My Hometown Paper

Small paragraphs on large topics (or sometimes you, the reader, have to do your own reporting):


Here, for instance, is the fourteenth paragraph of “Free Market Iraq? Not So Fast” by Daphne Eviatar in the Saturday Arts & Ideas section of the New York Times (1/10/04) on the legality of the occupation administration’s moves to transform the Iraqi economy: “So the [Coalition Provisional] authority is pressing ahead with most of the plans for economic reform in Iraq and promises to have new laws in Iraq governing, among other things, business ownership, foreign investment, banking, the stock exchange, trade and taxes by June, when power is to be transferred to the Iraqis.


And here are the seventeenth and eighteenth paragraphs of “The Military: In Hussein’s Shadow, New Iraqi Army Strives to Be Both New and Iraqi” by John Burns, also in the Times (1/7/04), on the development of a new military in Iraq: “By the Pentagon’s count, the new battalion will join 160,000 armed Iraqis serving alongside the United States-led occupation forces… But the hard fact, admitted by American commanders, is that the new Iraq will depend on a steadying presence of tens of thousands of American troops for years, even if Iraqi politicians, Arabs and Kurds and Turkmens, Shiite and Sunni Muslims and the small minority of Christians, can settle their squabbles over power-sharing in a new constitution. Some American officers said troops would be here three to five years; others say 10 to 15. Iraqis tend to the higher estimates, even as they say they wish the Americans could withdraw much sooner.


Note, by the way, that of the impressive “160,000 armed Iraqis,” as far as I can tell, less than 1,000 seem to make up the new Iraqi army. As with so much else, since L. Paul Bremer, our viceroy in Baghdad, dissolved the Iraqi military, we’ve been a tad slow and less than successful in training a new one. And in any case, our prewar plans, which seem not to have changed, were for a reconstituted Iraqi Military Lite of about 40,000 troops with no air force or possibly heavy weaponry, which in that neighborhood of our world more or less ensures that another military has to hang around to protect the country. Guess which one?


Okay, maybe you have to be a news junkie to dig paragraphs like these out of long articles, but put them together and what do you get? A question, I think. By the time “sovereignty” is handed back to the Iraqis, any Iraqis, the economy will be “legally” opened to foreign control forever in a way not at all advantageous to the Iraqis, and American troops will undoubtedly be ensconced in bases there for, oh, 10-15 years to come, and don’t forget we’ll have the largest “embassy” on Earth in Baghdad (Washington Post, 1/204), a virtual Green Zone of representation, over 3,000 “diplomats” to enforce… er… “sovereignty.” It gives new meaning to that old Janis Joplin lyric, “Freedom’s just another word for nothin left to lose.”


Now, for the fun of it, let me put together two more quotes from the paper of record. Think of them as dueling quotes — like dueling banjos. One was embedded in Neela Banerjee’s, “Energy: In an Oil-Rich Land, Power Shortages Defy Solution,” on the left side of page 14 of the Jan. 8 New York Times; the other by John Burns, “Insurgents: Iraqis Shell Living Quarters at U.S. Base, Wounding 35,” was on the right side of the same page.


Somehow I’m reminded of a nonsense rhyme from my childhood that began: “One fine day in the middle of the night, two dead boys went out to fight/ Back to back they faced each other, drew their swords and shot each other…”


Here’s the Burns quote (and context):


Overall, American commanders have begun to sound far more upbeat about the conflict since the capture of Saddam Hussein near Tikrit on Dec. 13. The most confident assessment yet was offered at a news conference on Tuesday by Maj. Gen. Charles H. Swannack Jr., commander of the 82nd Airborne Division. General Swannack’s operational area includes a swath to the west and south of Baghdad, including some of the hottest trouble spots in the so-called Sunni Triangle, where more than 90 percent of all attacks on American troops have occurred.


“The general, a large, imposing figure renowned among his troops for his no-nonsense ways, began his remarks by reminding the reporters that he had appeared in Baghdad six weeks ago, about the time of the insurgents’ Ramadan offensive, and had said he believed [events]  in his area were ‘turning the corner.’


“Now, he said, ‘I’m here to tell you that we’ve turned that corner.’


And here’s the sword Banerjee drew (with context):


In addition, the American bureaucracy for awarding contracts and releasing funds, pilloried by Congress for giving away money too easily, nevertheless moves too slowly to satisfy Iraqis, whose impatience is fertile ground for more acts of rebellion.


“‘There’s a large set of people who are neutral and their patience is wearing thin, and they can join those against us,’ said Col. Kurt Fuller, commander of the Second Brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division, which has responsibility for much of south Baghdad.


I’m sorry, which corner was that we were turning? Perhaps the one just south of Hell’s Kitchen and east of the Sunni Triangle, the one without the traffic light but where the guy with the RPG is standing. By the way, don’t forget that corner — which Col. Fuller, being closer to the ground, probably turns far more often than General Swannack, and which their troops undoubtedly turn far more often than either of them. I’m going to return to it after turning another corner below. By the way, I wouldn’t mind asking some of their troops which corner they think they’re turning these days. Just this week we had one of the largest one-day casualty tolls of the war and “postwar” period (from a downed helicopter, 9 dead, and a mortared supply base, 1 dead, 34 wounded), though I didn’t see a lot of papers doing the math.


But let me finish beating up on my hometown paper. It’s been one of those bad WMD weeks for the administration by any normal measure. First, a piece bluntly headlined “Iraq‘s Arsenal Only on Paper” hit the Jan. 7 Washington Post‘s front-page. Written by Barton Gellman, who has been doing splendid reporting on this issue, it was a long exploration of the actual state of Iraqi research on and programs for producing weapons of mass destruction before the war. Its key passage was:


“Interviews here — among Iraqi weaponeers and investigators from the U.S. and British governments — turned up unreported records, facilities or materials that could have been used in unlawful weapons. But investigators have found no support for the two main fears expressed in London and Washington before the war: that Iraq had a hidden arsenal of old weapons and built advanced programs for new ones. In public statements and unauthorized interviews, investigators said they have discovered no work on former germ-warfare agents such as anthrax bacteria, and no work on a new designer pathogen — combining pox virus and snake venom — that led U.S. scientists on a highly classified hunt for several months. The investigators assess that Iraq did not, as charged in London and Washington, resume production of its most lethal nerve agent, VX, or learn to make it last longer in storage. And they have found the former nuclear weapons program, described as a ‘grave and gathering danger’ by President Bush and a ‘mortal threat’ by Vice President Cheney, in much the same shattered state left by U.N. inspectors in the 1990s.”


That was on Wednesday. On Thursday, Jan. 8, the Times itself had a report by Douglas Jehl, admittedly tucked deep inside its news section, revealing that the Bush administration had very quietly withdrawn a 400-man team of weapons hunters from Iraq. On the same day, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace issued what Inter Press reporter Jim Lobe called (Iraqi WMD: Myths and… more myths) “the most comprehensive public analysis so far of the administration’s WMD claims and what has been found in Iraq.” Written by Joseph Cirincione, George Perkovich, and the Endowment’s president Jessica Tuchman Mathews (whose mother’s old book, The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam, is undoubtedly still a topical read, given our world),WMD in Iraq was scathing. Among its conclusions:


“Iraq WMD Was Not An Immediate Threat: Iraq’s nuclear program had been suspended for many years; Iraq focused on preserving a latent, dual-use chemical and probably biological weapons capability, not weapons production. Iraqi nerve agents had lost most of their lethality as early as 1991. Operations Desert Storm and Desert Fox, and UN inspections and sanctions effectively destroyed Iraq‘s large-scale chemical weapon production capabilities…


“Intelligence Failed and Was Misrepresented: Intelligence community overestimated the chemical and biological weapons in Iraq. Intelligence community appears to have been unduly influenced by policymakers’ views. Officials misrepresented threat from Iraq‘s WMD and ballistic missiles programs over and above intelligence findings.”


And let’s not forget that “no solid evidence of cooperative relationship between Saddam’s government and Al Qaeda [was found, nor]… evidence that Iraq would have transferred WMD to terrorists — and much evidence to counter it.”


The authors called for, among other things, “a nonpartisan, independent commission to establish a clearer picture of what the intelligence community knew and believed it knew about Iraq‘s weapons program.”


Cirincione also told reporters, “It is very likely that intelligence officials were pressured by senior administration officials to conform their threat assessments to pre-existing policies.”


Lobe concludes:


“The new report is likely to be taken as the most serious blow yet to the administration’s credibility. Carnegie is the publisher of the journal Foreign Policy, and, while its general political orientation is slightly left of center, it has long been studiously non-partisan, and also houses right-wing figures, such as neo-conservative writer Robert Kagan. Carnegie president Mathews travelled to Iraq last September as part of a bi-partisan group of highly respected national security analysts invited by the Pentagon to assess the situation there.”


This report was devastating enough that Colin Powell at a Thursday press conference defended himself on the subject and then that night appeared in the friendliest of settings on Nightline to defend again his shredded prewar UN performance. (On Charlie Rose at that very moment, Richard Perle and David Frum were attacking Powell and his ilk as they pushed their new neocon cri de Coeur, An End to Evil: How to Win the War on Terror and peddled their mad wares under equally sympathetic questioning). At his press conference, while defending the administration’s (and his) now ludicrous WMD claims for Iraq, Powell, as MSNBC reported, “reversed a year of administration policy, acknowledging Thursday that he had seen no ‘smoking gun [or] concrete evidence’ of ties between former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida.”:


“Powell, speaking at a news conference at the State Department, stressed that he was still certain that Iraq had dangerous weapons and needed to be disarmed by force, and he sharply disagreed with a private think tank report [the Carnegie report] that maintained that Iraq was not an imminent threat to the United States. ‘I have not seen smoking gun, concrete evidence about the connection, but I do believe the connections existed,’ he said.


“Powell’s observation marked a turning point in administration arguments in support of the U.S. invasion of Iraq last spring.”


A turning point. Oh, and speaking of modest turning points, last week National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice also admitted, according to the British Guardian (1/9/04): “The United States has no credible evidence that Iraq moved weapons of mass destruction into Syria early last year before the U.S.-led war that drove Saddam Hussein from power.. `Any indication that something like that happened would be a very serious matter. But I want to be very clear: we don’t, at this point, have any indications that I would consider credible and firm that that has taken place, but we will tie down every lead.’”


This had, of course, been one administration explanation, no less farfetched than the rest of them, for why Saddam’s WMD were “missing” from Iraq.


Historian Juan Cole puts the reality clearly indeed in a headline at his site: “No WMD. Nada. Bupkes” and comments:


“I think a lot of conceptual unclarity could be undone if we avoided the phrases ‘weapons of mass destruction’ and ‘war on terror.’ Chemical weapons are not weapons of mass destruction. They are battlefield weapons. They have primarily been used in battlefield situations, or against civilian insurgents (as with the RAF in Iraq in the 1920s or Saddam against the Kurds in the 1980s). The major attempt to use Sarin for terrorism failed, though it killed a handful of people and sickened others to one extent or another (Aum Shinrikyo and the Tokyo subway in 1995). The patterns of urban airflow make them extremely difficult to deliver for small groups lacking a military.


Iraq at one point had chemical weapons stockpiles. Does not appear to have had any recently. That it once had them was not a casus belli in 2003. Nuclear weapons are weapons of mass destruction. Iraq did not have nuclear weapons. It did not have the wherewithal to make nuclear weapons. It has had no active nuclear weapons program for a decade. We were told by the pundits that Iraq could have nuclear weapons in 3-5 years, i.e. by 2006 or 2008. This was not true. It wasn’t even remotely true. A facility big enough and sophisticated enough to make nuclear weapons would have been huge and impossible to hide. Kahuta in Pakistan was an open secret, because it had to be. It couldn’t be a closed secret.


“Most members of Congress say that it was the thought of Saddam having nuclear weapons that impelled them to vote for the war. They were had. We were all had.”


(Well, maybe not everyone. Former UN inspector Scott Ritter, for instance, claimed that Iraq had no significant WMD. He said so often in the run-up to war, but was more or less laughed out of town by the administration and the media.)


Now here’s the curious thing, to return to the New York Times for a moment, during this week when the administration’s approach to Iraqi WMD was surely news, nothing on the subject was considered worthy of the Times‘ front page. The paper carried two pieces on the subject, the first by Jehl on Thursday actually made news on that withdrawn weapons team (“Arms Search: U.S. Withdraws a Team of Weapons Hunters From Iraq” 1/8/04) and the second on Friday by Christopher Marquis (“Diplomacy: Powell Admits No Hard Proof in Linking Iraq to Al Qaeda” 1/9/04) reported on the Powell admission that there was no “smoking gun.” Jehl’s piece was relegated to page 14, bottom; the Marquis to page 10, bottom. Both mentioned, more or less in passing, the Carnegie report, which didn’t merit a piece of its own, even though Powell found it a significant enough challenge to respond to; the Jehl reported briefly on Gellman’s Washington Post revelations. Neither piece mentioned the Carnegie call for an investigatory commission. Neither was considered by the editors worthy, nor was the subject, of the front page.


To crown the week’s decisions, the lead editorial on today’s Sunday editorial page, “The Faulty Weapons Estimates” (1/11/04), dwells at greater length than either of the week’s articles on both the Carnegie report and the Gellman piece, and then calls for exactly what the Carnegie authors called for (though without acknowledging that they had) — “a nonpartisan investigation independent of political pressures from the administration and Congress.”


Though the editorial itself is hardly a powerful critique, no less a ringing denunciation, of administration lies, evasions, and propaganda, it certainly is an admission that the paper missed the boat all week. I mention all this only because the Times is, after all, considered the paper of record. And in certain ways on this issue, it has proved to be just that. Remember, Times reporter Judith Miller seemed to confirm the administration’s claims that underlay the war via post-war, front-paged bombshell revelations about supposed discoveries of Iraqi WMD, which turned out to be bogus, as she wandered around Iraq with a military search team. Now, its news decisions seem to have captured something of the mood of this moment.


The administration, of course, just wants the “search” to continue until at least mid-November 2004, while administration figures continue to claim, largely without being disputed, as Powell did this week, that “the game is still unfolding.” What an appropriate word from their point of view. Ah, the “game” of WMD searching — not the Great Game perhaps, but a little game which is to remain endlessly afoot, no matter the evidence. The Times also seemed to catch a more general attitude in our media that might go something like: Okay, maybe it’s news but who the hell cares.




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