Monday, June 05, 2006

The "hazy" and "gauzy" Haditha story

Note: Technical problems all day prevented me from posting this much earlier. Apologies.

In Iraq, the Bush administration and its defenders have been dealing in recent days with yet another tricky public relations dilemma:

Last Thursday, the new Iraqi prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, whom President Bush proudly calls his "ally and friend," uttered some decidely unfriendly comments about that alleged massacre by Marines of 24 innocent Iraqi civilians in Haditha -- and about what he views as a hostile American military attitude toward Iraqi civilians in general.

He charged that violence against civilians, perpetrated by the American-dominated coalition, is "a regular occurrence." He said that many troops in the coalition "do not respect the Iraqi people. They crush them with their vehicles and kill them just on suspicion. This is completely unacceptable."

This was most embarrassing for the White House. Maliki is supposedly our pal, our new bulwark against the bad guys. Therefore he could not be simply dismissed as, say, a "Bush-bashing hysteric" or "liberal handwringer" or "cut and runner" or "Michael Moore clone."

So the decision was made to say that Maliki was simply misquoted. Last Friday, Bush flak Tony Snow told the White House press corps that our own ambassador to Iraq had consulted with Maliki, and that Maliki had told our ambassador, who then told the White House, that Maliki had never actually said what he was quoted as saying.

Got that?
Or maybe this is clearer. Here's Snow: "(I)t becomes a little convoluted, and so I don't want to make a real clear characterization, because it's a little hazy to me, too. All right? What I do know is that he was misquoted, he's looking into it. But that what he said, and when he said it, and in reaction to what is a little gauzy."

Which brings us to Condoleezza Rice's appearance yesterday on Fox News Sunday. When asked about Maliki's remark, she came up with a new defense. They're not claiming any longer that Maliki was misquoted; that spin is apparently inoperative. The new spin is that he was quoted accurately, but out of some larger and unspecified context.

She said that Maliki's charge about Americans killing civilians "was in a much longer set of comments." She didn't elaborate on what that "longer set of comments" was, or whether those comments somehow canceled out his provocative charge. But she needn't have worried about being pressured to explain, because Fox News was having none of that. Her helpful host, Chris Wallace, only asked one question about Maliki's charge, and here it is: "What do you think of his broad criticism of the role of U.S. troops who, after all, liberated his country?"

Translation: Hey Condi, can you believe the gall and ingratitude of that guy, daring to knock America?

Fox's hospitality notwithstanding, other crucial questions could have been asked. Such as:

Madame Secretary, on another touchy PR matter, can you explain why -- nearly seven months after Haditha, and long after the death certificates proved that the innocent civilians had been shot at close range -- the Marines' PR office still hasn't corrected its Nov. 20 press release which stated that the innocents "were killed yesterday from the blast of a roadside bomb"? And why, as late as January, was a Marine spokesman telling inquiring reporters that asking questions about Haditha was the same as swallowing al Qaeda propaganda? Was that appropriate?

But even as Time and Newsweek both give Haditha cover treatment this week (thereby, no doubt, sparking talk of treason among Fourth Estate-haters), some questions are being raised within media circles that perhaps the press was lax in uncovering the story. One such account appears here.

And this article provides a broader perspective on the Marines' thankless task in Iraq, and of how Haditha could have happened ("Like other Marine battles, from Tripoli to Iwo Jima to Khe Sanh, the story of their battles in Iraq will center on themes of extraordinary hardship, endurance and loss, as well as a remorselessness in combat, that offer a context, though hardly any exoneration, for what survivors allege happened that November day.").