Sunday, June 01, 2008

Searching for that Proverbial Dark Lining

The steady stream of good news from Iraq is certainly posing a challenge for the MSM. Just two months ago, various outlets were comparing the Basra upriging to the Tet Offensive, with dire warnings of a deteriorating security environment in Iraq. Since then, the level of violence has continued to drop, reaching a four-year low in the month of May. U.S. combat deaths have also declined; only 17 Americans died in battle this month, the lowest total since Saddam was toppled from power five years ago.

Iraq's improving security situation is more evidence that Al Qaida is on the ropes, at least on the Arabian Peninsula. Last week, CIA Director Michael Hayden reported that the terrorist group has suffered "near strategic defeats" in both Iraq and Saudi Arabia, and endured "significant setbacks" in other locations. That's one reason that recent propaganda tapes from Osama bin Laden have been devoted to the Palestinian issue, and harangues against moderate Arab leaders.

Against that backdrop, what's a MSM reporter to do? Well, Karen DeYoung of the Washington Post managed to find a dark lining in the silver cloud, with a little help from her friends in the intelligence community. In the Sunday edition of the Post, Ms. DeYoung lays out a gloomy scenario for the rest of the Bush presidency, claiming that the administration will make "little progress on top national security policies," including the Israeli-Palestinian issue; Iran's effort to obtain nuclear weapons, and political reconciliation inside Iraq.

The source for the paper's assessment was a recent speech by Donald M. Kerr, the Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence. According to the paper, Mr. Kerr's analysis was posited as the intel briefing he might deliver to the next president on January 21, 2009. Kerr is one of two officials, along with the Director of National Intelligence, Mike McConnell, who provide the president's daily intelligence update.

Ms. DeYoung carefully notes the contrast between Kerr's assessment and the more upbeat analysis recently offered by General Hayden. But both the DDNI--and the Post--ignore the obvious disconnect between the accounts of Mr. Kerr and the CIA Director. It's an apples-and-oranges comparison at best, totally disingenuous, at worst.

For starters, all incoming administrations inherit national security headaches from their predecessors. Islamofacism was a growing threat in 2000, but we don't recall any Post articles on the inability of Bill Clinton to deal with that issue. Had he been more attentive to that single issue, the security environment faced by George Bush--and Mr. Bush's successor--would be much different.

Additionally, both Mr. Kerr and the Post are predictably selective in assembling their list of "problems." An Israel-Palestinian peace accord? The U.S. has been trying to advance that process, in fits and starts, for more than 30 years. Given that record, it would be fool hardly to expect a "final" breakthrough in the next six months, and the administration has said as much in recent months.

We've discussed Mr. Bush's policies toward Iran at some length, and they have been ineffective, on the balance. But the failure to halt Tehran's nuclear efforts has been a true, multi-national effort. Years of pointless negotiations by the European Union (with U.S. support), and a series of ineffective U.N. sanctions served to only embolden the Iranians.

The final blow, of course, was last year's National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), which claimed that Iran had abandoned its weaponization program, while admitting that critical efforts in uranium enrichment and missile development--essential for weapons development--continued. With publication of the NIE (which bore the handiwork of administration opponents in the intelligence community), the Bush Administration had little choice but to remain on the diplomatic track. Mr. Bush's policies toward Iran have been anything but effective, but he's had plenty of help in crafting the current strategy.

Then, there's that little matter of political reconciliation in Iraq. Never mind that the goal is somewhat nebulous--exactly when will the Iraqis achieve the required degree of reconciliation? Never mind that Iraqi leaders have made progress in this area--over the past year, the Parliament has passed a series of bills that address issues critical to the reconciliation (including oil revenue sharing). And never mind that the improved security environment is the first step toward reconciliation.

But those rather inconvenient facts don't exactly square with the preferred narrative of the Washington Post, or one of the nation's senior intelligence officers. By focusing on perpetual security problems, they offer a distorted view of what will face the next administration. While the new president will face challenges--some of them daunting--he (or she) will also reap the benefits of recent gains in Iraq, and the larger war on terror.

You'd expect that kind of reporting from the Post. But Mr. Kerr's comments raise legitimate questions about the advice our next commander-in-chief will receive from the intelligence community.

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