Tipping Point on Iraq

By: Greg Mitchell

As the dog days of August wind down, the editorial pages of American newspapers face a moment of truth on the Iraq war. Over the next few weeks, with vacationers heading home, the president’s popularity sinking, hearings planned in Congress, and major protests set, the case for a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq — sooner rather than later, as Al Neuharth has repeatedly put it — will finally become a center of public and political debate.

Or, as Republican Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska (who once favored the war) said on Sunday, “We should start figuring out how we get out of there. I think our involvement there has destabilized the Middle East. And the longer we stay there, I think the further destabilization will occur.”

It’s time for newspapers, many of which helped get us into this war, to consider using their editorial pages as platforms to help get us out of it. So far, few have done much more than wring their hands, or simply criticize the conduct of the war, or the lack of body armor for our troops. Not many months ago, in fact, some papers, including The New York Times, were calling for more U.S. troops for Iraq.

Now it’s literally do-or-die time.

President Bush clearly recognizes this. This week, in a desperate attempt to counter the sensible idea of a phased withdrawal, he has lashed out at those who advocate something quite different–an immediate pullout–as if that is the only option.

As some of you no doubt know (and may be sick of reading), I have challenged major U.S. newspapers for more than two years to be first to clearly call for a phased withdrawal. Once a few do so, they will show that it is safe for others to stick their toes in the water.

The argument I’ve made is akin to Hagel’s: While many claim that exiting will only make matters worse, the United States’ presence is more of a long-term problem than a long-term solution, for both that country, and our own. Now, with Iraq moving toward a decentralized, pro-Iranian state, even some of my friends at conservative blogs and Web sites are shifting course, declaring that no American GIs should die for an Islamic nation.

Hagel yesterday added that “stay the course” is not a policy. “By any standard, when you analyze 2 1/2 years in Iraq … we’re not winning,” he said.

Since I have taken a lot of grief since 2003, from Jonah Goldberg and others, for even mentioning “Iraq” and “Vietnam” in the same paragraph, I will note a further Hagel comment: “We’re past that stage now because now we are locked into a bogged-down problem not unsimilar, dissimilar to where we were in Vietnam. The longer we stay, the more problems we’re going to have.

“What I think the White House does not yet understand, and some of my colleagues, the dam has broke on this policy. The longer we stay there, the more similarities [to Vietnam] are going to come together.”

The time for the press to act, if it ever does, is now. Not for the first time, the newspapers are lagging behind the public, as major polls show that most Americans favor starting a pullout now, and feel the war was a mistake from the start. They also show the president’s approval rating plunging to historic lows.

The Cindy Sheehan protest in Texas, whatever one thinks of it (and her), has energized the antiwar movement, and emboldened a few mainstream politicians, besides Hagel, to call for withdrawal. Sen. Russell Feingold became the first Democratic senator to call for a pullout by the end of next year, and hearings on this proposal will take place soon.

On Sunday, Feingold revealed that when he visited Iraq he asked a top general what he thought about setting a timetable for exiting. The general, he said, replied: “Nothing would take the wind out of the sails of the insurgents better.”

But where do the editorial pages stand on this? Only a few, such as the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, have really staked out what could loosely be called an “antiwar” position. A few columnists, besides Neuharth, have turned hyper-critical, including the intrepid Joe Galloway of Knight Ridder. Neuharth and Galloway each have received high military honors; Hagel is a decorated Vietnam vet.

Galloway, unlike so many editorialists, has no trouble understanding that withdrawing is hardly dishonoring the thousands of Americans who had died or been badly wounded in Iraq. Perhaps that’s because he has covered wars for 35 years, including each of our Iraq adventures.

When he wrote the following this month, Galloway was addressing the White House and the Pentagon, but he could have aimed it just as easily at the media: “Don’t tell me we are going to stay the course. We are on the wrong course, and it only leads deeper into the quicksand. Tell me how we are going to change course.”

***

UPDATE (1):

Well, it’s a start. The Dallas Morning News has been one of its native son’s biggest supporters. Here’s the climax of the paper’s editorial today:

“As delegates in Baghdad completed their work, President Bush gave the national VFW convention a hopeful progress report on the Iraq war. One is taken aback by the disconnect between Mr. Bush’s oratory and the situation on the ground in Iraq. The president relies on shopworn optimism and patriotic sentiment to fend off doubts about his war policy among segments of the American people. This is a risky and insufficient strategy.

“Over the weekend, Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, a decorated Vietnam veteran, scoffed at the official cheer coming out of the White House and compared the Iraq situation to Vietnam. Chuck Hagel is not Cindy Sheehan. Platitudinous speeches before friendly audiences won’t calm unsettled minds, and there aren’t enough good days like yesterday in Iraq to bridge the gap between the president’s rhetoric and that country’s reality.”

***

UPDATE (2):

Joe Karius, publisher of the Ironwood (Mich.) Daily Globe, in a letter to the Romenesko site at www.poynter.org, responds to my call:

“Starting two weeks ago, the Daily Globe each Friday began running an editorial condemning the war and calling for the U.S. to get out. At the bottom of each editorial, we?re carrying a ‘Lest We Forget’ box, listing the death and injury toll for U.S. troops.”

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