Why the 'L.A. Times' Called for Iraq Pullout

By: Greg Mitchell ?I see no moral reason to wait until fall,? Jim Newton, editorial page editor at the Los Angeles Times told me earlier today. ?We need to evaluate in real time. That?s part of the motivation for the editorial this week. Besides Gen. Petraeus, others have a right to assess the facts as well.?

Newton was referring to an editorial in his paper on Tuesday calling for peace talks and a ceasefire in Iraq. It?s the kind of talk we heard often in relation to Vietnam and later conflicts but oddly missing in regard to Iraq. But the Times is taking all sorts of bold stands on the war these days. Six weeks ago the paper advocated ? hold on to your hats ? that the U.S. actually start to disengage in Iraq.

That editorial was titled simply, if eloquently, ?Bring Them Home.?

Rather than chide the vast majority of newspaper editorial pages, yet again, for continuing to endorse, or at least accept, the continuing (now expanding) U.S. mission in Iraq, I am happy to tip my hat to the only ultra-large paper that has come out for the start of an American pullout. That position, until now, has been left to papers such as the Seattle Times, Minneapolis Star Tribune, Orange County Register and Roanoke Times.

What?s happening at the L.A. paper, which as recently as January backed the ?surge?? It?s as if a little-noted earthquake struck Spring Street this spring and really shook things up.

That May editorial reflected, ?This newspaper reluctantly endorsed the U.S. troop surge as the last, best hope for stabilizing conditions so that the elected Iraqi government could assume full responsibility for its affairs. But we also warned that the troops should not be used to referee a civil war. That, regrettably, is what has happened."

It concluded that "the longer we delay planning for the inevitable, the worse the outcome is likely to be. The time has come to leave."

This week's editorial urged: "The United States might have liked to wait until September for Army Gen. David H. Petraeus' report on the results of the troop surge in Iraq, but that wishful timetable has been overtaken by events. President Bush must begin planning a strategic and orderly disengagement that addresses the increasingly unstable geopolitical terrain."

How did this come about? I wondered. The change took place shortly after Newton, who had been the city-county bureau chief at the paper, took charge of the editorial page, following the abrupt departure of Andres Martinez. But he said he was not really responsible for the change, except in a roundabout way.

When he took over he had called a meeting of the editorial board, ?partly to educate myself where we were? on Iraq. ?Members of the board suggested that we sit back and take stock of our position: Are we comfortable where we are or should we change??

Like other papers, the Times had been very critical of the conduct of the war but had refused to advocate a real change in course, and had supported the surge ?as a last ditch attempt? to turn things around, as Newton puts it. But by the time he came to the editorial page, "the caveat we had put on our support for the surge, that our presence there was not to oversee a civil war,? seemed to be proving prophetic.

So at the board meeting, he recalls, when ?we went around table and talked about where we were, there was a strong sense that surge was not producing and had no realistic hope for producing what we wished for when the paper reluctantly supported it. From there we moved to a discussion of a sensible course change and what would be necessary to produce change there and, frankly, safeguard American lives.?

Before going to press, he showed the editorial to his publisher, who made a few suggestions that were incorporated in it.

?That first editorial was our attempt to really say in a forthright way how we should move forward,? Newton says. The most recent one this week calling for peace talks and a ceasefire was ?more of an attempt to apply principles we laid out in the previous one to changing facts on the ground.?

Newton says the response from readers has been about 75% positive ?from what has come to me,? many calling it ?an important message for an important newspaper to send.?

As for his own response: ?I feel very strongly what we wrote in that first editorial?an honest appraisal of where we are.? He said again that this appraisal could not be postponed: ?There?s lot of talk that we will have this national debate in the fall, but the problem is, every day that goes by the conflict shifts and in some ways worsens.?

In fact, today White House spokesman Tony Snow joined generals who had previously stated that all this talk about a ?September re-assessment? was no longer operative, because who could judge success of the surge by then? My feeling has always been that there is no chance that Petraeous would ever state in September that the mission he is now so tightly connected with is failing.

Following the Times? example, perhaps other papers will urgently feel a "moral" need to re-assess the facts -- and ?take stock? of their positions on the war.


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