November 20, 2005:
If it weren't for Internet access to troops, expatriates and Iraqis in Iraq, you would think that coalition military operations in Iraq were a major disaster, and that prompt withdrawal was the only reasonable course of action. But the mass media view of the situation is largely fiction, conjured up in editorial offices outside Iraq, with foreign reporters in Iraq (most of them rarely leaving their heavily guarded hotels) providing color commentary, and not much else. So what do the troops and Iraqis say?
First, there is definitely a terrorism problem. Not an insurgency, not a guerilla war, not a resistance. A portion of the Sunni Arab population refuses to recognize the Sunni Arab loss of power in early 2003. They are supporting a campaign of terror to either get back power or, more pragmatically, to get immunity for most Sunni Arabs for crimes committed during Saddams decades in power. The majority of support the terrorists get is from the amnesty crowd. Hundreds of thousands of Sunni Arab families have one or more members who did Saddam's dirty work. That has left millions of Kurds and Shia Arabs looking for revenge. Remember, this is where the legal concept of "eye-for-an-eye" was invented thousands of years ago. The children of Hammurabi want their measure of vengeance, and if they get it, the current violence in Iraq will look pallid by comparison. All the prevents a wholesale descent into mutual slaughter is the presence of coalition troops. In other parts of the world (and there are many to examine at the moment) this sort of thing is called peacekeeping. Withdraw the peacekeepers, and what peace there is goes with them.
Second, there is a cultural crises, in the Arab world in particular, and the Moslem world in general. The crises is expressed by a lack of economic, educational and political performance. By whatever measure you wish to use, Nobel prizes, patents awarded, GDP growth, the Arabs have fallen behind the rest of the world. Part of the problem is the Arab tendency to blame outsiders, and to avoid taking responsibility. Tolerating tyranny and resistance to change doesn't help either. That is changing, and the war in Iraq has become the center of this cultural battle. It began with the 2003 invasion, which was reported by the Arab media as a great defeat for the Western "crusader" army. Until, that is, it was all too obvious that American troops had battled their way to Baghdad in three weeks, and were quickly defeating Iraqi forced defending this cultural capital of the Arab world. This triggered a debate in the Arab world, one that got little coverage in the West. It began when some Arab journalists openly pointed out, in the Arab media, that Arab reporters had not only been writing fantastical stories that had no relationship to reality, but that this sort of thing had been going on for a long time and, gosh, maybe it had something to do with the sorry state of affairs in the Arab world. That particular debate is still going on, largely unnoticed in the West. This is the real war against terrorism, because the terrorists represent the forces of repression and backwardness in the Arab world.
Third, the bad guys are really, really bad, but they have many prominent allies around the world. Most Iraqis cannot understand how so many media outlets in the West can keep giving favorable coverage to the Sunni Arab terrorists. These guys are butchers, and many used to work for Saddam, committing the same kind of mayhem. Yet these European reporters come looking for Sunni Arab "victims" of "American imperialism." How strange is that? Nothing strange, just another cultural quirk. The Europeans are much more risk averse than Americans. We all remember the 1930s, where most of Europe left Hitler alone, hoping that they could talk sense into him, or that he would go away. Eventually, the good people of Europe (at least those that had not been conquered by the Germans) had to fight the nazis. Americans, most of them descendents of refugees from European foolishness, wanted no part of this latest chapter. But the Japanese and Pearl Harbor intervened, and there we were. After that, Europeans had to deal with another of their inventions, communism. This one had also started off in a promising fashion, but had eventually descended into mass murder and tyranny. Still, many Europeans remained fans, at least from a distance, and defended it until communism collapsed in a pile of contradictions and dead ideas. Europeans have a thing about tyranny. While not wanting it for themselves, they are more willing than most to tolerate it for others. Thus the disagreement over going after Saddam. Many Europeans believe that taking down Saddam was just wrong, and continued American peacekeeping in Iraq just compounds the error. Europeans had made their peace, and many business deals, with Saddam. And the Americans went in and screwed it all up. Europeans have been screwing things up far longer than Americans, and consider themselves experts. They are unhappy that the Americans do not follow the lead of Europe in these matters. Moreover, Europeans cannot accept that they could be wrong, despite any evidence to the contrary. This is a major component of European cultural superiority.
And, lastly, we have the major differences between the media version of what's going on, and the military one. The media are looking for newsworthy events (bad news preferred, good news does not sell, and news is a business). The military sees it as a process, a campaign, a series of battles that will lead to a desired conclusion. The event driven media have a hard time comprehending this process stuff, but it doesn't really matter to them, since the media lives from headline to headline. For the military, the campaign in Iraq has been a success. The enemy, the Sunni Arabs, have been determined and resourceful. But the American strategy of holding the Sunni Arabs at bay, while the Kurds and Shia Arabs built a security force capable of dealing with the Sunni Arab terrorists, has worked. But that's good news, and thus not news. But every terrorist attack by Sunni Arabs is news, and gets reported with intensity and enthusiasm.
But in the end, process usually wins. News events are often turned into obstacles. Journalists understand that their audience generally has no memory for past reporting that was inaccurate. What is of the moment takes precedence in peoples minds. Politicians play the same game, rewriting history freely, secure in the knowledge that their followers will go along with the revisions, and their opponents will have to play the news event game to score any points with the undecided. Human nature being what it is, the majority of the population pays little attention to the buzz of news, unless, like an outstanding TV or radio commercial, some journalist comes up with an event that registers big time. This changes perceptions, for a while at least, and often creates an artificial reality in the minds of many. This time, it isn't quite working that way. The troops can email back their experiences promptly, and this causes a disconnect in many people, between what they see in the news, and what they are hearing from people who are in the middle of it all. How all this will play out is as yet unknown, which is what makes it so interesting. There's more going on in Iraq than a war.