When President Bush launched a preemptive war against Iraq 18 months ago, there was no doubt that a third-rate Iraqi army would quickly succumb to the awesome power of the U.S. military.
But since then, the battle and battlefield have changed dramatically. As the chief reasons given for launching the war have dissipated -- the weapons of mass destruction that never materialized and the lack of any "collaborative relationship," as the bipartisan Sept. 11 commission report put it, between Iraq and al Qaeda -- a much different foe, one that the administration did not warn the public about, has emerged in the form of a bloody and spreading insurgency.
We are now engaged in a vastly different conflict against a tough, and probably growing, band of fighters who do not seem afraid to die. They combine guerrilla warfare, holy war, patience and terrorist tactics against U.S. forces and those Iraqis who want to participate in the kind of change that the Americans and the new Iraqi administration have in mind.
Bush has remained firm in his commitment to win this battle, and time may prove him right. The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted Sept. 6-8, in the aftermath of the Republican National Convention, showed a majority (51 percent vs. 45 percent) believe that the war was worth fighting and that President Bush is more trusted to handle it (53 vs. 37 percent) than the Democratic nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry. Yet when asked if the United States was bogged down in Iraq, 54 percent said yes, while 40 percent thought good progress was being made.
However one feels, it seems legitimate to ask: Is this war winnable? If so, how and at what cost? If no, should there be consequences or penalties for launching it? Is it making us safer? Or is it producing more terrorists and hatred of the United States and turning Iraq into a breeding ground for both? Has it diminished our ability to fight the force that did attack us, al Qaeda, and find its leader, Osama bin Laden? How do we make informed judgments about these questions, and how much can the press help us?
However much voters are focused on the economy or health care, it seems clear that for millions of Americans, this war is a huge and divisive issue. More than 1,000 U.S. military personnel have died and more than 7,000 have been wounded. There are no good figures for Iraqi fatalities, which are hard to get and reflect flawed U.S. reporting efforts. But conservative estimates run to well over 5,000 military personnel and 10,000 civilians. The war has cost taxpayers about $120 billion, with lots more needed. Most important, there is no end in sight and no clear plan from either side on how to turn the corner.
In recent months, some news organizations, such as the New York Times and The Post, have done some soul-searching about their prewar coverage. Where was the press when we needed it, was the question properly asked by press critics and critical readers. Yet that question may well be asked again, and with far greater force and consequence, in the months and years to come if those gut questions about the war are not substantively addressed in this election campaign.
One reason the press didn't do well before the war is that Congress didn't do well. With few exceptions, Congress provided virtually no challenge to administration policies and claims. When that happens the press has fewer people to quote outside the White House. Too often, the early challenges some lawmakers did pose were missed or under-reported by The Post.
Now, although the war has all the makings of a monumental event in modern American history, there is still little debate reflected in the news pages. The special commission and special committee that investigated, respectfully, the massive U.S. intelligence failures before Sept. 11, 2001, and the invasion of Iraq in 2003 both did fine work. But both stopped short of assessing possible responsibility beyond the intelligence agencies. And Kerry, who might be expected to carry on this debate, has thus far presented such a conflicted and contorted view of the war that there has still been no one to quote whose views are likely to make the front page very often. The arguments still are being framed and expressed with more clarity inside a torrent of books, magazine articles and op-ed columns. When Kerry did speak out on Thursday, citing a newly disclosed and pessimistic intelligence report, The Post -- wrongly and unfairly, I thought -- buried the story on Page A20.
The daily news reporting from Iraq remains solid. But will the big news organizations somehow be able to capture and present to citizens the larger questions that this war raises?
Another example of why I'm not optimistic occurred last Monday. The outgoing commander of Marine Corps forces in western Iraq told reporters from The Post, the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times and CNN that he opposed the assault on militants in the volatile city of Fallujah in April and also disagreed with the subsequent order to halt the attack once underway. "When you order elements of a Marine division to attack a city, you really need to understand what the consequences of that are going to be and not perhaps vacillate in the middle of something like that," said Lt. Gen. James T. Conway.
Several Iraqi cities are controlled or dominated by insurgents, and the battle over Fallujah symbolizes the dilemma faced by U.S. forces, who could undoubtedly overrun the resistance, or at least displace it, in these cities. But they would also surely pay a big price in Iraq and the Arab world. It will be a long time, if ever, before Iraqis will be able to undertake such missions. The Globe put the story on Page One. The Los Angeles Times referred to it on Page One. The Post put it on Page A17 with a one-column headline.
Michael Getler can be reached by phone at 202-334-7582 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.