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Bipolar Iraq

We’re winning the peace, say the Bushies. But if so, what about all those body bags? How the administration is reinventing the PR war.


Here are the two opposite story lines:

(1) It’s working.

(2) It’s a quagmire.

Let’s fill them out a little more:

(1) Iraqis are back in the markets and on the street; schools are opening, businesses getting going again, institutions returning to life. By virtually every happiness-quotient measure, the state of being among the vast majority of Iraqis is more positive now than it was during the reign of Saddam Hussein—and it will be even more positive in the near future. As social experiments go—revivifying a materially and psychologically broken nation—there is every reason to be optimistic (and even proud) about this one.

(2) We’ve gotten ourselves into an ever-expanding war with a fanatical and well-armed resistance. What’s more, growing numbers of ideological defenders are traveling to this battlefield, which threatens to turn Iraq, along with Israel and the Palestinian territories, into a permanent Muslim versus non-Muslim front and international tripwire. We’re stuck in a situation with consequences and financial burdens that we cannot estimate. This is the definition of quagmire. And by the logic of quagmire, the situation only ever becomes more intractable and the consequences more fearful and destabilizing.

As you read those quick précis, your inclination is, invariably, to pick one. They can’t, after all, really exist together. Or, if perchance they do exist together now, one will inevitably come to overshadow the other. Obviously, if you’re a Bush person, you choose the former, and if you’re an anti-Bush person, you choose the latter. In some sense, in fact, these are not even alternative views of the reality in Iraq as much as opposite worldviews applicable to almost any situation.

(1) There is, quite simply, the patent superiority of the American way. When people are exposed to it, it spreads like a virus. We have not only righteousness on our side but modernity and economic reality. Eighty-seven billion dollars changes any equation. Everything seems messy, inchoate, ugly, fraught, without organization; but at some point in the organizational process, rationality and benefit will begin to become clear. Upside will outweigh downside. Ambivalence and self-doubt are the real killers here. Long-term investment and staying the course are the solutions and the way to get a big return.

(2) An incredible arrogance chronically pervades the American mind-set. Our lack of self-doubt makes us stupid. We’re blinded to the intractable problems set against us: not just to a deep cultural antipathy but to a million details on the ground that the guys at the Pentagon or at Centcom HQ in Florida don’t have the patience or the language skills or the in-country intelligence to think through. What’s more, because we pride ourselves on “can-do” and turn up our noses at intellectual and abstract analysis, we never really or accurately appreciate cause and effect. We’re always the victims of the law of unintended consequences. Because we’re too big and too quick, we necessarily upset the ecology in ways that will certainly come back to haunt and terrorize us.

(1) Essentially good news.

(2) Inevitably bad news.

Which brings us to the Chinook helicopter—and before that the attack on the Al Rashid Hotel, and before that the U.N. attack.

The fervent bad-news-ites seem to believe that the Bushies understand the kind of mess they’re (we’re) in and are doing everything they can to disguise (spin) it and to blame someone else for it. But the more interesting and complex and difficult possibility is that they don’t see it as a mess at all.

For them, these bad-news incidents represent an illusion created by the small resistance, the leftover Baathists. These thugs and irregulars. What we have here are isolated acts meant to sow widespread fear—it’s just, well, terrorism. The odd thing, of course, is that such terrorism is exactly why we went to war—so it’s rather disorienting to have it dismissed now as somehow inconsequential in relation to the bigger picture.

It’s not bad news, the Bushies seem to be saying, as much as bad PR—or the other side’s good PR. The bad guys have effectively influenced the media coverage without, the Bushies seem genuinely convinced, affecting the reality. Life in Iraq gets better and better—except for the fact that these scumballs know how to generate bad press for the Americans who are making life in Iraq better and better.

Hence the Bushies have countered with a campaign to generate good news. There is even the sense—again, a reality inversion—that the best way to deal with terrorism is in the court of public opinion rather than on the battlefield.

So the good-news offensive. The mainstream media—because it is overly liberal and crassly superficial—is emphasizing the (minimal) bloodshed and ignoring the story of a liberated nation. And there has been the careful parsing of the story: carving the Sunni triangle from the rest of a (largely) pacified country; rushing in American pollsters (and then parsing those results); separating good imams from bad imams.

And, indeed, there has been a sudden rush of not unconvincing good-news accounts. Life was terrible. Life is better. Nothing worked. Now many things are working. Average Iraqis may not be embracing the American occupation, but they are sure grateful not to have Saddam around (cue the torture tapes that the Pentagon released to Fox News). Life, as seen by in-country reporters, is returning to normal.

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