New York Times
December 2, 2005
The overthrow of Saddam Hussein was supposed to provide the world with a demonstration of American power. It didn't work out that way. But the Bush administration has come up with the next best thing: a demonstration of American PowerPoint. Bullets haven't subdued the insurgents in Iraq, but the administration hopes that bullet points will subdue the critics at home.
The National Security Council document released this week under the grandiose title "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq" is neither an analytical report nor a policy statement. It's simply the same old talking points - "victory in Iraq is a vital U.S. interest"; "failure is not an option" - repackaged in the style of a slide presentation for a business meeting.
It's an embarrassing piece of work. Yet it's also an important test for the news media. The Bush administration has lost none of its confidence that it can get away with fuzzy math and fuzzy facts - that it won't be called to account for obvious efforts to mislead the public. It's up to journalists to prove that confidence wrong.
Here's an example of how the White House attempts to mislead: the new document assures us that Iraq's economy is doing really well. "Oil production increased from an average of 1.58 million barrels per day in 2003, to an average of 2.25 million barrels per day in 2004." The document goes on to concede a "slight decrease" in production since then.
We're not expected to realize that the daily average for 2003 includes the months just before, during and just after the invasion of Iraq, when its oil industry was basically shut down. As a result, we're not supposed to understand that the real story of Iraq's oil industry is one of unexpected failure: instead of achieving the surge predicted by some of the war's advocates, Iraqi production has rarely matched its prewar level, and has been on a downward trend for the past year.
What about the security situation? During much of 2004, the document tells us: "Fallujah, Najaf, and Samara were under enemy control. Today, these cities are under Iraqi government control."
Najaf was never controlled by the "enemy," if that means the people we're currently fighting. It was briefly controlled by Moktada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army. The United States once vowed to destroy that militia, but these days it's as strong as ever. And according to The New York Times, Mr. Sadr has now become a "kingmaker in Iraqi politics." So what sort of victory did we win, exactly, in Najaf?
Moreover, in what sense is Najaf now under government control? According to The Christian Science Monitor, "Sadr supporters and many Najaf residents say an armed Badr Brigade" - the militia of a Shiite group that opposes Mr. Sadr and his supporters - "still exists as the Najaf police force."
Meanwhile, this is the third time that coalition forces have driven the insurgents out of Samara. On the two previous occasions, the insurgents came back after the Americans left. And there, too, it's stretching things to say that the city is under Iraqi government control: according to The Associated Press, only 100 of the city's 700 policemen show up for work on most days.
There's a lot more like that in the document. Refuting some of the upbeat assertions about Iraq requires specialized knowledge, but many of them can be quickly debunked by anyone with an Internet connection.
The point isn't just that the administration is trying, yet again, to deceive the public. It's the fact that this attempt at deception shows such contempt - contempt for the public, and especially contempt for the news media. And why not? The truth is that the level of misrepresentation in this new document is no worse than that in a typical speech by President Bush or Vice President Dick Cheney. Yet for much of the past five years, many major news organizations failed to provide the public with effective fact-checking.
So Mr. Bush's new public relations offensive on Iraq is a test. Are the news media still too cowed, too addicted to articles that contain little more than dueling quotes to tell the public when the administration is saying things that aren't true? Or has the worm finally turned?
There have been encouraging signs, notably a thorough front-page fact-checking article - which even included charts showing the stagnation of oil production and electricity generation! - in USA Today. But the next few days will tell.