Monday, October 17, 2011

Much Ado About Nothing, How The Western Press Got The Story Of The U.S. Troop Withdrawal From Iraq Wrong Again

When it comes to reporting on whether the United States will ultimately withdraw its forces from Iraq on December 31, 2011, the western media is forming a bad habit of getting the story wrong. At the beginning of October, the press ran headlines that Iraq’s political parties had met, and agreed to allow U.S. trainers to stay into 2012. This overlooked the fact that this decision had already been made in August, and the real point of the conference was to work out the differences between the lists that remained from the March 2010 parliamentary elections. The Associated Press just made another bad report, when it claimed that the White House had given up on keeping combat troops in Iraq. Again, this ignored the previous discussions between the two sides that had agreed to only keep trainers within Iraq. This inconsistent coverage is giving the Western public a distorted view of what’s going on within the country.
U.S. soldiers withdrawing from Basra airport, Sep. 7, 2011 (Reuters)
 On October 15, the Associated Press claimed that the White House had given up on its hope to keep troops in Iraq past 2011. It said that the U.S. had been pushing for several thousand soldiers to stay past the withdrawal deadline, but that Baghdad’s refusal to offer them immunity had sunk those plans. The article then went on to say that talks about allowing trainers to stay was still on going. Overall, this was a non-story. The administration had already given up on the idea of keeping thousands of its forces in Iraq. Fox News noted that back in September. That was in response to the Iraqis, who had only agreed upon a small training force the month before. That led American officials to refute the Associated Press the next day. All the discussions between Washington and Baghdad are currently focused upon the immunity issue, with the latter providing some possible loopholes for the Americans to use to get around it. Those include keeping trainers under NATO, which already has a small assistance force in the country, or placing them under the Office of Security Cooperation that works under the State Department. The Iraqis are unwilling to provide legal protection to the U.S. troops because of past abuses like Abu Ghraib and the Blackwater incident when private security forces killed several civilians, but they are apparently looking for compromises that the U.S. can live with. All the Iraqi parties, with the exception of the Sadrists have said that Iraq’s security forces still need assistance with intelligence, air defense, border control, logistics, and the new advanced equipment they are purchasing such as jet fighters, tanks, and artillery. At the same time, they want whatever force that stays to be on their own terms, and not be dictated to them by the Americans.

The problem with all these reports is that they are giving confusing messages about what is going on in Iraq. The Associated Press story was included in a wide variety of media sources, and gave the impression that all U.S. forces would be out by the end of the year. This is unlikely to happen, as both Washington and Baghdad want trainers to stay. When the new year starts, and soldiers are still in Iraq, some in the States will ask what happened. Not only that, but the Iraqi perspective on the matter is rarely noted. Besides the Iraqis insistence on not giving the U.S. immunity, their needs are hardly reported. The fact that Iraq’s military is almost completely incapable of defending the country from foreign threats is the driving force behind their desire to keep some trainers past 2011. Current Iraqi plans, don’t have the security forces ready for that task until 2020, and even that might be too optimistic. In a region with yearly shelling and air strikes by Turkey and Iran, insurgents infiltrating from Syria, and Iran providing lethal support to Special Groups, a strong and competent military are a necessity to deter these countries from continuing their interference in a weak Iraq. Reporters need to do a better job exploring Baghdad’s perspective, and reporting on Iraq in general.


Associated Press, “Iraq Withdrawal: U.S. Abandoning Plans To Keep Troops In Country,” 10/15/11

Fox News, “Sources: Obama Administration to Drop Troop Levels in Iraq to 3,000,” 9/6/11

Markey, Patrick, “Analysis: Iraq U.S. troop deal drifts over immunity,” Reuters, 10/16/11

Reuters, “U.S.: No Decision Yet On Future Troop Presence In Iraq,” 10/16/11


Resaca Rose/Pam said...

Before the invasion of Iraq I thought that Saddam Huessein (sp) was bluffing when he didn't want the nuclear inspectors in his country because if he didn't have weapons Kuwait and Iran might want to kick his ass. No normal sane person believed me, but that's what I thought.

Joel Wing said...

Saddam did allow the U.N. inspectors back into Iraq beginning in Nov. 02. They worked right up to before the war started in March 03. The nuclear inspectors led by the International Atomic Energy Agency were quite clear that they found no evidence of a renewed nuclear program. And you are right, part of the reason why Saddam never came completely clean about his WMD programs was because he wanted to deter Iran, Iraq's historical rival dating back centuries.

Steve Donnelly, AICP said...

The same things happened with the SOFA in late 2008. If you understood what was being said on Iraqi TV as the SOFA negotiations proceeded (together with the background history of aversion to foreign occupation), it was clear throughout that the SOFA, as adopted, was the best that could ever be obtained: US Forces out of the cities as fast as possible; departure in stages as soon as possible.

It is very difficult any more for the press to provide the depth of coverage in a war zone that can give a complete perspective to US readers---whether that is because of embeddedness, reliance on press releases (which are often motivated to influence events), or editors economically desperate to chase readers (tell them what they want to hear, or, at least, bury the unpleasant parts on later pages). Not sure that much is different from, say, the Spanish American War (Remember the Alamo!) where the actual history gets pieced together. Having said that, it should be recognized that active US diplomatic and military officials in a war zone are actually trying to do something quite different with the media than what a police spokesman is back home. With that understanding, it is as easy to understand what Saddam was doing with WMD (to protect against its enemies) as we were for other purposes. Media as an active target is not anything new.