Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Bush’s War–And Our Own

As the war in Iraq marked its fifth anniversary, thirteen Iraqis were killed as dozens of mortar shells were fired at the “heavily fortified Green Zone” in what the New York Times called “one of the fiercest and most sustained attacks on the area in the last year.” The attack “ushered in a day of violence around the country that claimed the lives of at least 58 Iraqis and four American soldiers.” The American military deaths increased the number of American service members killed in the war to at least 4,000.

The response of the American media to the ongoing carnage in Iraq, however, seems only to echo that of the current American Administration, as expressed recently by Vice-President Cheney. When told the vast majority of Americans now oppose the war, Cheney pithily replied, “So what?”

As noted in another Times article headlined, “The War Endures, but Where’s the Media?”, “Five years later, the United States remains at war in Iraq, but there are days when it would be hard to tell from a quick look at television news, newspapers and the Internet.” Since the start of last year, as reported by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, “Iraq accounted for 18 percent of their prominent news coverage in the first nine months of 2007, but only 9 percent in the following three months, and 3 percent so far this year.”

Given the waning media attention on Iraq –in the middle of last year, it was the most-covered topic in the news, but reporting since then by major American news sources has dropped by a startling 80 percent, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism – it’s not surprising that public interest in the ongoing war has dropped as well. Recent polls show that fewer than thirty percent of Americans polled now say they are following events in Iraq “very closely.” Although leading media executives cite any number of excuses for the decline in attention — the danger and expense in covering Iraq, shrinking budgets and a presidential campaign that is also straining their resources, a national economy in crisis – the bottom line for concerned citizens has been a severe drop in coverage of the war. The three broadcast networks’ nightly newscasts now spend half as much time on Iraq as earlier in the year – and far less than in 2003 or even 2004.

That’s why the decision by PBS Frontline to devote four and a half hours to its two part special Bush’s War, (airing Monday, March 24 from 9-11:30 pm ET and Tuesday, March 25 from 9-11 pm) is to be greatly lauded – as is Frontline executive Producer David Fanning, under whose leadership the series has broadcast more than forty reports on the war, creating in the process both the leading documentary analysis of the war and the richest archive of it in all of broadcast journalism.

There are items to quibble with, of course – Frontline’s own reporting proves the title Bush’s War to be a misnomer, for example, since the lead figures throughout the debacle have always been former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his cunning colleague, Vice-President Cheney – but in sum the two-part special makes a damning case against the incompetence and arrogance that has (thus far) resulted in the 4000 deaths of US service personnel.

The first half of the Frontline special focuses more on the “behind-the-scenes battle” and “the hidden war being waged inside the administration” over Iraq, using an impressive array of top-line sources to paint a compelling portrait of how Cheney and Rumsfeld –- skilled and experienced veterans of Beltway bureaucratic infighting – triumphed against the overmatched likes of Colin Powell, George Tenet and Condi Rice. Almost from the start — the 9/11 terror attacks that shocked the nation out of its millennial complacency and into a new century of strife – “Dick Cheney was in charge,” as Frontline narrator Will Lyman intones in his familiar Voice-of-God manner.

Cheney remained in charge throughout a series of fierce internal Bush Administration skirmishes, working in close concert with his old pal Rummy to circumscribe, end-run and in general thwart the aims and desires of anyone who stood in the way of their vision of regime change in Iraq. Frontline deftly limns the process as, one after another, the opponents of Cheney and Rumsfeld were successively co-opted, marginalized, falsely lionized and ultimately hornswoggled by patient infighters. As Frontline persuasively shows, Rice, Tenet, Powell and their supporters never stood a chance against the superior skills and greater tenacity of Cheney and Rumsfeld. Far from being “Bush’s War,” the reportage here establishes beyond a shadow of a doubt that this was for years really Rumsfeld-and-Cheney’s War – and continues, in Rummy’s enforced absence, now to be almost solely Cheney’s War, with a president and Secretary of State along for the ride and pretty much doing what they are told…

The second part of the Frontline special examines the actual war in Iraq – not the war in Washington — beginning with the quick early “victory” and “Mission Accomplished,” followed by a recitation of how the early mistakes and lack of preparation soon led to chaos, violence and then an insurgency that continues to this day. The special then speeds through an account of the past three years of conflict, and concludes with the current state of the “surge” – the “temporary” increase in combat troops bringing the total American force to 160,000 – that has left President Bush, in the eyes of one observer, New Yorker writer Steve Coll, “certain to at least win a stalemate.”

So, with Rumsfeld gone, Powell gone, Tenet and many others gone but not forgotten, the costly, deadly war most Americans don’t want – but don’t want to think about – grinds on. Now it really is “Bush’s War” – and our own. And as the brilliant Frontline special concludes, “Soon Bush’s war… will be handed to someone new.”

– By Rory O’Connor

Editor’s Note: In conjunction with the airing of a comprehensive series on the Iraq war Monday and Tuesday, FRONTLINE promises a “New TV/Web Experience.”

According to the site:

“Across the entire four-hour Bush’s War series that will be streamed online, FRONTLINE will integrate and embed in its video player an array of related interviews, background material and video that can be viewed with just a click. In addition, more than 100 video clips of key moments and events in the Iraq war will be the centerpiece of an annotated master chronology which FRONTLINE will publish on the Bush’s War site.

The interviews, video and background material are drawn from one of the richest archives in broadcast journalism: FRONTLINE’s 40 hours of documentaries and 400 interviews done since 9/11 on Iraq and the war on terror, as well as new interviews conducted for Bush’s War.”

For further information on Bush’s War visit the Frontline website.

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