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Snow Job in the Desert
In February 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell, addressing the United Nations Security Council, claimed to have proof that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. He did not, in fact, present any actual evidence, just pictures of buildings with big arrows pointing at them saying things like "Chemical Munitions Bunker." But many people in the political and media establishments swooned: they admired Mr. Powell, and because he said it, they believed it.
Mr. Powell's masters got the war they wanted, and it soon became apparent that none of his assertions had been true.
Until recently I assumed that the failure to find W.M.D., followed by years of false claims of progress in Iraq, would make a repeat of the snow job that sold the war impossible. But I was wrong. The administration, this time relying on Gen. David Petraeus to play the Colin Powell role, has had remarkable success creating the perception that the "surge" is succeeding, even though there's not a shred of verifiable evidence to suggest that it is.
Thus Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution - the author of "The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq" - and his colleague Michael O'Hanlon, another longtime war booster, returned from a Pentagon-guided tour of Iraq and declared that the surge was working. They received enormous media coverage; most of that coverage accepted their ludicrous self-description as critics of the war who have been convinced by new evidence.
A third participant in the same tour, Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, reported that unlike his traveling companions, he saw little change in the Iraq situation and "did not see success for the strategy that President Bush announced in January." But neither his dissent nor a courageous rebuttal of Mr. O'Hanlon and Mr. Pollack by seven soldiers actually serving in Iraq, published in The New York Times, received much media attention.
Meanwhile, many news organizations have come out with misleading reports suggesting a sharp drop in U.S. casualties. The reality is that this year, as in previous years, there have been month-to-month fluctuations that tell us little: for example, July 2006 was a low-casualty month, with only 43 U.S. military fatalities, but it was also a month in which the Iraqi situation continued to deteriorate. And so far, every month of 2007 has seen more U.S. military fatalities than the same month in 2006.
What about civilian casualties? The Pentagon says they're down, but it has neither released its numbers nor explained how they're calculated. According to a draft report from the Government Accountability Office, which was leaked to the press because officials were afraid the office would be pressured into changing the report's conclusions, U.S. government agencies "differ" on whether sectarian violence has been reduced. And independent attempts by news agencies to estimate civilian deaths from news reports, hospital records and other sources have not found any significant decline.
Now, there are parts of Baghdad where civilian deaths probably have fallen - but that's not necessarily good news. "Some military officers," reports Leila Fadel of McClatchy, "believe that it may be an indication that ethnic cleansing has been completed in many neighborhoods and that there aren't as many people to kill."
Above all, we should remember that the whole point of the surge was to create space for political progress in Iraq. And neither that leaked G.A.O. report nor the recent National Intelligence Estimate found any political progress worth mentioning. There has been no hint of sectarian reconciliation, and the Iraqi government, according to yet another leaked U.S. government report, is completely riddled with corruption.
But, say the usual suspects, General Petraeus is a fine, upstanding officer who wouldn't participate in a campaign of deception - apparently forgetting that they said the same thing about Mr. Powell.
First of all, General Petraeus is now identified with the surge; if it fails, he fails. He has every incentive to find a way to keep it going, in the hope that somehow he can pull off something he can call success.
And General Petraeus's history also suggests that he is much more of a political, and indeed partisan, animal than his press would have you believe. In particular, six weeks before the 2004 presidential election, General Petraeus published an op-ed article in The Washington Post in which he claimed - wrongly, of course - that there had been "tangible progress" in Iraq, and that "momentum has gathered in recent months."
Is it normal for serving military officers to publish articles just before an election that clearly help an incumbent's campaign? I don't think so.
So here we go again. It appears that many influential people in this country have learned nothing from the last five years. And those who cannot learn from history are, indeed, doomed to repeat it. Paul Krugman is Professor of Economics at Princeton University and a regular New York Times columnist. His most recent book is The Great Unraveling: Losing Our Way in the New Century.
© 2007 The New York Times