Monday, May 21, 2007


News and Views on Iraq

John Ward Anderson, writing in The Washington Post this past Friday, trotted out some standard “Iraq is a violent mess” boilerplate, and for good measure threw in a gratuitous reference to a liberal British think tank assessment: that Iraq teeters on the brink as a “failed state.”

BAGHDAD, May 17 -- More than 60 people were killed and dozens wounded in mortar strikes, drive-by shootings, roadside explosions, suicide bombings and other violent attacks in Iraq on Thursday, as a new study warned that the country was close to becoming a "failed state."

Those of us who watch mainstream media (MSM) reporting on Iraq are so familiar with the template, and the boilerplate it contains, I believe most of us could dash off these reports in a matter of minutes. Just add the day’s horrors, find any supporting sound bites from oppositional sources, and file. But this report made me curious, as Anderson used an excerpt from this “new study” as the virtual cornerstone of his report.

Anderson didn’t do a very good job of identifying or clarifying the organization behind the report, nor did he make it particularly easy to find the organization or the report itself. As grist to the mill, the millstone cares not who tended the grain, I suppose.

After the lead paragraph, Anderson added a highly subjective characterization from the report:

A report released Thursday by Chatham House, a foreign policy research center in Britain, challenged the notion that violence in Iraq has subsided since the buildup of U.S. troops, saying, for instance, that car bombings had not diminished and arguing that radical groups were simply lying low.

"It can be argued that Iraq is on the verge of being a failed state which faces the distinct possibility of collapse and fragmentation," the report said.

I assume since the Editors of the Post chose to run this in Section A that they consider this a “news” report. Surely Anderson has fulfilled some criteria for news, adding lots of detail of killings and attacks ‘round about Iraq. But note that he gratuitously adds think tank commentary as if the commentary itself was newsworthy, and offsets these inclusions with official military responses. Including official reaction to news reports is standard fare in news reporting. But what Anderson does here is set up their think tank commentary as roughly equivalent to the official reaction.

This equates, in my opinion official response to the level of the subjective commentary, rather than as a primary source for news. I find this insidious, and revealing of a journalistic laziness. Amazing that such laziness is permitted in news reporting only when it deals with Iraq or other areas of useful partisan propaganda. I seriously doubt that the Post covers very many of its news beats with this level of subjective additives. They do here, without any contrast of opinion or analysis contrary to their obviously preferred outlook, precisely to suggest that the factual statements of military representatives are nothing more than opinion. Again, this treatment appears in what purports to be a news story, although in fairness (better) foreign correspondents are expected to provide analysis and commentary sufficient to allow readers to properly interpret the significance of foreign news. To the extent that a correspondent “outsources” this obligation to third parties (not the reporter and not the primary news source), I think it’s fair to ask for some kind of balance. At the least, I think Anderson owed it to his readers a little more insight into the study and the institute that produced it.

The study was produced by the Royal Institute of International Affairs, also known as Chatham House. Chatham House released the report on 17 May 07 entitled Accepting Realities in Iraq.

Here’s a summary of its conclusions:

* Iraq has fractured into regional power bases. Political, security and economic power has devolved to local sectarian, ethnic or tribal political groupings. The Iraqi government is only one of several 'state-like' actors. The regionalization of Iraqi political life needs to be recognized as a defining feature of Iraq's political structure.

* There is not 'a' civil war in Iraq, but many civil wars and insurgencies involving a number of communities and organizations struggling for power. The surge is not curbing the high level of violence, and improvements in security cannot happen in a matter of months.

*          The conflicts have become internalized between Iraqis as the polarization of sectarian and ethnic identities reaches ever deeper into Iraqi society and causes the breakdown of social cohesion.

*          Critical destabilizing issues will come to the fore in 2007-8. Federalism, the control of oil and control of disputed territories need to be resolved.

*          Each of Iraq's three major neighboring states, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, has different reasons for seeing the instability there continue, and each uses different methods to influence developments. 

*          These current harsh realities need to be accepted if new strategies are to have any chance of preventing the failure and collapse of Iraq. A political solution will require engagement with organizations possessing popular legitimacy and needs to be an Iraqi accommodation, rather than a regional or US-imposed approach.

Chatham House is an old school British Think Tank, whose political stripe can be deduced or identified with a cursory review of board members. Those whose political leanings can be identified are all Liberal (although in traditional UK political that can sometimes mean more Conservative that US audiences might think).

They do have a few overtly political snippets in the report that give away their orientation, like quoting Anthony Cordesman: “It is possible that a failed President and a failed administration will preside over a failed war for the second time since Vietnam.” They do so in the context of making a statement that (alternative) US choices would require the Bush Administration to “accept” this assessment. I’m quite sure the current US Administration can take any action, even one recommended by this study’s author, without accepting that Bush is a “failure” and Iraq is a “failed war.”

Aside from that, this is a political white paper for Liberal/Labor/Democrat war opponents to put a Foreign Policy wonkish veneer on retreat and surrender. Interestingly, sections that talk about the "many civil wars" going on in Iraq completely fail to mention Iranian influence or agitation or proxy war fighting, or even Al Qaeda attempts to incite sectarian civil strife. These omissions are clearly by design. Likewise, comments about Regional players describes Iran in at least neutral if not positive tones, and neglects Syria altogether. As with other leftist oriented Foreign Policy analysis, it tacks towards Iran (they deserve to have primary influence in region).

The paper also makes the breathtaking assertion that 20th century history “is increasingly irrelevant when discussing Iraq’s future, owing to the profoundly transformative effects of violence since 2003.” You would think a British think tank would be more reflective on the nagging residue of British colonial nation state building, as they criticize US nation state building. The paper ignores the fascist aspects of our enemies (in the 20th century or today), or those same aspects reflected in Saddam Hussein and his criminal elites. That’s by design as well, to make the following argument.

Without substantive evidence, the paper builds a case that our intervention in Iraq has created a worse situation that what was before, and clearly attempts to craft a foreign policy stance that makes the Iraq war a wrong, unjustified, and counter-productive. There is no acknowledgment here that we are at all in a state of war with radical Islam, or very real state and non-state actors.

Chatham crafted an excellent narrative, but their product here remains propaganda. Call it positioning for a post November 2008 world. (And what its proponents hope is a post-Republican world as well.)

By way of contrast, I highly recommend this truly excellent and thoughtful offering by Tigerhawk, detailing some modest truth propositions. He calls them minimalist assertions, and perhaps they are, but of value nonetheless.

Here’s his introduction (note his victory condition post as well):

Anyone who is not trying to gain partisan advantage should think seriously about the best Iraq policy for the United States in the coming months and years. The purpose of this post is to propose a framework for considering both the Bush administration's policy and alternative policies offered by both the right and left. Toward that end, I offer a series of minimalist assertions, delightfully free of evidence and supporting linkage. Each assertion or question is numbered; please comment below with reference to the corresponding number. (Background note: Newer readers may want to look at the most recent edition of my "victory conditions" post, published about a year ago at The Belmont Club. It includes my basic thinking about the intersection of al Qaeda and rogue states.)

Tigerhawk makes 33 assertions in two broad categories: our geopolitical interests in Iraq, and the military, political and geopolitical circumstances of Iraq, including the interests of others. I think he’s right on target, but do read the whole thing.

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