Austin, TX — Our FOX News War Stories team came here to the capital of the Lone Star State to work on a documentary about America’s 36th President to coincide with the 100th anniversary of his birth on August 27. Full disclosure here, Lyndon Baines Johnson was the Commander-in-Chief who sent me and one of my brothers to war in Vietnam.
Because of the way he handled the war in Vietnam, LBJ has never been at the top of my list of favorite presidents. Apparently I’m not alone. Despite his sweeping Civil Rights reforms and far-reaching “Great Society” domestic programs, his name has not been mentioned at a Democratic Party Convention for three decades. But this week President Johnson moved up a notch on my empathy scale.
While we were “shooting” at the LBJ Ranch and the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library, it was announced that this weekend the U.S. military is transferring control of security in Al Anbar Province — the country’s largest — to Iraqi forces. It’s a remarkable victory for American force of arms, the Maliki government and the Bush administration — and the kind of moment U.S. troops, our allies in the Republic of Vietnam and Lyndon Johnson never had.
In fact, the greatest military triumph of LBJ’s tenure — Tet 1968 — was depicted by the American media as a defeat. On February 27, while the battle was still raging, Walter Cronkite, just back from Vietnam, broadcast on CBS News that we were heading “closer to the brink of cosmic disaster” and proclaimed that “we are mired in stalemate.” A month later President Johnson announced that he would not seek nor would he accept the nomination of his party for another term as President.
From all the accounts I have heard from those who knew him well, LBJ was haunted by Vietnam until the day he died in 1973. Developments in Iraq this week should mean that George W. Bush won’t have that problem. That doesn’t mean that partisan politicians and potentates in our press are going to stop trying for that kind of outcome. To prove the point, the announcement that Al Anbar is being returned to Iraqi control should have been big news in the U.S., but it wasn’t.
Good news from Iraq, simply isn’t news at all. Therefore most Americans won’t know how important it is that Anbar is the 10th of 18 provinces — and the first Sunni-majority constituency — to revert to full sovereignty since 2003. Nor will our countrymen be reminded that this is the same region the mainstream media had written off as an “Al Qaeda stronghold” and “lost to insurgents,” as recently as January last year. Walter Cronkite couldn’t have been more pessimistic.
That’s not to say that things weren’t once very bad in Anbar. They were. Nine of my eleven extended trips to cover U.S. forces in Iraq took me to Al Anbar Province. The April and November 2004 battles in Fallujah — and innumerable gunfights the length of the Euphrates River valley from Al Qaim on the Syrian border to Ramadi, the provincial capital — gave the territory a much-deserved reputation for “the bloodiest place on the planet.” But, as our FOX News team reported in December 2006, things were already beginning to change.
Our interviews with Sheikh Abdul Sattar Abu Raziya and Governor Mamoun Sami Rashid in Ramadi regarding the “Sunni Awakening,” about tribal leaders turning on Al Qaeda, and the growing “Sons of Iraq” movement — were virtually ignored by our big media “colleagues.” Though this model for sharply curtailing violence and sectarian bloodshed has been replicated throughout most of Iraq — even in predominantly Shiite areas — its success has gone largely unnoticed in the U.S print and broadcast media.
By December 2007, we could walk down streets in Fallujah and Ramadi without flak jackets or helmets — where previously we had dodged bullets, IEDs and RPG fire. This too was “overlooked” in the U.S. press — as was the observation this week by Major General John Kelly, USMC, the commander of U.S. forces in western Iraq when he described the transition in Anbar as “an important milestone” that “changes the nature of our security relationship here.” General Kelly went on to observe that U.S. forces in the region could be reduced and “move into an over-watch posture, away from population centers.”
When I read that quote in an e-mail from Iraq, I was standing on the front lawn of LBJ’s ranch house in Stonewall, Texas — waiting for our camera crew to set up for a shot. The next day, I looked in vain for General Kelly’s piece of good news in three different newspapers. It wasn’t there. Maybe I missed it. Or perhaps Lyndon Johnson had it right when he said, “The fact that a man is a newspaper reporter is evidence of some flaw of character.”