Will the Media Defeat Petraeus?

General David Petraeus, the senior US commander in Iraq, will deliver a progress report on the war this September but his report may be dead on arrival because our political system and pessimistic media have naively set the nation up for a fall in Iraq.

There is plenty of blame to go around for the potentially dead-on-arrival report. President Bush, after numerous Iraq missteps and an apparent inability to effectively explain the surge and the consequences of failure, has little political capital. Major television networks and leading newspapers share the blame because they have distorted the truth and biased public opinion against the war. Congress, overly reactive to polls, is guilty of playing political games that reveal a flawed understanding of the threat.

The surge is doing what it’s designed to do — secure the population and allowing the Iraqi government time to establish itself. It began in earnest with the arrival of the fifth brigade on June 15 and now the issue is time. Based on early results, life in Baghdad, the surge’s ground zero, is improving because Iraqis are cooperating and many are turning against al Qaeda.

General Petraeus has explained that there are no shortcuts to success in Iraq. The endeavor takes “steady, unremitting pressure over the long haul. It’s a test of wills, demanding patience, determination and stamina from all involved.”

The President’s challenge is to convince the American people that ending the surge and withdrawing prematurely would hand the terrorists a devastating victory. Israel’s lessons in Lebanon and Gaza are examples.

Israel abandoned Lebanon in 2000 thus empowering Hezbollah, Iran’s terror proxy. Hezbollah struck Israel with thousands of rockets last summer and has since rearmed to repeat the attacks with even more firepower.

In 2005, Israel surrendered Gaza to the Palestinian Authority and today Gaza is ruled by Hamas, a terror network, which has imposed Islamic law and aligned itself with al Qaeda and Iran’s ayatollahs.

Abandoning Iraq prematurely would have serious consequences. Al-Qaeda’s deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahiri claims that the Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella group headed by al-Qaeda, has become the vanguard for fighting off the U.S. military in Iraq and he promises to establish a “caliphate” of Islamic rule across the Mideast. Al-Zawahiri, aware of the debate in Washington, stated in a recent video that “the herds of crusaders have begun to split up and their sole concern has become searching for a way out [of Iraq].”

Iraqi officials are alarmed as well. Hoshyar Zebari, Iraq’s foreign minister, warned on July 9 that if the Americans withdraw before the Iraqi forces and institutions are complete “the dangers range from civil war to dividing the country or maybe to regional wars.”

Our media has teed up the public to reject the surge. A 2006 Harris Poll found that 71% of Americans watch network or cable news and a Pew Research Center report found that 57% of those viewers rely almost exclusively on television news. The coverage by ABC, CBS and NBC is overwhelmingly pessimistic. According to a 2005 Media Research Center study, 61% of all war stories focused on negative topics.

America’s newspapers aren’t any better. A Pentagon public affairs analysis of five leading newspapers found that during the first month of the surge (February 2007), the news reports were skeptical; dismissed the Iraqi prime minister as unhelpful; and emphasized the Democratic presidential candidates’ push for withdrawal. The editorials uniformly called for Congress to take control of Iraq policy, impose benchmarks and establish timetables for withdrawal.

This country’s debate about Iraq is not about freedom, democracy, ridding the world of a dictator, establishing a stable government in the Middle East, fighting terrorism, or even oil. It has devolved into a media driven inside–the-Beltway struggle for power.

Public opinion has turned against the President. His opponents and some of his own party label the surge dead and have called for a major change in strategy. Although 75% of Americans believed in 2003 that going into Iraq was the right thing to do, a July 6-8 USA Today/Gallup Poll found that 62% of Americans now believe it was a mistake.

The same poll found that although only 17% believed conditions were improved by the surge, 55% were willing for Congress to wait for General Petraeus’ report rather than forcing a decision now.

Fearing the war threatens their re-election chances, 14 Republicans have declared the surge dead and are demanding that the President find a new strategy. A few have crossed the aisle saying they would support Democrat efforts to begin troop reductions and end combat missions. In response, the administration set-up a special meeting last Wednesday between national security adviser Stephen Hadley and wobbly Republicans hoping to stiffen their spines. More defections could create a 67-seat, veto-proof anti-war coalition.

For months, Democrat and some Republican senators and congressmen have tried to impose benchmarks on the President over Iraq. Eighteen benchmarks were intended to measure progress toward future goals, track headway on such issues as the distribution of oil profits, de-Baathification, provincial elections and constitutional review. Expecting Baghdad to attain significant progress toward these benchmarks in the short term was and is unrealistic.

On July 12, the White House’s “Initial Benchmark Assessment Report” argued, however, that Baghdad has made “satisfactory” progress on eight benchmarks; unsatisfactory progress on eight others and two were too close to call. A senior administration official told this writer that two benchmarks were missing from Congress’ list: bottom up power sharing and the creation of an Iraqi executive council. These power sharing arrangements are evidence of progress as they cut through bureaucracies.

General Peter Pace, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, cautions Congress to be pragmatic about benchmarks. He favors only one benchmark: “[D]o the people in Baghdad feel more secure today?” His answer is that they do.

Unrealistic benchmarks are only part of the Congressional game of “gotcha.” Although Sen. Hillary Clinton (D.-N.Y.) voted for the war in the first place, she now plans to introduce an amendment to de-authorize it. She wants the troops home but, even as a prospective president, either doesn’t know or refuses to outline what the consequences of that decision might be.

General Petraeus will come to Washington in September to report on the war’s progress. Unfortunately, Congress and the majority of the American people may have already made up their minds and our weakened President may be unable to turn the tide. God help America if we abandon Iraq like we did Vietnam and let al Qaeda declare victory.