NYT: Iraq Middle Class 'Stalked by Death,' Initiating 'Exodus'

May 19th, 2006 8:52 AM

Update: More on this piece by Clay Walters at Timeswatch.

Sabrina Tavernise, in today’s NYT, tries her very hardest to cast the future of Iraq as all but lost, with constant killing so stifling that people can’t breathe, think or walk outside, the elected government lumbering on as an abject and completely hopeless failure and the country as teetering on the brink of an explosive and uncontrollable civil war.

Forgive the lengthy analysis and balance provided here, but it is essential to make salient, supported points when reporting on the war – not just to quote near-hysterical accounts of an admittedly unfortunate group of people living in a bad area of the country. The purpose of this post is to try to add some additional context to the original article, which was sorely lacking.

This “Iraq is lost” meme has all been heard and tried before, and it doesn’t appear that Tavernise wants to offer any evidence to the contrary. While nobody is denying that there are difficulties in the formation of any new system of government, it is important to provide context and rational analysis when covering the war. The NYT makes no effort to do so. Let’s begin.

Here’s the header:

As Death Stalks Iraq, Middle-Class Exodus Begins

Taken as an article of fallacious faith by anti-war activists, death never stalked the citizens of Iraq under Saddam Hussein. This is of course patently absurd, but reading lines like the following, you’d get the impression that things have all gone to hell in a hand basket:

Since the bombing of a shrine in Samarra in February touched off a sectarian rampage, crime and killing have spread further through Iraqi society, paralyzing neighborhoods and smashing families.

Further? Explain what you mean by that, since the war has been violent and difficult form the start, with nobody thinking or pretending otherwise. We’re not holding our breaths. It seems that the crux of the argument for the piece can be found here (with the fluff extracted):

In the last 10 months, the state has issued new passports to 1.85 million Iraqis, 7 percent of the population and a quarter of the country's estimated middle class[…]Since 2004, the Ministry of Education has issued 39,554 letters permitting parents to take their children's academic records abroad.

That’s it? That’s the evidence that the entire middle class of Iraq is “doing everything they can” to leave Iraq? Did the NYT attempt to get another perspective? That’s an impenetrable case, for sure. Except, of course, when one adds context to the analysis. Try the Brookings Institutes 2006 Iraq report (p. 46) to get one of many indications of what Iraqis are thinking and hoping for. Also, make sure to note the trends and totality violence levels, attacks, deaths, and other hard data. For example, on p. 10, we see a downward trend of Iraqi civilian deaths since the end of last year. The NYT doesn’t feel this is relevant to the story. If that is not enough, also, try pages 11, 13, 14, 17, 21, 22 and 27. Although the numbers aren’t “wonderful" or "pretty to look at," there are in fact noticeable trends of decreasing violence and increased stability. Coupled with economic factors like the increased relevance of the Iraqi dinar, this report paints a different picture from the one Tavernise is trying to paint, and the Brookings Report simply does it with data.

In addition, Tavernise doesn’t note the influx of residents and religious pilgrims back in to the country. From Instapundit this morning, via Commentary Magazine:

A second dependable sign likewise concerns human movement, but of a different kind. This is the flow of religious pilgrims to the Shiite shrines in Karbala and Najaf. Whenever things start to go badly in Iraq, this stream is reduced to a trickle and then it dries up completely. From 1991 (when Saddam Hussein massacred Shiites involved in a revolt against him) to 2003, there were scarcely any pilgrims to these cities. Since Saddams fall, they have been flooded with visitors. In 2005, 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.

Over 3,000 Iraqi clerics have also returned from exile, and Shiite seminaries, which just a few years ago held no more than a few dozen pupils, now boast over 15,000 from 40 different countries. This is because Najaf, the oldest center of Shiite scholarship, is once again able to offer an alternative to Qom, the Iranian holy city where a radical and highly politicized version of Shiism is taught. Those wishing to pursue the study of more traditional and quietist forms of Shiism now go to Iraq where, unlike in Iran, the seminaries are not controlled by the government and its secret police.

Wow. That puts the NYT hysterics into a little more of a realistic context, wouldn’t you say? Just because there have been a number of middle-class citizens in bad areas leaving (many times temporarily, as the article concedes) doesn’t mean that there is an “exodus” of an entire economic category of Iraq’s population.

Here’s more NYT spin:

The impact can be seen in neighborhoods here. While much of the city bustles during daytime hours, the more war-torn areas, like in the south and in Ameriya, Ghazaliya, and Khadra in the west, are eerily empty at midday.

So the NYT is consciously (subjectively) focusing on the war torn areas and not the bustling areas. That’s an editorial choice, and they choose not to cover the “bustling city” angle. Why does that not surprise anyone?

More hopelessness in the journalist’s writing (not the Iraqis’ words):

It is more than just the killing that has sapped hope for the future. Iraqis have waited for five months for a permanent government, after voting in a national election in December, and though political leaders are on the brink of announcing it, some Iraqis say the amount of haggling it took to form it makes them skeptical that it will be able to solve bigger problems.

Again, hope for the future is “sapped,” presumably because some of Iraq’s better off citizens are seeking higher ground until the fighting in or near their living areas subsides. I also wonder how much haggling it took to found the democracy in which Mrs. Tavernise resides. Vigorous debate and opposition, we are often told, is the hallmark of a thriving democracy. Why is it not portrayed as such here?

And on another unrelated note, isn’t the above quote an instance of the “some people say” trick that “Outfoxed” tries to pin on FOX NEWS as evidence of bias? Which Iraqis say these things? The same ones interviewed for the article?

So the sum total of what is written in the story (as I read it) is as follows: The Iraq middle class, seemingly undeterred in the past, has decided in recent months to leave Iraq because of the imminent danger to their interests. This is further proof that Iraq is a failure, a mistake and that the middle class was better off under Saddam than at any time in the nation’s history. I will leave you with parting thoughts from Amir Taheri, an Iraq observer who has been following the country for decades:

Since my first encounter with Iraq almost 40 years ago, I have relied on several broad measures of social and economic health to assess the country’s condition. Through good times and bad, these signs have proved remarkably accurate as accurate, that is, as is possible in human affairs. For some time now, all have been pointing in an unequivocally positive direction.

The first sign is refugees. When things have been truly desperate in Iraq in 1959, 1969, 1971, 1973, 1980, 1988, and 1990long queues of Iraqis have formed at the Turkish and Iranian frontiers, hoping to escape. In 1973, for example, when Saddam Hussein decided to expel all those whose ancestors had not been Ottoman citizens before Iraq’s creation as a state, some 1.2 million Iraqis left their homes in the space of just six weeks. This was not the temporary exile of a small group of middle-class professionals and intellectuals, which is a common enough phenomenon in most Arab countries. Rather, it was a departure en masse, affecting people both in small villages and in big cities, and it was a scene regularly repeated under Saddam Hussein.

Since the toppling of Saddam in 2003, 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.


A big thanks to Instapundit for the link to Amir Taheri, which by mere chance complimented today’s NYT piece rather nicely.