I saw Newsweek’s latest cover today, subtly headlined: “VICTORY AT LAST.” My first reaction was to grab the nearest taser, jam it down my throat, pull the trigger, and hope that my bodily fluids would conduct the 10,000 volts of electricity to instantly fry my brain so I wouldn’t have to read the accompanying story. Sadly, I couldn’t find a taser.
I cautioned in my piece yesterday that the coming debate in Iraq won’t be over policy, it will be over the narrative of how the war ended for America. The Newsweek cover, using the March 7th election as its news peg, is the most striking example of this process so far. It’s a pretty blatant piece of propaganda–and I don’t use that word lightly–meant to mislead the public on what’s actually occurred.
It’s the word victory that I take issue with. What, exactly, did we win again? The editors didn’t even have the decency to use the old news magazine trick of ending any wannabe provocative headline with a question mark. (Which would have looked like this:VICTORY AT LAST?)
Thankfully, the story itself–written by journalists who I have a great deal of respect for–isn’t as bad as the cover would suggest. Basically, it says what’s happening in Iraq “looks mighty like” a democracy. Sure, that’s an argument that can be made, especially with a creative interpretation of the facts. (Like spinning Salih Mutlaq’s ban as a good thing because after it other Sunni politicians were “conspicuous in their low profile.” Maybe because they live in fear of the Shiite Islamist government and didn’t want to get banned as well? And really, the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra? C’mon.) But there are enough caveats and to-be-sure grafs to take it a few notches below the realm of Weekly Standard/National Review ideologically driven b.s.
Like this one:
The word skeptics like to fall back on is “fragile.” No one can say for sure whether the Iraqis’ political experiment is sustainable. Many U.S. officials see themselves as the key players who hold everything together, massaging egos and nudging adversaries closer together. Some are already talking about revising the schedule whereby all U.S. troops would leave the country in 2011.
(Yes, those crazy skeptics! And true, if we’re being honest, nobody knows what’s gonna happen–which is why you should have put that question mark in the headline!)
So back to the headline. It’s worth remembering that Newsweek recently ran a story hinting we could have won the Vietnam War(a pressing question among young college Republicans circa ’72) and just last week a cover asking itself: What would the Republicans do if they ran the country? (See the entry in U.S. history from January 2001 to January 20,2009 to find out.)We know then that recent cover choices are as much about “generating buzz” and “stimulating debate” as anything else, so at least with me, consider the debate stimulated.
We’re talking here about shaping the narrative of the Iraq War. This is a big part of the “lessons learned” discussion we like to have. We draw our lessons from the historical narrative that gets formed in our nation’s collective memory. The media plays a crucial role in in this process.
So I think we should try to remember this simple series of sentences: the lesson of Vietnam was not to get involved in Vietnam-like situations… the lesson of the Iraq War is not get involved in Vietnam/Iraq-like situations…the lesson of Afghanistan is not to get involved in Vietnam/Iraq/Afghanistan-like situations…And so on. (This was once called the Powell Doctrine, before Powell was put on the cover of Newsweek pre-Iraq War holding up a fake vial of non-existent WMD’s.) If we convince ourselves we achieved some sort of “victory” those lessons–which we appear to have trouble learning anyway–have even less of a chance of sinking in.
It’s the V word in this particular headline that brings it up to the level of delusional, Goebbels-esque, myth-making. I think you can clearly make the case that since 2008 the U.S. military has had success in Iraq, but victory is a word that even U.S. government officials are smart enough not to use. (And even the war’s most loyal supporters shy away from, as this AFP story details.) After a cost of 3 trillion dollars, over 4,000 U.S. lives, and over 150,000 Iraqi lives, we’ve managed to prop up a “fragile” Shiite-Islamist Iranian backed government, whose democratic future is clearly in question. (There’s also the 2 million or so refugees, and they’re not exactly flocking back.) But, it’s a hell of lot better than it was when it was really, really, really bad from 2004-2007, so that’s a success.
Here’s the metaphor I like to use to describe our time in Iraq. We dug a gaping hole in the middle of the desert. We have managed to fill that hole back in, barely and at great cost. Filling in a hole you dug yourself doesn’t qualify as a big victory in my book. It qualifies as a success–congrats, you finished filling in that hole!–but it’s not the kind of occasion that merits a parade, or for that matter, a Newsweek cover.