Clio, the muse of history, enjoys mocking both our passions and pretensions. But the amazingly trivial pursuits of our modern-day political media make this practice far easier than it need be. The issue of "character," while hardly irrelevant to political leadership, has managed to crowd out virtually all discussion of issues in the U.S. political system.
The cruel irony of dynamic reveals itself in the fact that while most of the mainstream media cannot manage to distinguish between the kinds of moral choices that would lead one young man to sit out a war he supported thirty years ago while another risked his life to fight it, and then returned home to help save his fellow soldiers languishing in a hellish jungle war that could not be won, 130,000 young Americans are rapidly falling into a similar situation. With an increasingly chaotic, unpopular occupation in Iraq heading toward outright guerrilla warfare, and fewer than six weeks until a presidential election, a quick glance at the headlines would seem to suggest that the media considers ’70s-era typewriter fonts, pay stubs and whether or not medals (or ribbons) were tossed over a fence to be the pressing issues of the day. Like a recurring nightmare, American soldiers are once again "dying for a mistake," and they are doing so at a rate that has actually increased since the June 28 handover of power, though one would never guess as much from the relative dearth of press coverage.
Examine last Tuesday’s grim milestone. Sept. 7, 2004, saw not only the 1,000th American serviceperson killed in Iraq, but also, according to Thomas F. Schaller, marked "the official inflection date marking an identical period both before Saddam Hussein was captured and after he was captured." Its significance? In the first 269 days from the war’s start on March 19, 2003, to Hussein’s capture on Dec= 13, 2003, there were 459 American fatalities, which equal a rate of 1.71 a day. In the 269 days since that day, however, 539 Americans died, which averages out to a rate of 2 a day. In another telling statistic, the daily casualty rate for 2004 stands at 18 a day, more than twice what it was in 2003 (when it was 8.4 a day). The Pentagon reports the number of U.S. wounded at approximately 7,000. But during the two months since the handover, these numbers have risen by 1,500. The numbers reflect an explosion in the level of violence in Iraq, with attacks on American troops and their Iraqi allies averaging 87 per day. But if you listen to the conservative spin, major combat operations continue to be over, despite some "miscalculations," and we’ve turned the corner in Iraq.
As the media effectively ignore these alarming casualty rates, many misconceptions fostered by the war’s architects remain uncorrected. According to a late August poll by the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes, only 41 percent of those polled were able to correctly place U.S. deaths in Iraq in the 800-to-1,000 range, at a time when the actual toll was well over 900. More disturbing is the fact that half the poll’s respondents continue to hold the misperception that Iraq was either closely linked with al Qaeda before the war (35 percent) or was directly involved in the 9/11 attacks (15 percent). Fewer than half of Americans were aware that the 9/11 Commission had effectively dismissed this possibility.
While it gives every indication of developing into an all but hopeless quagmire, Iraq is in some ways a less worrisome problem than those that have recently been ignored. Iran and North Korea continue to develop their nuclear programs with little notice from the suddenly decidedly less hawkish right wing. Although the United States is currently constructing an untested and likely nonfunctional missile shield, conservative disdain for international treaties has actually made potential threats more likely. America is not a party to the "Fissile Materials Cut-off Treaty," and is therefore helping to undermine the world community’s ability to combat nuclear proliferation. As American Progress senior fellow Lawrence J. Korb recently noted, "By refusing to establish an inspection regime for the fissile materials cutoff, the Bush administration has thwarted a 10-year effort by the international community to lure Pakistan, India and Israel into accepting some oversight of their nuclear production programs."
Macho rhetoric notwithstanding, America continues to turn a blind eye toward Pakistan and its nuclear supermarket, as India, Israel, Iran and North Korea also continue their programs unabated. As Korb concludes, "the administration is doing things that increase the dangers of nuclear weapons falling into the wrong hands." Despite the critical importance of containing nuclear proliferation, and in spite of the rhetoric about the dangers we face, try typing "Fissile Materials Cut-off Treaty" into a search engine. You’ll find just how much weight the story has been given in the press.
As conservatives continue to browbeat the media into spinning their obvious failures and untruths into favorable coverage with the false claim of "liberal bias," it becomes nearly impossible for any American voter to make an informed judgment about his or her political choices. Perhaps in another year or so, we will be treated to another series of apologies from the New York Times and Washington Post about how they dropped the ball on these stories, but don’t hold your breath.
As Edward Wasserman recently noted in the Miami Herald, "The performance of this country’s finest news organizations in the run-up to the Iraq invasion of March 2003 will be remembered as a disgrace. To be sure, it was an angry, fearful time, and independent-minded reporting might not have been heard above the drumbeats of patriotism and war. But it’s hard to read the hand-wringing confessionals from news organizations that now realize that they got the prewar story wrong without concluding that the real problem was they were afraid to tell the truth." This is all the more unfortunate in a nation with so proud a tradition of a free press; after all, despite repeated right-wing attempts to stifle free speech in the name of national security, the only thing the media genuinely have to fear is—you guessed it—fear itself.
Eric Alterman is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the author of six books, including the just-published When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences. Paul McLeary is a New York writer.