Monday, July 28, 2008

WTF is a Tentative Milestone?

The New York Times dug deep into its rhetorical bag of tricks Sunday for this front-pager on the “remarkable change” sweeping through Shiite-controlled portions of Baghdad.

BAGHDAD — The militia that was once the biggest defender of poor Shiites in Iraq, the Mahdi Army, has been profoundly weakened in a number of neighborhoods across Baghdad, in an important, if tentative, milestone for stability in Iraq.

First off, how many unimportant milestones have you ever encountered? But, more to the point, how would you define a tentative milestone? Here’s how I’d describe it: A steaming load of CYA.

Maybe someone lost the Green Zone’s only dictionary, so let me help a little:

mile•stone: 1. A stone marker set up on a roadside to indicate the distance in miles from a given point. 2. An important event, as in a person's career, the history of a nation, or the advancement of knowledge in a field; a turning point.

Can you imagine driving along the highway and seeing a sign that says you are tentatively five miles from town? Or can you imagine Winston Churchill proclaiming that, “This is not the end, nor the beginning of the end, but it is tentatively the end of the beginning?” And, as for turning points, we have seen where that gets us (hint: after a few turnsright back where you started).

I guess my big question is: When did hypotheticals become front-page news?

I suppose one could write a news story here about the shifting, unpredictable landscape in the Shiite neighborhoods in and around Baghdad, but reporter Sabrina Tavernise and the Times did not structure this article that way. This is an article with a premise (a premise strikingly similar to the line put forth by the US-backed Iraqi government of Nuri al-Maliki, I might add), and the author attempts to string together anecdotes and predictions to confirm that supposition.

How did Tavernise come to substantiate her tentative claim about the downgraded influence of Mahdi leader Moktada al-Sadr?

In interviews, 17 Iraqis, including municipal officials, gas station workers and residents, described a pattern in which the militia’s control over the local economy and public services had ebbed.

And those interviews, I should point out, were likely not conducted by Tavernise, herself, but, because of safety concerns, were instead done via Iraqi stringers. (I admit that this is a supposition on my part—the NYT and most papers do not make a habit of differentiating between direct reporting and information gathered through proxies—most parts of the area in question in this article are almost certainly not safe for western reporters.) I do not envy the conditions under which reporters have to work in Iraq, but I do have a problem with secondhand accounts from a small, unscientific sample being magically transformed by the of the New York Times into a seemingly certain evaluation of conditions on the ground, and by direct inference, an endorsement of what from my point of view (and I reiterate that this is my point of view) was factional bloodletting rather than a well-orchestrated security operation by a legitimate Iraqi government. Four paragraphs toward the very end of the story seem to lend credence to my take:

The shift comes at a crucial moment: Iraqis will vote in provincial elections in December. The weakening of the Sadrists in national politics clears the stage for the group’s most bitter rival — a Shiite party led by another cleric, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim. One of the party’s members, Jalal al-Din al-Sagheer, a sheik and a member of Parliament, is arranging state aid for Sunni families willing to move back to Topchi.

The timing was not missed by the Sadr movement’s spokesman, who said the government had recently warned the group to vacate its office. He blames Mr. Hakim’s party for the attempts to marginalize his movement, whose members have also been targets of a political crackdown in southern Iraq.

“Some parties are occupying large buildings in Jadriya,” he said, referring indirectly to the headquarters of Mr. Hakim’s party. “That’s what makes us suspicious. Why only us?”

He added, “The main motive is to exclude the Sadr movement from politics.”

Again, this is in no way to be read as an endorsement of the Mahdi faction or their brutal tactics—but I think short passages like the one above show the situation to be more complicated than the tale of a good government forcing out a bad criminal syndicate.

Also missing from the Times piece is any consideration that at least some of the lull might be the result of an intentional pulling back by Moktada al-Sadr or an effort by the Shiite cleric to contain the worst elements of his movement himself.

However, there are these two lines at the very end of the article:

The militia is painting its response on Sadr City walls: “We will be back, after this break.”

The Iraqi Army is painting over it.

Which is perhaps the best metaphor for what is happening in Baghdad: a superficial improvement. It is possible that this is not the story of a strong government that has been battling organized crime now reaching a milestone (however tentative), but rather a tangled tale of a weak political faction’s whitewashing of a long and dirty picket fence. This makes the Iraqi government look less like Elliot Ness, and more like Tom Sawyer. It would great if New York Times reporters weren’t so eager to grab a brush.

(cross-posted on The Seminal and Daily Kos)

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