Dick Cheney knows what's going wrong in Iraq: media bias. Asked Thursday night during a conference call with supporters about "some of the things that are happening in Iraq that are really good but just never get through the media," the Vice President advised of a cure: Fox News. "I end up spending a lot of time watching Fox News," Cheney said, "because they're more accurate in my experience, in those events that I'm personally involved in, than many of the other outlets."
Another administration lie, perhaps, but I worry that it may be all-too-true. Maybe the Vice President really does think that Roger Ailes' non-stop agitprop is the best way to stay informed. Certainly it would explain a lot. If, as Fox reported Friday, the new Al-Hurrah television network -- the centerpiece of America's public diplomacy efforts -- really is a big success, then maybe our long-term prospects for combating terrorism the Bush way are looking good. Back in the real world, though, it's failing and the administration is failing to cope with real Arab media outlets. As a result of this, and of a policy cocktail seemingly calculated to outrage Arab moderates, the most recent Pew Global Attitudes survey revealed that just 5 percent of people in Jordan -- probably the most America-friendly Arab country -- have a favorable view of the United States.
But we were supposed to be talking about Iraq. In a way, Cheney has a point. Despite weeks' worth of problems in Falluja, Najaf, and Kut, there's a lot more country out there. People really should pay attention to it. So if you, like the Vice President, don't trust The New York Times to get the story right, you ought to go straight to the source. Lurking inappropriately on the export.gov website ("the portal to all export-related assistance and market information offered by the federal government") you can find the Pentagon's unclassified Iraq Status Report and find out how the people running the occupation think it's going.
On one level, they're very proud. Turn to page 22 and you'll see a nifty flow chart outlining the future political status of Iraq. By the end of May, we'll have established an election commission and selected an interim government. On June 30, the interim government takes power. On January 31 (or, "31 Dec 04 if possible") elections will be held for the National Assembly. They, in turn, will take power in "early '05," draft a constitution by August 15, hold a referendum on October 15, have permanent elections on December 16, and disband on New Year's Eve 2006 to allow the permanent government of the new Iraq to take office.
So Iraqis have a lot to look forward to. But how's the present?
Not so good. Most striking, as Sen. Robert Byrd pointed out in a speech several weeks ago, is the report's admission on page 19 that 77 percent of the Iraqi police force is untrained. Not untrained as in, "they went through training and it wasn't very good." That's the other 23 percent. The majority just haven't had any training. Assuming everyone currently in training completes the program and makes it onto the force, though, the Iraqi police will only be 75 percent untrained, so things are looking up.
The Department of Border Enforcement is looking a bit better -- almost half of its 18,747 members have been trained. Not trained very well, of course, but it's a start. Unfortunately, only 279 more people are currently in training, and the department needs 6,980 additional officers to get up to full strength. (You won't find that story in the liberal media.) Apparently they don't let untrained people join the Iraqi Armed Forces (IAF), so all 3,928 of them have received some kind of preparation, readying almost 10 percent of the service's envisioned 40,000 troop strength.
Will 40,000 be enough? According to Peter Galbraith, a longtime observer of Kurdistan, the peshmerga militia groups operating up north have 100,000 men under arms. Ethnic militias that outnumber the national army by more than 2:1 are not part of the classic state-building recipe. Meanwhile, the IAF will also need to cope with neighboring Iran. Looks to me like American troops will be required for quite some time to keep a lid on things.
But what about the lives of ordinary Iraqis? Well, we learn on page 16 that in south central Iraq the number of active telephone lines is still stuck at April 2003 levels. But wait -- that's the good news. In southern Iraq they're at 98 percent of the April baseline; in the north the figure is 96 percent. Baghdad has actually witnessed a 19 percent decline in landline availability over the past year.
Landlines, of course, are a bit passé. I don't have one myself, at home; I just use a cell phone. How fortunate, then, that the Pentagon official overseeing the construction of the cellular network is now under investigation for corrupt practices in his handling of the contract.
In order to make those cell phones work, you need electricity. Page three reveals that not only is current production only at 60 percent of the goal for June 1, 2004, but it remains below the target that was to be achieved by October 2003. Worse, the trend for the past three weeks for which data is available is pointing down. As the target date approaches, reality is moving further and further away from the goal. Electricity production in northern Iraq is, though well below goals, at least higher than it was before the war. In central Iraq -- the favored region of the Saddam regime -- the story is very different: There is 45 percent less power than there was before the war began. Even in the south we have not yet matched pre-war levels, and are only producing around one quarter of the target quantity. As a result, in five of Iraq's eighteen provinces, electricity is available only 12 or fewer hours per day. Even Basra, the top-performing province, is dark two hours a day on average. Pages 8-10 of the report, meanwhile, reveal that oil-rich Iraq remains dependent on imports for gasoline, kerosene, and diesel fuel.
These problems combine with the insurgency to create a vicious cycle. Every American soldier combating organized resistance groups is a soldier who's not policing the streets or training Iraqi forces. As everyday disorder and insecurity mounts, reconstruction work grinds to a halt. Lack of electricity combines with a dangerous environment to impede economic progress. Joblessness feeds crime, further overburdening an already inadequate security situation. Insecure populations look to armed militia leaders to provide the security America cannot, laying the groundwork for future organized resistance. And then the pattern repeats, further undermining whatever good works are being organized.
Meanwhile, American political leaders seek to cocoon themselves amidst information-sources that tell them what they want to hear, and try to turn public opinion around not by improving the situation but by blaming the press. Something needs to be done to break the cycle, but unfortunately it's not a story we're likely to see soon on Fox.
Matthew Yglesias is a Prospect writing fellow. His column on politics and the media appears every Tuesday.
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