Green Zone Blinders
By Jonathan Finer
Saturday, August 18, 2007; A13
Late last month the Brookings Institution's Kenneth Pollack and Michael O'Hanlon, just back from a quick trip to Baghdad, proclaimed in the New York Times that "we are finally getting somewhere in Iraq." In June, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, fresh from his latest whirlwind tour of the war zone, described in the Wall Street Journal a "dramatic reversal" in the security situation in restive Anbar province. As Washington anticipates a September report assessing the troop surge, there is good reason to be skeptical of such snapshot accounts.
A dizzying number of dignitaries have passed through Baghdad for high-level briefings. The Hill newspaper reported this month that 76 U.S. senators have traveled to Iraq during the war, 38 in the past 12 months. Most never left the Green Zone or other well-protected enclaves. Few, if any, changed the views they held before arriving.
Reporters based in Baghdad rarely pay much attention to these visits, often skipping the news conferences that conclude most visiting delegations' itineraries. Since leaving Iraq last year, I've been surprised by the impact these choreographed tours have had on domestic discourse about the war. First come opinion pieces full of bold pronouncements of "what I saw" at the front. Next, the recent returnees appear on late-night cable programs or the Sunday talk . Those with opposing views respond, and soon the echo chamber is drowning out whatever's really happening.
This practice ought to have been (finally) discredited by Sen. John McCain's trip to Baghdad in the spring, after which he all but declared that Freedom had marched alongside him as he strolled through a marketplace, chatting with shopkeepers. That McCain had been trailed by an armada of armored vehicles and Black Hawk helicopters was only later reported by "60 Minutes."
The most frustrating such visit during my time in Iraq was that of radio host Laura Ingraham, who rarely, if ever, spent a moment outside the protection of U.S. forces or a night outside a military base. While in Baghdad in February 2006, she wrote on her Web site that the training of the Iraqi army "continues apace" and that "you wouldn't know it by reading the New York Times, but IED attacks are actually down since December." After returning, she continued criticizing Baghdad-based journalists -- almost all of whom operate without military protection -- telling an NBC audience that "to do a show from Iraq means to talk to the Iraqi military, to go out with the Iraqi military, to actually have a conversation with the people instead of reporting from hotel balconies about the latest IEDs going off."
Opponents of the war are also guilty of using visits to gain credibility. On a trip soon after the 2004 election, Sen. John Kerry decried the "horrendous judgments" and "unbelievable blunders" made by President Bush. At a news conference I attended in Baghdad last summer, Sen. Russ Feingold, a longtime proponent of withdrawal, said that continued U.S. troop presence "may well be destabilizing." Little surprise that his travel companion, McCain, who attended the same briefings at the same bases, drew opposite conclusions.
Last month on "Meet the Press," Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, a supporter of the war, chided his Democratic colleague James Webb. "Have you been to Iraq?" asked Graham, who has visited seven times.
"I've been a member of the military when the senators come in," replied Webb, who has not visited Iraq but fought in Vietnam during a long military career. "You know, you go see the dog-and-pony shows."
That's probably overstating things. Those who visit Iraq undertake significant risks, which are inherent in traveling to Baghdad, no matter who's providing their security. Policymakers should be commended for refusing to blindly trust accounts from diplomats, soldiers or journalists. But it's worth remembering what these visits are and what they are not. Prescient insights rarely emerge from a few days in-country behind the blast walls.
Lieberman, who tirelessly campaigned to sustain the war effort, wrote in the Wall Street Journal in November 2005 that "I have just returned from my fourth trip to Iraq in 17 months and can report real progress there." Three months later -- about two weeks after Ingraham's optimistic observations -- came the bombing of a mosque in Samarra that ignited the grisliest sectarian violence of the war to that point.
The Brookings pair, self-described in their Times op-ed as "two analysts who have harshly criticized the Bush administration's miserable handling of Iraq," are also longtime backers of the invasion and the recent troop surge. Before the war Pollack wrote a book subtitled "The Case for Invading Iraq," and he has found fodder for hope on every visit.
It goes without saying that everyone can, and in this country should, have an opinion about the war, no matter how much time the person has spent in Iraq, if any. But having left a year ago, I've stopped pretending to those who ask that I have a keen sense of what it's like on the ground today. Similarly, those who pass quickly through the war zone should stop ascribing their epiphanies to what are largely ceremonial visits.
The writer was a Post correspondent in Baghdad from May 2005 to July 2006. He is currently covering the Balkans for The Post.