in the Desert
By Paul Krugman
--- - In February 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell,
addressing the United Nations Security Council, claimed to
have proof that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass
destruction. He did not, in fact, present any actual
evidence, just pictures of buildings with big arrows
pointing at them saying things like “Chemical Munitions
Bunker.” But many people in the political and media
establishments swooned: they admired Mr. Powell, and because
he said it, they believed it.
Mr. Powell’s masters got the war they wanted, and it soon
became apparent that none of his assertions had been true.
Until recently I assumed that the failure to find W.M.D.,
followed by years of false claims of progress in Iraq, would
make a repeat of the snow job that sold the war impossible.
But I was wrong. The administration, this time relying on
Gen. David Petraeus to play the Colin Powell role, has had
remarkable success creating the perception that the “surge”
is succeeding, even though there’s not a shred of verifiable
evidence to suggest that it is.
Thus Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution — the
author of “The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading
Iraq” — and his colleague Michael O’Hanlon, another longtime
war booster, returned from a Pentagon-guided tour of Iraq
and declared that the surge was working. They received
enormous media coverage; most of that coverage accepted
their ludicrous self-description as critics of the war who
have been convinced by new evidence.
A third participant in the same tour, Anthony Cordesman of
the Center for Strategic and International Studies, reported
that unlike his traveling companions, he saw little change
in the Iraq situation and “did not see success for the
strategy that President Bush announced in January.” But
neither his dissent nor a courageous rebuttal of Mr.
O’Hanlon and Mr. Pollack by seven soldiers actually serving
in Iraq, published in The New York Times, received much
Meanwhile, many news organizations have come out with
misleading reports suggesting a sharp drop in U.S.
casualties. The reality is that this year, as in previous
years, there have been month-to-month fluctuations that tell
us little: for example, July 2006 was a low-casualty month,
with only 43 U.S. military fatalities, but it was also a
month in which the Iraqi situation continued to deteriorate.
And so far, every month of 2007 has seen more U.S. military
fatalities than the same month in 2006.
What about civilian casualties? The Pentagon says they’re
down, but it has neither released its numbers nor explained
how they’re calculated. According to a draft report from the
Government Accountability Office, which was leaked to the
press because officials were afraid the office would be
pressured into changing the report’s conclusions, U.S.
government agencies “differ” on whether sectarian violence
has been reduced. And independent attempts by news agencies
to estimate civilian deaths from news reports, hospital
records and other sources have not found any significant
Now, there are parts of Baghdad where civilian deaths
probably have fallen — but that’s not necessarily good news.
“Some military officers,” reports Leila Fadel of McClatchy,
“believe that it may be an indication that ethnic cleansing
has been completed in many neighborhoods and that there
aren’t as many people to kill.”
Above all, we should remember that the whole point of the
surge was to create space for political progress in Iraq.
And neither that leaked G.A.O. report nor the recent
National Intelligence Estimate found any political progress
worth mentioning. There has been no hint of sectarian
reconciliation, and the Iraqi government, according to yet
another leaked U.S. government report, is completely riddled
But, say the usual suspects, General Petraeus is a fine,
upstanding officer who wouldn’t participate in a campaign of
deception — apparently forgetting that they said the same
thing about Mr. Powell.
First of all, General Petraeus is now identified with the
surge; if it fails, he fails. He has every incentive to find
a way to keep it going, in the hope that somehow he can pull
off something he can call success.
And General Petraeus’s history also suggests that he is much
more of a political, and indeed partisan, animal than his
press would have you believe. In particular, six weeks
before the 2004 presidential election, General Petraeus
published an op-ed article in The Washington Post in which
he claimed — wrongly, of course — that there had been
“tangible progress” in Iraq, and that “momentum has gathered
in recent months.”
Is it normal for serving military officers to publish
articles just before an election that clearly help an
incumbent’s campaign? I don’t think so.
So here we go again. It appears that many influential people
in this country have learned nothing from the last five
years. And those who cannot learn from history are, indeed,
doomed to repeat it.
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company
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