On Point

Garner's Media Woes: When Will They Learn

by Austin Bay
April 23, 2003

According to his critics, Jay Garner is already Tommy Franks. No, I don"t mean the Gen. Franks of April 2003, but the Gen. Franks of March 2003 and -- for that matter -- of October 2001.

Garner's reconstruction effort is already in trouble with media fingerwaggers. Never mind that gunfire continues to sputter. Why, Garner lacks sufficient personnel, there's infighting at the Pentagon -- shucks, his plan is flawed.

Heard it before? Sure, track back three weeks with the likes of The New York Times' R.W. Apple excoriating Central Command. Reconstructing Iraq has barely begun, but the critical piling-on is already in progress. One horror among the usual cranks is Garner has oil industry contacts and he's retired military. Of course, anyone with a knack for the obvious knows both knocks are welcome assets, given Iraq's petroleum reserves and the iffy security situation. The cranks appear to prefer Garner be a Marxist sociology prof with a 'stop the war" tattoo on his tongue.

Everyone familiar with what the military calls civil affairs operations knows the task is difficult. It's time consuming, fraught with setbacks that surprise and frustrate even experienced pros. Garner's teams, backed by military forces, must conduct security patrols, pump water, fix roads and bring law to a land scarred by lawlessness.

The task includes reconciliation and education. As one Iraqi exile told me years ago, "We are all implicated by the regime." His admission echoes that of many East Germans after the end of the Cold War. East Germany's secret police had kids ratting out parents, neighbor implicating neighbor. Gossip could get you jailed or killed. Iraq is a repetition of that story, and personal guilt, distrust and anger run deep.

This plays out at the ethnic level. Many Kurds and Arab Shias swear Baghdad's Sunnis benefited from Saddam's dictatorship, though the list of Sunnis tortured and killed by the regime is as long as it is hideous. The task isn't simply "de-Baathization," it's de-traumatization and re-orientation. Garner has to help create political and economic mechanisms -- foster a faith in a better, obtainable future -- that will buffer these inevitable collisions.

Iraqis and Garner first discussed Garner's 13-point outline for Iraq's reconstruction at a meeting held in the ancient city of Ur. Ur has resonance. The biblical patriarch Abraham called Ur his hometown. Ur connects cultural origins common to West and Middle East.

The "Ur-Plan" for Iraq stipulates that the nation must be democratic. The future government should not be based on communal identity. The rule of law must be paramount. But what does the rule of law mean to a shattered nation emerging from a socio-pathic dictatorship? What does it mean to a Shia influenced by Iranian ayatollahs who assert that their harsh interpretation of shaaria law are the only rules?

Rule of law, of course, means the rule of secular law. UCLA law professor Khaled Abou El Fadl, writing in the Wall Street Journal, argued that Iraq's rich pre-Baath legacy of "jurisprudential experience" is a hopeful start, though he acknowledged the tension between civil law based on European models and "personal law" rooted in Islam. Other Iraqi exiles claim that the Iraqi people are eager for change. A fair distribution of oil income will literally grease the path to democracy.

Garner's and the Iraqi people's task is truly a 21st century endeavor. Their sweat, vision and spine must surmount some of the 20th century's worst fascist and socialist depredations, while finessing 12th century religious attitudes. They must accomplish this under the harsh gaze of an insistent, antsy media with biases to feed and ratings to spur.

For the sake of Iraq's people, better put some patient, credible minds behind that media gaze. How many critics got Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom dead wrong? Where are the massive civilian casualties and the quagmire in the sand? Spin it to me again, about Vietnam in Baghdad?

The Iraqi people have been freed from a despicable tyranny. Creating a resilient democracy will take time, with success or failure only following years of sustained effort.

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