In a recent New York Times column, Thomas Friedman laid out the current conventional wisdom about the war in Iraq:
In 2003, the United States, under President Bush, invaded Iraq to change the regime. Terrible postwar execution and unrelenting attempts by Al Qaeda to provoke a Sunni-Shiite civil war turned the Iraqi geopolitical space into a different problem — a maelstrom of violence for four years, with U.S. troops caught in the middle. A huge price was paid by Iraqis and Americans. This was the Iraq that Barack Obama ran against.
In the last year, though, the U.S. troop surge and the backlash from moderate Iraqi Sunnis against Al Qaeda and Iraqi Shiites against pro-Iranian extremists have brought a new measure of stability to Iraq. There is now, for the first time, a chance — still only a chance — that a reasonably stable democratizing government, though no doubt corrupt in places, can take root in the Iraqi political space.
That is the Iraq that Obama is inheriting. It is an Iraq where we have to begin drawing down our troops — because the occupation has gone on too long and because we have now committed to do so by treaty — but it is also an Iraq that has the potential to eventually tilt the Arab-Muslim world in a different direction.
Friedman’s simple summary pretty much hits the nail on the head, orthodoxy-wise. The larger story of Iraq right now—the story that’s emerged from a melting pot of individual dispatches and analyses, bubbling up from blogs and wire reports and magazines to radio and broadcast and cable news to permeate the general cultural atmosphere—is basically Friedman’s things-in-Iraq-were-really-crappy-but-they’re-getting-better-now narrative. Indeed, the only thing the columnist’s succinct little recap really omits is the truism, repeated so often that many of us have stopped questioning its truthfulness, that The Surge Is Working.
None of the above is to say that the press hasn’t been skeptical when it comes to the situation in Iraq. But our skepticism, in many ways, has turned into apathy. The fact that President Bush’s surprise visit to the country last week—one the administration apparently intended as a valedictory, a more subdued version of “Mission Accomplished”—received, overall, such a tepid response suggests that transformation. As does the fact that the coverage Bush’s trip received was extensive only because of The Shoe Heard ‘Round the World. Indeed, the press’s lame-duck treatment of the president—which often translates into an ignore him until he goes away attitude—seems to have filtered into its treatment of that president’s war.
And that, in turn, translates to a bigger problem in the war’s coverage—there’s not enough of it. The media are simply not providing—and the American public, therefore, is simply not getting—enough coverage of events in Iraq. Yes, it’s been said before; but the fact that that’s so shouldn’t make us stop saying it. Complacency shouldn’t stop us from being indignant at the fact, for example, that, per studies from the Project for Excellence in Journalism, the war regularly wins less than two percent of the weekly U.S. news hole. (For the week of December 1-7, PEJ reports, coverage of the war rang in at a high point of a full two percent—tying the attention it received with the attention given to O.J. Simpson.) And complacency shouldn’t keep us from being fairly shocked when, after Iraq’s cabinet approved a 2011 deadline for the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Iraq—suggesting a measure of resolution to the “timetable” debate that had been raging in Washington for years, not to mention a de facto end to the war—the agreement was all but ignored in the media. (It was beaten out for press attention, in this instance, by the all-important Somali pirate story.)
The problem is partially logistical: on-the-ground reporting from the country is both exceptionally expensive (The New York Times’s Baghdad bureau cost, last year, over $3 million a year to maintain) and incredibly dangerous (Iraq, for the sixth year in a row, has been named the deadliest country in the world for journalists). Still, while those facts may explain for the dearth of original, on-the-ground reporting from the country, they don’t explain the paucity of general coverage. We could still use much more—and much more thorough—analysis of the Iraq war; what we need nearly as much as hard news reports are explanations of the situation there from perspectives political, military, and cultural.