Monday, March 12, 2007

Robert Kagan's Lies and Distortions

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I wanted to add a couple of thoughts to the able commentary from Barbara O'Brien and Glenn Greenwald about Robert Kagan's "The Surge Is Succeeding" op-ed in yesterday's Washington Post.

Barbara pointed out that Kagan's conclusion that the surge is a success apparently is based on two reports he read on the Internet, one from Iraq the Model bloggers Mohammad and Omar Fadhil, and the other from NBC correspondent Brian Williams. Here is that passage in Kagan's piece:

Some observers are reporting the shift. Iraqi bloggers Mohammed and Omar Fadhil, widely respected for their straight talk, say that "early signs are encouraging." The first impact of the "surge," they write, was psychological. Both friends and foes in Iraq had been convinced, in no small part by the American media, that the United States was preparing to pull out. When the opposite occurred, this alone shifted the dynamic.

As the Fadhils report, "Commanders and lieutenants of various militant groups abandoned their positions in Baghdad and in some cases fled the country." The most prominent leader to go into hiding has been Moqtada al-Sadr. His Mahdi Army has been instructed to avoid clashes with American and Iraqi forces, even as coalition forces begin to establish themselves in the once off-limits Sadr City.

Before the arrival of Gen. David Petraeus, the Army's leading counterinsurgency strategist, U.S. forces tended to raid insurgent and terrorist strongholds and then pull back and hand over the areas to Iraqi forces, who failed to hold them. The Fadhils report, "One difference between this and earlier -- failed -- attempts to secure Baghdad is the willingness of the Iraqi and U.S. governments to commit enough resources for enough time to make it work." In the past, bursts of American activity were followed by withdrawal and a return of the insurgents. Now, the plan to secure Baghdad "is becoming stricter and gaining momentum by the day as more troops pour into the city, allowing for a better implementation of the 'clear and hold' strategy." Baghdadis "always want the 'hold' part to materialize, and feel safe when they go out and find the Army and police maintaining their posts -- the bad guys can't intimidate as long as the troops are staying."

A greater sense of confidence produces many benefits. The number of security tips about insurgents that Iraqi civilians provide has jumped sharply. Stores and marketplaces are reopening in Baghdad, increasing the sense of community. People dislocated by sectarian violence are returning to their homes. As a result, "many Baghdadis feel hopeful again about the future, and the fear of civil war is slowly being replaced by optimism that peace might one day return to this city," the Fadhils report. "This change in mood is something huge by itself."

Apparently some American journalists see the difference. NBC's Brian Williams recently reported a dramatic change in Ramadi since his previous visit. The city was safer; the airport more secure. The new American strategy of "getting out, decentralizing, going into the neighborhoods, grabbing a toehold, telling the enemy we're here, start talking to the locals -- that is having an obvious and palpable effect." U.S. soldiers forged agreements with local religious leaders and pushed al-Qaeda back -- a trend other observers have noted in some Sunni-dominated areas. The result, Williams said, is that "the war has changed."

Three problems (at minimum): First, the brothers (I'm assuming they are brothers) do say that early signs are encouraging, but that is a long, long way from saying that the surge is "succeeding" -- and indeed, the Fadhils do not say this. Furthermore, no reasonable person, if that person was being honest, could detect such a conclusion in any of the posts on Iraq the Model that I have seen. See this post as an example.

Second problem: I could not find any of the direct quotes Kagan attributes to the Fadhils anywhere on Iraq the Model, going back to before the surge began. What this means, I'm not sure; but at the very least it tells me that Kagan's attributions are misleading and unclear.

In addition, the indirect reference Kagan makes to the Fadhils' thoughts on the "psychological" effects of the surge (see the first paragraph in the above quote paste) is nowhere on their blog that I can find. Unless I've missed it, Mohammad and Omar do not mention anything about "friends or foes" believing the United States was preparing to pull out of Iraq. Maybe they would agree with Kagan's assessment, but the point is, Kagan is referencing support for his conclusions that he has not demonstrated actually exists.

Third problem: what Kagan writes about Brian Williams' assessment of the surge's progress does not square with Howard Kurtz's column today. Not that Howard Kurtz is a fount of unbiased wisdom, but there is clearly a disconnect between Williams' assessment of post-surge Iraq as filtered through Kurtz and Robert Kagan's claim that Williams sees a "dramatic change" in Iraq:

Soon after arriving in Iraq, Brian Williams was listening to an Army colonel describe how much safer Ramadi had gotten when another soldier shouted that it was too dangerous to stand there and hustled them inside the military outpost.

Days later at the Baghdad airport, Williams and his team heard five explosions, saw smoke rising near the taxiway in front of them, and were relieved to board the Fokker jet that carried them out of the country.

"How is it that these guys are running around with mortars, four years into this conflict?" the NBC anchor says of the insurgents. "We need to provide safe passage into that airport, and we're still doing corkscrew landings? It's crazy."

Reporting in Iraq is a series of risk-benefit assessments. The day after 118 Iraqi pilgrims were killed in a series of coordinated attacks, Williams canceled a planned visit to an open-air Shiite market, based on advice from his team, which included a retired general. He passed up other outings as well for safety reasons.

Under the circumstances, he was asked Friday, hours after landing in New York, why did he insist on going?

"So many nightly newscasts begin with Iraq," Williams says. "It is quickly emerging as the story of our times. This trip will now educate and color the way I write about this story. There is absolutely no substitute for going out and touching it and seeing it."
One drawback of reporting in the bosom of the U.S. military is an abundance of military optimism, and perhaps spin, from those who are providing protection. The Williams trip was a microcosm of the journalistic dilemma in Iraq: How do you balance the constant violence with a fair assessment of whether President Bush's escalation is starting to work?

"There was a total dichotomy and disconnect between the valiant efforts of the infantry in small outposts, converting people one by one, taking out their trash, almost, and how the overall view of all that can be erased with one car bomb or one vest bomb," Williams says. "It's valid to say that tells the story of Iraq."

Last Monday, for instance, Williams reported that targeted military patrols had produced "pockets of relative peace where there had been awful ongoing violence." But other events conveyed a darker picture. Williams also reported that evening that a suicide bomber had killed at least 20 people. The next night, "despite the upbeat tone of some U.S. commanders," he said, the news was that 10 American soldiers, and at least 150 Iraqi pilgrims, had been killed in a series of separate attacks.

One final point: Kagan says, "The number of security tips about insurgents that Iraqi civilians provide has jumped sharply" -- a development, if true, that Kagan attributes to Iraqis' "greater sense of confidence" as a result of increased U.S. troop levels in Baghdad. Steve at No More Mr. Nice Blog did a smashing good job of proving that this claim is nothing new. Another apt response, though, might be: So what? So what if U.S. troops are getting lots of tips -- what matters is the truth to lie ratio. According to George Packer's 2005 book, The Assassins' Gate, based on his award-winning reporting from Iraq, that ratio is pretty low:

American soldiers had a phrase for the Iraqis' habit of turning one another in. Prior [a rifle company commander in Anbar Province]once used it: "These people dime each other out like there's no tomorrow." With these betrayals, Iraqis played on soldiers' fear and ignorance, pulling them into private feuds that the Americans had no way of navigating [pp. 230, 231].

Another American, a sergeant named Lahan, told Packer, "Out of a hundred tips we've gotten from Iraqi intelligence, one has worked out."

There is only one link in Kagan's op-ed -- to that Iraq the Model blog that does not have the quotes Kagan attributes to it. To me, it looks like Kagan has manipulated and distorted the truth, and possibly outright lied, to make his case that Pres. Bush's escalation of the war is succeeding. Guess his case must be very weak, indeed.

1 comment:

DBK said...

My understanding is that this is the third or fourth time there was a troop buildup, the earlier ones not being publicized like this one was for PR purposes, and that the same things happened then: the insurgents melted away and when the troops left, they came back. There is nothing hopeful in that.

Also, the conclusions being drawn fly in the face of what I was told by Congressman Rothman (D-NJ) when he spoke to a few bloggers on the phone a week ago. He said that the Iraqi government was beginning to pull together and show signs of unity for the first time because of the Congress's announced intention to get the troops out of Iraq. They realized that we were going to be leaving and finally decided to quit screwing up and get serious.