Will the Press Again Serve as ‘Surge Protectors’?

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By: Greg Mitchell

Over the next week, much will be written, pro and con, about General Petraeus?s report on the progress of the ?surge? in Iraq and President Bush?s response. Since both men have pretty much already announced, or at least rehearsed, what they are going to say, the suspense is not exactly crippling. I?ll be writing more later, but for now I?d simply like to address the media?s responsibility to address, over the next few days, this key moment in our recent history with a steady gaze ? which, as I will recount, was sadly lacking last winter in the weeks before the ?surge? was announced.

Essentially, that Bush decision ? and his rejection of the Iraq Study Group’s recommendations at that time — was the most tragic turn in this war since the original invasion, and like its overall performance in the run-up to the 2003 attack, the press (with notable exceptions) failed miserably.

Starting last November, some of us warned that Bush was bent on sending more troops to Iraq, but leading pundits and editorialists didn?t seem very alarmed about the prospect, embracing the notion that Bush, instead, would embrace the Iraq Study Group report as a face-saver — even though the White House was already talking about sending more troops. When they did start to take that seriously, the media largely bought into the White House?s ?surge? slogan rather than the more appropriate ?escalation,? which some Democrats promoted.

Who was to say, I wrote in December, that this will actually prove to be a mere ?surge? of troops versus a long-term buildup? What is the time limit for a ?surge? to recede before it seems semi-permanent? A few months, as the White House has suggested? Or a year or more, as some of its outside backers demanded?

Of course, it did turn out to be more than a few months, with no reductions until at least next April, if then.

A new round of polls came out, showing that public support for adding troops was practically nil, but this didn?t seem to stiffen the spines of the editorial pages. If the war didn?t ?belong? to the opinion writers before, it certainly did now. But coverage in the news pages was also generally weak.

Then, in the days before Bush?s January 2007 announcement ? at this critical turning point in America?s role in the (then) nearly four-year-old Iraq war — the editorial pages of the largest U.S. newspapers were surprisingly, even, appallingly, silent on President Bush?s likely decision to send thousands of more troops to the country.

Newspapers, in their editorials, retreated to the sidelines. This came even as hawkish conservatives such as Oliver North and David Brooks, and dozens of other op-ed contributors, raised serious doubts about the idea — though they voiced these concerns too late to make any difference.

Polls showed that 11% or less of the public backed the surge idea. Even General Casey opposed the escalation. Then there were the fresh revelations that the troops we already had in Iraq were not properly equipped or protected. That would seem to set the stage for editorials taking a strong stand, for or against, and reporters to probe the underlying notions deeply.

But very few — hardly any — editorial pages said much of anything about the well-publicized ?surge? idea, pro OR con. That’s what was most revealing: Near silence on all sides. So it was a bi-partisan failure. Most newspapers just didn?t seem to notice, or at least to care.

The editorial page of The New York Times said nothing about the surge until the eve of the speech, beyond noting the “bleak realities” in Iraq. Other papers often critical of the war, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, and USA Today — among others — remained mute. Oddly, all of them had hailed the recent Iraq Study Group report, which opposed an escalation.

The Washington Post, hawkish in the past, did not even rouse itself to say anything until the last minute. Perhaps it was hopelessly torn. Even its conservative columnist, Charles Krauthammer, in blasting Saddam’s execution, had concluded: “We should not be surging American troops in defense of such a government.”

But the Post did run a major op-ed on the Sunday before the Bush speech by Sen. John McCain, titled, “The Case for More Troops.”

The Chicago Tribune did carry a wary editorial but the Sun-Times said nothing. Ditto for nearly everyone else. A Miami Herald editorial on Saddam?s hanging closed with, ?Now it is up to Iraqis and their international supporters, especially the United States, to find a way out of the despair and darkness that have been Iraq’s unfortunate fate for far too many years? — but it did not say a word about the “surge.”

An editorial in Baltimore?s The Sun a few days before the surge became a fait accompli could have served as a template for others in the media. Here is its key passage: ?A generation ago this would have been called an ?escalation,? and the problem with escalations, as President Lyndon B. Johnson learned, is that when they don’t furnish the promised results the pressure to follow with further escalations is just about inescapable.?

A smaller paper also went where the elite media failed to venture. The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash., declared: “We could send 20,000 troops or 120,000, but it wouldn?t matter. 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.”

In a column three days before the Bush speech, I observed: ?Alas, by the time the cowardly or shortsighted speak out, this particular horse will be out of the barn.?

Then the Washington Post finally did carry an editorial, which praised Sen. McCain and Sen. Lieberman for “courageously” pressing the “surge.” The New York Times again failed to discuss the surge, even though it ran a lengthy editorial attack on Bush called “The Imperial Presidency 2.0.” The closest it came to taking up the matter in that editorial was one snippet, where it accused the president of interpreting “his party?s drubbing as a mandate to keep pursuing his fantasy of victory in Iraq.”

On the morning of the speech, with Bush about to announce his plan, The Times expressed skepticism but said he deserved ?one last opportunity? to get it right. True, it did blast the surge idea in the days that followed, after Bush?s full description did not satisfy them. But by then it was much too late.

This week several tough-minded assessments have started to appear in the news pages of major papers, such as an excellent piece by Tina Susman in the Los Angeles Times and two articles by Karen DeYoung in the Washington Post. On the other hand, The New York Times and others put Bush’s highly-speculative hint that he might pull out some troops early next year at the top of their front pages. Even if that does happen, it would leave us with 25,000 more troops in Iraq than we had there a year ago. Dare I say it, a ?surge? in clear-eyed journalistic research and opinion is needed more than ever.

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