TCS Daily

Apples and Arnetts

By Greg Buete - April 2, 2003 12:00 AM

Remember Afghanistan? Just one week after the U.S. began fighting the Taliban New York Times reporter R.W. Johnny Apple compared the situation to Vietnam, just as he did during the 1991 Gulf War, and warned of a quagmire to come. The blind leading the blind, the majority of the media followed. But history is not kind to the media's Vietnam in Afghanistan premonition - within weeks the Taliban had fallen and "brutal Afghan winter" became a punch line.

As noted in Bill Sammon's book Fighting Back, by the end of October 2001 the media had spun that the war wasn't going the way the U.S. military had planned. Cokie Roberts of ABC's This Week lectured Donald Rumsfeld, "There have been stories over the weekend that give the perception that this war, after three weeks, is not going very well." Similarly, CNN's Wolf Blitzer asked Rumsfeld, "Did the U.S. military underestimate the Taliban, Osama bin Laden, and his al Qaeda supporters?" Terry Moran of ABC fretted, "I think the bad guys are winning," and ABC news anchor Peter Jennings smugly stated, "The bombing campaign against the Taliban is now entering its fourth week and the Taliban are still standing."

Still!? Four weeks?! Thank heavens these bozos weren't reporting in the days following Pearl Harbor or Operation Market Garden. Sammon recalls President Bush later saying to him, "'Quagmire,' 'Vietnam,' I mean we were at this thing for three weeks, and all of the sudden here was a kind of breathless condemnation of the strategy."

"Breathless condemnation of strategy." Again.

Here we go again. Beating their Afghanistan record the press couldn't allow one week to pass before their breathless condemnation of strategy began.

Six days into the war the Associated Press announced, "Public's Confidence in War Success Drops." Writer Donna Cassata said that according to a Pew Research Center "just 38 percent [of those polled] said the conflict was going well on Monday," leading one to believe that things were not going well.

Not exactly - as opposed to the Associated Press' interpretation of the Pew poll it actually found those who thought the war was going "fairly well" and "very well" combined to 86 percent. But 86 percent doesn't get you the gloomy headline. The American public, seeing a few bodies on Al Jazeera, dropped the "very." But this is simply the public erring on the side of caution, not a dramatic drop in confidence.

On March 26, seven days into the war, the NY Times also began breathlessly condemning strategy, noting that the "campaign has not produced the swift victory for which the Bush administration clearly hoped..." [emphasis mine]

True, Saddam Hussein's regime is still in power, but were it to fall by day 21 would that not still be a "swift victory"? What about 30 days, or 60? At what point did the media no longer consider "swift victory" attainable? Apparently it was hours, not days. The media has set standards so high they made "swift victory" achievable only with possession of Indiana Jones' lost Ark of the Covenant. The truth is that most of the public would still judge victory in a few months as "swift."

The snowball effect is at full speed. Johnny Apple has again reared his judgmental head, waiting just 10 days to write, "Mr. Hussein seems to have decided that he can turn this war into Vietnam Redux." And so has Mr. Apple.

Apple's employer, the Times, is as usual leading the charge in the rush to judgment, opining in a 'news report,' "One does not have to scratch deep to hear the doubts [about the war]." No, all they have to do is read the Times, which took pleasure in unfairly twisting Vice President Dick Cheney's words as overconfidence because he predicted weeks ago, "The streets in Basra and Baghdad are sure to erupt in joy."

There is merit in criticisms against those who portrayed the war in Iraq as a cakewalk - not because it's still not possible, but rather because it's just not professional or wise. If this war does last too long - whatever suits your personal definition - most of the media will concentrate on past quotes of Richard Perle, Ken Adelman or other hawks while conveniently neglecting to mention their favored sons. For instance, one won't read in the NY Times that last September Bill Clinton said, "You're looking at a couple weeks of bombing and then I'd be astonished if this campaign took more than a week. Astonished." Likewise Dan Rather won't bother reminding his audience that just days before the war began Mr. Clinton asserted "Believe me, this war is going to be over in a flash."

Such fair recollection would provide perspective that any setbacks in the days ahead are not due to partisanship. We win or lose together. But the media, which must either report news or make it up every 10 minutes in their 24-hour cycle, are never willing to provide perspective in any aspect of the war.

No matter. Beyond Apple, to the majority of the press we're already in Vietnam. Last week both ABC's Peter Jennings and CBS' Leslie Stahl applied the specter, the latter reporter asking a Vietnam veteran, "You fought in Vietnam. Are you getting any feelings of déjà vu?"

Déjà vu? After one week?

Peter Arnett, Gone in 60 Seconds.

Combine déjà vu and a nasty stomach flu and you get Peter Arnett, who was parroting Baghdad officials just like he did a decade ago. Worse, Arnett's appearance on state-run Baghdad television as "professional courtesy," in which he bragged that his reports from Baghdad were strengthening resistance to the war and even labeling the U.S. war plan a "failure" due to Iraqi resistance, crossed objectivity and entered the realm of providing aid and comfort to the enemy.

"Our reports about civilian casualties here, about the resistance of the Iraqi forces, are going back to the United States," Arnett said. "It helps those who oppose the war when you challenge the policy to develop their arguments."

Pass the sick bag. Arnett may as well have said, "Keep up the good work! Your Zionist-controlled enemy is having to change plans!"

Arnett has a reporting record that is at best described as shady. During the 1991 Gulf War Arnett covered without challenge Iraq's claims that the U.S. had bombed a "baby milk" factory, which was also a suspected biological weapons facility. In a 'you're-fired-no-I-quit' scenario, Arnett left CNN in 1998 for disseminating the false story that the U.S. used nerve gas in the Vietnam War. Even so NBC issued a statement shortly after his Baghdad TV appearance calling Arnett's work "outstanding reporting." Outstanding? Indeed, Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz couldn't have voiced the regime's party line better. But by morning NBC changed its mind and fired Arnett. Hey, Peter, there's always Al Jazeera.

Arnett's appearance on Iraqi television wasn't his only gaffe. Arnett came close to another "baby milk" incident last week by repeatedly spreading Iraq's claim that the U.S. was firing "cluster bombs" at Baghdad civilians. NBC's Jim Miklaszewski was a little more cautious, reminding Arnett that "if you look at pictures, so far, outside of Baghdad a cluster bomb would create a Swiss-cheese effect. Thousands and thousands of holes in the target and we don't see that quite yet."

Finally, within days of the Baghdad market explosions it was learned that they are likely, or at least as likely, the result of malfunctioning Iraqi surface-to-air missiles and not coalition weaponry. While refusing to certify the theory, a spokesman for Tony Blair elaborated that Musahim Saab al-Tikriti, the commander for Baghdad's air defense, had been replaced because of the Iraqi misfires. "We would not be releasing this unless we were confident of its accuracy," the official said.

What Failed War Plans?

Arnett's claim that the U.S. military is forced to redraw war plans because of Iraqi resistance is more ignorance than spin. However, Arnett is not alone; many papers and pundits are echoing that same criticism. This is bad spin because the war is going exactly how that same media predicted it would go last year.

Here's the BBC from November 11, 2002:

The Pentagon has drawn up plans for an invasion of Iraq which are based on a concept of "rolling war". The idea would be to seize three areas of Iraq - the south, the north and the west - and use them as staging points to threaten Baghdad in the hope that this would precipitate an internal collapse of the Iraqi regime.

Likewise, here's the Times, November 8, 2002:
The offensive would probably begin with a "rolling start" of substantially fewer forces, Pentagon and military officials say...The military plan calls for the quick capture of land within Iraq, which would be used as bases to funnel American forces deeper into the country...Under the plan, United States and coalition forces could operate out of such forward bases in northern, western and southern Iraq, building on lessons learned in Afghanistan, where the military seized a similar outpost south of Kandahar... It would include efforts to deliver food to Iraqis... Special Operations forces would infiltrate Iraq early in the campaign to designate targets, to destroy sites holding weapons of mass destruction, and to seize other objectives to prevent Mr. Hussein from slowing the American assault by flooding the marshes in southern Iraq or igniting the country's vast oil fields...The entire troop total may not necessarily be in the region when the offensive begins. The bulk of the force would probably stand ready in case of battlefield setbacks and be poised to occupy parts of Iraq as soon as resistance ends...

One must assume the press doesn't read its own press, because the above scenarios almost exactly match the current situation in Iraq. Had the media bothered to recall its old reports they might be a little more careful about attempting to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Nonetheless Iraqi General Hazem al-Rawi was repeating Mr. Arnett by the following morning, saying, "The enemy's plans, based on a poor assessment of the will of the Iraqi people, have failed."

Nonsense. Both the media and America's enemy are underestimating American resolve. More importantly, they misunderstand both the war plan and the flexibility of the American military. Sure, the planners would have liked for a sudden internal collapse, but it was the planner's intention to surround Baghdad and reinforce fronts at will before entering.

As of this Sunday U.S., forces have occupied the south, north and west of Baghdad, exactly as the press predicted last November. In the first six days the U.S. -led coalition advanced with ease the equivalent of Normandy Beach to Belgium. It was the longest distance covered by a mechanized division since WWII. Our troops are just 50 miles from Baghdad, and can reinforce at will and without threat of serious enemy fire. With a handful of exceptions fires from sabotaged oilrigs have been thwarted. Not a single missile has crossed into Israel, thanks in part to the capture of three important airfields in Western Iraq. Not one coalition fighter plane has been shot down by enemy fire. 4,000+ Iraqi forces have surrendered - many not even captured, but simply surrendered - including several high-ranking Iraqi generals. Iraqi military units are fleeing from the north. And while Basra Shiites may not be rising up yet, the civilians' attempted departures being met with desperate gunfire from Saddam's Fadayeen proves that Cheney was more right than not: desperate it is. As Seneca noted, "all cruelty springs from weakness."

Not that we would prefer the opposite, but in many ways the U.S. was too successful - the only reason logistic issues have arisen is because the U.S. armor broke their own goals in reaching the outskirts of Baghdad. Still, the press has pointed to a few days of resupply as a sign that the coalition is bogged down, even labeling the situation as a "pause" in combat. Pause? Tell that to a Republican Guard that U.S. aircraft pound on an hourly basis.

So whether or not you agree with the capacity of the U.S. war plan, one cannot argue that it is not going as planned. Frankly, the only reason the microscope is focusing on the feasibility of "rolling start" is because of Turkey. Had Turkey allowed the 40,000 troops from the 4th Infantry, all criticism regarding the amount of troops would have been academic. Furthermore, the estimated 100,000 - 120,000 troop deployment currently on its way to the Gulf was always part of the "rolling start" plan, as the November 2002 media leaks show, and is not, as the media now imply, a new request and response from Pentagon officials correcting their miscalculation.

The only wildcard has been the Fadayeen Saddam. These paramilitary thugs, under control of Uday Hussein, are tasked with two objectives: Become such a nuisance to coalition forces in the south that the coalition might respond with heavy-handed force, thus increasing civilian casualties, and to basically keep the civilian population too afraid to support the coalition.

Fadayeen employing hit and run tactics have kept the southern population too scared to rise up, but for the most part are not affecting overall coalition strategy. As Major Duncan McSporran of the British Fusiliers' Zulu Company said, "The biggest problem we are having is getting it out of their minds that the Baath Party is returning... they've lived under a reign of terror for 30 years. They don't know who to trust." It's going to take longer than anticipated to win that trust, that's all. But that doesn't mean overall victory can't be quick.

The press paints the Fadayeen as Viet Cong, but besides both wearing black uniforms that's where the analogy ends - that is unless Iraq suddenly becomes neighbors with Cambodia. There will be no Ho Chi Minh trail for the Fadayeen to eternally replenish themselves. They are finite in number and supplies, and are quite defeatable.

So will the war be short? Define short. If one considers months to be short, it is short. If one considers months to be long, it is not. There is no substitute for victory - no matter the time in the end a free Iraq is all that will matter. We can be sure that there will be many bad and bloody days to come, but only a fool places his bet on media reports that habitually underestimate the American soldier.

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