Just as the media lied to help us get into a war, they are now lying us out of one.
In the introduction to season five of HBO’s critically acclaimed series, “The Wire,” Det. Bunk Moreland and fellow murder investigators laughed as they duped a hapless, young street gangster into confessing to a murder by pretending a copy machine was a polygraph test. “The bigger the lie, the more they believe,” he said.
The statement reflects the political dialogue in this country perfectly over the last month, ever since Barack Obama touted the troop drawdown in Iraq in an August 2 speech in Atlanta and leading up to tonight’s Oval Address celebrating the “end of combat operations in Iraq.” The president, the DC establishment and the media have been perpetuating a lie on a massive scale: the war in Iraq is now over, they claim.
But this is patently misleading, as Andrew Bacevich, of Boston University noted in a recent essay. “For the rest of us to pretend that this unnecessary and ill-advised war has ended would only add one more lie to a pile that is already too large,” Bacevich also said that internal strife between sects, an increasingly defiant Kurdistan and recent attacks in Baghdad, prove that the war in Iraq is by no means over.
Sadly, it is not merely the president and others who have a political motive for perpetuating the myth that the United States has ended out national nightmare in Iraq. More troubling has been the performance of the mainstream media, which, in print and on television, have been witting pawns in this massive deception, reporting on the war as if it were truly over, celebrating this historical moment and ignoring crucial details, as they mislead the American public about the nature of the US role in Iraq. The woeful media performance is just the latest of what has been an especially regrettable eight years of media coverage of Iraq.
Making 100,000 People Disappear
Ever since Obama’s speech in Atlanta, the US media has given significant coverage to what the “withdrawal” of troops would mean for the future of Iraq and for US interests in the Middle East. “The drawdown will bring the American force in Iraq to 50,000 troops by Aug. 31, down from 144,000 when Mr. Obama took office,” reported The New York Times. “The remaining ‘advise and assist’ brigades will officially focus on supporting and training Iraqi security forces, protecting American personnel and facilities and mounting counterterrorism operations.”
In their reporting, however, the US corporate media – in near monolithic fashion – has failed to mention the drawdown would not include the more than 100,000 private military contractors that are already serving in Iraq, in addition to the 144,000 troops. This collective blackout is even more disturbing when you consider that the US State Department has plans to dramatically increase the number of private contractors that will serve in Iraq to coincide with the drawdown of US forces.
“The State Department is asking Congress to approve funds to more than double the number of private security contractors in Iraq with a State Department official testifying in June at a hearing of the Wartime Contracting Commission that the Department wants ‘between 6,000 and 7,000 security contractors,'” reported Jeremy Scahill, author of “Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army.” “What is unfolding is the face of President Obama’s scaled-down, rebranded mini-occupation of Iraq. Under the terms of the Status of Forces agreement, all US forces are supposed to be out of Iraq by the end of 2011. Using private forces is a back-door way of continuing a substantial US presence under the cover of “‘diplomatic security.'”
One might think that a serious news report about the logistics and politics of a drawdown of Iraq-based troops would include the fact that, in addition to 50,000 remaining troops, the US would still employ well more than 100,000 private military contractors, especially when such contractors have been such a source of controversy over the years. Indeed, contractors from companies such as Xe Services (formerly Blackwater USA), have been accused of numerous murders, use of excessive force and other war crimes. Mainstream outlets, however, have either ignored or downplayed the massive group of contractors that will remain in the country well after the 2011 “withdrawal” date.
The New York Times, for instance, wrote a considerable amount about Obama’s planned drawdown in the 14 days following his August 2 speech before disabled veterans in Atlanta. The withdrawal of troops was mentioned in eight news articles, two op-eds and one brief. Not a single one of these articles mentioned the private contractors, nor included them in the personnel numbers they used. Further, of the 26 articles published in 2010 under the Times tag for “private military companies,” only one gives mention to the increasing role of contractors after the Iraq withdrawal.
The Times published this article August 22 – months after Scahill reported the same findings for the Nation – which fails to mention the total amount of private contractors in the country and, tellingly, quotes a US official refusing to even discuss what the US might do if they are unable to keep violence down. “It runs counter to their political argument that we are getting out of these messy places,” an anonymous official told Michael Gordon. “And it would be quite counterproductive to talk this way in front of the Iraqis.”
In the same way, The Washington Post did not provide these crucial pieces of context. In the two weeks following Obama’s speech about Iraq, the Post published nine news articles, two op-eds and two briefs mentioning the drawdown. Only two of these articles mentioned private contractors: one was about Pentagon spending cuts and did not reference contractors working in Iraq; the other simply mentioned that the State Department has requested funding for tanks for contractors in an article about expenses in post-combat Iraq. None of the Post articles mentioned the number of contractors that will remain in Iraq, nor the move to increase these numbers from current levels.
Of course, even if the US were not employing a growing number of military contractors, it would still be misleading to claim what is happening in Iraq amounts to the “end” of the war. The 50,000 or so remaining troops are being given a “noncombat” label, but this overlooks the fact that the six brigades still stationed in Iraq will be engaged in combat, especially with regard to “counterterrorism” activities. That an American soldier was killed by rocket fire in Basra on August 23 – just days after politicians and pundits celebrated the “end” of Operation Iraqi Freedom – was a stark reminder that the US is still very much at war.
Cable News and the Media Spectacle
A similar pattern exists on cable news as well. “CNN,” “Fox News” and even the liberal “Rachel Maddow Show” on MSNBC, failed to mention the private contractors that would be in Iraq in the coming years in their initial reports of the withdrawal, and used the same 50,000 figure widely cited in other US media sources. Instead of reporting the details of the continuing presence, television outlets celebrated the occasion, showing the remaining trucks leaving the country on August 18 as some kind of symbolic end to the war. The propaganda worked. A blogger on Daily Kos, in a highly-regarded blog site, was so impressed by this media spectacle that he titled a diary “OMG!! Turn on MSNBC Right Now!!” and proceeded to praise the president and to express how glad he is the war is over. “Iraqi Freedom is over,” the blogger exclaimed. “Two weeks early.”
The media’s failure to provide crucial context about the US war in Iraq is nothing new. The media has regularly used troop numbers that do not include private contractors, essentially underreporting the total number of boots by one half. A study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism of over 400 media outlets found that “fewer than one-quarter of those outlets – only 93 of them – ever mentioned private military contractors beyond a brief account of a death or injury.” Moreover, as Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) has documented, the US media has also typically failed to count the death of contractors in its totals for the war effort.
Further, it can hardly be forgotten how notoriously bad the mainstream media’s coverage was in the run-up to the Iraq war, leading The New York Times to issue an apology for their flawed coverage in 2004, saying it was “not as rigorous as it should have been,” and that it had allowed numerous questionable assertions to “stand unchallenged.”
Lastly, the fact a lie this enormous is accepted so widely speaks volumes about the poor nature of world news in the United States. The war in Iraq is an incredibly expensive undertaking that will cost us more than $3 trillion, according to two Harvard professors. The war has also been responsible for more than a million deaths, according to Lancet.
Such a project was not embarked upon on a whim. US state planners had long seen oil-rich Iraq as a strategic boon. In 2000, Dick Cheney, then-CEO of Halliburton said, “The Middle East, with two-thirds of the world’s oil and the lowest costs, is still where the ultimate prize lies.” And the invasion, however illegal and unjust, did serve geopolitical ends, as does the ongoing US presence. While the US had long understood the value of controlling Iraqi oil, its desire to do so was becoming jeopardized in the late 1990s and early 2000s by what British historian Charles Tripp called, “Iraq’s reemergence as a major oil producer and regional economic power.” By the early part of the 21st century, Iraq was producing an estimated 2.8 million barrels of oil per day and exporting 1.7 million barrels per day, bringing in roughly $12 billion in annual revenues, making it a “hub of regional trade,” and putting Iraq “on the verge of international rehabilitation,” Tripp said. The problem for US policy makers was that rivals like “Russia and China could not resist a piece of the Iraq market.”
With the most powerful military in the world, however, the US was able to change this. When it toppled the Iraqi regime in 2003, oil contracts between Iraq and US economic rivals were rendered moot. Unsurprisingly, in a move that went virtually ignored by US journalists, the US issued a memorandum of understanding in 2003, which declared that all reconstruction contracts would go to members of the “coalition of the willing” or countries that supported the US invasion. Russia, China, Germany and France, accordingly, were blocked out of a massive oil market, which some estimate accounts for 12 percent of the world’s oil. With the US already having tremendous influence over Saudi oil – 25 percent of the world’s reserves – a client state in Iraq beholden to the US for support, gives the US significant control over 37 percent of the world’s oil.
To believe that the United States would allow its massive investment to be put at risk by a sovereign, ever-shaky, independent Iraq would be patently ludicrous. But the US media – which barely mentions geopolitics and focuses much of its reporting on the public statements of US officials – has never done much in the way of explaining the potential motives for the war in Iraq, or for that matter, the motives for staying.
By downplaying the fact that so many thousands of people are still operating in Iraq, being killed and killing others, and by perpetuating the myth that the United States will abandon its investment in controlling Iraq in deference to the country’s autonomy, the media has continued to fail the public when it comes to covering the war in Iraq.
Michael Corcoran is a journalist based in Boston. He has written for the Boston Globe, the Nation, the Christian Science Monitor, Extra!, Nacla Report on the Americas and other publications.