NYT: Tavernise Shocked By Good Indicators in Iraq

Imagine this. Indicators that life in Iraq is improving are news to Sabrina Tavernise.

In fact, I submit that the only reason stories like this one are framed in such a way is because the author has to start with a premise. The premise, of course, is that Iraq is Vietnam, Iraq is a lost cause, and anything contrary to this is “news.”

In today’s NYT, Tavernise engages in more “there is one small ray of hope” reporting that she engaged in last month with her reporting on the influx of Iraqis back into their country.  She must have missed this. There are also many indicators in the mixed Brookings Report from June 22  that support the positive revelations in today's piece. Once you get through the "but, but, but...," that is. 

That said, there are a number of rhetorical misstatements and misleading textual turnabouts that seep into the news writing here in order to give the reader a bleak assessment of ground conditions while portraying the good news as the most tenuous and fragile commodity in the country. Here’s the lede:

Enrollment in Iraqi schools has risen every year since the American invasion, according to Iraqi government figures, reversing more than a decade of declines and offering evidence of increased prosperity for some Iraqis.

Tavernise lets the mask slip here – a negative trend (by far not the only one) that began under Saddam is being reversed post-invasion. Now comes the “context:”

Despite the violence that has plagued Iraq since the American occupation began three years ago, its schools have been quietly filling. The number of children enrolled in schools nationwide rose by 7.4 percent from 2002 to 2005, and in middle schools and high schools by 27 percent in that time, according to figures from the Ministry of Education.

The increase, which has greatly outpaced modest population growth during the same period, is a bright spot in an otherwise gloomy landscape of bombs and killings that have shattered community life in many areas in western and central Iraq.

(Reported later in the article): “…Iraq's population grew by about 8 percent to 26 million from 2002 to 2005.”

So here we see that not only has school enrollment increased (a quality of life indicator), but also that the population has been increasing. This runs contrary to the conventional “Iraq is an unsalvageable quagmire where the people are fleeing in droves” sub-narrative that has more or less been wrapped up in the litany or complaints presented in the general anti-war narrative.

Another interesting passage is here, when Tavernise attempts to  illuminate the complex phenomenon of people fleeing terrorist violence in Baghdad for safer outskirts.

Increases in some places, for example, are being driven by bad news: among the highest increases in secondary and high school enrollment were in provinces that have received families who are fleeing the violence of Baghdad and its dangerous outskirts, including Babylon, with a 44 percent enrollment rise; Najaf, with 35 percent; and Kirkuk, 37 percent.

To this humble observer, this would perhaps be comparable to the phenomenon observed in the United States in which parents refuse to send their children to inner city schools where violence, incompetence and corruption run rampant. Maybe the Iraqi families in the Baghdad schools would favor a voucher system.

And now, here comes the bomb:

“…the growth is too broad to be explained only by migration patterns…Economics is driving much of the rise, officials say. Public sector employees, who make up almost half the work force in Iraq, according to the Ministry of Planning, used to collect the equivalent of several dollars every month under Mr. Hussein. But since the American invasion, Iraq's oil revenue has been earmarked for salaries instead of wars, and millions of Iraqis — doctors, engineers, teachers, soldiers — began to earn several hundred dollars a month.

I can’t be sure, but I’m pretty sure this is a marked improvement for a great many people from life under the Hussein regime. It is also a different picture of the quality of life in Iraq so often portrayed by world press outlets.  It is comforting news that the Iraqi economy, despite unfounded fears of collapse and disaster, continues to hold steady, with slowly emerging signs of improvement and stability being shown each month.

And as if to inadvertently throw more cold water on the “Blood for Oil” meme, there are two passages in the article that basically render that slogan no longer viable (one I cited above):

But since the American invasion, Iraq's oil revenue has been earmarked for salaries instead of wars, and millions of Iraqis — doctors, engineers, teachers, soldiers — began to earn several hundred dollars a month.

And this one:

Income from oil covers more than 90 percent of the Iraqi government's spending, officials say. American money finances investment and reconstruction projects, but no current costs, like salaries.

So. The blood is not for oil The blood is for a democratic Iraq in an area of the world that is screaming for the advent of democratic government.  It appears, from this reporting, that the country is improving on several important fronts (economy, schooling, population influx, increased Iraqi security forces, etc.). Of course this is not news to those who have been paying close attention to the war effort for the past three years, but seeing it printed in the Grey Lady no doubt is cause for concern among some individuals and groups who have staked reputations on the presumption of United States duplicity.

At risk of making this NB item even longer, it is also worth highlighting how Tavernise characterizes Iraq’s recent educational history:

Iraq was one of the most educated countries in the Middle East in the 1970's. Many Iraqis traveled abroad to study or took part in state-sponsored exchange programs. Literacy rates were relatively high.

But enrollment began to fall significantly in the 1980's, toward the end of the Iran-Iraq war, and only worsened during the period of international economic penalties that were imposed after Mr. Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990.

It is interesting that international sanctions are mentioned as a primary cause of declining school enrollment (no evidence is presented to back this up), rather than to look at the nature and actions of the brutal dictatorship that had the country under its iron boot for those decades. According to Tavernise, the sanctions were to blame – not the tightening grip Saddam in which Saddam held his people captive. Here’s more - See if you can figure out what’s missing:

Much of the decline in the education system that happened in the last years of Mr. Hussein's government came as a result of an economic downturn during the era of international penalties on Iraq.  As the country grew poorer in the 1990's, the numbers of working children went up. More than 10 percent of Iraqi children from 5 to 14 years old were working in 2000, according to the ministry report. As a result, Iraqis are less literate than they were 20 years ago, after literacy campaigns had increased rates substantially.

Did you find it? Four words – Oil-for-Food scandal. Instead of spending billions in oil revenue on his ailing population and lagging schools, he decided to construct a series of opulent palaces for himself and his cronies across the country.  Saddam was never at a loss for cash, and the international sanctions places by the UN on Hussein did not matter. He had plenty of money, and chose not to invest it in Iraq. For the NYT, the Oil-For-Food scandal (the largest scandal in UN history) is nary worth a breath when blaming “sanctions” for Saddam’s murderous and irresponsible behavior. While I am not suggesting that ill-gotten money should be used for anything, it would have been a hare more accurate for the NYT to at least note that Saddam had the ability to pay for better schools, but chose not to.

There are rays of hope sprinkled throughout this piece, all couched in lingering negativity. Since NYT reporting on this war bears little semblance to reality, it may be safe to assume (given all of the positive news revealed accidentally in this article) that you can read the NYT doom-and-gloom pieces and assume that precisely the opposite is actually happening on the ground.