Explaining the hysteria while winning in Iraq

John O'Sullivan:


But are we -- the U.S. armed forces and our Iraqi allies -- winning?

I put that question to a friend in the Army reserve, just returned from a year in the Sunni Triangle. He is a level-headed and sober observer, a historian by profession, who was working directly with Iraqis in tasks directly related to fighting the insurgency. His reply was unqualified: "Of course we are winning. We know it. The Iraqis know it. And al-Qaida knows it. The only people who apparently don't know it live in Washington."

If Iraq did not explain Washington's hysteria, what did? Well, one clue lies in how the speech was reported. Murtha was generally described as being a conservative Democrat and a supporter of the Iraq war. That description was essential to the prominence of the story. An anti-war speech from a pro-war conservative was a far stronger sign that America's support for the war was cracking than another criticism of Bush on Iraq from another partisan Democrat would have been.

But Murtha is a partisan Democrat. And just how moderate is he? As Newsweek's Howard Fineman pointed out, Murtha is a close associate of left-liberal Nancy Pelosi, the House Minority Leader, whose campaign for the leadership he had managed. As for being pro-war, Murtha had been anti-war for more than two years since calling for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's resignation in September 2003.

So the initial reporting distorted and exaggerated the significance of Murtha's intervention, the media's first reactions largely amplified those exaggerations, and Washington's subsequent hysteria suggested to the world, including al-Qaida and the Sunni insurgents, that the United States was about to cut and run in Iraq.

This panic attack was eventually sedated by a number of factors -- the success of the Iraqi elections, the Bush administration's fight-back (that included five major speeches from the president), a poll conducted by a (presumably horrified) BBC showing most Iraqis were optimistic about their future, and the reaction of many U.S. troops who rejected Murtha's grim account of their situation. For now a calmer attitude on Iraq prevails.

But the Murtha episode was significant nonetheless. The sudden upsurge of support for U.S. withdrawal that he evoked took place at precisely the point that the United States was making important political and military gains. It showed fear certainly -- not fear of defeat, however, but fear of victory.

In other words, many Democrats, their media allies, and others in the permanent Washington establishment are defeatist. A defeatist is not just someone who thinks his side will lose. Sometimes a prediction of defeat is realistic. A defeatist is someone who, at some level, expects to lose, even wants to lose, seeing a quagmire in every oasis. His dissent is therefore tainted.

We are not supposed, of course, to criticize such dissent. No, we have to call it patriotism.

His conclusions were based on false premises that happened to coincide with the media meme on Iraq. The neo quagmirest have been more wrong about Iraq than the neo consrvatives, but they will never admit, even years from now when Iraq has had more successful elections.


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