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Last week, Sen. John McCain staged a truly Orwellian publicity stunt in a Baghdad market. In a desperate attempt to give some sliver of credence to claims that the dreaded “liberal media” are failing to report on all the wonderful things happening in Iraq, McCain took a brief walk outside the American-maintained fortress that is Baghdad’s Green Zone.
Afterward, McCain declared his walk through the market was a sign that security had improved significantly in the Iraqi capital, and the administration’s current troop escalation is working. What he didn’t mention was that, during his short stroll, he was accompanied by dozens of heavily armed U.S. troops and several armored vehicles, while a couple of attack helicopters hovered overhead.
McCain’s photo op (which included the spectacle of the elderly senator wearing a flak jacket) was ludicrous on so many levels that even the normally docile national press, which has always treated McCain with kid gloves, pointed out he was making a fool of himself. Chastened, McCain issued a half-hearted apology a few days later, saying he “misspoke” when he pointed to his little walk under the protection of several platoons from the world’s most powerful military as evidence of Baghdad’s excellent shopping opportunities.
The most interesting question raised by McCain’s pathetic stunt is why this genuine war hero — who after all knows far better than most politicians the difference between real courage and the made for TV kind — thought he could get away with it.
The answer can be found by taking a random stroll through the archives of the very media McCain was trying to manipulate. From the first days of the Iraq war, it has been an article of dogmatic faith among the movement conservatives McCain is trying to woo that the liberal media have given Americans a far too bleak picture of what’s happening in Iraq.
Here are just a few examples out of literally hundreds: In September of 2003, former Clinton adviser-turned right wing media pundit Dick Morris declared that the “incredibly biased” liberal media were claiming “that Iraq is a ‘quagmire’ and that there ‘aren’t any weapons of mass destruction,’ and that ‘Bush lied’ — and all the while, thanks to Fox News are seeing with their own eyes how much this is crazy spin.”
A year later syndicated columnist and Bush administration stenographer Mark Steyn announced that the “liberal media” were doing their best to hide the fact that “the glass in Iraq is about 2/3rds full. The bulk of the violence is confined to one province and parts of Baghdad … There is no ‘civil war.’”
And last April President Bush himself took the media to task: “The kind of progress that we and the Iraqi people are making in places like Tal Afar is not easy to capture in a short clip on the evening news,” he said. “Footage of children playing, or shops opening, and people resuming their normal lives will never be as dramatic as the footage of an IED explosion, or the destruction of a mosque, or soldiers and civilians being killed or injured.” (Two weeks ago, almost exactly a year to the day after Bush uttered these words, Tal Afar was the site of a particularly horrible massacre, in which 70 men and boys were lynched. Some of the murderers were members of the town’s police force).
Over the past four years it’s become clear that, when it comes to Iraq, perhaps a quarter of Americans are equipped with skulls that can successfully deflect almost all unpleasant facts. These people will account for the majority of the votes cast in next year’s Republican primaries — hence McCain’s extraordinarily well-armed stroll.
Here’s another unpleasant fact: the day after McCain’s photo op, 21 people from that same market were kidnapped, taken north of the city, and murdered.
–PAUL F. CAMPOS
(Paul F. Campos is a law professor at the University of Colorado and can be reached at Paul.Campos(at)Colorado.edu.)