When Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced last week that a US air
strike had killed terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Iraqi reporters burst
into cheers. It was a heartwarming and to American eyes, unnatural show of
joy. Most American journalists would think it unseemly to cheer anything said at
a press conference, including the news that a sadistic mass murderer had finally
met his end.
Important and welcome as Zarqawi's assassination was, it didn't put a dent in
the quagmire-of-the-week mindset that depicts the war as a fiasco wrapped in a
scandal inside a failure. Typical of the prevailing pessimism was the glum Page
One headline in The Washington Post the morning after Maliki's announcement:
"After Zarqawi, No Clear Path In Weary Iraq."
Virtually from day one, the media have reported this war as a litany of gloom
and doom. Images of violence and destruction dominate the TV coverage. Analysts
endlessly second-guess every military and political decision. Allegations of
wrongdoing by US soldiers get far more play than tales of their heroism and
generosity. No wonder more than half of the public now believes that a war that
ended one of the most evil dictatorships of our time was a mistake.
Some of this defeatism was inevitable, given the journalistic predisposition for
bad news. ("If it bleeds, it leads.") And some of it was a function of the
newsroom's left-wing bias many journalists oppose the war and revile the Bush
administration, and their coverage often reflects that hostility.
But there have also been highly negative assessments of the war from observers
who can't be accused of habitual nay saying or Bush-bashing. In a dispiriting
piece that appeared on the day Zarqawi's death was announced, New York Times
columnist David Brooks wrote that "in Iraq at the moment . . . savagery seems to
be triumphing over decency." There may be no way to win this war without
becoming as monstrous and cruel as the terrorists, he suggested, which is why
"most Americans simply want to get away."
Another thoughtful commentator, The Washington Post's David Ignatius, had been
even more despairing one day earlier: "This is an Iraqi nightmare," he wrote,
"and America seems powerless to stop it."
But not everyone is so hopeless.
In the June issue of Commentary, veteran Middle East journalist Amir Taheri
describes "The Real Iraq" as a far more promising place than the horror show of
conventional media wisdom. Arriving in the United States after his latest tour
of Iraq, Taheri says, he was "confronted with an image of Iraq that is
unrecognizable" an image that "grossly . . . distorts the realities of
What are those realities? Drawing on nearly 40 years of observing Iraq
first-hand, Taheri points to several leading indicators that he says he has
always found reliable in gauging the country's true condition.
He begins with refugees. In the past, one could always tell that life in Iraq
was growing desperate by the long lines of Iraqis trying to escape over the
Iranian and Turkish borders. "Since the toppling of Saddam in 2003," Taheri
notes, "this is one highly damaging image we have not seen on our television
sets and we can be sure that we *would* be seeing it if it were there to be
shown." Instead of fleeing the "nightmare" that Iraq has supposedly become,
Iraqi refugees have been returning, more than 1.2 million of them as of last
A second indicator is the pilgrim traffic to the Shi'ite shrines in Karbala and
Najaf. Those pilgrimages all but dried up after Saddam bloodily crushed a
Shi'ite uprising in 1991, and they didn't resume until the arrival of the
Americans in 2003. "In 2005," writes Taheri, "the holy sites received an
estimated 12 million pilgrims, making them the most-visited spots in the entire
Muslim world, ahead of both Mecca and Medina."
A third sign: the value of the Iraqi dinar. All but worthless during Saddam's
final years, the dinar is today a safe and solid medium of exchange, and has
been rising in value against other currencies. Related indicators are
small-business activity, which is booming, and Iraqi agriculture, which has
experienced a revival so remarkable that Iraq now exports food to its neighbors
for the first time since the 1950s.
Finally, says Taheri, there is the willingness of Iraqis to speak their minds.
Iraqis are very verbal, and "when they fall silent, life is incontrovertibly
becoming hard for them." Such silence was not uncommon under Saddam, when many
Iraqis were afraid to express any political opinion. They aren't silent now. In
addition to talk radio, Internet blogs, and lively debates everywhere, "a vast
network of independent media has emerged in Iraq, including over 100 privately
owned newspapers and magazines and more than two dozen radio and television
stations." Nowhere in the Arab world is freedom of expression more robust.
As Congress engages in its own wide-ranging Iraq debate this week, Taheri's
essay is well worth reading. "Yes, the situation in Iraq today is messy," he
writes. "Births always are. Since when is that a reason to declare a baby
unworthy of life?"