A Quiet Ending

The news business is tough. You’re supposed to cover major events – the big things that change history, or are history, or are at least momentous in some way. But the news business is after all a business – the job is to make money for your shareholders – to turn a profit, and to show growing profits month-over-month and year-over-year. The stock price goes up. Maybe you regularly pay a fat dividend. So, given that, you give your audience what your research people say they think that your audience wants to hear, to keep that audience with you and, if possible, growing and growing. You need your viewers to stick around for the advertisements, and maybe actually buy the product in question. After all, although your advertisers pay you to present the news, market share matters – they pay you to deliver customers to them, the right customers, in the right demographic, with verifiable disposable income. That’s the whole point.

And as for the parent corporation – CNN as part of Time-Warner or NBC-MSNBC-CNBC as part of General Electric – to them the news is simply a vehicle to capture customers – one of many, like reality shows and football games and the latest teenage vampire franchise. So news operations, as corporate divisions, need to pull their weight and make real money, and then big money, for the parent corporation. If they don’t, heads will roll. This isn’t a loss-leader public-service charity sort of thing. And the idea that a news division would be set up to provide serious and in-depth coverage of an important topic or event, coverage that makes people uncomfortable but something that must be faced, and do so regardless of advertising revenues, as a prestige thing where you accept an operating loss for the halo-effect of appearing responsible and deeply committed to the necessary enlightenment of the nation – think of Edward R. Murrow – well, that’s nonsense. Those days are long gone. There’s no money in those haloes. And there’s just no way to quantify how many actual dollars appearing responsible and deeply committed to the necessary enlightenment of the nation adds to the bottom line. And anything that can’t be counted is bullshit anyway. At least that seems to be the current notion.

Professional journalists – those few who do the digging and uncover what’s really going on, or risk their lives in dangerous places, and then actually cast it all into words or images so we can all see the truth of this matter or that – are none too happy with all this. Yes, it pays the bills, but they don’t want to work for a thriving profit-center. They want to work for a news organization. They want to show people what’s really happening, and explain it clearly. They want to wake people up – with a big scoop or an investigative blockbuster. It’s a sort of idealism, but it’s also like choosing a career in teaching. What’s the point? No one thanks you for telling them what they really don’t want to hear.

Nope, one must turn to the satires of Juvenal and what he said about panem et circenses – bread and circuses. That’s what kept the Romans fat, dumb and happy. That’s what they wanted and that’s what they got – no more than that. Juvenal was sarcastic about this as public policy, but what worked in Ancient Rome still works now. We want our circuses. The news folks cover our circuses, as they must. That’s what keeps the ratings up, so they can sell hundreds of those thirty-second spots for laxatives and reverse mortgages, for big bucks.

And thus the news is filled with reports on the current circus, the Republicans trying to figure out just who among them should face Obama in the next election. Donald Trump didn’t work out for them, although he just won’t go away. Sarah Palin decided not to run, as did Mike Huckabee – the Baptist minister who plays rock electric bass and looks and sounds like Gomer Pyle. Herman Cain flamed out and he’s gone. But Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann are still around – now playing the role of circus clowns. And Rick Santorum is still around and still sour and sanctimonious. And Mitt Romney is still handsome and empty, and Newt Gingrich is still the bomb-thrower guy, blasting out outrageous idea after outrageous idea, and still telling everyone he’s the smartest person in the room, and the smartest person in America, or the universe, or something. It’s a circus. Most of each news cycle is reports from this circus.

And Thursday evening, December 15, the Republicans had their thirteenth debate – another circus and the last debate before the Iowa caucuses – where the first of anything, but not much of anything, will be decided. Many of those on stage will be gone soon enough, and by the summer of next year it will come down to one of them being chosen to run against Obama. But for now it’s just a circus freak show, with everyone trying to say something even more outrageous than what any of the others say.

It’s the clown show, and as for what happened in this debate there’s Andrew Sullivan’s running commentary and his roundup of reactions from all the commentators – all amusing, or alarming. Sullivan has endorsed Ron Paul – not crazy like the rest of them (although many disagree) – and was impressed with Jon Huntsman. But it’s early in the process and none of this matters very much – unless you’re a fan of outrageous notions that will be challenged and modified, and then disappear later. Gingrich wants to abolish the judicial branch, or at least assure us that the courts have no right to rule on the constitutionality of any law, because the whole idea of the balance of power is stupid. He wants Congress to call in the Supreme Court for classes on Capitol Hill, led by him, on what the Constitution really says and what it really, really means. And all the debaters – except for Ron Paul – said they want to bomb and perhaps invade and occupy Iran, now. And Rick Perry said that once he’s president he’ll simply decree that Congress is now part-time – they’ll only meet for a few days every other year, like the legislature in Texas. That’s the first thing he would do, just issue the order – simple and effective. There’s much more of this at the Sullivan links. Almost all of it is absurd. But it keeps the nation amused or alarmed, and keeps the major news organization busy and thus profitable.

But in case you didn’t notice, the Iraq War ended – after nine years. It’s over. We’re gone, and this is a big deal. This is history, or at least historic. And it was the third story, after the commercial break and before the weather. But John McCain certainly noticed:

Over 4,000 brave young Americans gave their lives in this conflict. I pray that their sacrifice is not in vain. I hope that their families will not mourn the day that their sons and daughters went out to fight for freedom for the Iraqi people. Unfortunately, it is clear that this decision of a complete pullout of United States troops from Iraq was dictated by politics, and not our national security interests. I believe that history will judge this president’s leadership with the scorn and disdain it deserves.

But Andrew Sullivan pushes back:

Yes, it was determined by politics: Iraqi politics and the 2008 SOFA [Status of Forces Agreement]. Does McCain believe the US has a right to occupy a sovereign democratic country against its explicit wishes for as long as he believes it to be in America’s interests? That isn’t neo-imperialism. It’s imperialism.

That may be a moot point now, but Slate’s Fred Kaplan asks the real question here, which is simple. Did we win the Iraq War?

Actually Kaplan has two questions. Was the war worth it? And did we, in any sense at all, win? And he says those are related:

The first concerns cost, the second benefits. But however you do the calculation, it’s clear that the decision to invade Iraq was a major strategic blunder – and that the policies we pursued in the early months of the occupation tipped the blunder into a catastrophe.

If we’d known in March 2003 that Saddam Hussein had neither weapons of mass destruction nor ties with al-Qaida, there is no way Congress would have authorized the war. That the Bush administration roared ahead on little more than a suspicion of these connections – which top officials hyped by cherry-picking raw intelligence and willfully inflating the warning signs from “possible emerging threat” to “clear and present danger” – constitutes an act of historic infamy.

And there’s this:

Besides being an unnecessary war, the plunge into Iraq was also a distraction from Afghanistan, at a time when even a few more resources and a little more attention might have put down al-Qaida for good and laid the groundwork for a somewhat stable civil society. In this sense, the last decade of bloodshed in Afghanistan (and across the border in Pakistan) might also have been unnecessary.

But other than that, it was a great idea, but we bungled it anyway:

The turn to catastrophe came in mid-May, five weeks after U.S. forces rolled into Baghdad and toppled Saddam’s regime, when the imperious L. Paul (“Jerry”) Bremer issued his first two orders as head of the Coalition Provisional Authority. Order No. 1 barred members of the once-ruling Baathist party from holding any but the lowliest of government jobs. Order No. 2 disbanded the Iraqi army.

Suddenly, tens of thousands of Iraqis, most of them young men with weapons (and the knowledge of where to find more), were turned out into the streets, officially disenfranchised and, in many cases, eager to rebel against the agents of their fate. An insurgency arose. There were no Iraqi security forces to clamp it down. Most of the American forces had been trained only to “break things and kill people,” an approach that, applied to this sort of revolt, sired only more – and still angrier – insurgents.

Oops. We made a mistake there, but making that mistake, if you recall, was an unforced error:

Before the invasion, the National Security Council held two principals’ meetings, with President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and all the relevant Cabinet officials present. At one, they agreed unanimously to hold tribunals – similar to the truth commissions in post-Soviet Eastern Europe and post-apartheid South Africa – that would determine which Baathists could stay in their jobs and which couldn’t. At another, they agreed, also unanimously, to preserve the Iraqi army, except for the elite Republican Guards and the most highly ranked officers – and even the latter could appeal for reconsideration. In fact, at the time Bremer issued his orders, teams of U.S. officers were working with the more amenable Iraqi generals to round up and reactivate their old units.

It’s weird that, almost nine years later, we still don’t know who wrote those directives – or why Bush (who learned about them the same way everyone else did, through the newspapers) didn’t reverse them right away.

But Kaplan had already explored how this had something to do with Rumsfeld and Cheney and the Iraqi exile Ahmad Chalabi jerking them around. This was a mess. And Kaplan also admits he was all for the war, until that article by George Packer in the New York Times Magazine, the story that reported that Bush had no idea that Iraq consisted of Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds, and that toppling Saddam could set free all the sectarian tensions and lead to civil war. Kaplan ended up saying that “however justified the coming war with Iraq may be the Bush administration is in no shape – diplomatically, politically, or intellectually – to wage it or at least to settle its aftermath.”

Many saw that, not that it mattered. And Kaplan goes on to say Bush’s famous Surge staved off disaster, but that too is a mixed bag:

Petraeus said many times that the point of the surge (by which he meant the surge of troops and ideas) was to give Iraq’s political factions a zone of security – some “breathing space” – so they could focus in peace on hammering out their differences and creating a cohesive, legitimate government.

The American troops fulfilled their part in this bargain, more so than anyone had envisioned. The problem today is the Iraqis. They didn’t take advantage of the breathing space. The main issues that divided the parties (which is to say, the sectarian factions) five years ago continue to divide them today.

There is still no firm agreement on sharing oil wealth. The Kurds and Sunni Arabs still squabble over property rights in Kirkuk. Maliki himself has obstructed efforts to incorporate the Sunni Awakening’s soldiers into the national Iraqi army.

Well, there is that. But did we win? Maybe we did, kind of, sort of:

The good news – and this is due, in no small measure, to Bush’s decisions at the end of 2006, as well as the way the Obama administration has managed the transition since 2009 – is that there is a functioning Iraqi government. The means and institutions do exist for resolving these problems mainly through politics.

However, the troubling fact is that these differences among the factions are no small matters. They reflect central issues of power, wealth and identity. Failure to resolve the disputes in the halls of politics may spur the most militant constituents – of whom there are many – to revive their armed struggles in the streets.

Whether we “won” the war in Iraq remains an unsettled question. It hinges, at this point, on which way the Iraqis turn.

But what did we expect?

But as for why this war just ended, right now, a political scientist, Jonathan Bernstein has this take:

Why did it end? Certainly not because the matter was settled on the battlefield, either with a clear win or a clear loss. Anyone who has any confidence that the goals Americans were fighting for from 2004 on have now been secured is nuts. On the other hand, it’s not a “defeat” in the sense of being driven off the battlefield. All of which means that leaving is a real choice. Yes, the Iraqi government had some say in the question, but had the US been seriously committed over the last several years to staying, I think it’s pretty clear there could easily still be 100,000 or more troops there, indefinitely, no matter what the Iraqis wanted.

No, the United States ended its war in Iraq by choice, just as it got in by choice.

So McCain is sort of right, it was political, depending on how you look at it:

Acting in presidential primaries and other primaries in 2004, liberals made it clear that the ambivalence (or, in some cases, solid support) for the war that was evident in Congress in 2002 was absolutely unacceptable within the Democratic Party. That accelerated in the 2006 primaries, with the sort-of-defeat of Joe Lieberman showing exactly where the party was. As a consequence, when Democrats won majorities in Congress in 2006 – in large part because unhappiness with the war had severely damaged George W. Bush – it was an almost solidly antiwar caucus. …

Bush, who had two more years in the White House, was just as legitimate an elected official as were the new Democrats in Congress (as were the remaining Republicans on the Hill, for that matter). But the result wasn’t, as it happened, deadlock; instead, much to the frustration of antiwar voters, the result was a surge into Iraq and increased American casualties. And yet as much as it didn’t appear so at the time, the truth was that the surge was the beginning of the end: there’s a straight line from the surge through the agreement with Iraqis that yielded steady troop reductions under Bush, continued pullback under Barack Obama, and the final official handover today. Meanwhile, Obama, in large part because of his credibility with antiwar Democratic activists and other party actors, emerged as a surprise nominee of the party in 2008, and captured the presidency ready to carry out the Bush withdrawal – or, a more blunt version might have it, the Bush slow motion surrender.

The point is that the war ended because citizens, acting mainly through the Democratic Party, ended it. Democratic Party actors – activists, policy specialists, politicians, campaign operatives, and eventually just about everyone, many of whom were not politically active before the war – made it clear that a pro-war candidate could not be safely nominated, eventually, for any federal office.

That’s one way of looking at it, and as such a pretty big deal. And it’s easy to see why Bernstein thinks this isn’t the secondary news story of the day, but history in the making:

I’ve said this before, but I’ll repeat it: elections aren’t plebiscites on public policy issues. They don’t actually tell us “what the people want” in any kind of direct way… that’s just not something that mass-electorate contests are capable of doing. But they can be used by citizens, especially acting through political parties, to take action. To make history. And it’s damn hard; it’s a nation of over 300 million, and many of them really, really, don’t agree with you – and even more just don’t actually care about whatever it is that you believe is critically important, as hard as you may find that to believe. That’s not a flaw of democracy: that is democracy. But it’s also democracy to keep working, in and out of electoral politics, to find allies, to build coalitions, and to keep trying to win no matter how frustrating it gets.

I’m afraid we don’t teach that very well, either in school or through our political culture. But that’s the way that real democracy works. And when you do win, and even if that victory is incomplete or took too long in coming, it’s very appropriate to look back and appreciate not only all that you have done, but also a political system of real self-government. No matter how hard that is in practice.

So this was a big win, for common sense perhaps. And it was a long time coming.

Still it was a quiet story. We seem to have corrected the mother of all errors, a real embarrassment of epic proportions. But the news business isn’t configured in any way to make this a big deal. No one thanks you for telling them what they really don’t want to hear. We’ll just hear more about Newt. And that’s a business decision – nothing personal, of course.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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