Liberal Hawk Says Iraq No Longer Matters

Iraq is now a "Non- Story" and quickly becoming irrelevant to the presidential campaign. So says liberal pundit Peter Beinart. If there's anything more dangerous than a neoconservative hawk, it's a liberal hawk.

Of course liberal hawks like Beinart want us to believe that public concern about Iraq is fading away. They don't want the public paying attention as they lock in their plans to keep up to 50,000 U.S. troops permanently on massive military bases in that war-torn country. They don't want the public to realize that the top three Democratic candidates for the presidential nomination have endorsed the plan to make Iraq an outpost of the empire.

As always, liberal hawks want the political spotlight focused on domestic affairs, while the governing elite takes care of imperial business unimpeded by bothersome and unpredictable public opinion. They agree with conservative hawks that the public is too ignorant and capricious to be trusted with the awesome responsibility of being the world's only superpower. That's a job for hard-headed rational experts, they say.

Rational? Let's take a look at Beinart's argument for Iraq becoming a "non-story." The public is losing interest, he says, because "not as many people are dying there. Fewer deaths mean fewer front-page stories, and fewer front-page stories mean less discussion on the cable shows, which were pretty sick of the topic already." So people have stopped paying attention.

Sounds simple enough, until you start looking at the complications. Why are there fewer front-page stories? Not because things have grown rosy in Iraq. Look at the stats (from Dec. 2, 53 Iraqis killed by violence; Dec. 1, 40 Iraqis killed; Nov 30, 21 Iraqis killed; Nov. 29, 30 Iraqis killed. Yes, the numbers are roughly half of what they were earlier this year.

But Beinart would have us believe that there is some objective standard at work here, that some magic number makes a day's death toll objectively newsworthy, and 21, or even 53, doesn't cut it. That's just silly. If editors and cable show hosts want Iraq on the front page, they could certainly say that 53 deaths, or even 21, is newsworthy. I know I would.

Perhaps, though, when Beinart said "not as many people are dying there" he meant not as many Americans -- which would make sense. Public concern about the war probably reflects concern about U.S. casualties a lot more than concern about Iraqi casualties.

But if U.S. deaths are the issue, again it's all relative. Yes, the death toll has dropped significantly since its most recent peak in May, 2007. But U.S. personnel still die nearly every day, and that can certainly be declared newsworthy.

The U.S. death toll has fluctuated a lot since the spring of 2003. Both '04 and '05 saw dips as dramatic as we've seen in the last half year. There is no clear correlation I can find between those fluctuations and public concern about the war.

In fact public concern about the war is very difficult to measure. In one recent poll of voter's top concerns, the economy did edge out Iraq. But in another poll taken just a few days later Iraq was by far the highest priority, with only half as many people naming the economic as their biggest concern. In general, despite all the fluctuations in the death toll, the long-term trend over the last few years is for a growing number of people to say that Iraq is the nation's biggest problem.

Whether Peter Beinart was talking about Iraqi deaths or U.S. military deaths or both, a temporary decline in those numbers does not, in itself, make the mainstream media lose interest in the war. If Iraq is disappearing from the headlines, there is some other factor at work here.

I suspect it's that editors and cable show hosts are watching what's going on, not only in Iraq, but in Washington and in elite policymaking circles (like the Council on Foreign Relations, where Beinart is a senior fellow). They know that at the highest levels the debate about what to do in Iraq pretty much ended over the summer.

Among Democrats, virtually all the elite figures have endorsed the Bush administration's plan to pursue the "Korea model," with those 50,000 or U.S. troops "enduring" (the new code word for permanently) on those U.S. bases in Iraq. Only Bill Richardson has publicly called for all U.S. troops to leave Iraq. (Kucinich fans may be glad to hear that Dennis doesn't count as part of the elite.) Meanwhile, Bush has agreed to begin, however slowly, withdrawing some troops from Iraq.

The elite Dems, like the Republicans, want to sweep the nation's antiwar mood under the rug. But the only way to do it is to ignore the war itself. The more that Americans hear about the war, the more they want all U.S. troops brought home on a fixed timetable. Politicians could get away with posing as antiwar, yet saying they wanted only "combat" troops brought home, until a few months ago, when the public caught on to that trick. Now antiwar talk inevitably stirs up the (very reasonable) demand to get all of our troops out of Iraq.

The bipartisan elite is fending off the rising antiwar tide by a huge public relations campaign to persuade us that it's OK to keep fighting the war as long as the levels of violence are falling. Since they do have statistics that seem to show a short-term drop in violence, their PR effort has been quite successful. The public demand to bring our troops home has fallen in recent months.

Democratic leaders -- including their leading presidential candidates -- and pundits know that if the war remains a big issue, they face a double threat: Either they will stoke the fires of a real antiwar movement, or there could be a prowar backlash that will ambush them next November. Either way, they are safer letting the issue quietly fade away.

So liberal hawks like Peter Beinart take to the pages of elite media (in this case the Washington Post) to tell us that Iraq is now a "non-story," no longer a pivotal issue in American politics. If their prediction turns out to be true, it will be largely because they are working so hard to make it true. The more people read that the issue no longer matters, the more likely they are to believe that it no longer matters.

It's up to us to make it matter. More people read letters to the editor column than just about any other part of the newspaper. And the talk shows still have their phone lines open. We may not have the high-paid public relations professionals on our side. But Jim Morrison would surely want us to remember that, if they've got the guns, we've got the numbers.

Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Monsters To Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin. Email:

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