Tit for Tet
The media follow the Vietnam script in Iraq. Will the Democrats' victory change that?

The American Spectator, February 2007

Was the enemy in Iraq rooting for the Democrats to take over Congress? It's an inflammatory question, but Thomas Friedman of the New York Times seemed to think the answer was yes. In a remarkable column that appeared three weeks before the election, Friedman predicted a spike in violence, à la the Tet Offensive in 1968:

Although the Vietcong and Hanoi were badly mauled during Tet, they delivered, through the media, such a psychological blow to U.S. hopes of "winning" in Vietnam that Tet is widely credited with eroding support for President Johnson and driving him to withdraw as a candidate for reelection. . . .

While there may be no single hand coordinating the upsurge in violence in Iraq, enough people seem to be deliberately stoking the fires there before our election that the parallel with Tet is not inappropriate. The jihadists want to sow so much havoc that Bush supporters will be defeated in the midterms and the president will face a revolt from his own party, as well as from Democrats, if he does not begin a pullout from Iraq.

Friedman expected the media to follow the Vietnam script (see "Bad News Bearers," TAS, February 2006), in which a war is supposed to become a quagmire, which provokes opposition and leads to American withdrawal.

True to the script, the Democrats won control of both the House and Senate, in part because of public dissatisfaction with Iraq. But the election was not entirely-or even mostly-a referendum on the war. Many other factors contributed to the Republican defeat: corruption, overspending, Democratic cleverness in recruiting candidates, the usual sixth-year dissatisfaction with the party in power. Among the Republicans who lost their seats were Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and Reps. John Hostettler of Indiana and Jim Leach of Iowa, all of whom opposed the Iraq war from the beginning. That leaves only two anti-Iraq Republicans in Congress.

Connecticut offered the clearest refutation of the idea that the voters were eager to bug out of Iraq. In an August primary, Sen. Joseph Lieberman lost his party's nomination to McGovernite billionaire Ned Lamont. Lieberman is the Democratic Party's most steadfast supporter of the war effort and one of its staunchest backers in either party. Some called him a de facto Republican. But he was unhindered by the GOP's other problems, so that even in a very liberal state he was able to trounce Lamont, 50 percent to 40 percent, with most of the balance going to the hapless Republican nominee.

After the election, a funny thing happened. On November 12-the Sunday after the Democrats' victory- the New York Times acknowledged that America couldn't simply walk away from Iraq:

The Democrats will not be able to savor their victory for long. Americans are waiting to hear if they have any good ideas for how to get out of Iraq without creating even wider chaos and terrorism.

Criticizing President Bush's gross mismanagement of the war was a winning electoral strategy. But criticism will not extricate the United States from this mess, nor will it persuade voters that the Democrats are ready to take back the White House. . . .

The Democrats will also need to look forward- and quickly. So far they have shared slogans, but no real policy. During the campaign, their most common call was for a "phased redeployment"-a euphemism for withdrawal-of American troops starting before the end of this year.

In ensuing days, the news pages of the Times echoed the theme that precipitous withdrawal would be foolish and dangerous. "Get Out Now? Not So Fast, Experts Say," read the headline of a November 15 "military analysis." The argument for quick withdrawal, wrote Michael Gordon of the Times, "is being challenged by a number of military officers, experts and former generals, including some who have been among the most vehement critics of the Bush administration's Iraq policies."

A November 30 "news analysis" by David Sanger made the point even more strongly:

In the cacophony of competing plans about how to deal with Iraq, one reality now appears clear: despite the Democrats' victory this month in an election viewed as a referendum on the war, the idea of a rapid American troop withdrawal is fast receding as a viable option.
These articles predated and perhaps anticipated the December 6 report of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, which, for all its criticism of the war effort, was unequivocal in its opposition to a quick exit:

A premature American departure from Iraq would almost certainly produce greater sectarian violence and further deterioration of conditions. . . . The near-term results would be a significant power vacuum, greater human suffering, regional destabilization, and a threat to the global economy. Al Qaeda would depict our withdrawal as a historic victory. If we leave and Iraq descends into chaos, the long-range consequences could eventually require the United States to return.

A year earlier, the media had been trumpeting Rep. John Murtha's call for an immediate "redeployment" from Iraq to Okinawa. But having won the election, the Democrats would soon have to assume a share of the responsibility for events in Iraq-and simply withdrawing without heeding the consequences was not a responsible option. Suddenly even the Times was departing from the Vietnam script.

What's most remarkable about that Vietnam script is something Tom Friedman acknowledged but didn't emphasize in that October column: The media might have turned public opinion against the war, but they did so by getting the story wrong-by presenting a U.S. military success as a failure. Whether this pattern is repeating itself in Iraq it is too early to say, but two things are indisputable: The media are presenting an overwhelmingly negative picture of Iraq, and they do not take kindly to those who challenge their reporting.

In late November the Associated Press reported that Shiite attackers had burned six Baghdad Sunnis to death. The AP's source was a police captain named Jamil Hussein. The Iraqi Interior Ministry said it employed no such man, and a U.S. Navy public affairs officer wrote to the AP saying, "We respectfully request that AP issue a retraction, or a correction at a minimum, acknowledging that the source named in the story is not who he claimed he was."

Not surprisingly, international editor John Daniszewski stood by the AP's story. But the tone in which he did so was astonishingly aggressive:

The Associated Press denounces unfounded attacks on its story about six Sunni worshipers burned to death outside their mosque on Friday, November 24. The attempt to question the existence of the known police officer who spoke to the AP is frankly ludicrous and hints at a certain level of desperation to dispute or suppress the facts of the incident in question.
Early in January, the AP reported that the Interior Ministry had reversed itself and acknowledged Hussein's existence. Yet even if Daniszewski was right on the substance, his tone was reminiscent of Dan Rather and Mary Mapes, who, when their journalistic malfeasance was exposed, lashed out at their critics with a paranoia worthy of Richard Nixon. Notwithstanding the ethos of post-Vietnam journalism-the "adversary" press "speaking truth to power"-today's newsmen are awfully prickly when their own authority comes into question.

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

Next article: Reckless Caution (2/8/07)

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