By now there is a consensus, among lawmakers, military leaders, and the American public — even among the very same hawks who were beating the drum for this war —that Iraq is a horrible debacle. Of late, even our notoriously stubborn commander-in-chief has tempered his “mission accomplished” rhetoric, allowing, in a recent policy address, that the situation in Iraq is “unacceptable” and that “mistakes have been made.”
Apparently Dick Cheney didn’t get the memo. He is still telling that same old Iraq fairytale. “Bottom line is that we’ve had enormous successes and we will continue to have enormous successes,” he told Wolf Blitzer in an interview aired by CNN yesterday. Of course, you’ll remember that Cheney has been responsible for uttering, with his trademark grimace, the administration’s more outlandish claims about Iraq. First, he told us days before invasion that he expected U.S. forces would be “greeted as liberators.” Two years later, when it was evident that Iraq was descending into chaos, he suggested that the insurgency was “in the last throes.” He insisted a month later that Iraq will be an “enormous success story.” While it is the responsibility of our leaders to evoke confidence, the power of positive thinking only goes so far, and there is a point when optimism becomes lunacy. Cheney crossed that line long ago.
But if you were to ask Cheney why his statements about Iraq are so at odds with the bloody reality on the ground, he will tell you, as he has told many incredulous interviewers in the past, that the press is at fault for fostering the notion that Iraq is coming apart at the seams. In his view, we, in the media, have ignored the positives in Iraq — the school openings, the elections, the deep gratitude of the Iraqi people — only showing our readers and viewers the dark side of the conflict. “If the history books were written by people who are so eager to write off this effort or declare it a failure, including many of our friends in the media, the situation obviously would have been over a long time ago,” he told Blitzer yesterday. Over the years, “blame the media” has been the oft-used mantra of the administration. But while most of the members of the president’s inner-circle have largely dropped this claim (as it became increasingly absurd in the face of escalating violence in Iraq), Cheney has clung to this delusion.
Ignoring reality has long been the hallmark of an administration that believes it can manufacture its own. As a Bush aide once boasted to Ron Suskind: “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
This mentality, I’d argue, is what has kept the administration from revisiting its Iraq strategy for so long. In the interim, the administration and, to an extent the military as well, has simply tried to mask the truth instead of adapting to it.
How did this manifest in Iraq? At one point, with a propaganda campaign aimed both at Iraqi citizens and the American public. In one case, efforts were made to slant military press releases to play down, or altogether omit, the involvement of U.S. troops, making it appear that everything from civil works projects to heroic military victories were the product of Iraqi initiative. This couldn’t have been further from the truth. Under heavy political pressure to better communicate successes in the war on terrorism, the military also began to blur the lines between public affairs and information warfare, co-mingling these disparate functions (one deals in truth, the other in “truth-based” messages or outright misinformation) in strategic communications, or stratcom, offices in Baghdad and Kabul. Then, of course, there was the Lincoln Group’s half-baked (and military funded) effort to secret propaganda into fledgling Iraqi new outlets — a campaign that backfired, in spectacular fashion, when it was exposed by the press. Of the military’s information operations in Iraq, a senior military officer once told me, “Perhaps Iraq is a unique situation, but I think some of our IO efforts may have hurt our overall efforts at supporting an elected government and democratic, free institutions. Saddam fed the people propaganda for decades — should we continue to feed them propaganda and expect them to support us and/or their elected officials?”
Just as propagandizing to the Iraqi people is no way of introducing them to the democratic process, continuing to shade the truth, as Cheney has done repeatedly in his public remarks, is no way for the administration to regain the credibility it’s lost with the American people. The president, who for so long has mistaken denial for resolve, finally seems to get this. Not so Cheney.
While some might argue that Cheney is intentionally misleading the public, just as some believe administration officials purposely misstated the facts about Iraq to sell a pre-emptive war to the public, I think there’s another, more realistic, possibility: That Cheney has misled himself. And that’s just as dangerous.