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Dissonance at the Times

Reporting success, deciding on failure.

4:43 PM, Jul 8, 2007 • By THOMAS DONNELLY
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IT IS AN ESPECIALLY cruel but increasingly common irony of the war in Iraq that Washington and Baghdad are in separate universes: what happens over there is not much connected to what's happening back here. But Sunday's New York Times "Week in Review" section sets a new standard for cognitive dissonance.

Spread across the top two-thirds of the front page is John Burns' latest dispatch from Iraq. The subject is the U.S. campaign to win back the city of Ramadi and al Anbar province from al Qeada and other Sunni extremists. A year after a Marine intelligence report described the region as "lost," Burns explains "an astonishing success" in what was "Iraq's most dangerous city." Now, cooperation between local tribal leaders and the U.S. military "has all but ended the fighting in Ramadi and recast the city as a symbol of hope that the tide of war may yet be reversed to favor the Americans and their Iraqi allies." Victory, in Burns' assessment, is a long way off, but is possible.


Ten pages later, taking up an equal amount of space on the main editorial page, is the Times' clarion call to "leave Iraq, without any more delay than the Pentagon needs to organize an orderly exit." The only discussions that interest the editors is "how to accomplish a withdrawal" and mitigate the certainly bad consequences of an American defeat. The Times' takes it as a "fact" that "keeping troops in Iraq will only make things worse."


That's hardly what the paper's leading Iraq correspondent writes. Burns, who is the unquestioned dean of Iraq war reporters and hardly a shill for the White House, is realistic and right to wonder if the Anbar model will translate to other parts of Iraq, particularly the sectarian cauldron of Baghdad. But he does not question the genuine success in Anbar, where insurgent attacks on American forces fell from 1,300 last October to 225 in June. Nor does Burns buy the insipid line, repeated in the editorial, that what happens on the battlefield has no effect on the political balance in Iraq. While in Anbar the measure of progress has been the defection of the traditional sheiks from al Qaeda to the side of the Iraqi government and the United States, Burns makes it clear that a vigorous American and Iraqi offensive, undertaken last November, was the key prerequisite. "Not for the first time," Burns writes, "the Americans learned a basic lesson of warfare here: that Iraqis, bludgeoned for 24 years by Saddam Hussein's terror, are wary of rising against any foe, however brutal, until it is in retreat. In Anbar, Sunni extremists were the dominant force, with near-total popular support or acquiescence, until the offensive broke their power."


This is a lesson of warfare not only in Iraq but through human history: victory precedes peace.


This is also a lesson that the Times' editors acknowledge offhandedly and perversely: they acknowledge that an American defeat--and there is no other way to understand what "withdrawal" really means--won't bring peace. They dismiss the Democrats' delusion that retreat will increase U.S. leverage with Iraqi politicians as "foolish." But even a deluge of violence, they reason, "would be better than the slow-motion ethnic and religious cleansing that has contributed to driving one in seven Iraqis from their homes." So long as America offers "permanent resettlement" to the Iraqi refugees "whose lives will be in danger because they believed [our] promises and cooperated with the Americans." But the paper's editors are more interested in "the mechanics of withdrawal" than in the mechanics of dishonor. It is as if a well-planned exit will redeem all the failures of planning since the invasion.


And there is more: the Times actually believes that by abandoning those Iraqis who believed in us and our promises we will strengthen our position in the region. The Kurds, Kuwaitis and Qataris will, in this fantasy, be happy to provide bases to U.S. forces. The Kuwaitis and Saudis will welcome refugees. Europeans "however angry they were with President bush for creating this mess," will, once he is so shamed, step up to the plate: "they cannot walk away from the consequences." But if we can walk away from the consequences, why can't everyone else?


Indeed, the biggest difference between Washington and Baghdad is that, over there, this is an American war; back here, it's just George Bush's war. In Ramadi, John Burns watched Lt. Gen Raymond Odierno, the number-two commander in Iraq, converse with an Iraqi merchant who--after checking over his shoulder to see who was listening--declared "America good! Al Qaeda bad!" Apparently, this is a war that's easier to see face to face than from afar.

Tom Donnelly is resident fellow in defense and national security studies at the American Enterprise Institute.