The Missing Context in Media Reporting on Iraq
The US mainstream media are failing to provide the public the context it needs to accurately understand both the successes of our progress in Iraq. They do this either purposely or through incompetence and/or lack of intellect. I know many members of the media, and none of them lack intellect or are incompetent.
I came to this harsh conclusion after studying the ongoing Brookings Institution Report titled “IRAQ INDEX Tracking Reconstruction and Security in Post-Saddam Iraq” for several months. The Brookings Institution is a left-of-center think tank, led by Bill Clinton’s close friend Strobe Talbott. But its information in the Iraq Index is generally accurate and reliable. The information mainly comes from the US Military and other US governmental agencies’ official statistics. It is updated at least weekly to provide in one place the most up to date information on the war that I have been able to find. Two small examples will suffice to show how neglect of context creates a misleading public impression.
The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) includes military, police, special police, Iraqi National Guard, and border police. From early-2005 to mid-2006 the hot topic for marking progress in the war was how many ISF were being trained and employed. However, in mid-2006 this media reporting trend almost wholly dried up, and the biggest critic of ISF training progress in Congress, Senator Biden, stopped beating the drum. Why? Look at the data on page 32 of the Index.
In July-August 2006, the number of deployed ISF jumped from 269,600 up to 298,000. The previous months had experienced much smaller growth, but July/August 2006 experienced a 10.6% jump in ISF. The numbers jumped again in September by almost 10,000 to 307,800. October rose 4000, and November rose almost 11,000. In essence, the critics of the war lost their talking point, and shifted instead toward troop withdrawal as the idea to be pushed.
There is more ISF good news.
For almost 3 years we have heard the critics of the war talk about the high ISF deaths. The information is just raw data; close analysis of the average numbers killed month to month as a percentage of total ISF force strength shows a consistent downward trend. Up to January 2005, records of the number of ISF killed to total force strength are hard to find because of the lack of accurate numbers killed month to month. But, since January 2005 the ratios are clear. In January 2005, 0.86 died per 1000 ISF. In June and July 2005 the ratio jumped to 1.75 per 1000 ISF, a high water mark for ISF deaths. However, from July 2005 until January 2007, the ratio of ISF killed per 1000 has steadily dropped to a low of 0.28 killed per 1000 ISF. There is a current up-trend from that 0.28/1000 ratio to 0. 9/1000 in April 2007. The average from January 2005 to April 2007 is 0.79 killed per 1000 ISF.
To put the ISF deaths into a clearer perspective The FBI reported that in 2005, 67 police officers were killed by accident while on duty and 55 by hostile acts in 2005, for a total of 132 police officers out of 673,146 law enforcement officers in the United States in 2005. After dividing 132 officers killed by 12 months (to make the comparison on the same basis), 0.016 police officers died in America per month per 1000 police in 2005. Granted 0.79 ISF killed compared to 0.016 US police officers killed is a wide margin; it is roughly 50 times more dangerous to be serving in the ISF than in an average American police department, including all the rural and suburban areas with comparatively low police casualties. This is an honest, fair comparison that you will not see from the media in their war reporting. Further, the downward trend of the ratio puts the situation in Iraq in a whole new light. The overall trend is good news.
Electrical development, production, and distribution
On this subject I have a little inside information because of my service as the US Liaison to the Musiab Power Station in Iraq in 2004. The background of the power situation in Iraq must be discussed to understand the analysis.
Critics of Iraqi reconstruction like to point to the lack of sufficient power supply in Iraq as a failing of reconstruction. But it is not a simple matter of just megawatts produced post-Saddam compared to before the régime changed. Hang with me, it will be worth it.
Before 2003, one of Saddam’s mechanisms for controlling the government and population was the power supply. While the power grid in Baghdad may have appeared to be distributed fairly, this was not the case. Almost every day in May 2003, patrols in Baghdad would find several people dead, lying under power transformers. These hapless souls died attempting to hook insufficient high gauge wire directly into the transformers, and from there into their homes. Driving through the neighborhoods one could see literally thousands of these types of wires hung over the roads, going into homes. Critics of the war would have us believe that everyone in Baghdad had power, 24 hours a day in the pre-war days. This was not the case. While Iraq had the capacity to power all of Baghdad, Saddam did not allow this. Saddam gave power only to those loyal to him.
There is no clear evidence to show how many people of the 6+ million in Baghdad had power, but from my experience I estimate that less than 1 million people had power in their homes. Of course this doesn’t include government buildings and industry.
Another dirty little secret is that in Iraq the Sunnis had the electrical power, but the rest of the country, in the Kurdish north and the Shiite south, had very little electricity at all. Iraqi Ministry of Power officials told me that outside of Baghdad, electricity was scarce in pre-war Iraq. This was due to Saddam’s control measures and lack of capacity to produce or distribute power to the countryside. Before the war, Iraq had less than 50% of the needed capacity.
The 6 million people in Baghdad received 63% of the power. That means that out of 25 million people in Iraq 24% of the population got 63% of the power, even though Saddam did not allow all 6 million people in Baghdad to have power. Adjusted to my estimate that only a million or so favored residences received reliable power, the percentage changes to 4% of the population consuming 63% of the power. The 19 million Iraqis living outside Baghdad shared only 37% of the power capacity.
Capacity is a misleading benchmark. A country may have the capacity, but what they actually produce is the true indicator of welfare. Actual distribution of power is the real benchmark. While capacity pre-war was 3958 megawatts (Page 37), this was the case only if the power plants operated at 100%. No power plant operates at 100% anywhere, due to required maintenance. At any one time only 50% of the power capacity is being generated and distributed. Given those facts, pre-war Iraq only produced about 2400 megawatts of power at any one time. This less than half of what it needed pre-war or what is now needed.
How much power does Iraq need? 1 Megawatt is sufficient to power 400 homes in a developing country like Iraq. If we assume that each household has 10 people (which is very high) that means that there are at least 2.5 million households in Iraq. So Iraq needs to produce 6250 megawatts of power, 24/7 for just residential use. Factor in government and industry one could easily increase that estimate by 25%, for a total need of 7812 megawatts.
Pre-war Iraq had 4 large power plants. Each plant could produce 1200 megawatts of power at 100%. That is a pre-war capacity total of 4800 megawatts at 100%. Operating at 50% of that number, the output is reduced to 2400 megawatts. So at the time of the war, Iraq could only reliably distribute 30% of the total needed power. That 30% number is very close to the percentage of the Sunni minority in Iraq. Once one adds in the government and industrial needs, it is easy to see why the Kurds and the southern Shiites got very little power. I don’t think that is a coincidence.
How do I know these numbers? I saw the records. The records showed that the power plant at Musiab only produced an average of 550 megawatts of power per day in any given month. If all four major power plants in Iraq averaged the same numbers, then the output in pre-war Iraq was only 2200 megawatts distributed.
The Coalition goal is to get generated distributed power to 6000 megawatts (MW) by July 2007. That is well short of the estimated need of 7812 megawatts but still far closer than the 2400 megawatts that Saddam produced pre-war. Currently, Iraq distributes 4000 MW. When compared to the 2400 MW that Saddam distributed, that is a 67% increase in distribution, in less than 5 years.
A 67% increase in power distribution is impressive by any measure. While it is still 2000 MW short of the intended goal of 6000 MW it is still an impressive feat. Yet, oddly this progress is not reported on. In fact, the numbers do not seem to be analyzed by the media at all. Is this a simple oversight or a deliberate misleading by the media and war critics?
These are two examples our many of how the available information is not analyzed and reported. There are many more. Things like water treatment, sewer, potable water, schools, free press, communications, bridges, economy, and farming are some of the other good news progress that is not reported. There are certainly some other examples that would show disappointing trends or lack of progress, but the media has been doing a good job of reporting on those negative aspects. I just thought that since the media was only doing half of the fair and accurate part I would pick up their slack in a very small way to show that there is significant, unreported good news.
The Military’s and Government’s responsibilities
If the media are not going to fairly and accurately report the news coming out of Iraq, then the military and government have to step up to the plate somehow. But because the media controls most of our information outlets, it is difficult. Conservative talk radio, satellite TV, and the Internet are three ways to bypass the media. War blogs and conservative news sites can go a long way in getting the good new out. The Pentagon has a news channel, called The Pentagon Channel. In theory, satellite and cable providers could carry it, though of course critics would cry foul.
Yet the military has decided to crackdown on the very war blogs that get good information to the public. While operational security is the #1 priority in our information operations, the military needs to ensure that good news continues to flow through outlets that are supportive of our war rather then squelching them with, what may be, well-intentioned, but very damaging limits on accurate information flowing to the public. Commanders need to ensure that they maintain operational security while not inhibiting the critical information that war bloggers send out, getting real information about the war to the public.
Lastly, whenever the President campaigns to gain support for the war and explains the facts to the public, support for the war goes up. He should do much more of this. I am not talking about one or two speeches, I am talking about three and four week campaigns, with speeches made several times a day, across the whole country. A campaign that is as well thought-out, and as vigorously executed as any political campaign for elected office.
Our men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan are putting in 18-hour days, seven days a week, for 15 months. No vacations, no holidays, no weekends off. I think that the President owes them his full effort in doing his part to proclaim the real progress that is being achieved. Vague statements of progress are not sufficient. An information campaign is what is needed. It is time to cowboy up.
Accurate, meaningful information that spans the full spectrum of subjects, including good news as well as bad, is critical to the American people getting a true picture of the war. If the information is slanted too far one way as it is now, the consequence will not just be defeat of the US, but could lead to mass murder and instability throughout the Middle East, Africa and the world at large. That does not mean that it will happen, but an American defeat would have a chilling effect on our allies and embolden our enemies.
The flip side of that argument is that only good news reporting will inevitably lead to laziness and complacency that would cause America to not see the mistakes that have been made in the war; and so, not pursue any correction for the mistakes.
It is a balance that will not be reached via unbiased reporting. It is reached by the left and right pulling against each other to reach equilibrium. The moderates accomplish nothing; they sit and watch. We need the left to motivate the right to make progress as much as the left needs us to motivate them in the same way. The problem lies not with the media’s left of center standing. The problem lies with the lack of effort on the part of the right of center people to counter the left. This is how balance is found. The right needs to cowboy up and counter the media.
Gerd Schroeder is a Major in the US Army. He has served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He does not speak for the US Army or the Department of Defense.