Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Does This Count?

Women walk through Baghdad's Zawra Park. (NYT)

I wonder if it’s official enough when the newspaper of record reports that we're prevailing in Iraq.

In today’s New York Times, we’re given a picture of returning normalcy, freedom of movement, and defiant hope by returning Iraqi exiles, and Baghdad residents enjoying the return of peaceful neighborhoods. (“Baghdad Starts to Exhale as Security Improves”).

This is all thanks to the surge, by the way, as even the Times reporters eventually acknowledged, with conditions, in paragraph seven.

Iraqis are clearly surprised and relieved to see commerce and movement finally increase, five months after an extra 30,000 American troops arrived in the country. But the depth and sustainability of the changes remain open to question.

Open to question, that is, by the New York Times.

Nor is it only Iraqis who are clearly surprised. I’ll bet they are less surprised than the New York Times staff, and the rest of anti-war media who made a solemn pact not to report any progress.

Not two weeks ago on November 7th the Times editorial board (which monitors the nation’s pulse from Times Square, NY, NY), had this message to Congress from “the Heartland”:

Iraq War: The Heartland Speaks

The Editorial Board

How does middle America feel about the Iraq War? Yesterday’s election gave a good indication, in the results of two referendums in Montana.

In Helena, voters
backed a referendum by a 5,032 to 3,108 margin — “urging the Congress of the United States to authorize and fund an immediate and orderly withdrawal of the United States military from Iraq.” That’s nearly 62 percent of the vote.

A referendum asking Congress to “fund our military forces totally and without conditions in the global war on terror” went down to defeat.

In Missoula,
a referendum asking Congress “to authorize and fund an immediate and orderly withdrawal of the United States military from Iraq in a manner that is fully protective of U.S. soldiers” won with nearly 65 percent of the vote.

The question now is what Congress intends to do about it.

We’re all for the Big Sky state. But is Montana, which has a population lower than 1 million, (all patriots, I'm sure), really the heartland?

And as for what Congress intends to do about it, and did do about it, they launched yet one more Iraq funding bill with withdrawal strings attached in complete detachment from reality of what's happening in Iraq.

Since taking the majority, they have forced 40 votes on bills limiting President Bush’s war policy. Only one of those has passed both chambers, even though both are run by Democrats.

That one was vetoed by Bush.

I don’t think you rack up a 40-0 record when you know the heartland is behind you.

In any event, today’s Times article proceeds, by fits and starts, to report on what are clearly significant signs of returning normalcy in Baghdad:

“Today she is home again, cooking by a sunlit window, sleeping beneath her favorite wedding picture. And yet, she and her family are remarkably alone. The half-dozen other apartments in her building echo with emptiness and, on most days, Iraqi soldiers are the only neighbors she sees.”

Reporters Damien Cave and Alissa J. Rubin use a lot of this kind of cautious language. Moreover, I think they do some imputing onto their interviewees of their own real difficulties believing that they could have gotten it so wrong--the liberation of Iraq, the battle against Al Qaeda in Iraq and the Shia insurgents, the surge. This kind of thing wasn't supposed to be possible, ever, ever again:

Mrs. Aasan, 45, a Shiite librarian with an easy laugh, is living at the far end of Baghdad’s tentative recovery. She is one of many Iraqis who in recent weeks have begun to test where they can go and what they can do when fear no longer controls their every move.

The security improvements in most neighborhoods are real. Days now pass without a car bomb, after a high of 44 in the city in February. The number of bodies appearing on Baghdad’s streets has plummeted to about 5 a day, from as many as 35 eight months ago, and suicide bombings across Iraq fell to 16 in October, half the number of last summer and down sharply from a recent peak of 59 in March, the American military says.

As a result, for the first time in nearly two years, people are moving with freedom around much of this city. In more than 50 interviews across Baghdad, it became clear that while there were still no-go zones, more Iraqis now drive between Sunni and Shiite areas for work, shopping or school, a few even after dark. In the most stable neighborhoods of Baghdad, some secular women are also dressing as they wish. Wedding bands are playing in public again, and at a handful of once shuttered liquor stores customers now line up outside in a collective rebuke to religious vigilantes from the Shiite Mahdi Army.

The Times reporters tell us, “Iraqis sound uncertain about the future, but defiantly optimistic.” And who exactly are the pessimists they're defying?

“Many Baghdad residents seem to be willing themselves to normalcy, ignoring risks and suppressing fears to reclaim their lives. Pushing past boundaries of sect and neighborhood, they said they were often pleasantly surprised and kept going; in other instances, traumatic memories or a dark look from a stranger were enough to tug them back behind closed doors.”

And yet, from what we read here, the traumatic memories are only that--memories--and the perceived “dark looks” aren’t real--strangers aren’t bothering them now. The story nowhere mentions where any returning Iraqi, or any Baghdad resident daring to cross into the other sect’s territory, or venturing out after dark, finds out that the thing he fears happening actually does happen.

These Baghdad residents aren’t “willing themselves to normalcy”; they're re-discovering that the conditions of normalcy--or many of them--have returned, and are willing themselves to take their neighborhoods and lives back. Willing it even in spite of these buzzkill reporters who undoubtedly keep suggesting to them that this progress--that the media has long since declared could not possibly happen--is happening, has happened. That in spit of many signs to the contrary, this may not be “only a temporary respite from violence,” something the reporter cannot possibly know.

Time and again the reporters run across residents who refuse to be the terrified victims Times readers have been promised. Instead,

“They can joke because they no longer fear that the violence will engulf them.

“In longer interviews across Baghdad, the pattern was repeated. Iraqis acknowledged how far their country still needed to go before a return to normalcy, but they also expressed amazement at even the most embryonic signs of recovery.”

What pattern was repeated? The pattern of "longer" interviews with unsinkably cheerful Iraqis. The only thing a reporter wants is a good quote, then he's done. Prolonging an interview means he hasn't got what he wants yet. These interviews that had to be prolonged so realistic (and much smarter) journalists could wear these poor Iraqis down with suggestions that all this apparent progress may seem good now, but has its “limits,” lor lacks “depth and sustainability,” or is only “tentative.”

No matter.

Cave and Rubin may as well be Tom Cruise telling his sob story to that little kid in "Jerry Maguire": it's hard to be serious when the other party can't stop laughing from sheer joy. (And see how the reporters do report the Iraqi reactions with something like pity mixed with awe.) In spite of lenghty interviews, the interviewees continue to express amazement with how well things are going. Amazement even at these “most embryonic signs of recovery.”

But hey. I have to remind myself these are Times reporters, after all. They're hard-wired not to see anything amazing in the "embryonic." Nor have they any concept of the tell-tale signs of victory, even when they're reporting it for themselves.

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