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April 07, 2008

NY TimesWatch: Self Inflicted Wounds Edition

You have to love the NY Times. In the hands of these proud Information Warriors, history becomes infinitely malleable and facts (like the current news cycle) exist mainly to reinforce the narrative.

But sometimes all that spinning can make a person downright dizzy. Witness the eminently snort worthy headline of this Frank Rich column:

Tet Happened ... And No One Cared. If Viet Nam-era history is not your forte, a short review may be appropriate:

The Tet Offensive was a battle, often described as the “turning point” in the Vietnam War, which had deep implications on the future of both Vietnam and America. A little history helps to show the significance of the Tet Offensive as a psychological power play. Tet is a celebration, or holiday, observed by the Vietnamese during the turn of the lunar year. Out of respect for this observance, the custom, somewhat of an unwritten agreement, was to cease hostilities during the celebration period.

North Vietnamese troops along with guerrilla fighters launched the Tet Offensive, a “shock and awe” style attack that forever changed the way the American people would look at the war. Not only were U.S. and South Vietnamese forces stunned by the attack being instigated during the Tet celebration, but the press and folks at home in America were also shocked and disheartened. Over two dozen cities that were supposed to be safe havens by this point were attacked, including Saigon.

This news was especially chilling because the popular American sentiment at the time was that the North Vietnamese were all but beaten. In addition, raw film footage from the Tet Offensive was coming in from Tokyo and hitting the airwaves unedited. The nightly news in America was filled with horrific images and reporters didn’t have the experience to explain it. It looked nightmarish to the average person, especially without benefit of analysis, and quickly turned many in America against the war.

Many critics consider the press to have run with this new-found power. In fairness, many of those in the media probably believed they were doing a good thing by shaming the public into condemning the war. Unfortunately, not being experienced military analysts, many had no idea what a sudden retreat or withdrawal would entail. Still, the graphic images and sounds of the Tet Offensive were played nightly, and reporters and anchors even began adding their own opinions. Being an anti-war member of the press came into style in the aftermath of the Tet Offensive.

The Tet Offensive was not the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong victory it appeared to be, at least not militarily. In fact, most experts agree that they never intended to hold the cities that were taken, but to create a shocking display made up of small disasters that would appear to be a major defeat. It worked, especially with the aid of the American press in painting it just as the North Vietnamese may have hoped it would appear.

While the North lost tens of thousands of troops compared to less than 3,000 American troops during the Tet Offensive, it was a propaganda victory for the Communists. Militarily, many considered them to have been beaten, but the psychological power play worked in their favor, with the help of America’s own news media.

Pardon the Editorial Staff for finding it a bit... well... rich for Frank to liken Basra to the Tet Offensive: a Viet Cong psy ops attack the American media were duped into aiding and abetting.

It's not so much the comparison itself that amuses. It's Mr. Rich's attitude. Some folks might think that, having been fooled once, the media would not wish to be made fools of again. Those people would be wrong.

Frank Rich, you see, having himself told us he thinks Basra is an enemy propaganda attack aimed at undermining support for the war, is positively peeved the media haven't covered it more!

For the majority of Americans who haven’t met any of the brave troops who’ve been cavalierly tossed into the quagmire, the war is out of sight and mind in a way Vietnam never was. Only 28 percent of Americans knew American casualties in Iraq were nearing 4,000 last month, according to the Pew Research Center. The Project for Excellence in Journalism found that by March 2008 the percentage of prominent news stories that were about Iraq had fallen to about one-fifth of what it was in January 2007. It’s a poignant commentary on the whole war that Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, the nonpartisan advocacy group, was reduced to protesting the lack of coverage.

That’s why it’s no surprise that so few stopped to absorb the disastrous six-day battle of Basra that ended last week — a mini-Tet that belied the “success” of the surge. Even fewer noticed that the presumptive Republican nominee seemed at least as oblivious to what was going down as President Bush, no tiny feat.

Never mind that the media were hyping the war for all it was worth until the Surge tamped down the violence in Iraq. Then, suddenly, the good news the media previously "couldn't find" wasn't worth covering:

...reporters trying to cover the good news in Iraq face a formidable obstacle … in the continual and overwhelming bad news. Journalists are kept busy covering explosions, mass killings, reprisals, and kidnappings, which a recent State Department report called "a daily occurrence throughout all regions and sectors of society." They also have to worry constantly about getting shot, blown up, or taken hostage themselves whenever they leave their compounds. The perpetually worsening violence makes administration officials feel they have to push the good news to counterbalance it. But it also makes it nearly impossible for the press to get out and see what else is happening.

Funny. When they finally *could* get out and cover the good news, they didn't. Why is that? What happened to that objectivity we hoped would come out of hiding when the shooting died down?

I guess that was too much to ask. But the more interesting point is this: if Basra truly is Tet all over again, doesn't that mean it was a defeat for Moqtada al Sadr? And doesn't that mean the press have been wrongly hyping it (out of ignorance) as a crushing setback for our side?

If Mr. Rich's comparison holds true, wouldn't that mean the media were doing exactly what our enemies hoped they would do: blindly swallowing enemy propaganda and harming the war effort irreparably? Because that's what happened during the Tet Offensive. Truth to tell, the situation conjures up many historical analogies.

Sooner or later, one of them may even be accurate. As one of the "28 percent of Americans [who] knew American casualties in Iraq were nearing 4,000 last month" and one of the far smaller percentage of Americans who has personally experienced the death of at least one person they knew well in this war, I won't hold my breath waiting for Frank Rich and the media to get this right. I can't afford to.

The fact is that although no one can yet predict the outcome in Iraq with any confidence - events are still unfolding - certain things with regard to Moqtada al Sadr are fairly clear despite Rich's dishonest characterizations:

Mr. McCain is also fond of portraying Mr. Maliki’s “democracy” in Iraq as an essential bulwark against Iran; his surrogate Lindsey Graham habitually refers to Mr. Sadr’s Mahdi Army as “Iranian-backed militias.” But the political coalition and militia propping up Mr. Maliki are even closer to Iran than the Sadrists. McClatchy Newspapers reported last week that the Maliki-Sadr cease-fire was not only brokered in Iran but by a general whose name is on the Treasury Department’s terrorist list: the commander of the Quds force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard.

The danger of trying to call the game before it's finished is that one risks having one's pronouncements overcome by events:

Senior Sadr aide Hassan Zargani said Sadr would seek rulings from Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most senior Shi'ite cleric, and senior Shi'ite clergy based in Iran, on whether to dissolve the Mehdi Army, and would obey their orders.

"If they order the Mehdi Army to disband, Moqtada al-Sadr and the Sadr movement will obey the orders of the religious leaders," Zargani told Reuters from neighboring Iran, where U.S. officials say Sadr has spent most of the past year.

It's easy to dismiss al Sadr's announcement as empty rhetoric but to do so would be to fail to ask an important question. If al Sadr has the power and the support of the people, why the sudden conciliatory gesture?

The truth is that for well over a year, al Sadr has made one such gesture after another. Cumulatively, the trend of his actions forms a slow, steady move away from violent lawlessness and toward peaceful engagement with the legitimate government of Iraq. What Rich doesn't want to acknowledge is that one doesn't recognize or negotiate with the powerless. There is no need.

Recently, al Sadr sent an emissary to Cairo. The occasion was an ongoing series of meetings between Iraqi religious leaders designed to encourage political cooperation and discourage sectarian strife. This is what the delegate from Moqtada al Sadr had to say to his countrymen:

- Sheikh Salah al Obeidi (Sadrist): "For the occupation to end we must stop sectarian violence. When the central government encourages sectarianism, it makes it more difficult to overcome. Further, for religious leaders to justify their position on the basis of having the exclusive support of God makes it harder still. Instead we must focus our attention on creating a basis for confidence among brothers of all sects.

"In order to rebuild the country, we must start with security -- an end to violence. We must also have a trained national army and police force. And this can only happen after we -- Sunnis and Shiites -- enter a genuine rapprochement."

Clearly he, too, is not a fan of the conventional wisdom. But then perhaps they don't get Frank Rich's column in Baghdad.

Or in Iran. What a pity. Back when the Democrats were hyping the Iraq Study Group as the last best chance for success in Iraq (before George Bush harshed their mellow by incorporating most of their recommendations and winning the endorsement of James Baker) Congressional Democrats used to want Iraq's neighbors to use diplomatic pressure to keep the peace. Now that the Iraqis have taken the initiative and chosen diplomacy over violence, of course, they've earned nothing but disapproval from those who formerly urged this course of action.

It's hard to know what the critics expect of the Iraqis in either the political or the military arena. Democracy - true democracy - is messy. Political factions will continue to disagree, undermine each other and jockey for position; one need look no farther than our own Congress, now more than two hundred years old, for the proof of that proposition.

Military battles aren't terribly precise either. More often than not, even the world's greatest superpower has been known to stumble a bit along the way. As the old maxim goes, no plan survives contact with the enemy (or even with conditions on the ground). And yet we adapt and overcome. In the end, what decides battles both political and military is the will to prevail.

And that will is what the Tet Offensive in 1968 was designed to strike at, and - by Frank Rich's chosen analogy - the target of the most recent attacks in Basra, carefully timed to coincide with events back here in the States. And now Mr. Rich has announced who he's rooting for.

But don't you dare question his patriotism, his objectivity, or whether he knows what he's doing. Because that would be downright un-American.

I'll get on my knees and pray
We don't get fooled again

Meet the new boss
Same as the old boss

Posted by Cassandra at April 7, 2008 05:03 PM

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I only wish these knuckleheads at the NYTimes and similar outlets would hold their breath until they get it right.........

Posted by: Bob at April 7, 2008 08:32 PM

Mr. Rich seems quite bloodthirsty. I do believe the exercise was to take control of the city and the port. To all appearances that has happened. Not to kill as many of your countrymen as possible and raze parts of the city. Since when is negotiation to reduce bloodshed a bad thing?

I assure if Maliki went in with an iron fist we would get "Iraq has not lived up to it's political goals yet" meme.

Putz, dolt, fool are a few words that come to mind concerning Mr. Rich.

Posted by: Allen at April 7, 2008 09:15 PM

You've gotta give Sadr credit for one thing, though -- he's succeeded in giving that rather significant part of the population that *isn't* in the Mahdi Army a common cause.

The "Get Sadr to STFU" movement.

The Sahwa ("Awakening") Shi'a militias sent volunteers to help Iraqi troops clean out the Mahdis -- who are also Shi'a.

Even the *Kurds* offered to send Baghdad troops...

Posted by: BillT at April 8, 2008 06:46 AM


He's a uniter, not a divider!


Posted by: Cass at April 8, 2008 07:05 AM

The similarities with the Tet Offensive are there, just not where Rich sees them.

In Viet Nam, the Tet offensive of 1968 exhausted and ended the Viet Cong as they then existed as a military force. This paved the way for NVA regulars to continue the battle. In short, the North Vietnamese government INTENTIONALLY used up the VC to get the "politically unreliable" VC southerners out of the war.

Likewise, I think that al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army have become expendable to the Iranian plans. They may have other political vehicles to try and subvert Iraq (Maliki? Dawa? Donald Duck?). So like the North Vietnamese threw the VC overboard, Iran is throwing Sadr and his gang overboard. And that may be the only similarity.

Oh yeah. Frank Rich is a tool.

Posted by: Don Brouhaha at April 8, 2008 09:03 AM

Oh, I agree, Don.

I just think it's extremely funny that he is *lamenting* the supposed failure of the media to pay *enough* attention to it :p

Posted by: Cass at April 8, 2008 09:09 AM

The phrase a mini-Tet that belied the “success” of the surge is particularly amusing when the historical consensus about Tet is that it was a military defeat for the NVA but a propaganda victory.

Ergo, a mini-Tet that "belied the success of the Surge" would do so only in the erroneous reports of the American media.

Posted by: Cass at April 8, 2008 09:15 AM

...the supposed failure of the media to pay *enough* attention to it...

That scrabbling sound you hear is Walter Cronkite attempting to get into the See-BS newsroom...

Posted by: BillT at April 8, 2008 12:13 PM

The fact is that although no one can yet predict the outcome in Iraq with any confidence - events are still unfolding - certain things with regard to Moqtada al Sadr are fairly clear despite Rich's dishonest characterizations:

That's just the thing, Cass. Rich and our side are not "predicting" anything. We are trying to make things happen. Rich wants to make things so that our allies die and are obliterated like Rich and Company did to the South Vietnamese. We are trying to save the Iraqis as Americans tried to do with the South Vietnamese, until Tet.

Posted by: Ymarsakar at April 9, 2008 12:05 PM

In order to carry out conventional and timed attacks against the Marine embassy and various other parts in South Vietnam, the VietCong Charlie cadre and terrorist networks had to come out of hiding and attack in an organized fashion. This meant that once defeated, the VietCong had no where left to flee since their identities had been known through captured members and certain obvious things like participating in extermination death squads.

In order to sustain the media barrage of pictures, the Vietcong had to keep fighting rather than retreat. Things might have been different if the Marine firebases were taken out by the NVA frontal push, but that's not what happened. THe Vietcong launched many spoiler raids and spectacular attacks, equivalent to IEDs and VBIEDs, that resulted in no significant conventional loss of power to us or the SV Republic.

Any insurgency, guerrilla, or terrorist force that comes out of the shadows and tries to fight conventional occupation forces on an even plane will either win totally or be destroyed totally.

Those that gave the orders to the VietCong in the south to provide disturbances and distractions knew very well what would happen should the US successfully resist Tet.

The Vietnamese leadership were, after all, considering surrendering precisely because they had lost so much attrition wise.

But like in all wars, it ain't over until it is over. A person losing can win and a person winning can lose. Appearances are just, appearances.

The NVA and Vietcong gave one lasp gasp in hopes of ultimate victory or defeat and the luck of the cards produced the Fall of Saigon in the end. The NVA didn't give up and they won. The US gave up and lost, with the addition of also causing the South Vietnamese to lose as well.

After Tet, the Vietcong were never really able to be reconstructed. The cadres, I believe, were almost totally obliterated. The VC were never really a big problem afterwards. Which is pretty ironic given that the most problems we seemed to have had in Vietnam had to do with the insurgency, i.e. the VC not the NVA. Now that the VC was gone, we suddenly leave as well when all that was left in Vietnam was to fight conventionally, which is what the US was supposed to be the best at.

It's an interesting exercise in history for people to now, all of a sudden, devote energies into getting the US to give up once again. But they say if you give up, you'll win.

That's never really happened in warfare where giving up ever won you anything except death and destruction.

For example, the media doesn't advocate that they should give up their standards and expectations of objectivity. Because they know if they give up, they must recognize defeat, they would have to recognize that we were right and they were wrong.

So, when people tell us we should give up in Iraq cause victory is never going to be acheived there, what they are really doing is trying to get you to complete a self-fullfilling prophecy.

Posted by: Ymarsakar at April 9, 2008 12:20 PM