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Impact of Iraq War worse than conveyed by Petraeus and Crocker

Sunday, April 20, 2008 | 10:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:42 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Stuart Loory, who holds the Lee Hills Chair in Free-Press Studies at the MU School of Journalism, is the moderator of the weekly radio program “Global Journalist.” It airs at 6:30 p.m. Thursdays on KBIA/91.3 FM or at www.globaljournalist.org.

Loory: We’ve recently had optimistic reports about the war in Iraq from Gen. David Petraeus, the American military commander in Iraq, and Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, the civilian charged with creating a democracy there. They’ve put on a face of progress that makes President Bush happy but hardly anyone else. As Petraeus and Crocker made their case to the Senate, the war was heating up with anti-government attacks in Basra, Baghdad, Mosul and elsewhere. Units of the newly trained Iraqi Army refused to fight and fled their positions. In the meantime in the U.S., the cost of the war is a matter of discussion — cost meaning the money lost, not including lives, world prestige or psychological damage. The war could be costing $1 trillion, the conservative estimate, or as much as $4 trillion. Is that cost having as crippling an impact on people at home in the U.S. as it is in Iraq? How bad are things in Iraq?

Ernesto LondoÑo, Iraq correspondent, The Washington Post, Baghdad, Iraq: In recent days, we’ve seen an uptake in violence. It started in Basra and spilled into Baghdad. The Iraqi army, backed by U.S. troops, was fighting a Shiite militia. People are also anxious about recent suicide bombings that have the trademarks of al-Qaida in Iraq. There’s concern about this wave of deadly and large bombings that are targeting military personnel but also killing a lot of civilians.

Loory: Is the violence a campaign to show that Petraeus and Crocker were not giving a correct picture of what is going on?

Londoño: There hasn’t been any evidence to show a correlation between this violence and the testimony. The testimony went largely unnoticed among Iraqis. The Sunni extremists seem to be concerned about the growing number of people who have joined forces with the U.S. and Iraqi security forces in so-called Awakening Councils, or groups called the Sons of Iraq. Those groups have mobilized and tried to join forces against al-Qaida. Al-Qaida appears to be on a campaign to intimidate those people and to encourage them to join its ranks and fight American troops.

Loory: Is there concern in Washington about the new round of violence?

Suzanne Goldenberg, reporter, The Guardian, Washington, D.C.: Absolutely, and this upsurge in violence overshadowed Petraeus’ attempt to paint a picture of progress in Iraq. When Petraeus and Crocker gave their testimony on Capitol Hill, the senators and the members of Congress overwhelmingly had very pointed questions. One question was what does it mean that the government carried out such a poorly planned offensive in Basra. Another was, why is the U.S. government continuing to pay for this and to bear the brunt of security operations, especially when the Iraqi government has a surplus.

Loory: Did Petraeus and Crocker’s explanations have great impact in the rest of the Middle East?

Sebastian Walker, Washington correspondent, Al Jazeera, Washington, D.C.: Everyone is paying attention to what Petraeus and Crocker think, but most Iraqis aren’t under any illusion that things are getting better. None of the problems that existed before the extra numbers of U.S. forces went into Iraq have gone away. There’s been no political reconciliation. Middle Eastern countries are more concerned with the problems that are still in Iraq.

Loory: In the wording of their testimony, it seems Petraeus and Crocker left themselves a lot of outs, didn’t they?

Walker: People ask them what needs to happen for things to get better in Iraq, and they duck that question because they don’t know. There’s so much uncertainty, and there’s so much scope for things to get worse.

Londoño: Petraeus and Crocker have said there have been security gains, and if one looks at their data, it’s undeniable that there has been a decrease in violence nationwide in the last year. However, they both underscored that the security gains are tenuous. A crucial question is, are these gains sustainable? Are these building blocks for a safer Iraq? Most people in Iraq would tell you it’s too early to tell.

Loory: Petraeus and Crocker tried to put as much of the blame for the lack of political progress in Iraq as they could on influence from Iran. Is that really so?

Londoño: It’s undeniable that Iran wields a huge amount of influence in Iraq at all levels, and politics is no exception. If one looks at the political class in Iraq, a lot of powerful figures have long-standing relationships with high-level Iranian officials. Iran also plays a significant role militarily in Iraq. It is allegedly responsible for either directly or indirectly supplying some of the most lethal weapons we see on the ground, the weapons used in deadly roadside bombings and the powerful rockets that have been used in targeting U.S. military facilities.

Loory: How should the U.S. deal with Iran?

Walker: If the U.S. was to change its policy towards Iran and have a more cooperative approach, that might make the situation better regarding the militias in the south. But what would that do with the Sunnis in the center of the country or the Kurds in the north of the country? It’s a no-win situation.

Loory: This no-win situation is costing up to possibly $4 trillion. What is that doing to the U.S. and other countries?

Goldenberg: The U.S. is in the middle of an election, and the Democratic candidates are linking the cost of the war to America’s faltering economy. Increasingly, people are focusing on that. Also, with summer coming, people will be going on holiday. They’ll be buying gas at nearly $4 per gallon, and they link those high prices to the war.

Walker: Whether the flair-up of violence in Iraq continues could have an impact on how the candidates do in the election. With the financial outlay that Americans are paying for this war, the question will keep coming about what advantages the U.S. is getting from this huge cost.

Loory: What is the cost of the war due to privatization — building barracks, providing transportation and producing meals for soldiers?

Londoño: The cost of getting food into the country for the tens of thousands of Americans and foreign contractors is huge. The logistics of getting truckloads of food into the green zones and out to military bases is also enormous, as is the cost of maintaining a huge fleet of helicopters. Some people demand an overnight pull out, but many don’t realize how entrenched the U.S. is, how much equipment is in Iraq and the sheer number of people the U.S. has working here.

Loory: Why don’t we see more demonstrations in the U.S. against the war?

Goldenberg: The demonstrations haven’t worked. There’s a fatigue in the U.S. It’s clear this is a deeply unpopular war, but there’s an acceptance that change can’t come as long as Bush is president.

Afterword: Five years after the war in Iraq started, there are increasing signs that Americans are growing more concerned about its impact. But as the election year moves on, it becomes more and more realistic to assume that the problem of what to do in this no-win situation is shifting to the next administration.

Producers of Global Journalist are Missouri School of Journalism graduate students Jared Gassen, Eunjung Kim, Hui Wang and Catherine Wolf.


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