New York, June 9, 2006 â€” Timing is everything. To the managers of the Iraq War, perception has always trumped reality. From the beginning it was a war of media stuntsâ€”the attempt to assassinate Saddam with 50 cruise missiles before the invasion, the Shock and Awe, the bringing down of the statues, Jessica Lynch, Saddam in the hole, purple fingered Iraqi voters and many other events staged for media consumption.
The essence of information/media warfare is to seize the advantage, frame the story, and capture the audiencesâ€™ imagination. It’s been a key part of modern warfare from the set-up flags of Iwo Jima in World War 2 to that not so safe house in Baquba in Iraq.
And now, we have the bloodied head of the feared Zarqawi displayed on TV by the very military that will not allow us to see the American dead coming home. He was brought down by not one, but two, 500 pound bombs, in an operation that CNN tells us cost $500,000 and has been underway for months.
What a coup! What a show! And what an event for Iraqi â€œleadersâ€ to show-off with using terms like he has been â€œeliminated.â€ Within hours, the more polished US military spinmeisters were showing the airstrikes at a press conference, declaring a â€œmajor victoryâ€ and pronouncing another â€œturning point.â€
Think also of the timing, yes, they think about timing all the time. Timing is, as I have said, everything. A day earlier the NY Times had the defeat of the CIA backed warlords in Somalia on page one. The day and week before, it was All Haditha, All The Time with many commentators like Paul Rodgers, to cite one example, arguing that responsibility for the crimes and the cover-up goes way up the chain of command.
At the Pentagon, this was seen as not good. Not good at all. In fact, a very public opinion conscious Administration was aware, had to be aware, that a new AP poll was coming out reporting that well over 50% of the American public was sick of the war.
â€œThe poll, taken Monday through Wednesday before news broke that U.S. forces had killed al-Zarqawi, found that 59 percent of adults say the United States made a mistake in going to war in Iraq â€” the highest level yet in AP-Ipsos polling.â€
How do you get those folks back on the proverbial reservation? How do you turn around such a public relations disaster?â€
The answer: Feed the public a very public miracle, something to wave the flag about again.
What better time to pull a rabbit out of the hat and dominate the news cycle by burying the bad news with spectacular good news, right out of Mission Impossible. Itâ€™s time to trot out the oldest of PR formulas called â€œchange the subject.â€
Yesterday morning they changed it, with AP reporting:
â€œWith al-Zarqawi out of the way and the new government in place, some Sunni Arab leaders may be emboldened to resume a dialogue they started last fall â€” exchanges sunk by al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaida in Iraq.â€
According to Raw Story, the hunt for Zargawi had been underway for a long time, a fact, of course, disclosed way after the fact.
“According to military and intelligence sources, five of Zarqawi’s men were picked up in early May by an already ongoing effort by an elite US special ops force, known by some as Gray Fox and by others as Task Force 145, which had been scouring Iraq for Zarqawi since the insurgency began.”
HMMMMâ€¦..Isnâ€™t â€œGray Foxâ€ a perfect name in the age of Fox News?
So, the military likely new where he was in early May. (â€œVee have ways of getting you to talk!â€) But rather then reeling him in, they waited for a more opportune moment in order to maximize the impact. A more opportune time like June 8!
Significantly, the â€œgood guysâ€ moved just as a trifecta of bad news stories was souring the public on the War on Terror
Their new message of the day quickly became â€œGotcha,â€ recalling L. Paul Bremerâ€™s announcement of the capture of Saddam with an upbeat, â€œWe got him.â€
WILL THE TIDE TURN
The implication, of course, echoed on every major media outlet, is that now the tide will turn.
No one remembered or mentioned an NBC story aired on March 2, 2004 that reported the Administration had three opportunities to kill Zargawi and didnâ€™t. NBC Pentagon correspondent Jim Miklaszewski revealed back then:
“NBC News has learned that long before the war the Bush administration had several chances to wipe out his terrorist operation and perhaps kill Zarqawi himself â€” but never pulled the trigger.â€
The unquestioned assumption in the mainstream is that Zargawi is Al Qaeda and since, everyone hates Al Qaeda, with him out of the way peace is at hand, the insurgency will be history and Iraqi Freedom will arrive at last.
Not so fast.
Professor Juan Cole who knows more about Iraq than any TV journalists was quick to point out :
“There is no evidence of operational links between his Salafi Jihadis in Iraq and the real al-Qaeda; it was just a sort of branding that suited everyone, including the US. Official US spokesmen have all along over-estimated his importance. Leaders are significant and not always easily replaced. But Zarqawi has in my view has been less important than local Iraqi leaders and groups. I don’t expect the guerrilla war to subside any time soon.â€
The key words again: â€œjust a sort of branding,â€ just another way of saying that show biz has infiltrated news biz with Zargawi playing the role of the evil pirate that everyone can blame for any crimes they want. In fact, as Mazin Qumsiyeh, a Middle East Human right activist points out, the press has distorted his relationship to the resistance:
“Zarqawi was not a leader of the Iraqi resistance/insurgency. In fact, the leadership of the Iraqi resistance condemned Zarqawi and company. US intelligence itself believes that most of the resistance is home grown and not linked to Zarqawi/Al-Qaeda. This was intentionally obfuscated in the media parroting of government triumphalist PR.”
The Nationâ€™s David Corn also argues the resistance will fight on:
“His death–brought about by a US air strike that was apparently ordered after a captured Zarqawi lieutenant disclosed Zarqawi’s favorite hiding places–may not mean much in terms of bringing peace, democracy and stability to Iraq. His al Qaeda in Iraq–which was estimated to number no more than several hundred fighters–made up the smallest slice of the insurgency. His departure will not have much impact on the forces fueling the fighting and chaos in Iraq.â€
On the right, the news rapidly became grist for talking points in the ditto head echo chamber. Hereâ€™s a smirking comment in a blog called Red State:
â€My guess is that he is not going to find those 72 virgins either. He may find a bunch of disgruntled suicide bombers who didn’t get their virgins! My impression is that there aren’t a lot of sweet virgins in hell. Abu is going to burn in hell for some time, perphaps forever!
â€œFurthermore, he was killed because of a tip from an Iraqi citizen. This morning, Dan Seanor,(sic) former coalition spokesman, said that tips are coming in from all over Iraq.â€
What about the Tipping point argument, Malcolm Kendal Smith in England writes.
â€The anti-war movement will not feel sorry in any way over Zarqawi’s death. While we have always defended the right of Iraqis under international law to resist the US and British occupation of their country, we have never supported the use of tactics which target innocent Iraqi civilians, of the kidnapping of aid workers such as Margaret Hassan, or the murder of journalists who have died in record numbers trying to report therealities of life in Iraq since the war in 2003.
â€œZarqawi and his terrorism were a consequence of the illegal invasion of Iraq. As were the 1,400 deaths by violent means recorded in May 2006 by Baghdad’s central morgue alone. As were the numerous atrocities
committed by the US military, the names of which are engraved for ever in history: Abu Ghraib, Fallujah, Tal Afar, Haditha and many moreâ€¦.
â€œZaqawi’s death will no more be a turning point for Iraq than any of the “new beginnings” proclaimed by Bush and Blair, because the chaos, destruction and slaughter in Iraq can only end when their source is removed â€“ i.e. when all the occupying troops leave Iraq and Iraqis are free to decide for themselves how they want their country to be governed.
Not everyone on the left in the UK feels this way. Jonathan Steele of the Guardian believes â€œThe death of Abu Musab al Zarqawi offers Iraq’s government a chance, long term, to fix the mess created by the U.S. and Britain.â€
WHAT ABOUT THE REST OF US?
These events and the continuing horrors there may not mobilize a war weary country as Bob Herbert noted in the NY Times:
“For the smug, comfortable, well-off Americans, it doesn’t seem to matter how long the war in Iraq goes on – as long as the agony is endured by others. If the network coverage gets too grim, viewers can always switch to the E! channel (one hand on the remote, the other burrowing into a bag of chips) to follow the hilarious antics of Paris, Britney,
Brangelina et al.â€
And no facts, no revelations, no exposes will dislodge the hard-core pro-war ideologues for whom no crime cannot be excused or ignored. Hereâ€™s Gordon Sawyer writing on a website in Georgia excusing the atrocities in Haditha:
â€œLet me ask you: does it make you sick in the pit of your stomach to read or hear about our GI’s being investigated for possible criminal charges because they shot someone in the heat of battle? These are our brightest and best who volunteered to defend our freedom, and here they are in Haditha, Iraq, doing the job we-the-people asked them to do. And what do we know about the situation last November 19 in which some Iraqis were killed. First we know Haditha is a hotbed for the bad guysâ€¦.
â€œThis could have happened to any one of the military people we have in Iraq … any one of the soldiers of Charlie Company (MyLai?) , or any of the young Marines from our area.â€
Gordon is no doubt happy today with ‘Zargawi the horrible’ out of the way.
Unfortunately, whether he likes it or not, the bloodshed and the war will continue and those who committed crimes there, on all sides, will eventually, Jesus, Moses and Allah willing, be brought to justice.