Tuesday, November 20, 2007

For a picture it was a toss-up between Condi and this troop transport... I picked the prettier of the two...

I have found the past couple weeks to be somewhat slow on the news front. When I mentioned this over the weekend to my semi-automated news-tracker friend Nima at http://www.positivity.ca/ he concurred. Things were still happening in the world; cyclones in Bangladesh killed over 3,000, there was anti-petrodollar rhetoric at OPEC meetings in Saudi Arabia, a Polish visitor arrived in Vancouver B.C. only to be executed by airport security, and the trial of an Atlanta wrestler who enslaved nine women was underway. It was the usual run of events but there seemed to be a restrained air to the monkey knife fight that is world events. There seemed to be an absence of the frantic and frothing.

Finally I thought I put my finger on it; a shortfall of concrete Iraq stories. For years now the Iraq war and occupation has been the linchpin of the daily news cycle, especially in America. Papers, news programs, and websites build their product around what Iraq items they are going to showcase on any given day. It’s become the frame and focus of their product. When the load is lightened it seems to alter the whole structure itself. That’s when I focused on Iraq in particular to see if there was any merit to my notion.

I want to be clear that this news topography I claim to have prescience over is entirely speculative if not subjective as well. I thought I saw an interesting question and then in gathering news items I constructed myself an answer. At the very least it’s a deductive exercise wrapped up in your friendly Iraq up-date...

This is when things started to go quiet…

At the end of October, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice was threatening to essentially draft State Department employees into diplomatic duty in Baghdad because there weren’t enough volunteers to fill the posts. This forced relocation caused an uproar as many employees thought the conditions were unsafe and the work futile. This incident created something of a breach in public relations. The solution for Iraq has always been placed in the political and it takes diplomats, not soldiers, to facilitate those kinds of improvements. If the Foreign Service workers weren’t going to be there then Iraq’s rise from a sectarian hellhole wouldn’t happen. I speculate that this is where a clamp on the media started and I then attempted to qualify my hunch. I put ‘Iraq’ in the search engines of both the New York Times and the Washington Post, and then scanned through over 300 articles each in each publication over a timespan of just over three weeks.

Two year old weapon story, printed this month

Release of prisoners caught in neighbourhood dragnets

The first article goes over weapons handed out to Iraqi forces without proper tracking measures and thus there are tons of missing weapons. The subject matter isn’t new and the article itself is concerning itself with action occurring in 2004 and 2005 with no new information surfacing to justify printing this article in 2007. The second article reports that 500 Iraqi prisoners have been released from U.S. custody which must be considered good news because most of those people had no business rotting in jail in the first place.

Both of these articles are typical of the first two weeks in November. Iraq is either given a clinical and retrospective treatment or the stories are domestically based; things like the Blackwater civilian hard-on hearing or Mukasey’s non-opinion on torture. The ‘good news’ story is reaching but printed nonetheless while Iraq as it is on the ground is no where to be found with the exception of soldier death announcements.

Dissent in the State Department you say? How convenient!

Security money for the State Department you say? How reassuring!

Meanwhile two stories give the State Department a whole new coat of paint. The first talks about employees in Iraq chastising the position of Foreign Service agents back home. The article points to an inter-department blog as a source for these cracks in their solidarity. I am suspicious as to what the true point of this article really is. I think it’s a given that a workplace with hundreds of employees is going to have differences in opinion, newspapers don’t need to inform me of this fact. I cannot help but think however that it undermines those diplomats who roundly spoke as one when they declared” “hell no, we won’t go.”

The second article talks about the significant security budget increase the State Department requested. How else would this be taken by the employees other than: “worry not, we’ll take good care of you.”

Travel restrictions starting to lift in Baghdad

Violence in a downward trend

Some Iraqis return to their homes

We’re coming to it now. Starting last week and rolling into this one are stories like the above. Stability in the capital is said to be up and attacks down so there are plans to remove roadblocks and permit easier travel throughout the city. Add to that reports that some Iraqis feel secure back on their home street if not in their neighbourhood (and certainly not in their city entire.) Still, its progress as the media chooses to measure it and must come as a relief to those faced with travelling there.

Success! An embarrassment averted! On with your scheduled programming...

All of this may or may not have culminated in the State Department filling its roster without issuing strong orders. Who knows what incentives or pressures were employed in the end. Perhaps the muted arc of the news cycle was merely serendipitous. What I find remarkable is that people who were justifiably in fear for their lives at the thought of being shipped to the most dangerous place on earth had a change of heart in about three short weeks and I myself believing that it took a whole lot more than the hit-and-miss diplomatic capabilities of Condoleeza Rice.

I am not stating that Condoleeza Rice or any other person has power over the news but if Canada is any indication then I will assert that the news gets a lot of material from government sources. If the government turned the spigot of information off with regards to the Iraq war or Afghanistan or any other issue then there is nothing for the news service to report and we the citizenry would assume that there is nothing to report at this time. Ours is a society of open government at best, propaganda at worst, and the Sunday Edition tends to sit somewhere inbetween.

In going over all this news I see the occupation entering a new phase and it isn’t Iraq returning to normalcy, even if you consider normalcy to include sectarian enclaves and no-go zones in what was once a civilized country. I see acceptance sinking in on both sides; Iraqis and Americans are starting to wearily come to grips with their new reality and make the necessary accommodations to live with their fate. The shock doctrine is in full effect right now and U.S. over-lordship might be something that everyone at home and abroad accepts provided the news doesn’t get too ugly and everyone is allowed to cook in their own kitchens, bullet-riddled as they may be. I think the U.S. military knows that America’s long-term strategic plans in the region involve keeping a message ephemeral yet clear: “Sure it sucks now but it could go back to being much, much worse. Get used to us hanging around.”

One last article, the one they didn’t want you to see...

Thanks to Marc for sending this piece. It’s a startling statistic that I didn’t find anywhere in my search of those two big American papers. British troops were holding Basra and getting attacked constantly so they withdrew with the result being a 90% drop in violence. They were bringing it on themselves and thus removed the problem.

The U.S. will not follow this course of action, not their diplomats and not their soldiers. The British were interested in keeping the peace; the Americans have a different set of priorities in mind.

UPDATE: The rash of 'good news' from Iraq created quite a response among readers of the New York Times and a question/answer blog was set up. It goes over some of the articles I've posted including the Basra situation.

New York Times Q&A article

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