For those of us following the reporting of the Iraq war in the American press Michael O’Halloran and Kenneth Pollack’s article in the NY Times earlier this month entitled A War We Just Might Win represented a major change in the reporting of the war in the MSM. I believe it was a watershed event – a shift in ‘narrative’. As I said in this post, it was reminiscent of Walter Cronkite’s change of position during the Vietnam War. Now O’Hanlon and Pollack is have published their full 13 page Iraq Trip Report in pdf. For anyone concerned about the issues it is direct and accessible, yet provides balanced and indepth insight into how we may yet win or lose the war.
Overall it is less a narrative changing report than their NY Times piece which deliberately highlighted the counter narrative aspects of General Petraeus’ military success. The report provides a more thorough review of both the positive and negative aspects of the situation. The big negatives are the stuck political process within the central government and the continued failure of most of the Iraqi police. The greatest positives are the Sunni Awakening, and the dramatic improvement of much of the Iraqi Army. The report makes clear that the outcome is still in doubt and its most sobering conclusion is that suceess is more likely to come from bottom up political and economic development than from the central government.
Politically the Brookings Institution is known as a liberal think tank, with a reputation for excellent work. Institutionally, I would see it at as an example of the best that the American liberal establishment can produce. Certainly, this report is a clear winner when compared to the best that the Republican establishment could produce – The Baker Report. That report pushed for a return to the pre war status quo in the Middle East primarily through negotiation with Syria and Iran and, to give credit where credit is due, both the President and the Democratic Congress rightly ignored it and sent General Petraeus to Iraq instead. If read in full I think most readers would agree that both sides of the debate come in for pertinent and telling criticism from O’Hanlona and Pollack. They open their overall assessment:
There is a great deal going well in Iraq but, unfortunately, also a great deal going badly. Points of view often heard in Washington, that the war is already lost on the one hand, or bound to be won if we are adequately patient on the other, seem at odds with conditions on the battlefield and throughout the country.
and only then get on with situation in Iraq:
Current U.S. strategy envisions the provision of greater security making possible local economic and political progress (of which we saw some modest but noteworthy evidence) and strategic-level national reconciliation or accommodation (of which we saw no evidence). Our observations suggest that the Coalition is making progress in accordance with this strategy—although it is very early in the process, there are still very significant hurdles to overcome, and there is no evidence that can prove that this strategy is destined to succeed. Nevertheless, especially given the difficulties of finding a viable alternative strategy (a “Plan B”) for Iraq that would safeguard U.S. interests, we conclude that the progress made so far argues for giving the surge and its attendant military and political strategies more time. However, we caution that the U.S. is not yet irrevocably headed for success in Iraq, so the Administration and the Congress should remain vigilant.
For those primarily interested in what the report has to say about the situation in Iraq, please just read it. The best summary and discussion I’ve seen so far is here at The Belmont Club. After I have thought about the report’s implications I may want to write more about it – in any case my ongoing view of Iraq will be strongly influenced by it. In this post I want to move on to one area of the report that astonished me as a student of the media. O’Hanlon and Pollack’s take on the information war. This is the relevant passage:
Better Information Flows to the Public.
The Pentagon has done a poor job to date of explaining our progress in its major documents. For example, its latest Quarterly Report to Congress on the war, released June 15, stated that civilian fatalities for the spring had not declined at all relative to the winter. That was probably inaccurate even at the time, according to DoD data we saw in Iraq, and in any event the situation this late
spring/summer has improved substantially. Overall levels of violence against civilians in Iraq have declined by about one-third relative to their pre-surge winter levels. This is not nearly enough progress of course. It means Iraq is still witnessing perhaps 2,000 deaths a month from all forms of violence, comparable to the levels of 2004 and 2005 before the civil war really heated up. But things are finally headed in the right direction, to be sure. Nevertheless, the inability of the Pentagon (and the rest of the U.S. government) to disseminate relevant—and realistic—information to the American people is both part of the reason that the Bush Administration has lost credibility with the American people, and why so few Americans are even aware of the modest but important progress being made in Iraq, especially in the security sector. In a democracy, in the information age,
this failing is inexcusable.
Indeed it is, and to say so without mention of the role of the press is disingenuous. The press have criticized the war effort both in Afghanistan and Iraq as quagmires from before either conflict even began and particularly missed no opportunity to frame the Iraq operation as an ongoing disaster and embarrassment to the Administration. They emphasize American and civilian casualties and push images and accounts of mayhem without quarter or context in a way designed to paint an unrelenting picture of failure and discouragement to the American public. They so obscure the actual nature of the struggle that our soldiers experience the coverage as irrelevant – even those who’s experience has left them bitter about the war.
I’m not absolving the military and the Pentagon. Neither did Donald Rumsfeld who was acutely aware of the problem and said flat out “we are losing the information war.” What I am acutely aware of is that the only reason I can bring an informed and critical understanding to O’Hanlon and Pollack’s report is that I have followed the Iraq war through the alternative media for the past five years, not the MSM. I have written repeatedly about this problem and have had the satisfaction of seeing not just Rumsfeld, but many others recognize the problem and begin to address it. Probably the most fundamental and broad recognition of the inadequacy of the MSM has been by Boston University professor Richard Landes who has painstakingly exposed much manipulation of the media by skilled propagandists at The Second Draft and who organized the Herzliya Conference in 2006 which he titled, significantly, Media as a Theater of War.
Nonetheless the single most obvious example that shows the MSM as the main point of failure in the information war has been Bill Roggio’s blog The Fourth Rail. Not because it is the only example, or even necessarily the best, but because it has been providing a direct link, on pretty much a daily basis since 2004, between the vast amount of information put out by the Pentagon and the American public. Most of Bill Roggios’s posts are based on military press releases and briefings – the very material that O’Hanlon and Pollack claim is inadequate. Bill Roggio sometimes embeds in Iraq and reports directly, but for the most part he operates from the US and simply gives his readers a knowledgeable and intelligently contextualized summary of what the military is telling us. His secret? He is a soldier who understands military matters and can write. Any reporter with similar qualifications could do a similar job, but it just hasn’t happened. It is not just that the political culture of most reporters, as the right argues, prevent anyone from playing this role in the MSM – it is the very ethos of contemporary journalism that prevents it. Even elements of the press like the conservative Washington Times or Fox News have failed to do what Bill Roggio does. What he does every day, (and what the press fails to do) is take the information the military is releasing and translate it into a coherent presentation of what they are trying to accomplish and give us an assessment of how they are succeeding or failing. In short, what the press has always done until the American military compromised its own credibility during the Vietnam war by presenting overly optimistic briefings that became known to the press as the ‘five o’clock follies.’ The military has worked very hard to overcome the problem they created forty years ago and probably need to do much more, but the press has never changed or resumed performing their primary function of getting the military’s side of the story out. Questioning and criticism are the role of the press too, but the primary responsibility for informing the public about what is going belongs to the press, not the military. Substituting a negative narrative is not only irresponsible, in the end it is self destructive.
There is very little in O’Hanlon and Pollack’s report that I have not read on the Forth Rail, and of the remainder most has been covered by the work of Michael Yon and Michael J Totten. That is to take nothing away from O’Hanlona and Pollack’s blunt presentation of facts and incisive analysis – they move our understanding forward. Not only are they changing the narrative, they have decisively brought the liberal intellectual establishment back to unequivocally and constructively operating in America’s interests. (Welcome back guys, many of us have craved this kind of analysis for years.)
As to the American press I would say the world has moved on. The media environment has changed and the established media will have to accommodate a fundamental change in the nature of information flow – above all that they no longer control it. The power they have enjoyed as exclusive gatekeepers of what will be reported and how, has been greatly reduced and that loss of power and trust has been accelerated by their poor performance. In a nutshell, they tried to freeze the Pentagon out, but they were outflanked by the Internet. Many journalists, even senior ones, still don’t understand what has happened. Newsweek editor Evan Thomas said of another story the MSM got wrong “The narrative was right, but the facts were wrong. ” But it wasn’t – as with reporting on the war the narrative, the unthinking template or lens through which the MSM saw it, was obsolete and inaccurate. So wrong that it left an opportunity for untrained beginners like Bill Roggio and many others – ordinary soldiers and young Iraqis posting from Internet cafes – to step into the breach and build a new media institution – the blogosphere.