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Der Spiegel Sees Progress in Iraq

12:50 PM, Aug 9, 2007 • By ULF GARTZKE
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Rambo2.jpgFrom Der Spiegel: "Die Bushkrieger" 8/2002
Illustration: Jean Pierre Kunkel.

When it comes to the Bush administrations's war on terror and the U.S. military intervention in Iraq, the German weekly Der Spiegel has certainly come a long way. Back in February 2002, the Hamburg-based center-left magazine published the (in)famous cover story "The Bush Warriors: America's Campaign Against Evil," which featured a controversial drawing of President Bush dressed up as Rambo and flanked by Colin Powell as Batman, Donald Rumsfeld as Conan the Warrior, Dick Cheney as the Terminator, and Condoleezza Rice as Xena, the Warrior Princess. In essence, the article argued that the United States, in response to the 9/11 attacks, had embarked on a world-wide military crusade led by a bible-wielding, trigger happy Rambo in the Oval Office.

From a purely artistic point of view, the pop-art style piece by French-born artist Jean Pierre Kunkel was certainly well done. From a political perspective, however, it is, in retrospect, quite striking that less than six months after the 9/11 attacks (and well before the 2003 Iraq war) one of Europe's most influential magazines already saw America and Europe on diverging paths in the fight against Islamic terrorism, arguably the defining challenge of our times. Over the past few years, as the transatlantic rift widened due to fundamental differences over hot button issues ranging from climate change to Guantanamo, Der Spiegel has, in general, been very critical of the Bush administration's foreign and domestic policies.

Against this backdrop, I had my own "O'Hanlon-Pollack moment" when learning that this week's cover story of Der Spiegel-- titled "Baghdad Babylon: SPIEGEL-Reporter with U.S. Soldiers in the Iraq War," provided an unexpectedly upbeat assessment of the current surge strategy in Iraq. For three weeks in July, Der Spiegel reporter Ullrich Fichtner and his photographer traveled across Iraq under the auspices of the U.S. military to get a first-hand impression of the situation on the ground. Online, the 15-page in-depth Iraq trip article titled "The Hellish Peace" is only available to Spiegel subscribers:

During an online-chat yesterday about his recent trip to Iraq, Ullrich Fichtner provided the following assessments:

"I think that the current troop surge provides a real opportunity for progress that could make a difference [in Iraq]." […]"One can say that the entire North, the Kurdish areas, but also the rural areas around Baghdad are no longer war zones."

At the same time, however, Fichtner also described how certain areas of Baghdad have become completely abandoned ghost towns. In still other Baghdad neighborhoods, "everyone is fighting against everyone." Overall, Fichtner paints a very nuanced picture of the complex situation in Iraq. For sure, plenty of political and military problems remain. But there is also reason for optimism.

Many Spiegel chat users were particularly interested in the morale of U.S. troops in Iraq. Here, Fichtner provided quite a positive account, arguing that many of the American soldiers "were in a surprisingly good mood":

"In fact, my biggest impression was that almost every third [U.S. soldier] had at one point been stationed in Germany. And I had to engage in a lot of conversations about bratwurst, beer, Oktoberfest, and Black Forest cherry cake."

Fichtner also believes that the extent of conflict between Shiites and Sunnis is overestimated by the outside world--that real reconciliation across religious lines is still a distinct possibility:

"It is also a race against the clock. As long as the sectarian murders continue, and there are still about 600 such executions every month, there is no room for talks. But these executions are a Baghdad-specific problem. In the rest of the country [Shiite and Sunni] groups lead a life of peaceful coexistence." […]

Finally, Ullrich Fichtner expressed his hope that people around the world will not be blinded by new photos of bombings; rather they should recognize "that a successful future for Iraq is possible."

It is still too early to say what impact, if any, the Spiegel cover story will have on the German public's perception of the Bush administration (the president's approval ratings there have long been in the single digits) or of the U.S. intervention in Iraq. However, if things in Iraq are beginning to move in the right direction, and if General Petraeus's update report in September is positive as well, European governments could have more domestic political leeway to provide additional political, economic, and police/military training support for Iraq's stabilization and reconstruction. For far too long, European public opinion has viewed the Iraq war as a lost-cause--a quagmire caused by an unwarranted unilateral U.S. military invasion--that is now essentially Bush's problem to solve. In the coming months we will see whether improving conditions on the ground in Iraq can also improve public perceptions outside of Iraq, not only in Europe but also in the United States.