Media withdrawing from debate on Iraq

Withdrawing From Debate on Iraq

[Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting]

The forthcoming report from the independent Iraq Study Group, which according to press reports will possibly recommend a gradual and tentative withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq while rejecting any deadlines or timetables to carry it out, seems likely to further marginalize advocates of meaningful troop withdrawal in the media debate over Iraq.

The group, led by Bush family friend and ally James Baker and former U.S. Rep. Lee Hamilton, will reportedly recommend a staged pullback of troops, with further withdrawal dependent on certain advances by the Iraqi government. The group apparently rejected any firm timetables. But as Time magazine notes this week (12/11/06), the commission's report will likely dominate media discussion of Iraq, with "several days of nonstop interviews on every media outlet, network and cable-TV station—a media blitz that will run well into the Sunday-morning news programs."

That "media blitz" seems more likely to embrace the narrow range of debate among elites than the sentiments of the public. According to the 2006 exit polls, 55 percent of voters prefer that the U.S. withdraw some or all of its troops from Iraq, a finding consistent with other major opinion polls. And a recent Pew poll (11/9-12/06) found that respondents who favored a timetable outnumbered those opposed by 56 percent to 36 percent.

Immediately following the midterm elections, though, many in the media sought to eliminate the prospect of troop withdrawal from serious discussion. The Washington Post's editorial page (11/14/06) weighed in against Rep. John Murtha's bid to become majority leader, claiming that Murtha's call for the redeployment of U.S. troops from Iraq is "an extreme step that most congressional Democrats oppose." That is hard to square with the fact that about half the Democrats in Congress have co-sponsored Murtha's resolution (ThinkProgress, 11/14/06).

The next day, the New York Times front-paged a story by reporter Michael Gordon headlined, "Get Out of Iraq Now? Not So Fast, Experts Say." The Times relied on three "experts" to challenge Democrats' call for troop withdrawal: former military officers Anthony Zinni and John Batiste, who call for additional troops in Iraq, and Ken Pollack of the Brookings Institution, who was one of the most forceful pre-invasion proponents of the Iraq War.

That evening, the Times' Gordon was backing the opinions of those sources, telling CNN's Anderson Cooper that "while the politicians in the United States would like to see a withdrawal of forces, particularly on the Democratic side, that's simply not realistic given how precarious the security situation is at this point in time." Gordon went on to claim that "it's just the American military that stands between Iraq and civil war at this point. And, in that context, you can't withdraw a lot of troops."

Gordon criticized Democrats who are calling for withdrawal "because there are a significant number of players in Baghdad today who don't mind if the Americans withdraw. These are the militia leaders. They would be happy if the United States withdrew, because, then, they can go and carry out their ethnic cleansing campaign against the Sunnis." Gordon is wrong to suggest that the Iraqis who favor U.S. withdrawal from their country are just the "militia leaders." A recent poll of the Iraqi public (Program on International Policy Attitudes, 9/27/06) found that 7 in 10 Iraqis favored troop withdrawal.

Nonetheless, many reporters echo the White House in denouncing troop withdrawal as misguided. NBC reporter Norah O'Donnell derided pro-withdrawal Democrats on the Chris Matthews Show (11/26/06), saying that

the problem for the Democrats once again is they wind up, even though they were validated somewhat in the message by this elections, they wind up looking weak on national security, because what they're proposing is essentially a pull-out in four to six months. There is not one military or foreign policy expert who thinks you could actually feasibly do that, and second, that it would be a good idea. So why are they proposing that?

O'Donnell's ignorance of the wide variety of military and foreign policy experts who support withdrawal from Iraq calls into question her competence to report on the issue. Retired general William Odom, who was the head of the National Security Agency under President Ronald Reagan, supports troop withdrawal from Iraq, as do former CIA director John Deutsch and conservative Boston University military historian Andrew J. Bacevich (Washington Post, 8/21/05). Former Democratic presidential candidate and Sen. George McGovern and former State Department official William Polk have co-authored a recent book, Out of Iraq: A Practical Plan for Withdrawal Now. Historian Howard Zinn and Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg are just two of the many progressive experts who have consistently opposed the presence of U.S. troops in—but as blogger Glenn Greenwald has noted (12/1/06), having been right in the first place about the likely effects of a U.S. invasion of Iraq practically disqualifies one from participation in the mainstream media debate.

Time magazine's senior international correspondent Aparisim Ghosh argued against U.S troop withdrawal (12/11/06) in favor of, among other things, "30,000 more coalition soldiers and a real willingness to thrash the Shi'ite militias, something they've avoided so far," a process that "may take five more years. But if the U.S. leaves sooner, Iraq will devolve into an even bigger mess." Speaking of military and foreign policy experts, it's not clear how many would see a declaration of war against the Shi'ite majority's militias would accomplish anything beyond increasing the 62 percent of Shi'ite Iraqis who already approve of attacks on U.S. forces (PIPA, 9/27/06).

Leaks to the media about the Iraq Study Group's likely conclusions seemed to only contribute to a narrowing of the media discussion. A December 1 New York Times "News Analysis," headlined "Idea of Rapid Withdrawal From Iraq Seems to Fade," was emblematic, reporting that "the idea of a rapid American troop withdrawal is fast receding as a viable option." Why this might be so is hard to determine from the Times; reporter David Sanger only noted that Democrats "with an eye toward 2008, have dropped talk of a race for the exits, in favor of a brisk stroll." Sanger went on to claim that the "debate in Washington and much of the country" has rejected the White House's stay-the-course policy in favor of "renewed efforts to prepare the Iraqi forces while preparing to pull American combat brigades back to their bases, or back home, sometime next year."

While Sanger attributed this position to "much of the country," opinion polls would seem to show much more willingness on the part of the public to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq sooner than pundits and politicians would like. A recent Pew survey found 48 percent support for bringing troops home "as soon as possible," compared to 46 percent support for staying "until the situation has stabilized." Similarly, the same survey found much more concern for staying in Iraq too long (55 percent) than in leaving too early (33 percent).

On November 20, the PBS NewsHour With Jim Lehrer analyzed the debate over withdrawal from Iraq. A taped report skewed heavily towards pro-war views: It featured George W. Bush, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), and Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), along with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and U.S. military commander John Abizaid; Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) was the lone supporter of a phased withdrawal from Iraq. The debate that followed was introduced by Lehrer as "our own version of the debate, two men who've advised President Bush on Iraq policy this year." Neither guest—Fred Kagan from the right-wing American Enterprise Institute and Michael Vickers of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments—advocated withdrawal; Kagan favored troop increases, while Vickers mostly parried, saying we don't have enough troops to send more. To get a wider range of discussion, the NewsHour probably would have had to go outside the small circle of former Bush advisers.

And ABC World News anchor Charles Gibson hosted a roundtable on November 29 with Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria, retired Army Gen. Jack Keane and Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and former adviser to George W. Bush. Two of the guests—Keane and Haass—tentatively supported troop increases, an idea that has little public support. Asked about discussion of troop withdrawals, Keane called it "defeat," leading Gibson to declare, "Bottom line, there is no good option."

Whatever the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, their report presents an opportunity for the press to engage in a more wide-ranging debate on Iraq policy—not just a chance to further restrict debate over the most important issue of our time.

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The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey