Monday, June 19, 2006

Where's the truth in Iraq?

One of the ongoing themes in the Iraq debate is the argument that the "true" picture of life in Iraq is not reaching Americans. Either it's better than portrayed (the prowar argument) or worse (the antiwar argument). Any report one way or another is dismissed either as biased in its own right, or simply "missing the bigger picture."

Some examples of the whiplash of conflicting reports:

Bush's recent trip to Iraq. On the one hand you have people hailing Bush's recent trip to Iraq as a sign of the improving security situation, since he was able to fly by helicopter over Baghdad to reach the Green Zone. The last time he visited, he landed and stayed at a military base.

Critics point out that we are in the midst of an offensive to "retake" Baghdad, 3 years after the end of the invasion, which certainly doesn't imply progress. And Bush didn't even tell the Iraqi prime minister he was coming, which certainly doesn't imply trust.

But then we get reports of coalition forces handing control of parts of Iraq over to Iraqi forces, which indicates that the security situation is improving.

Ignoring the good news. Reporters are criticized for not covering "good news", while others counter by pointing to the high death toll among journalists in Iraq, and note that if Iraq is so dangerous reporters can't leave the Green Zone, that says all we need to know about the security situation.

There's probably some truth to the "not reporting good news" argument, for a couple of mundane reasons: the inability of reporters to get out and witness such occurrences, and the fact that a school opening simply isn't as interesting or important as the ongoing violence. Reconstruction statistics tend to get reported as roundups, with such things as "3,000 schools have been renovated in the last year", rather than as 3,000 separate stories. It's fair to say that that lessens the impact of the good news.

But such complaints need to be taken with a grain of salt as well; a raw number like "3,000 schools renovated" or "100 playgrounds have been built" doesn't say much about what is meant by "renovated", doesn't say whether a playground is actually used, and doesn't mean anything unless we have some context: how many schools are there?

Last year a reporter (CNN, I think; the story has aged off the Web) traveled to several of these "renovated" schools and found that many of them had been superficially repaired but lacked supplies or electricity or functioning toilets or many of the other things one needs to have a working school.

Also last year, the New York Times did a short piece on a playground in Baghdad. U.S. troops spent $1.5 million in 2004 building it in a nice spot along the banks of the Tigris. A year later the playground was abandoned, the grass dead, because it was simply too dangerous to go there. But I'll bet that playground is still listed among successfully completed reconstruction projects.

We have undoubtedly renovated a substantial number of schools, and repaired a substantial number of sewer lines, and rebuilt a substantial number of electrical systems. But what that number is, and what it actually means as far as the quality of life in Iraq, is far more complicated than the bland "renovated schools" count suggests.

And here's another thought: you may think the media underreports the good news, but they also underreport the bad news. There's only so much space in any given newspaper or so much airtime on TV. The vast majority of photos never get seen by the vast majority of people, who also are not confronted with the vast majority of daily outrages. They, too, get aggregated into statistics. If you want a taste of just how much bad news you're not bombarded with each day, check out this site.

Economic measures. These are things like electricity and oil production, both of which have struggled to reach prewar levels. That may sound like we're not doing well, despite pouring billions into reconstruction. But the insurgency has diverted much of that spending to security, and it's difficult to increase electricity production when insurgents keep blowing up power lines and distribution stations. On the other hand, our inability to establish a secure environment is the reason the insurgency is able to do so much damage.

The fact is that Iraq is not one place, but multiple places. Outside of the Sunni Triangle, there is not much of an insurgency. What you do have, though, is sectarian violence, including Shiite death squads and security forces infiltrated by militia members. And in all places violence and corruption make rebuilding difficult.

Within the Sunni Triangle, the insurgency makes meaningful reconstruction especially difficult. But that just highlights one of the main criticisms of the occupation -- that it was poorly planned, and we've never had enough troops to do the job properly. Which is why we find ourselves retaking the same cities again and again, and spending more on providing security for construction projects than we do on the actual construction.

Is Iraq getting better? In places. Is it getting worse? In places. Is it safe and secure? Not even close, unless you're a Shiite in a predominately Shiite area or a Sunni in a predominately Sunni area. And that will remain the case until we have enough boots on the ground -- coalition or Iraqi -- to reestablish the governmental monopoly on violence that is essential to a secure state.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

You gave us an example of a playground in Iraq that a year later was abandoned and in ruins and claimed it was probably still listed as an accomlishment. Is that a reason to stop trying?

I can give you examples where in our very own country, we've gone into a poor urban housing area, spent tons of money.....only to have it all torn up and in ruins a year later. So, shall we just stop trying? And wasn't it an accomplishment anyway?

6/19/2006 4:12 PM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

It's not a reason to stop trying. But it points out two things:

1. the lack of meaning in body-count style measures like "we renovated 3,000 schools."

2. That pouring money into reconstruction without first establishing a secure environment is largely a waste of money.

6/19/2006 5:03 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

As for the 'reconstruction' efforts in Iraq, you can build a shell of anything but if the infrastructure is lacking or the conditions are unsafe, it isn't a true success. That is why the so-called liberal media doesn't seem to conservatives to be reporting much in the way of good news.

6/20/2006 8:49 AM  
Anonymous Marc said...

Sean, that was one of the best analyses I have read about the conflict between "good" and "bad" news.

No one is saying to stop trying, but the point is, the argument is that there is lots of good things happening that no one is talking about. But, if all these are are isolated incidents without any real progress, what's the point? It would be amazing if there weren't examples of good things happening somewhere in Iraq. But the point is how do those "good things" relate to the overall progress of the mission. Moreover, it's ridiculous to say the "liberal media" won't report good news; I have seen some of those reports in the Times about various things. But, even assuming that the media underreports good things, it seems obvious that the Administration is overplaying good news and ignoring the bad. The fact is, people that can are leaving Iraq in droves--what does that say about the so-called good news?

6/20/2006 3:01 PM  

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