Monday, December 11, 2006

In decorous language, the wise men expose the Bush credibility gap

Appearing yesterday on Meet the Press, Bush family consigliere James Baker was in the midst of discussing his Iraq Study Group report when he flatly stated: “We don’t spend any time wringing our hands about what happened or might not have happened in the past…Everything in our report is forward-looking.”

Well, Baker is a seasoned political poker player, and that surely explains why he was able to utter those remarks with a straight face. Because, in reality, one of the prime strengths of the bipartisan report is its willingness to revisit the past and boldly chart the Bush administration incompetence that has brought the American mission in Iraq to the brink of ruin.

The Bush team and its defenders have frequently sought to blame “the media” for the woes in Iraq, essentially by arguing that domestic morale has been sapped by journalists who report the bad news while ignoring the good. Bush himself has complained about this since the autumn of 2003, when he said: “we’re making good progress in Iraq. Sometimes it’s hard to tell it when you listen to the filter.” He complained again this past March, saying, “People resuming their normal lives will never be as dramatic as the footage of an IED explosion,” and, as always, the Fox News team seconded the sentiment. Sean Hannity said there has been "a total and almost complete focus on all the negative aspects of the war."

But Baker and his ISG colleagues demonstrate in their report that blaming the media is a fraudulent exercise. They take no issue with the journalists’ reporting of the violence in Iraq; their beef is with the Bush war team – which, as a matter of official statistical policy, has consistently sought to minimize the violence in Iraq…and has done so in order to protect the Bush administration’s ideological agenda.

It’s right there, in passages buried deep in the report:

“(T)here is significant underreporting of the violence in Iraq. The standard for recording attacks acts as a filter to keep events out of reports and databases.

“A murder of an Iraqi is not necessarily counted as an attack. If we cannot determine the source of a sectarian attack, that assault does not make it into the database. A roadside bomb or a rocket or mortar attack that doesn’t hurt U.S. personnel doesn’t count.

“For example, on one day in July 2006 there were 93 attacks of significant acts of violence reported. Yet a careful review of the reports for that single day brought to light 1,100 acts of violence.”

93 acts of violence reported, as opposed to 1,100 acts of violence committed…Baker and his colleagues are too decorous to state the obvious, but what they are essentially saying here is that the Bush administration, in its official capacity, falsely skews its information.

The next line in the ISG report is particularly damning, even though its bureaucratese may require you to read it twice: “Good policy is difficult to make when information is systematically collected in a way that minimizes its discrepancy with policy goals.” That’s dry stuff, intentionally so. But, as an attack on the Bush administration, it has real power. Baker and his colleagues are saying that the war team has “systematically” sought to hide the true extent of the Iraq violence so as not to expose the flaws in the neoconservative mission.

(Read that italicized sentence again. Now read what British officials wrote in their now-famous Downing Street memo, about the Bush team's prewar sales pitch: "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy." Sound familiar?)

All told, the ISG report demonstrates that there has been a serious disconnect between the facts on the ground, and what Americans were being told by the Bush administration (in the president’s words in December 2005, there is “quiet steady progress”). And by exposing the in-house informational coverup, the ISG report probably makes it far less likely that the administration will try in the future to blame the downward spiral in Iraq on the journalists who are reporting it. (Although, on CNN this weekend, Bush spokesman Tony Snow made one drive-by remark, accusing the Iraq correspondents of peddling "a failure narrative.")

But journalists well know that the release of the ISG report will not prevent the war’s staunchest defenders from seeking to blame them anyway. Four decades after Vietnam, it’s a virtual axiom in some circles that “the media” “lost” that war, by reporting so much of the bad news. And as Iraq continues to deteriorate, the same line is being floated again; as Michael Novak argues on Rupert Murdoch’s Weekly Standard website, “What we have discovered in Iraq is the weakest link in the ability of the United States to sustain military operations overseas. That link is the U.S. media. They are Islamists' best friends.”

The people who now consider Baker to be a “surrender monkey” are not likely to endorse his contention that it’s the Bush administration, not the media, that should be blamed for destructively shoddy reporting.