The whole world changed in two weeks
George Bush paid a surprise visit this morning to Iraq and, according to the immediately solidified media consensus, this is but the latest step in the heroic political comeback of George W. Bush, and yet another sign that things are "turning around" in the war. It is always so striking how heavily this administration relies upon political theater, and how eagerly and giddily the national media consumes it. In just the first few minutes of coverage, scores of reporters pranced across the television set struggling to contain their excited admiration for the President's audacious survey of his conquered land.
No matter how many times one flips through news channels this morning, one hears the same thing. The new Iraqi government has been formed. We killed Zarqawi. Bush has a "new team" in place. Karl Rove has been "cleared" in the Plame matter. Polls after Zarqawi's death show an "uptick" in support for the war. And now the President plans a secret mission to visit Iraq in order to meet with the new Prime Minister. Happy days are here again.
The media is desperate to find "big stories" every day. As a result, events which are so plainly inconsequential from a perspective which spans more than the last ten minutes of world events -- such as Bush's stunt this morning in secretly materializing in Baghdad -- are endlessly seized upon as evidence of some grand world change. The president's approval rating has been humiliating low and collapsing for almost a full year now, but one new poll shows a two-point increase to still-embarrassing levels of unpopularity, and -- presto! -- the President is recovering and is becoming popular again. Every event is reported and analyzed based exclusively on what has happened in the last five seconds, with the events of the prior week, or month, or year, all but ignored.
Our occupation of Iraq is three years old. As of two weeks ago, the long-standing consensus outside of the ever-dwindling circle of True Believers is that the Iraq invasion was a failure -- a mistake -- and the best we could hope for was to figure out a way to extricate ourselves from that country without triggering even worse disasters. For months and months, polls have showed that solid majorities of Americans believe the war was a mistake. That consensus didn't arise as a result of a single event, or a report of a car bomb, or because one bad thing happened. It was because the war itself has been failing fundamentally. Nothing that we wanted to accomplish was actually being accomplished. Everything we said before the war about why we needed to wage it turned out to be false and has been discredited. Far from winning "hearts and minds" in the Muslim world, few things have harmed how we are perceived in that part of the world (supposedly the current aim of our war effort) more than our occupation has.
These are fundamental, deeply entrenched problems with our war effort. But to the media, a photo op here, a cosmetic personnel change there, and the death of a single terrorist -- and all of those problems magically vanish. In two short weeks filled with melodramatic, exaggerated media events, both the Iraq war and the president's deep political problems have fundamentally improved. Big news! The President has turned all of this around. He is now bold and successful again. And his oh-so-brave flight to Iraq symbolizes how strong and successful he is. How long before we hear from Brit Hume or Candy Crowley about some apocryphal anecdote about the covert Air Force One flight or the folksy but audacious comment made by the Commander-in-Chief when he came up with this idea and insisted that he go despite the urgent pleas from his aides that it wasn't safe enough?
The realities are ignored in favor of the breathless media events. The fact that Iraq is such a dangerous and anarchic place -- a full three years after our invasion -- that the President still can't visit except by unannounced theater demonstrates how disastrous the situation is there, not how successful our occupation is. And the fact that a single poll shows the President's pitiful approval ratings increasing by 2% in the wake of non-stop media adoration over the Zarqawi killing hardly shows some political reawakening, particularly since several other polls show the Zarqawi killing having no effect whatsoever on the president's shattered approval ratings.
Iraqi death squads? Iranian control of internal Iraqi affairs? Abu Ghraib and Haidatha and the invasion itself causing Middle Eastern Muslims to think even worse of the U.S.? The destruction of U.S. credibility? All of that was interesting for awhile, but now, none of it matters, because the President staged one of those exciting movie events again, Karl Rove isn't going to prison, and the USA Today poll shows a two-point increase in the President's approval rating after he bagged a bad guy. We are seeing a new and emboldened president and a new and successful war. The pictures have been so dramatic and this is all so very, very exciting indeed.
UPDATE: According to the Times, nobody in the Iraqi government, including the Prime Minister, was trusted with the information that Bush was coming. They were not even told until after he arrived. He's going to stay a whole "five hours" in the country, and is confining himself to the heavily fortified Green Zone. These plans don't exactly suggest that the administration believes that Iraq is secure, to put it mildly.
UPDATE II: Jon Henke at QandO says that I'm "missing the secondary importance of these events. Not that Bush is somehow brave or popular for visiting Iraq — that is quite irrelevant — but that these things are happening because there are important political accomodations—progress—being made in Iraq." His point that war opponents may be too slow to recognize improvements in Iraq (just as war supporters refused to recognize the succession of failures) is fair enough, but I hardly see how the formation of a new government, by itself, constitutes progress of any kind, let alone meaningful progress in the context of the deep and fundamental problems in that country.
Iraq had a government prior to this one which was subservient to the Iranians and practiced death squad tactics with an enthusiasm which rivaled Saddam's regime. The creation of a new government is not progress until one knows how it will govern, the actions it will undertake, the alliances it forms, etc. Put another way, until we are closer to achieving our claimed goals -- (a) a democratic Iraq that is our ally and (b) an improvement in how Middle East Muslims perceive us -- it is baseless to talk as though we are making "progress." The mere formation of a new government does not, in and of itself, bring us closer to those goals.
(Speaking of QandO, there is a provocative guest post by Mona, who posts in Comments here under "Hypatia," concerning how the Schiavo matter was the first of many events to expose the fundamental incompatibility between Republicans and principled libertarians. It is a post which I highly recommend. It has led to all sorts of conflicts and reactions -- a reflection, I believe, of the real (under-exploited) vulnerability Republicans have as a result of being taken over by the most un-libertarian wing on the political spectrum).