Global Policy Forum

The GOP's Distance Strategy


By David Corn *

September 27, 2006

Distance. That's the goal - what Karl Rove wishes for when it comes to the American public and the war in Iraq. Clearly, the White House's electoral strategy is to wrap the Iraq debacle in the anti-terrorism banner. The public tends to dislike the war in Iraq but favors the effort to nail al-Qaida and any wannabe allies. So it's a no-brainer for the White House: Do everything possible to confuse the two. Make apple-and-orange juice and sell it to the voters.

That task became harder when The New York Times revealed the existence of the National Intelligence Estimate that concludes the Iraq war has fueled the spread of global jihadism. This is not the sort of merging White House aides had in mind, but they are not deterred.

The White House stratagem to meld Iraq with President George W. Bush's "global war on terror" can only succeed if there is distance—distance between Americans and the true horror and ugliness of the war in Iraq. Though newspapers do cover the daily tragedies of Iraq, these stories often get lost in the media wash. When Bush delivered a series of speeches trumpeting his anti-terrorism efforts recently, he knocked news of Iraq's murderous chaos out of the leading papers. And when such news does appear, it is frequently not page-one stuff. Carnage in Iraq— that's dog-bites-man material. Another car-bomb in Iraq. Another shoot-out between Sunnis and Shiites. Another dozen headless bodies dumped in the street. It's easy to turn the page. Cable news shows devote more time to reality show twist-and-turns than to the hell of the war in Iraq.

This ongoing horror is merely one channel among hundreds carried by the national media machine. Even recently, Bush diminished the bloody strife. Last week, CNN's Wolf Blitzer asked the president about the recent setbacks and violence in Iraq, and the president said, "I like to tell people when the final history is written on Iraq, it will look like just a comma." Bush was referring to a period when thousands of Iraqi civilians are being brutally murdered as a blip. No, it's a national catastrophe. In pure body count, it's two Hurricane Katrinas a month.

Consider one grisly episode. On Saturday, an explosion killed at least 38 people waiting on line to buy kerosene. The account by Amit Paley and Salih Dehema of The Washington Post noted:

The horrific blast sent women engulfed in flames screaming through the streets. Two preteen girls embraced each other as they burned to death, witnesses said. Later, wailing mourners thronged the scene of the blast, which was strewn with the shoes of victims and a woman's bloodied cloak, and voiced doubt that the reprisal violence would ever end. "We carry our death certificates with us now, waiting only to fill in the date of death," said Bayan Jasem al-Kaaby, 40, a minibus driver, after he was burned by the explosion that rocked the Shiite Muslim slum of Sadr City.

Two preteen girls burning to death. It's reminiscent of the famous 1972 shot of the naked 9-year-old Vietnamese girl running down a street, fleeing a napalm attack—but worse. Kim Phuc, the girl in the Pulitzer Prize winning photo, survived. But there have been no similar iconic photos—or video footage—of the Iraq war. Why do the horrors of Iraq not sear the nation's consciousness as did the horrors of Vietnam? Perhaps it's because this is a more cynical age. Perhaps it's because Americans in the post-9/11 period do not want to confront the full costs of the country's national security policies. Perhaps it's because in this new media universe it's so damn easy to surf past such troubles.

The fact that regions of Iraq have turned into a nightmare is no secret. But most Americans do not experience this reality viscerally. Many have no connections to a killed or wounded American soldier. And we can get through the day without ever encountering a graphic reminder of what is transpiring in Iraq. It is a cheap calculation to compare the monthly civilian death toll in Iraq with that of 9/11. But imagine a country collectively witnessing—and grieving over—the murder of 3,000 or so civilians every month? (In per capita terms that would be more than 30,000 killings a month in the United States.) As bad as life was for some Iraqis in the years before the U.S. invasion, the current situation—which was brought on by Bush's war—is a profound tragedy that does not completely register here.

Bush is responsible for setting off the chain of events that has turned Iraq into a land of bedlam and blood. The terrorists and sectarian murderers of Iraq, of course, are guilty for their crimes. But it was the invasion and, most important, the Bush administration's complete and utter botching of the post-invasion challenges that gave the killers the opportunity to serve their bloodlust. Every problem that has arisen in Iraq since the invasion was predicted prior to the war by policy experts at the CIA, the State Department and the Pentagon. Yet none of the warnings were heeded by the White House or the civilian leaders of the Defense Department. Because of their negligence, preteens are burning to death in Baghdad.

This is not a connection that Bush, Rove and the Republicans want voters to make when they enter voting booths in five weeks. And the White House is helped in its electoral strategy by the media's coverage of the violence and murder in Iraq. I am not accusing anyone in the news business of purposefully downplaying the terror in Iraq. But our media culture generally cannot maintain sustained shock and outrage. (The day after the bombing described above, The New York Times placed its account of this event, as did the Post , on the inside of the paper; a story recounting Donald Rumsfeld's squash-playing habits—he sort of cheats—was on the front page.) Much of the public is uneasy about the war and aware of the ongoing deadly chaos in Iraq—and probably conflicted about what to do now. But the full horror is not in our face day to day. You have to look to see it. And who wants to look?

Bush's invasion has unleashed furies neither he nor the Iraqi government can control. Consequently, thousands of civilians are dead. Yet Bush and his party remain in the political hunt; they could well maintain control of the House and Senate. That's only because the death and disorder of Iraq seems so far away.

About the Author: David Corn writes The Loyal Opposition twice a month for Corn is also the Washington editor of The Nation and is the co-author along with Michael Isikoff of Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal and the Selling of the Iraq War. Read his blog at

More Information on Iraq
More Information on the Justifications for War
More Information on Media Coverage of Iraq


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