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Think Again: Remember Iraq?

SOURCE: AP Photo/Ali Abbas

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice appeared at a press conference in Baghdad with Iraqi foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari in August, where they said that the two governments agree on setting a timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq.

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Late last month, the U.S. and Iraqi governments reached a deal to pull U.S. troops out of all Iraqi cities within a year and withdraw from the rest of the country by the end of 2011, so long as things remain relatively stable.

Some details still need to be hammered out, to be sure, and the agreement still needs to be approved by the Iraqi Parliament. But the United States is optimistic. Just this week, General David Petraeus said U.S. troops could be out of Baghdad by July.

One might think a tentative agreement to end the Iraq war would lead the news that night. And you’d be half right. On August 21—the day word leaked of the agreement—ABC World News with Charlie Gibson led off with the story and did a long package with correspondent Jonathan Karl. Yet the next night, there was nothing—although the broadcast did find air time for two teenagers who nearly died in a snow cave collapse in Washington state.

NBC Nightly News has nothing substantive at all. Brian Williams introduced stories about John McCain’s multiple residences, Barack Obama’s looming vice-presidential pick, Hurricane Fay, and violence in Pakistan, before offering up a few perfunctory sentences: “Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made an unannounced stop in Baghdad today. Short visit, it included a meeting with the Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki. She told reporters that two nations are close to an agreement that could determine how much longer U.S. troops will remain in Iraq.” That was all.

The following evening, Williams ignored the story until almost the bottom of the newscast—first discussing more vice-presidential speculation (“We’ve got an Internet rumor about the printing of bumper stickers knocked down as bogus tonight”), Hurricane Fay again, a freight train fire in Oklahoma, the Russia-Georgia conflict, three stories about the Olympics, and a stock report, before turning to this: “U.S. and Iraq approach an agreement that looks a lot like a timetable for withdrawal. NBC’s John Yang is with the president in Crawford, Texas.”

CBS Evening News with guest anchor Maggie Rodriquez treated the story casually. On August 21, the program led with speculation about candidates’ vice presidents and John McCain’s houses, followed by a threatening letter sent to McCain campaign headquarters, new FDA regulations for vegetables, and then this: “Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Iraq’s foreign minister today announced a draft agreement on withdrawing U.S. troops. It would have them pull out of Iraqi cities by next June on the way to final exit by 2011, all subject to security conditions. The deal still has to be approved by Iraq’s parliament.” And that was it for CBS News.

Has it really gotten this bad? We’ve written quite a few columns about steadily declining Iraq coverage, but how could a looming agreement that will allegedly end the war receive such meager coverage?

In fact, these newscasts are representative examples of how quietly this potentially historic agreement has taken place. It simply has not been entered into mainstream dialogue. Even with news cycles dominated by campaign coverage, is this agreement not an important new factor?

There are many tough questions to ask. The Bush administration insists on calling 2009 and 2011 “aspirational goals,” which will be met “conditions permitting.” What conditions must be met? Who determines if they are met? The American people need to know this.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is demanding that these dates be “specific deadlines” rather than aspirational dates. How does the Bush administration reconcile this difference?

Some other aspects of what now looks like the Iraqi endgame also ought to inspire some answers. For instance, back in February, we wrote about the U.S. military’s questionable use of Concerned Local Citizens groups, also known as the “Awakening,” to quell violence in Iraq, as reported in Rolling Stone. These groups are primarily made of Sunni and even Al Qaeda-connected Iraqis, many of whom were insurgents until the government paid them not to be. Needless to say, their loyalty to the American government and its goals—to say nothing of the predominantly Shiite government of Iraq—is tenuous. Now, we are transferring control of these groups to al-Maliki, and he may disband them. What effect will this have on stability in Iraq? Will it affect our “aspirational goals”? Is the U.S. government concerned, or taking any action?

What’s more, Gareth Porter reports that, indeed, “U.S. officials privately admit being concerned that Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has become “overconfident” about his government’s ability to manage without U.S. combat troops.” He also writes about the shifting power dynamic in Iraq. The Shiite-dominated government has created a gravitational pull toward the Shiite Iranian regime and away from the United States, which has much closer relationships with Sunni states in the region.

These are obviously quite complicated issues and their respective outcomes will likely affect billions of U.S. dollars and countless lives, to say nothing of their potential strategic implications and their ability to tie the hands of our next president. Yet they are being negotiated outside the public sphere with little public understanding and even less democratic debate.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His blog, “Altercation,” appears at http://www.mediamatters.org/altercation. His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America was recently published by Viking.

George Zornick is a New York-based writer.

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This is part of a regular column: Think Again

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