want.

But good news, citizens! Another glorious victory means the war has moved appreciably closer to its end!

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

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