Spinning Tales

Times columnist's mission of quoting a war critic is only partially accomplished

If American news consumers are confused about the Iraq war and other calamities of recent invention, they have a right to be. Things you thought were real turn out to be mirages, special effects, like the giant banner that flashed across your television screen saying "Mission Accomplished." It was a beauty.

That was two years ago. But it seems to happen every day now. You read something in the paper, you think it's true, and whammo, you find out it was just someone putting you on. Spinning, they call it. We've reinvented Orwell's newspeak.

Just last Thursday, I picked up my New York Times from the hallway and read David Brooks's op-ed column about the new Iraqi constitution in progress, over which there has been some slaughter in the streets—in addition to the regular war. Brooks says he was surprised to learn, through a phone call to Baghdad, that Peter W. Galbraith, whom he called "the smartest and most devastating" critic of President Bush's war policies, was now saying things "more complimentary about what the administration has just achieved than anybody else I spoke to all day."

Here's a paragraph Brooks drew from his talk with Galbraith, a former American ambassador to Croatia and now an adviser to Iraq's Kurdish leaders in the constitution-drafting process:

" 'The Bush Administration finally did something right in brokering this constitution,' Galbraith exclaimed, then added: 'This is the only possible deal that can bring stability. I do believe it might save the country.' "

Brooks went over some history about Iraq's three ever warring blocs—the Kurds in the north, Saddam Hussein's Sunnis in the center, and Shiites in the south—and then offered what I took to be a summary of Galbraith's, and his own, view of the new Iraqi charter:

"This constitution gives each group what it wants. It will create a very loose federation in which only things like fiscal and foreign policy are controlled in the center (even tax policy is decentralized). Oil revenues are supposed to be distributed on a per capita basis, and no group will feel inordinately oppressed by the others. The Kurds and Shiites understand what a good deal this is. The Sunni leaders selected to attend the [constitutional] convention are howling because they are former [Saddam Hussein] Baathists who dream of a return to centralized power. But ordinary Sunnis, Galbraith says, will come to realize this deal protects them, too."

This sounded more than a bit dreamy to me, given Iraq's nonstop bloody history, but then Brooks is a conservative trying to help President Bush and, like me, he writes an opinion column, not news dispatches.

But later on Thursday, a colleague called my attention to a Los Angeles Times news story out of Baghdad by reporter Edmund Sanders that also quoted Galbraith. The quotes were very different. Sanders, in describing the tensions over the constitution's passages on religion and human rights, wrote:

"For instance, the draft constitution makes Islam the 'official religion' of Iraq and 'a main source' of law rather than 'the' source, as many Shiite conservatives sought. But secularists remain concerned about a clause that prohibits any law that 'contradicts the undisputed rules of Islam.' "

But, Sanders asked, what are the "undisputed rules" of Islam? Galbraith responded: "The problem is that there are no agreements on these questions. It allows any cleric to make his own interpretation of the law and opens the door to a whole range of abuses."

The L.A. Times story continued: "Galbraith said the draft fell well short of the sort of democratic government the Bush administration hoped to install in Iraq. 'The U.S. now has to recognize that they overthrew Saddam Hussein to replace him with a pro-Iranian state,' he said."

In simple terms, Galbraith was saying that some form of an Islamic theocracy—milder, he believed, than neighboring Iran's—was inevitable in Iraq.

None of this sounded like the Galbraith in Brooks's column. But then columnists choose quotes to bolster their particular arguments and sometimes leave out others.

The contrast, however, spurred me into research. And there I definitely found a different Galbraith.

Just two days before Brooks's column appeared, The Washington Post, in a news story from Baghdad, quoted the former diplomat as saying he disagreed with those who, like President Bush, claimed that the draft charter protected women's rights, and he accused the White House of "hypocrisy" on that issue. Brooks never mentioned that.

And then there was the Galbraith article of more than 3,000 words that ran in the August 11 issue of The New York Review of Books. Here are some passages:

"There is, in fact, no Iraqi insurgency. There is a Sunni Arab insurgency. And it cannot win. Neither the al-Qaeda terrorists nor the former Baathists can win. . . . For the last two years, Sunni Arab insurgents have targeted Shiite mosques, clerics, religious celebrations, and pilgrims—with a toll in the thousands. The insurgent goal is to provoke sectarian war, and they seem to be succeeding. . . . While the insurgents cannot win, neither can they be defeated . . .

"It may be the ultimate irony that the United States, which, among other reasons, invaded Iraq to help bring liberal democracy to the Middle East, will play a decisive role in establishing its second Shiite Islamic state. . . . There are two central problems in today's Iraq: the first is the insurgency and the second is an Iranian takeover. . . . By bringing freedom to Iraq, the Bush administration has allowed Iraq's Shiites to vote for pro-Iranian religious parties that seek to create—and are creating—an Islamic state. This is not ideal, but it is the result of a democratic process."

So Galbraith, the scholar and diplomat, has a lot more to say—and a lot more nuance and reality—than Brooks showed in his column. There are no neat and tidy solutions here, no facilely conjured light at the end of the tunnel. I am in no way suggesting that the quotes in Brooks's piece weren't authentic, just incomplete and, in the end, misleading.

In response to my request for comment, Brooks called me back last Friday to say he thought my criticisms were "unfair." He explained, mistakenly in my opinion: "You know that a single column only deals with one idea"—and pointed out, accurately, that in other columns he had described himself as an "ardent war supporter" who had made misjudgments and now had "doubts."

Brooks said his August 28 column, which he had just filed, calls the military side of the Bush policy "a failure." He also cited an April 17, 2004, column, titled "A More Humble Hawk," in which he wrote: "The first thing to say is that I never thought it would be this bad." Then, after listing his failures to foresee the fierceness of the resistance to U.S. occupation by both insurgents and ordinary Iraqis, and how this would come to "overshadow democratization," Brooks concluded: "Despite all this—and maybe it's pure defensiveness—I still believe that in 20 years, no one will doubt that Bush did the right thing."

My purpose in this column is to note that because the air in America is already politically toxic, it becomes especially important—whether in opinion columns or news stories—to stop airbrushing out the unpleasant realities. This whole mess began with the telling of distortions and falsehoods about a clear and present danger to the country's security that didn't exist. Now the public is confused and troubled over how to resolve the mess.

The president and his supporters are still clinging to their distortions—indeed, trumpeting them anew in an effort to improve their political party's chances in the 2006 midterm elections. How does this serve the nation?

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