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GLOBAL JOURNALIST: What media, politicians can learn from Iraq

Friday, September 10, 2010 | 2:33 p.m. CDT

Byron Scott, professor emeritus, Missouri School of Journalism: In recent days, America closed the metaphorical book on its combat role in Iraq. And quite another book on the same topic opened. At $35, it is already down to $18.89 on Amazon, Tony Blair’s 720-page "My Political Life" pales in comparison to the seven-year, $726 billion campaign that costs tens of thousands of lives. But both teach their lessons and the former British prime minister continues to agonize about these lessons, as should we all.

What are the lessons of Iraq, particularly for journalists who covered it? And how might the post-mortems on Iraq by Tony Blair and many others affect future foreign policy decisions by the United States and its allies? Many of these allies, including Great Britain, continue to fight alongside American forces in Afghanistan.

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Here to offer their views are Kim Sengupta, defense and diplomatic correspondent, The Independent, London; Anna Gawel, managing editor, The Washington Diplomat, Washington, D.C.; and Claude Salhani, political analyst and former editor of the Middle East Times, currently in Washington, D.C. Kim, since we’re talking about Britain’s former prime minister and particularly his angst over Iraq, can you fill us in on the reaction in the United Kingdom and elsewhere?

Kim Sengupta, defense and diplomatic correspondent, The Independent: The reaction has been overwhelmingly negative. Tony Blair has canceled a book signing session in London, and the launch party for his book has been canceled as well. He decided to donate some of the profits of the book to the Services Legion, but even with that, you had families of soldiers who lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan who felt this was money that shouldn’t have been taken by the Legion.

Scott: I know there were eggs thrown at him in Dublin when he tried to do a book signing there, and I read about a Facebook campaign to move his book to the crime section of bookstores.

Sengupta: That campaign has caught on. And not many of us can think of a former prime minister who cannot be present to promote his book because of the trepidation of the public’s reaction. So it is an extraordinary state of affairs.

Scott: The central topic that Prime Minister Blair has been assailed for has been his association with President Bush and with their alliance against Iraq. Anna Gawel, talk about how the diplomatic community in Washington, D.C. is reacting to the withdrawal and to Blair’s book.

Anna Gawel, managing editor, The Washington Diplomat: When Blair comes to town to promote the book here in the U.S., I think you will see some differences between how the British public views the withdrawal versus the American public. There is a lot of soul-searching going on, much more on the British side versus here in the U.S. — here there is more of a desire to turn the page, as Obama said. There is much fatigue with both wars, and the American public is more consumed with the economy, so Iraq is really on the back burner. So in terms of Tony Blair’s book, it could be interesting to see if you are going to have the same kind of vehement protest that you saw in Britain. I suspect there will be some protests, but not quite as much as was across the pond.

Scott: Is the feeling in the diplomatic community that we just as soon forget about Iraq then?

Gawel: The diplomatic community is probably slightly different. There are concerns that people not forget the lessons that we learned in Iraq. One of the biggest lessons is that ultimately Iraq was a war of choice and not really one of necessity, as many experts in Washington have pointed out. And I think diplomats agree that nothing comes without a price. More than 4,400 Americans have died, but at least 100,000 Iraqis have died as well, and that is a very conservative estimate. So a lot of diplomats don’t want the U.S. to forget that it is not that easy to invade a country.

Scott: Claude Salhani, talk about what you think the attitudes are and should be about Iraq.

Claude Salhani, political analyst and former editor of the Middle East Times: I think that Tony Blair was the voice of reason to the George Bush folly in the war in Iraq. People tended to say on both sides of the pond that, “Tony Blair is an intelligent person. He is down to earth and is a good analyst when it comes to a political situation. If he supports George W. Bush in this war in Iraq, there has to be a good reason.” Diplomatic circles and the intelligence communities seemed to think that Tony Blair was that voice of reason needed to give this war some legitimacy. As I understand, we should have concentrated all our efforts on Afghanistan and on finding bin Laden and tracking down al-Qaida. Instead, we deviated to Iraq. We wasted human lives, resources, money and time. And now we’re almost back to where we started.

Scott: There is persuasive evidence that the Iraqis at least have been put back several generations in terms of where they started. We’re without Saddam Hussein, but we never found those fabled weapons of mass destruction. What is the lesson for us in all of that? I think as journalists, we reported all this in good faith — maybe a bit too naively.

Gawel: There needed to be more analysis going into the war, and everybody can always look back and do things differently. But I would hope that we don’t immediately take our eyes off of Iraqis even though the focus is shifting to Afghanistan. There are a lot of long-term geopolitical implications in the region that are not going away just because the U.S. troops exit from the scene. We have really changed the dynamics in the region. When we toppled Saddam Hussein, we gave a big opening to Iran, and we’re seeing the obvious results of that. You have Saudis, you have Syria, you have Turkey that are all competing in Iraq’s future. A lot of Americans at this point may be asking, what were the sacrifices? Were they worth it? What will Iraq become in the decades to come? That is anybody’s guess.

Scott: We probably shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that there are 50,000 troops there and more casualties are possible. Claude, have we learned anything from this experience?

Salhani: I think the big mistake at the beginning was not learning the culture of the Iraqis. We went in thinking this was a quick war that we were going to clean up. We didn’t study their culture, their mentality, the way they behave and the way they react. That was mistake number one.

The second mistake was that the Pentagon, the White House, and particularly Vice President Cheney did not listen to what the State Department was telling them. I know for a fact that the State Department had worked on a very intricate plan on what should happen after combat operations were over. These plans were not even looked at by the White House, and this is where things start going bad.

When I talk about culture, I’ll give you one example: When American troops entered Baghdad and the looting and the rioting started, had the Americans put their foot down, imposed strict laws, shot at people — this is a horrible thing to say — shot at people, we wouldn’t be where we are today. They tested American troops. They realized they could get away with anything, and it went downhill from there.

Scott: And I know you have written several books on these related topics.

Salhani: I have written one book.

Scott: Please tell us the title.

Salhani: It is "While the Arab World Slept: The Impact of the Bush Years on the Middle East."

Scott: Has the factor of Islam affected our understanding?

Salhani: We have awakened the Islamic subculture that wasn’t in Iraq. Iraq is a majority Muslim country. They are divided between Shiites and Sunnis, but it was a very non-religious country. Maybe the one good thing Saddam had done is that religion was not an issue in the country, and when the American troops went in, the U.S. did something that the Iranians had been trying to do for years and impose their influence on Iraq. Now the Shiites of course are the majority in Iraq, the Iranians are all Shiites and they relate to each other. So they have opened the door to the Iranian influence in the region. I think you mentioned Syria earlier. U.S. foreign policy has kind of forced Syria into Iran’s arms.

Scott: Kim, I would like to bring you in from the view of Great Britain, America’s closest ally in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Sengupta: I was in Baghdad when the inspections were being carried out, and I can assure you the regime did not try to stop them from visiting any sites. Not because the regime suddenly became nice people but because they were worried about what might happen — which happened anyway. So we were in a rather strange bubble, accompanying the teams who inspected all these sites. Then we got back to London and realized that the Americans and the British were preparing for war. And what we were doing in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq was meant to be the crux of the matter — that is, Iraq’s supposed arsenal of WMD — really was a bit of a sideshow.

Going back to what you said earlier about the reaction of U.S. forces when the looting took place ... we were there at the time, and the U.S. Marines would sit around what was called Saddam City, called Sadr City later on, while mobs were looting lots of hotels. I remember being told by U.S. forces that they had been instructed not to interfere because people in Washington wanted to make it appear to be a popular uprising against the Ba’athist regime rather than what it was, which was criminality.

The other point is that it is not really widely accepted in the U.K. that Blair was somehow a voice of moderation, a voice of reason. Evidence certainly does not support that if you look at a lot of the so-called evidence. If you look through the unfolding episodes before the invasion, it is very difficult to show that Tony Blair attempted somehow to moderate Bush. The first time we saw him attempt to play any moderating role was during the first Fallujah in 2004 when he pressured George Bush to end the taking of Fallujah before the job was completed, as he discovered afterwards was a mistake. So from the U.K. perspective, I am afraid the credibility of the former prime minister is much lower here than it is probably across the Atlantic.

Scott: Mr. Blair is saying it cost him the chance to be president of the European Union. But he is not apologizing for this, is he? He is still just asking questions, and I gather that a parliamentary commission in Great Britain is also asking questions from Westminster.

Sengupta: Yes, he hasn’t apologized. He has become slightly more contrite. He said he is saddened by the loss of lives in Iraq. He is the man who ordered the troops into action, and it is the case that Iraq played a part in Blair not getting the presidency of the EU.

But from the British perspective, the grave damage done by the justification for the war goes beyond Iraq. It introduced an element of cynicism in the public. People said then that they were battling the war because they thought Tony Blair would not lie. Whether he lied or not, he was certainly mistaken and misguided, and that has played a part in the popular cynicism about politicians as a whole.

Scott: Here in the United States, many Americans have felt the same about the credibility about George Bush or of Colin Powell in his speech to the United Nations on WMDs.

Gawel: I think the legacy of Iraq will probably haunt Colin Powell much more than it will haunt George W. Bush. Former President Bush will likely take credit down the line for the surge, so right now there is not a lot of discussion about Bush’s role. That will be reserved for the history books.

All eyes are on Obama. For better or worse, he inherited both wars. And from Washington’s perspective, the focus is on Obama’s plans for Afghanistan. He is fulfilling his campaign pledge that he would draw down troops in Iraq and focus the fight in Afghanistan. He is going very deliberately according to that script, and he is sticking to that timeline of next year. I think he is responding to what he was voted into office for, but years from now, a lot will depend on what happens in Iraq and Afghanistan. If Iraq devolves into full-blown civil war, which is less likely today than it was a few years ago, it is still a very real possibility. That will determine the legacy of both Bush and Obama. But on the flip side, if a stable multi-ethnic democracy emerges in Iraq, that could be a real game changer in the Middle East. But now six months after the elections, the government has yet to form a new government. Average Iraqis still lack basic services, including electricity. Violence is still very common. So to me, none of this bodes well for the average Iraqi or for our legacy in the region.

Scott: Claude, how likely is this game changer that Anna is talking about?

Salhani: Well, I had sort of an epiphany when I was invited to a cocktail party at the Kurdish mission in Washington just down the street from the White House. And they have these flat-screen television sets all over the place showing footage of life in the Kurdish cities. Life was normal. People were going about their businesses, and they were opening five-star hotels in several cities. I thought I was against this war in Iraq, but if this democracy now taking root in Kurdistan spreads across the Middle East when history looks at things with distance 100 years from now or 500 years from now, the Iraq War will be a paragraph in a history book. If democracy catches on, it will be credited to the Iraq War, but that is a big if.

Scott: Kurdistan in the northern part of Iraq bordering Turkey has been the least touched by this war, is that correct?

Salhani: Actually, they have been the most touched in the way that they are now autonomous. They suffered greatly under Saddam Hussein in the 70s and 80s, whereas now they are almost autonomous. They’re doing very well. They have opened up international airports. They have an embassy here in D.C. It’s not called that. They have a representative who is treated as an ambassador. So I think they have been affected but in a positive way.

Gawel: I think Claude raises an interesting point by talking about the Kurdish population. Another possibility is that Iraq doesn’t become a full-fledged democracy but perhaps like a Lebanese-style government where you have these competing ethnic factions woven together. That could lead to a lot of political stalemates as you see in Lebanon. It could also lead to a lot of proxy influences such as Iran. Turkey has a lot of influence in the autonomous Kurdish region, so that could be more likely and be a major game changer in the region, because you would have a ton of powers competing for influence.

Scott: We have opened up a number of possibilities that I hope we can come back to in future programs, including the possibility of Middle East “intranational” regions just as there is a Europe of the regions.

For seven years, journalists got to write the Iraq War stories. Now the politicians, diplomats, think tank analysts and historians have their turn. As Iraq retreats to the back pages of our news outlets, Afghanistan remains. Will what we learn in this war improve how we report and understand our remaining war? It is the toughest reporting assignment of all, and we as journalists can never be good enough at the task.

Producers of Global Journalist are Missouri School of Journalism graduate students Ryan Kresse, Youn-Joo Park, Tim Wall, Rebecca Wolfson and Kuba Wuls. The transcriber is Pat Kelley.


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