While the interminable debate over some news organizations’ decision to start calling the carnage in Iraq a “civil war” and the dust-up over a questionable AP story from Iraq roll on — there’s a third front in the reporting of the war that has taken center stage lately.
The difference is that the front line of this fight is taking place in the famously gossipy newsrooms of D.C. and the leak-prone halls of government. On top of that, it deals with something that hasn’t even happened yet — namely, the final report of the much-hyped Iraq Study Group, due to be released tomorrow.
There’s no doubt that the group — led by old school kingmakers James Baker and Lee Hamilton — and its mandate are newsworthy. Iraq isn’t going to right itself, after all (despite prewar claims to the contrary), and nothing the Bush administration has done so far has proved successful. But given the breathless coverage over the past week or so, one wonders if the press is putting too much weight behind the report, which seems to be a collection of previously floated ideas about a gradual withdrawal of troops and the bolstering of training programs for the Iraqi Army and police force.
This hasn’t kept reporters from treating the group like a White Knight that is ready to poke its finger in the eye of an obstinate president who has been stuck on a “stay the course” loop since before the 2004 presidential election. Both Newsweek and Time ran cover stories about the ISG this week, with Newsweek asking, “Will Bush Listen?” and Time taking a more authoritative stance, proclaiming, “The Iraq Study Group says it’s time for an exit strategy. Why Bush will listen.”
On Monday, the New York Times’ David E. Sanger piled on the ISG speculation, asking the question yet again, “Will Bush Change on Iraq?” His answer? Probably no more than he absolutely has to, and even that much is debatable.
The Washington Post’s Charles Babbington took a more measured approach yesterday, telling us that “Bush Is Weighing Options for New Strategy in Iraq.”
What all of these stories have in common is that they provide a before-action report on what the president may do with the study, and if he does anything at all, it will go against every tendency he has so far shown as commander-in-chief — obstinacy, hubris, and an near total disregard of outside opinions.
Still, reporters like Time’s Michael Duffy continue to insist that in the short term, any moves the president makes in Iraq “will be based on the agreement reached by the bipartisan commission led by former Secretary of State James Baker III and former Indiana Congressman Lee Hamilton.”
But is that true? It’s like the Iraq Study group is the only game in town. The Weekly Standard’s Robert Kagan and Bill Kristol are actually a little bit ahead of the curve on this one, writing this week that “the study group’s recommendations turn out to be a pallid and muddled reiteration of what most Democrats, many Republicans, and even Donald Rumsfeld and senior military officials have been saying for almost two years.”
It is true that the situation — both on the ground in Iraq and particularly in domestic power politics here at home — is significantly different than it was when Bush previously ignored these other options. But given the president’s apparent pre-emptive rejection of some of the group’s anticipated recommendations last week in Jordan — “There’s a lot of speculation that these reports in Washington mean there’s going to be some kind of graceful exit out of Iraq … This business about graceful exit just simply has no realism to it at all” — we wonder if reporters aren’t putting the cart before the horse by propping up the ISG as the cure-all for what ails the American military involvement in Iraq.