Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The media’s Tet offensive

Much has been made of fears that al-Qaeda in Iraq would launch its equivalent of the Tet offensive in the lead-up to today’s appearances before the US Congress by General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker. Despite the fact that AQI must have been desperate to steal the show with some spectacular attack, none materialised – a vindication of Petraeus’s strategy before he’d even uttered a word on Capitol Hill.

Instead, an offensive of a different sort was launched, by ABC and the BBC, which together with Japanese broadcaster NHK (Why?) released a poll showing that almost 70% of Iraqis think the security situation has deteriorated since the Surge began. ‘Coming at a crucial moment,’ the BBC reported, ‘a new BBC/ABC News opinion poll suggests ordinary Iraqis have a damning verdict on the US surge’.

‘Coming at a crucial moment?’ Is the BBC serious? Would they really have us believe that the release of the poll results on the day of the Petraeus/Crocker testimony was some kind of coincidence? Polling was carried out between August 17 and August 24, so the BBC and ABC have been sitting on these results for two weeks – the amount of data was far from overwhelming, and it couldn’t have taken long to process and turn into graphs.

The poll was clearly published to coincide with the hearings, and to detract from the cautiously positive message that Petraeus was expected to, and did, deliver. Its release was just as much a publicity stunt as the protests inside and outside Congress by Code Pink and MoveOn.org.

And some of the poll findings themselves are a little suspect, especially that headline figure – that a majority of Iraqis think security has deteriorated since the start of the surge (which, incidentally, has only been fully operational for around three months, making the BBC/ABC figure of six months a little disingenuous).

In a piece for NRO today, Michael O’Hanlon of the left-leaning Brookings Institution (his liberal credentials have of course been impugned since he had the temerity to start making positive noises about the war, but at the very least he must be considered an impartial observer) writes:

Depending on which category of violence one emphasizes, and which starting and end points one uses for the comparison, most categories of killings are down 20 to 50-percent since the surge began. This is true for overall civilian fatalities from all causes, including victims of extrajudicial killings (basically reprisal assassinations), murders, and for the most part, car- and truck-bombing victims.

How do these figures square with the apparent opinion of Iraqis that the security situation has deteriorated? Or with the fact that, if you take the combined figure for US forces and President Bush (yes, that really was an option, and gives you an insight into the motives of those who commissioned the poll), only 27% thought America was chiefly responsible for the violence. By contrast, the combined total for foreign fighters and Iran was 33%. These findings, incidentally, are omitted from the main reports, and are the only ones that merit an ‘explanation’ by the pollsters, presumably because they don’t fit the narrative.

If those figures don’t appear to add up, the claim that 93% of Sunnis support the insurgency is patently ridiculous, given that thousands of them have been co-operating with US forces in Anbar province to drive out al-Qaeda, and many have joined the army and police. And while 60% apparently see attacks on US-led forces as justified, only 47% want them to leave immediately. So does this mean that 13% want US troops to stay just because they like to see them getting attacked?

The fact that the poll throws up such inconsistencies suggests either that there are faults in the methodology, or that Iraqis don’t know what they’re talking about. While I’ve no doubt that some Iraqis might exaggerate a little, or calibrate their answers out of fear of who might be listening, I suspect it’s more the former problem.

That the poll appears to have been undertaken with a particular outcome in mind calls its findings into question for a start. And I could be wrong, but I very much doubt that the polling was carried out by a team of crack Swedish civil servants. We’re always hearing how Iraq’s middle classes have fled the country, so unless the Mesopotamian branch of Mori decided to stay and tough it out, I suspect that responsibility for gathering the data was farmed out at a local level to Iraqis with little experience of polling, and who may well have harboured their own prejudices and agendas.

ABC and the BBC would have us believe that the electricity’s off, the water isn’t running and death lurks on every corner, yet their representatives are able to carry out a poll with the statistical exactitude of the Nielsen ratings.

I’m not disputing for a second that life is very bad for an awful lot of Iraqis. But it’s slowly getting better, and will continue to do so if the US maintains its present course. And fortunately, neither President Bush nor General Petraeus is going to be deflected from that course by 'revelations' that are mischievously timed, politically inspired and not particularly convincing.


Anonymous said...

Did they tell you that their pollster was Jamil Hussein?

Didn't think so.

NoolaBeulah said...

I think you're entirely right about the poll. It will be so, so hard for the BBC to admit to any real success in Iraq. That would elevate the US to Number 1 Threat to World Peace (from their current position of Number ... One) because it would demonstrate the American ability to put down an insurgency. Since Vietnam, the paradigm has been something along the lines of 'the people united will never be defeated', however you define 'people'. For the BBC and their like, multilateral hand-wringing and UN hypocrisy would be severely undermined by a US success.

Mind you, the situation in Iraq will long be capable of many readings, and it's doubtful that it'll be a place that any of us would want to live in for a long time to come. So even if security and essential services are established, they'll be able to say, 'You call this democracy?'