Snake Eyes
By Hendrik Hertzberg
The New Yorker

21 August 2006 Issue

On February 27, 1968, Walter Cronkite, the longtime anchorman of the CBS Evening News and the gruff but kindly voice of what was then called Middle America, signed off his broadcast on an unusual note. Freshly returned from Vietnam, where the Tet offensive had just ended, Cronkite offered what he called "an analysis that must be speculative, personal, subjective." "We have too often been disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds," he said. "To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic yet unsatisfactory conclusion." Like the famous issue of Life devoted to photographs of a week's worth of American dead, Cronkite's polite demurral came to symbolize the long migration of opposition to the war in Vietnam from the fringe - the campus firebrands, the radical clerics, the flowers-in-gun-barrels hippies, the papier-mâché puppeteers - to the wide, upholstered center of American political life.

The center of American politics is no longer as roomy (or as comfy) as it was then. The fringe, now luxuriant only at the rightmost edge of the political prayer rug, has gone online and wired itself for AM radio and cable TV. And nowhere in the cacophonous, atomized "media environment" of today is there anyone capable of deploying the wall-to-wall avuncular authority that was Cronkite's stock-in-trade. Even so, in this August of 2006 a palpable, '68-like shift in sentiment is in the steamy air. Among foreign-policy élites and the broader public alike, it has become the preponderant conviction that George W. Bush's war of choice in Iraq is a catastrophe.

"It is now obvious that we are not midwifing democracy in Iraq," Thomas L. Friedman wrote, in the August 4th edition of the Times. "We are baby-sitting a civil war." Friedman may not be another Walter Lippmann (just as any number of Stewarts, Olbermanns, O'Reillys, and Coopers don't quite add up to a Cronkite), but he is the most influential foreign-affairs columnist in the country, and from the beginning he has been a critical supporter of the war. His defection is a bellwether. "The Administration now has to admit what anyone - including myself - who believed in the importance of getting Iraq right has to admit," he wrote. "Whether for Bush reasons or Arab reasons, it is not happening, and we can't throw more good lives after good lives." In a Washington Post column a day earlier, the relentlessly centrist David S. Broder, citing his colleague Thomas E. Ricks's new book, "Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq," admitted that "the hope for victory is gone" and deplored "the answer from Bush," which he characterized this way: "Carry on. Do not waver. And do not question the logic of prolonging the agony."

That same week, a summing-up confidential cable by William Patey, the departing British Ambassador to Iraq, found its way into the newspapers. "The prospect of a low intensity civil war and a de facto division of Iraq is probably more likely at this stage than a successful and substantial transition to a stable democracy," Patey wrote to Prime Minister Tony Blair. "Even the lowered expectation of President Bush for Iraq - a government that can sustain itself, defend itself and govern itself and is an ally in the war on terror - must remain in doubt." Asked about Patey's assessment during a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, General John P. Abizaid, the over-all American commander in the Middle East, replied carefully (Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was sitting next to him), "I believe that the sectarian violence is probably as bad as I've seen it, in Baghdad in particular, and that, if not stopped, it is possible that Iraq could move toward civil war." Last Monday, in an interview with ABC News, General George Casey, the top commander in Iraq for the past two years, agreed, saying that "the six last weeks or so have been the highest levels of sectarian violence that I've seen since I've been here" and that "a countrywide civil war" is "the most significant threat right now." (At a news conference that same day, President Bush himself weighed in on the subject: "You know, I hear people say, well, civil war this, civil war that." Well, at least he's listening. Or maybe just hearing.)

Three and a half years ago, on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, commentators across the board agreed that the coming war would be a gamble - "the greatest shake of the dice any President has voluntarily engaged in since Harry Truman dropped the bomb on Japan," Thomas Friedman called it. The metaphor came up again and again as the war approached. "This is the biggest gamble any President has taken in my lifetime," a foreign-policy specialist at the Heritage Foundation said. "By accident or design, President Bush has allowed Iraq to become the gamble of a lifetime," the Washington Post noted. Some viewed the gamble with apprehension. "Whatever this war's effect on the region, globally it may be an even bigger roll of the dice for the United States than either its proponents or critics have argued," Charles W. Freeman, Jr., who was the first President Bush's Ambassador to Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War, wrote. Others were thrilled by the audacity, the swagger, the sheer "High Noon" moral clarity of it all. "This is Texas poker, with the President putting everything on Iraq," a Republican senator told the columnist Robert Novak, with relish.

It is in the nature of gambling that the gamble may lose. The dice have now been well and truly rolled, and they have come up snake eyes. The war's sole real gain - the overthrow of the murderous Saddam Hussein regime - is mocked by the chaos and suffering that have overwhelmed millions of Iraqis, whose country is again a republic of fear. The concrete losses are horrific: nearly three thousand American and "coalition" troops killed; thousands more maimed; scores of thousands of Iraqi civilians dead; a third of a trillion dollars burned through. So are the less tangible ones: the unprecedented levels of anti-Americanism throughout the Muslim world and Europe; the self-inflicted loss of America's moral prestige; the neglect of real nuclear dangers, in Iran and North Korea, while chimeras were chased in Iraq. The neoconservative project of a friendly, democratic Middle East, with Israel and Palestine living side by side in peace, is worse than a charred ruin - it is a flaming inferno.

After the defeat of Joseph Lieberman in last week's senatorial primary in Connecticut, spokesmen for the Bush Administration and the Republican Party sought to portray the result as an expression of opposition to the struggle against Islamist terrorism. It was not. Virtually all those who voted against Lieberman, and many, probably most, of those who voted for him, oppose the Iraq war, as does a solid majority - sixty per cent, according to a CNN poll released last Wednesday - of the American public. But they oppose it because, among other reasons, they believe that it has harmed, not helped, that larger struggle. At the end of the week, after British authorities foiled what was evidently a large-scale plot to destroy transatlantic airliners and murder thousands of passengers, President Bush called the plot "a stark reminder that this nation is at war with Islamic fascists who will use any means to destroy those of us who love freedom." But the war in Iraq is wholly irrelevant to the means chosen by the London terrorists, and the means that thwarted them - dogged police work, lawful surveillance, international coöperation - are precisely those which have been gratuitously starved or stymied on account of the material, political, and human resources that have been, and continue to be, wasted in Iraq. Why not change the game to one that relies less on gambling and bluff and more on wisdom, planning, and (in every sense) intelligence?



Go to Original

Veteran Baghdad Reporter Explodes Upbeat US Assessments
Editor & Publisher

Tuesday 15 August 2006

New York - Journalists in Iraq are often criticized for being too positive or too negative about the conflict there - or for sticking to their home offices as violence escalates. Yet there is much evidence that often they are still able to obtain, and express, a more accurate assessment of conditions in the country than top military officers or visiting politicians.

Tom Lasseter of the McClatchy (formerly Knight Ridder) bureau in Baghdad has long been the forefront of both daring and on-the-mark reporting from the war zone. In his latest dispatch, he observes, "As security conditions continue to deteriorate in Iraq, many Iraqi politicians are challenging the optimistic forecasts of governments in Baghdad and Washington, with some worrying that the rosy views are preventing the creation of effective strategies against the escalating violence.

"Their worst fear, one that some American soldiers share, is that top officials don't really understand what's happening. Those concerns seem to be supported by statistics that show Iraq's violence has increased steadily during the past three years."

Lasseter then quotes an unnamed intelligence office, who has written the reporter (apparently without the military's permission), "As an intelligence officer ... I have had the chance to move around Baghdad on mounted and dismounted patrols and see the city and violence from the ground. I think that the greatest problem that we deal (besides the insurgents and militia) with is that our leadership has no real comprehension of the ground truth. I wish that I could offer a solution, but I can't. When I have briefed General Officers, I have given them my perspective and assessment of the situation. Many have been surprised at what I have to say, but I suspect that in the end nothing will or has changed."

The reporter reveals that McClatchy is withholding the officer's name to protect him from possible retaliation by his superiors or political appointees in the Pentagon "for communicating with the news media without authorization."

But he does quote by name Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish member of parliament, who says, "The American policy has failed both in terms of politics and security, but the big problem is that they will not confess or admit that. They are telling the American public that the situation in Iraq will be improved, they want to encourage positive public opinion (in the U.S.), but the Iraqi citizens are seeing something different. They know the real situation."

Othman told Lasseter that top American officials spend most of their time in the heavily guarded Green Zone and at large military bases and don't know what's happening beyond.

Another man, a Shiite parliament member named Jalaladin al Saghir, offered: "All the American policies have failed because the American analysis of the situation is wrong; it is not related to reality, The slaughtered Iraqi man on the street conveys the best explanation" for what's happening there.

Yet American military and civilian leaders continue to offer generally upbeat assessments. Lasseter notes some recent comments, then adds dryly, "In the week that followed, at least 110 Iraqis died in a series of bombings and shootings, and at least eight U.S. soldiers and Marines were killed. The Iraqi death toll probably was much higher, since many Iraqis are killed by death squads and their bodies are undiscovered, buried or dumped in rivers."

Then Lasseter adds, frankly, "Nationwide statistics during the past three years suggest that American efforts to secure Iraq aren't succeeding. While various military operations have at times improved security in parts of the country, the bloodshed has mounted with each U.S.-declared step of progress, according to figures that the Brookings Institution research center compiled from news and government reports."

Today, the American military said that two car bombs ignited a gas line in the explosion that killed at least 63 Iraqis on Sunday - retreating from its earlier assertions that the explosion was the result of an accidental gas leak.