The uproar over Bob Woodwardâ€™s new book has intensified the media focus on a basic controversy thatâ€™s summed up this way: Is Iraq a quagmire?
Like many other debates that flourish in American mass media, the standard answers on both sides are wrong — because the question bypasses human realities.
Most obviously, Iraq is not a swamp; itâ€™s a place where real people live and die. They are not metaphors, and neither is their country. Iraqi
people exist quite apart from the roles imputed to them by politicians and journalists in Washington.
But â€œquagmireâ€ serves as a kind of mental framework for where most U.S. media coverage has remained.
Forget the American Century. This is the American Narcissism.
You see, no matter what happens in Iraq, itâ€™s mostly about us — spelled U.S.; the United States. Weâ€™re encouraged to perceive that Iraq is most important, at least implicitly, because of what it means for the USA: its image in other countries, the deaths and wounds of its soldiers, the political strength of the president and, this fall, the likely effects on the midterm congressional elections.
During September, as the Nexis media database attests, the USAâ€™s sizeable newspapers and wire services ran articles referring to Iraq as a â€œquagmireâ€ several times a day. Readers of the New York Times have seen such references on an average of once a week this year. Overall, major U.S. media outlets have associated Iraq with the term â€œquagmireâ€ thousands of times in 2006.
Some of those references are from war supporters eager to dispute the notion that â€œquagmireâ€ is applicable to whatâ€™s going on in Iraq. They challenge the relevance of the word yet do not hesitate to recycle other cliches that were also used in public debate about the Vietnam War four decades ago — and so we hear that the United States must â€œstay the courseâ€ and must not â€œcut and run.â€
But to focus arguments on whether the Iraq war should be called a â€œquagmireâ€ is to flatten moral issues, transmuting them into matters of
strategy and efficacy. That may sound like appropriate journalistic attention to practical politics. However, if a war is wrong, the wisdom of supporting it shouldnâ€™t hinge on whether itâ€™s a quagmire or a cakewalk.
Criticisms of the war that accuse it of being a â€œquagmireâ€ can be disputed with lofty calls to persevere — doing the difficult right
thing — until conditions on the ground change, the Iraqi government gets stronger and so forth. But opposition to the war that turns on morality cannot be so easily deflected in such ways.
The extreme American self-absorption of the â€œquagmireâ€ debate lends itself to ostensible solutions that shift — but perpetuate — the U.S.
governmentâ€™s central role in the carnage. Reigning political manipulator Karl Rove, whose Machiavellian electoral calculations have had
extraordinary leverage over the current administrationâ€™s foreign policy, is very likely to seek further U.S. reliance on air power that uses the latest Pentagon technologies as blunt and lethal instruments in Iraq.
A key goal will be to bring down U.S. casualty rates and reduce American troop levels in Iraq while the people of that country suffer
further deaths and destruction.
If the Iraq war is primarily framed as a problem because of what itâ€™s doing to Americans, the â€œsolutionsâ€ could make the war seem like less of a quagmire even while more Iraqi people pay with their lives. Media arguments over whether Iraq is a quagmire turn the spotlight away from the human calamities that Iraqis are experiencing on a daily basis, while American taxpayers continue to subsidize Uncle Samâ€™s deadly machinations.
Sometimes the fancy words donâ€™t provide the kind of clarity that we need. â€œQuagmireâ€ may sound sophisticated and realpolitik; many journalists and pundits seem to think so. But that doesnâ€™t really get to the essence of the war.
Itâ€™s not a quagmire.
The paperback edition of Norman Solomonâ€™s latest book, War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death, was published this summer. For information, go to: www.warmadeeasy.com