Iraq and The New York Times: Turkeys Come Home to Roast

Today’s New York Times print edition ran a cover story on Iraq accompanied by the kind of ample photo spread the paper usually fills with a buffet of limp corpses, weeping mothers, and soldiers in prosthetic rehabilitation. But today’s photos … Read More

By / November 20, 2007

Today’s New York Times print edition ran a cover story on Iraq accompanied by the kind of ample photo spread the paper usually fills with a buffet of limp corpses, weeping mothers, and soldiers in prosthetic rehabilitation. But today’s photos captured a joyous Baghdad wedding, an amiable Baghdad restaurant scene, and a busy Baghdad marketplace. The piece was about increased security and an emergent sense of normalcy in Iraq.


 From The New York Times:

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.


If you’ve followed The Iraq War using The New York Times as your only source, you’re pretty confused right now. The narrative would run as follows: for four and half years American imperialists visited Armageddon on the innocent people of Mesopotamia. Then for four months the same foul forces employed a military shill and delivered a more attenuated version of hell-on-earth. Then on November 20, 2007, in some kind of Hawkingesque spacetime singularity, there was sudden hope and progress in Baghdad. And that’s just from the reporting side of the paper. If you’ve chanced to peek over the much touted “firewall” dividing the reportage on the front page from the analysis in the editorial and op-ed sections you’re really lost at sea. Because as Dowd, Kristoff, Rich and co. will tell you, this was not only an oil grab, a power grab, an Oedipal psychodrama, and a neoconservative delusion all at once, but it was also lost before it began.


So, why the change in The New York Times? Things have simply reached a saturation point. If credibility is a concern at all, you can only go so long saying black is white and white is black. With the flood of good news coming from Iraq, The Times knew the game was up.


I don’t think I’m alone in sensing a moment here. Christopher Hitchens’ Slate piece this week was a circumspect expression of thanks for the apparent turn of events in Baghdad. Hitch has, in the past, fallen prey to a small degree of premature triumphalism in regards to the war and it seems that genuine promise demands something a little more humble. He writes:


To have savaged and discredited al-Qaida in an open fight and to have taken down a fascist Baath Party, which betrayed its pseudosecularism by forging an alliance with al-Qaida, is to have scored an impressive victory on any terms. However, the price of this achievement was often the indulgence of some excessive conduct on the part of the Shiite parties and militias. The next stage must be the reining-in of the Sadrists and the discouragement of Iranian support for such groups. Again, one hardly dares to hope, but there are some promising signs.

Whether or not one is very hopeful (as am I) about Iraq it pays not to invite hubris. Anything can happen. But one thing needs to be mentioned more: to whatever extent normalcy prevails in today’s Iraq it cannot be called a “return” to that condition. Under Saddam Hussein, Iraqi normalcy meant a 24hour fear state and unimaginable misery. If things proceed satisfactorily in Iraq no one should say that the U.S. managed to stabilize a nation it destroyed. Rather, coalition forces succeeded in nurturing the growth of consensual government in a region that had never known anything like it.


I’m never not moved when Hitchens describes the American Revolution as the last revolution that’s still kicking. It’s with hope for Iraq that I refer to Mark Steyn’s recent syndicated piece about Thanksgiving and the blessings of the nation state. Steyn writes:

So Americans should be thankful they have one of the last functioning nation states. Because they've been so inept at exercising it, Europeans no longer believe in national sovereignty, whereas it would never occur to Americans not to. This profoundly different attitude to the nation state underpins in turn Euro-American attitudes to transnational institutions such as the U.N. But on this Thanksgiving the rest of the world ought to give thanks to American national sovereignty, too. When something terrible and destructive happens — a tsunami hits Indonesia, an earthquake devastates Pakistan — the U.S. can project itself anywhere on the planet within hours and start saving lives, setting up hospitals and restoring the water supply. Aside from Britain and France, the Europeans cannot project power in any meaningful way anywhere. When they sign on to an enterprise they claim to believe in — shoring up Afghanistan's fledgling post-Taliban democracy — most of them send token forces under constrained rules of engagement that prevent them doing anything more than manning the photocopier back at the base. If America were to follow the Europeans and maintain only shriveled attenuated residual military capacity, the world would very quickly be nastier and bloodier, and far more unstable. It's not just Americans and Iraqis and Afghans who owe a debt of thanks to the U.S. soldier but all the Europeans grown plump and prosperous in a globalized economy guaranteed by the most benign hegemon in history.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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