Those who have commented on the dip in coverage cite two reasons: (1) public preoccupation with the sinking economy and other ominous foreign policy concerns in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Mexico; and (2) the shuttering of foreign bureaus by financially pressed news outlets. As contributing factors, these are undeniable. But to settle on citizens’ weariness, policymakers’ tunnel vision or the media’s fiscal straits is to overlook more critical questions over the quality of news coverage on Iraq.
Nearly two years ago, Americans were told that by investing in a precarious troop “surge,” the United States would buy Iraqi leaders time to broker the political agreements needed to achieve a “durable peace.” But reconciliation did not inevitably follow military success, and the recent upswing in violence—including the killing of five U.S. soldiers in a single incident in Mosul—indicates that the window is closing fast. Iraq remains riddled with noxious divisions, governed by an irrelevant constitution, and ruled by a corruption-plagued coterie that has failed to harness effective power-sharing agreements, provide basic services or address the deepening humanitarian plight of nearly 3 million of their own people. As President Obama calls for Iraqis to “take responsibility”, the country’s budgetary crisis—which has halted expansion of the security forces, jeopardized reconstruction efforts and restricted future investment—raises questions about whether they actually can.
This is why the U.S. is still doing most of the work rebuilding Iraq, and why—as unpalatable as it may be—our influence does not appear to be waning. A February poll of Iraqis found that 53 percent believe that the United States still “controls things in Iaq.” Only 32 percent think that the Iraqis do. Evidence of dependency can be found throughout Iraq and even in Washington, where Iraqi groups continue vying for privileged positions with their American benefactors.
Despite these realities, the surge’s myopic security gains have produced an illusion of stability in Iraq—one that has rendered the American public complacent. The illusion, belied by the Iraqi government’s inability to build inclusive political institutions, has been sustained by the lack of substantive reporting from Baghdad and Washington. Network news and the endless cable cycle—where more and more citizens are getting their information—opt for the sensationalism of combat strategy but wither predictably when it comes to covering the meticulous and convoluted process of political reconciliation. Print and online outlets are not doing much better: there are no journalists embedded within the massive American diplomatic contingent in Iraq, accompanying U.S. mediators to reconciliatory meetings and providing accounts of the political negotiation to complement the much-heralded military analyses of reporters likeTom Ricks.
As a result, few reporters are asking the right questions. Why, for example, does the United States continue to back a governing coalition that is less interested in political accommodation and more interested in using divide-and-rule tactics to consolidate its authority, under the guise of the “unity” that American officials have long pushed for? Why have members of this coalition been unable to reach a compromise on the ever-contentious oil question—the issue that strikes at the heart of the country’s sectarian, power-sharing dilemma and the issue on which the U.S. has staked the entire viability of a post-Saddam Iraqi state? And why have Secretary Clinton and her State Department colleagues said nothing about holding Iraq’s leaders to their promises to achieve real and significant political progress (remember references to the once-popular “benchmarks”)?
Part of the answer lies in the media’s failure to press these issues—a dereliction most aptly reflected in the lack of public commentary on the links between Iraq and the economic downslide that currently dominates news headlines. There is, after all, a special irony in a populace showing unprecedented outrage over wasteful spending, rampant cronyism and pervasive corruption, yet remaining largely silent on the mismanagement and misuse of some $125 billion of taxpayer dollars that has produced, and continues to enable, a “massive, kick-back laden, contract-dispensing honey pot and extortion ring.” One is left to wonder when the prospects of an $800 billion stimulus invested at home became more malignant—and deserving of much greater scrutiny—than a $3 trillion dollar war fought abroad.
What is more disturbing is that as part of its withdrawal plan, the Obama Administration has pledged to bolster post-conflict reconstruction efforts in Iraq, which, according to the Government Accountability Office, will require a greater reliance on the incestuous and unaccountable private contracting system that has gained notoriety for feeding on the Pentagon’s revolving door—effectively redefining the military-industrial complex. Even if Defense Secretary Robert Gates is successful in curbing the private sector’s role in Defense procurement, how the administration plans to rebuild a nation that is incapable of maintaining billion-dollar reconstruction projects remains unclear.
In light of the unraveling alliances between U.S. forces and Sunni factions, it has become apparent that even the most seemingly successful aspects of our strategy in Iraq have relied on tactics—bribing militias, reinforcing ethno-sectarian fragmentation, straining troop capacities (all through an open-ended financial commitment)—that are inherently unsustainable.