Thursday, March 4, 2010

Despite persistent violence and a critical election coming up, President Obama hardly ever mentions the war in Iraq - where more 110,000 U.S. troops remain - and leading American news outlets have drastically scaled back coverage of the conflict, moving on to domestic issues such as health care and the troubled economy.

In 2009, 149 American troops died in battle in Iraq - a higher loss rate than all but two of the 10 years U.S. forces have been in Afghanistan. But in 2010, Mr. Obama has mentioned the Iraq war just three times during formal speeches - twice in a single sentence during back-to-back events in early February for the Democratic National Committee and once in his Jan. 27 State of the Union address.

“We have begun to leave Iraq to its own people,” he said in his only line about the war during remarks at the Democratic National Committee meeting on Feb. 6.

The tenuous situation still facing U.S. forces in Iraq was underscored again Wednesday, when a string of suicide bomb attacks struck in quick succession in a former insurgent stronghold northeast of Baghdad, killing 32 people just days before a crucial election that will determine who will govern the country as American forces prepare to depart.

17 killed in Iraq as blasts target voters

Mr. Obama has met privately at the White House with the leader of Iraq’s Kurdistan region and with U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Christopher Hill and U.S. military commander in Iraq Gen. Raymond T. Odierno since the beginning of the year, but on neither occasion did the president make any public remarks.

The White House press corps hasn’t asked Mr. Obama about the Iraq war in months. The president was last asked about the conflict on Dec. 7, during an Oval Office press availability with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. But the question came from a Turkish reporter - after an Associated Press reporter asked about the economy.

In fact, the last time a White House reporter asked about the Iraq war was June 26, when National Public Radio’s Don Gonyea asked an Iraq-related question during a joint news conference of Mr. Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, according to records kept by CBS Radio reporter Mark Knoller.

White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. has taken the “point” on Iraq.

“The president is very closely monitoring ongoing efforts, both military and political, in Iraq. So much so that he asked Vice President Biden to run point on the issue. … I’d encourage you to e-mail the vice president’s team, as they can provide you a pretty fulsome accounting of our efforts,” Mr. Vietor said.

Meanwhile, the three main broadcast networks - ABC, NBC and CBS - have moved on to other topics as well.

In 2008, the Iraq war was the seventh most heavily covered story, with the three networks devoting 288 minutes to reports about the war, according to the Tyndall Report, which monitors the weekday nightly newscasts of the networks. In 2009, the Iraq war dropped off the top 10 list, with just 80 minutes of coverage.

The New York Times wrote 374 “substantial” stories on Iraq in 2008 (meaning the word “Iraq” appears at least 10 times in article), according to the Nexis database. In 2009, that dropped to 208. The same went for The Washington Post - 422 “substantial” stories on Iraq in 2008; 169 in 2009, after Mr. Obama had taken office.

The reason for the dramatic downturn is simple, said John Pike, an analyst on defense and intelligence policy and director of

“Of course [President Obama] is not going to mention it. What’s he going to say? There’s not much political incentive for Mr. Obama to talk about it. They may be starting a big drawdown after the [Iraqi] elections, but Lord, here we are a year and change after the inauguration and the troop levels today are about the same as they’ve been off and on for the last six years,” Mr. Pike said.

What’s more, he said, Mr. Obama and many congressional Democrats opposed the “surge” of combat troops into Iraq ordered by President George W. Bush, which most military analysts now say dramatically improved the military situation on the ground in Iraq.

“[Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid had declared the war lost three years ago,” Mr. Pike said. “It’s all about politics.”

Mr. Obama, both as a senator and a presidential candidate, was a vocal opponent of Mr. Bush’s surge, which put more than 20,000 combat troops into Iraq as part of a counterinsurgency strategy.

In January 2007, the night the surge was announced, Mr. Obama declared, “I am not persuaded that 20,000 additional troops in Iraq are going to solve the sectarian violence there. In fact, I think it will do the reverse.” A week later, he insisted that the surge strategy would “not prove to be one that changes the dynamics significantly.”

Even in July, after the surge clearly appeared to be working, Mr. Obama said, “My assessment is that the surge has not worked.”

Mr. Obama has enacted his own surge into Afghanistan, which he has long argued is the real front of the war on terrorism. The number of U.S. troops killed there more than doubled in 2009, from 155 in 2008 to 316 last year. Meanwhile, deaths in Iraq were cut in half, from 314 in 2008 to 149 last year.

Mr. Pike said the news media have changed course because “American casualties [are] tapering off to nothing; not nothing, but next to nothing.”

“The news media’s only got a finite amount of bandwidth to cover this stuff. They can only do one major regional contingency at a time, and that one’s currently Afghanistan,” he said. “There also might be a finite appetite for news about it among the American public.”

Iraq likely will burst back into the news Sunday, when the nation elects the 325 members of the Council of Representatives of Iraq, which will then choose the prime minister and president. After that, the military will begin withdrawing to meet Mr. Obama’s deadline of having all U.S. combat troops out of Iraq by the end of August.

“Around early May, if the country is on stable footing, I will begin moving troops out of Iraq,” Gen. Odierno said.

“We have it well planned out. They have excess equipment that is leaving now ahead of time. It’s four months, and what we really plan on doing is 12,500 troops a month, and that should see us through,” he said in an e-mail to The Washington Times.

As for the long gap between Iraq questions from the White House press corps, Mr. Vietor said, “As you know, the questions the president gets from the press are determined by you guys and not us.”

Mr. Pike had another theory.

“Beat reporters are dependent on the good will of whoever they’re covering. If they develop a reputation of not being helpful, for asking inconvenient questions and not being part of the solution, there’s a tendency for them not getting their phone calls returned,” he said.

Researcher John Haydon contributed to this report.

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