When the ‘Surge’ Might Have Been Stopped — Editorial Pages Punted

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By: Greg Mitchell

For the past five weeks, since President Bush announced his surge (or escalation, if you will) plan for Iraq, most of the nation’s newspapers have regularly covered the debate it sparked. Many have, since that time, editorialized against the idea.

Too late. The surge/escalation is now well underway in Iraq and the U.S. Senate just voted on Saturday not to vote on a tame resolution expressing opposition. But where were the concerned editorial writers in late December and early January when they might have made a difference?

Nowhere. Following a general pattern since the start of the war, they punted.

At this sad stage, it is worth recalling that as this critical turning point in America?s role in the nearly four-year-old Iraq war neared, and with fair warning of what was coming, the editorial pages of the largest U.S. newspapers were surprisingly, even, appallingly, silent — pro or con — on President Bush?s decision to send thousands of more troops to Baghdad.

It followed a long pattern, however, of the editorial pages strongly criticizing the conduct of the war without advocating a major change in direction. This happened, even though the president signaled his intention and Democrats in Congress, overcoming their own timidity on the issue, had finally emerged with opposition to the buildup — setting up a possible battle royal.

But newspapers, at least in their editorials, chose to retreat to the sidelines, as E&P noted at the time. This came even as hawkish conservatives such as Oliver North and Charles Krauthammer, and dozens of other op-ed contributors, came out against the idea, and polls showed that 30% or less of the public backed the idea. That would seem to set the stage for editorials taking a strong stand, for or against.

An E&P survey of major papers? editorial pages in the first week of January, however, just before the president’s official announcement, found that very few said much of anything about the well-publicized ?surge? idea. A few that did declare themselves came around much too late to make any difference.

The liberal editorial page of The New York Times said nothing until the very last minute, beyond noting the “bleak realities” in Iraq. On the day of the Bush announcement, it broke that silence, with an editorial that expressed skepticism about any escalation and whether the president would justify it adequately — but stopping short of opposing the idea. The Times, in fact, has called for last-shot troop increases before.

Following the speech, a Times editorial declared that Bush had not met or set necessary conditions and therefore the paper did not back the troop escalation. By then, as I’ve said, it was way too late.

Other papers often critical of the war, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, USA Today, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette — among others — were silent before the speech. Oddly, all of them had hailed the recent Iraq Study Group report, which opposed an escalation.

The Washington Post, hawkish in the past, belatedly roused itself to offer a mixed message on the Sunday before the Bush speech. The editorial praised Sen. John McCain and Sen. Joe Lieberman for “courageously” pressing the “surge” — but added the idea still gave the editors “pause.” On the same day, it carried a major op-ed by McCain, titled, “The Case for More Troops.”

One longtime war supporter, the Chicago Tribune, did run an editorial raising doubts about a surge, but did not come out flatly against it, focusing on handing over more responsibility to the Iraqis in general: ?President Bush will need firm answers to overcome some intense public opposition.?

The Chicago Sun-Times said nothing. Ditto for the Sacremento Bee, Cleveland’s Plain Dealer, Denver’s Rocky Mountain News, Portland’s The Oregonian, Long Island’s Newsday and New Jersey’s Bergen Record.

The Sun of Baltimore seemed out of step in this group, issuing a strong editorial against the escalation and doing it well before the Bush speech. A longtime critic of the war, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, called for withdrawals, not an escalation.

A smaller paper, the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash. offered one of the strongest editorials, in advance of the announcement. “We could send 20,000 troops or 120,000, but it wouldn?t matter,” the editors declared. “There is no military solution to a country hopelessly infected with sectarian violence, a ruthless insurgency and opportunistic terrorists….It?s time to turn this over to the diplomats and cut our losses. For what do we tell the next group of soldiers and their families when they ask: ‘What are we fighting for?’?
***

An an addendum here, I recently came across this article from The New York Times, March 16, 1968, by Robert H. Phelps.

WASHINGTON– The Johnson Administration has decided to send more troops to Vietnam. Reliable sources said today that the number would be moderate, compared with the 206,000 men requested by Gen. William C. Westmoreland.

The President was reported to have made no decision on the exact number. But military observers speculated that the pattern of past increases indicated that he might approve the dispatch of one more division with supporting units, about 35,000 men, over the next several months.

The decision to meet at least the emergency requirements of General Westmoreland?s request for more troops reflected President Johnson’s determination to press on with the war in Vietnam despite mounting criticism.

“As your President,” he said, in a brief speech to the National Alliance of Businessmen, “I want to say this to you today: We must meet our commitments in the world and in Vietnam. We shall, and we are going to win.

“To meet the needs of the fighting men, we shall do whatever is required.”

“We and our allies seek only a just and an honorable peace. We work for that every day ? to find some way to settled this matter with the head instead of the hand. We seek nothing else.

“But make no mistake about it ? I don?t want a man here to go back home thinking otherwise ? We are going to win?

There are now about 510,000 American troops in Vietnam, and the President has authorized a level of 525,000 by next fall.

The request by General Westmoreland, the American commander in Vietnam, set off a divisive internal debate within high levels of the Johnson Administration. Many high-ranking civilian officials contended that an
American increase would bring a matching increase by North Vietnam, thus raising the level of violence without giving the allies an upper hand.

Military observers say that the Strategic Reserve, frayed before the decision to dispatch 1,500 more troops in February, cannot stand a further drain. As it is now, in the event of another emergency outside Vietnam, the Army would not have even one complete infantry division ready for immediate deployment overseas.

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