On July 8th, the New York Times' Public Editor, Clark Hoyt, took his paper to task for unthinkingly printing the Bush Administration spin that the violence in Iraq is due primarily to Al Qaeda.
Mr. Hoyt's critique, headlined Seeing Al Qaeda Around Every Corner, had two main points; two key facts that the NYT consistently overlooks:
(1) The group called "Al Qaeda in Iraq" is not "Al Qaeda", and the relation between them is murky.
(2) The violence in Iraq is not, in fact, primarily due to either Al Qaeda in Iraq or Al Qaeda; but rather due to a wide array of insurgent groups fighting the occupation, insurgent groups fighting the current Iraqi government, sectarian fighting, criminal activity, and so on.
Well, in tomorrow morning's paper (the July 13 paper), the New York Times' news division makes an effort to correct the mistake described by (1), but unfortunately it reinforces the mistake described by (2). The Times corrects one White House distortion but not the other, more serious one. I'm not sure that this is progress.
In his critical July 8th column, Mr. Hoyt described a recent attempt by the Times to correct for its past mistakes:
On Thursday, she [Susan Chira, the foreign editor] and her deputy, Ethan Bronner, circulated a memo with guidelines on how to distinguish Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia from bin Laden’s Al Qaeda.
And, clearly, that worked. Observe in tomorrow's Times, which I guess would be a week after the foreign editor sent around her memo:
By MICHAEL R. GORDON and JIM RUTENBERG
Published: July 13, 2007
BAGHDAD, July 12 — In rebuffing calls to bring troops home from Iraq, President Bush on Thursday employed a stark and ominous defense. "The same folks that are bombing innocent people in Iraq," he said, "were the ones who attacked us in America on September the 11th, and that’s why what happens in Iraq matters to the security here at home."
-- snip --
But while American intelligence agencies have pointed to links between Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia leaders and the top leadership of the broader Qaeda group, the militant group is in many respects an Iraqi phenomenon. They believe the membership of the group is overwhelmingly Iraqi. Its financing is derived largely indigenously from kidnappings and other criminal activities. And many of its most ardent foes are close at home, namely the Shiite militias and the Iranians who are deemed to support them.
So that assists in correcting for one of Mr. Hoyt's criticisms.
However, let me quote Mr. Hoyt some more. Here is the bit in his column that directly followed the one previously quoted:
On Thursday, she and her deputy, Ethan Bronner, circulated a memo with guidelines on how to distinguish Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia from bin Laden’s Al Qaeda.
It’s a good move. I’d have been happier still if The Times had helped its readers by doing a deeper job of reporting on the administration’s drive to make Al Qaeda the singular enemy in Iraq.
And the New York Times is still not doing that. The paper is addressing (1) but not (2), as described above.
The July 13 news story reinforces the idea that Al Qaeda in Iraq is of great significance:
There is no question that the group [Al Qaeda in Iraq] is one of the most dangerous in Iraq. But Mr. Bush’s critics argue that he has overstated the Qaeda connection in an attempt to exploit the same kinds of post-Sept. 11 emotions that helped him win support for the invasion in the first place.
But Mr. Hoyt wanted the Times to acknowledge that the significance of Al Qaeda in Iraq has been consistently greatly exaggerated by the White House. Mr. Hoyt wrote:
"Nobody knows how many different Islamist extremist groups make up the insurgency" in Iraq, said Anthony H. Cordesman of the bipartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Even when you talk about Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the idea of somehow it is the center of the insurgency is almost absurd."
Mr. Hoyt notes that, according to the Associated Press, "some 30 groups" have claimed credit for attacks on U.S. and Iraqi government forces. Mr. Hoyt was, I'm sure, refering to this June 8 AP story, worth reading, itself:
In motley array of Iraqi foes, why does U.S. spotlight al-Qaeda?
By Charles J. Hanley
10:54 a.m. June 8, 2007
BAGHDAD – Inside the bloody kaleidoscope called Iraq, the list of enemies and allies is long, shifting and motley, running from "revolution brigades" and Baathists, to Salafists, secularists and suicidal zealots. But one group alone gets routinely tagged "Public Enemy No. 1" by the Americans.
-- snip --
Some 30 groups now claim responsibility for attacks against U.S. and government targets, said Ben Venzke, head of the Virginia-based IntelCenter, which tracks such statements for the U.S. government.
Despite this proliferation of enemies, the U.S. command's news releases on American operations focus overwhelmingly on al-Qaeda.
During the first half of May, those releases mentioned al-Qaeda 51 times, against just five mentions of other groups.
-- snip --
In addition, in a year-to-year comparison, the number of U.S. military releases mentioning al-Qaeda almost doubled, from 161 in 2005-2006 to 306 in 2006-2007. Even accounting for an increased number of command reports overall, the al-Qaeda releases rose by 40 percent.
The New York Times story tomorrow does nothing to correct for this pervasive official distortion. The Times story tomorrow discusses the nature of Al Qaeda in Iraq and its "murky" relationship to Al Qaeda but does not seriously dispute that Al Qaeda in Iraq is overwhelmingly important:
Incredibly, the July 13 Times does allow that Al Qaeda in Iraq numbers "from a few thousand to 5,000 fighters and perhaps twice as many supporters".
5,000 fighters, tops. That's what all this fuss is about, from the White House.
I know some in Washington would like us to start leaving Iraq now. To begin withdrawing before our commanders tell us we are ready would be dangerous for Iraq, for the region, and for the United States. It would mean surrendering the future of Iraq to al Qaeda.
According to a a March 2007 ABC/USA Today/BBC/ADR poll (warning PDF), 51% of Iraqi citizens considered using force against U.S. forces "acceptable". That's about eleven million people, depending on what the population of Iraq is, this year. 78% opposed the presence of U.S. forces. Compared to that, Al Qaeda in Iraq's "few thousand to 5,000 fighters and perhaps twice as many supporters" are a drop in the bucket.
America can't control the future of Iraq with 160,000 troops and who-knows-how-many-contractors. The idea that 5,000 members of Al Qaeda in Iraq are going to do it is, as Anthony H. Cordesman said, above, "almost absurd". Actually, scratch the "almost".