Bureaucratic Gripe, Innuendo Does Not Add Up to an Exposé
Here we go again: the New York Times tries to sex-up an already interesting story to score political points on its front-page. It’s the same stunt they pulled a couple of months ago by publishing that gossipy story about Senator McCain, and today they try to give the same treatment to Iraq’s Defense Minister.
The story, written by Solomon Moore, makes its first mistake by sensationalizing the arms deal between Iraq and Serbia as a “secret” sale in its headline. How can something be kept “secret” if the Iraqi Ministry of Defense put out two press releases—with pictures—about the Defense Minister’s two visits to Serbia during September and November of last year; then the Defense Minister held a press conference on December 9 announcing specifics about the deal; then the ministry put out a third press release announcing the formal signature of the deal and its total sum (230 million dollars) on December 24?
All this was amply reported on by the Iraqi press, and some of this coverage found its way into the Arab press. I’m sure that the Serbian media also covered it in some detail.
But the NYTimes still maintains that it was all hush-hush and adds:
…it was negotiated by a delegation of 22 high-ranking Iraqi officials, without the knowledge of American commanders or many senior Iraqi leaders.It further adds that, according to “American military officials”, the “deal was signed in March”. Huh? But the Iraqi government announced it in December! I guess those American commanders are indeed clueless.
But here’s a double Huh: if the deal had been signed in March, then why was Moore able to ask the Iraqi Defense Minister about the deal during “an interview in February in his office”? Doesn’t Moore contradict his own timeline here?
The timing of this February interview is very revealing, for it tells us that the NYTimes has been working on this story for some time now, but had decided to sit on it. I think they did so because there wasn’t much of a story to tell: the NYTimes wanted to use the Serbian deal to paint the Iraqi government as corrupt and inept, and there wasn’t enough meat on this skeletal narrative. So what changed? Standards did, of course. The NYTimes reporting on Iraq can be best described as “anything goes” as of late, so a story heavy on innuendo and factually meager can still go to press if it serves the editorial policy of this paper in painting everything about Iraq in dark hues.
Innuendo? Take a look at all of these:
Those with knowledge of the Serbian arms deal said they knew of no specific crimes, but warned that with so little transparency and such poor oversight, problems were likely to emerge, as they did with the 2004 deal.The NYTimes itself tells us that there’s no evidence of corruption or wrongdoing, yet it reserves six whole paragraphs to insinuate that there may be something “inappropriate” anyway.
…Some critics, all of them high-ranking Iraqi and American military officials, made the more serious charge that senior Iraqi officials intentionally obstructed American-sponsored procurements because they feared the sales program would prevent them from siphoning off a share of the money. But they offered no independent corroboration.
“The defense minister is playing games,” said an official with Iraq’s Defense Ministry who spoke out because of his concern about corruption, but also spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. “He is stopping F.M.S.,” the official said. “Contracts just sat on his desk waiting for approval for six or seven months sometimes.”
American procurement experts were so mystified by some of the delays that they set up a new office to track procurements and found that many of the delays led straight back to Mr. Qadir’s desk. Mr. Qadir denied delaying contracts or making money from them.
…“It struck me as bizarre,” said a Western official with knowledge of the security ministries, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he did not want to be seen as criticizing people he was advising. “You can only explain it in two ways: a desire to avoid oversight and a desire to offer opportunities for graft and corruption.”
A high-ranking Iraqi government official who spoke on condition of anonymity, for fear of reprisals against him and others in his office, said, “We have no confidence in the Iraqi contracting process.”
I’ve expressed my qualms regarding how the current Defense Minister got appointed in contravention of constitutional constraints in order to placate Sunni politicians. But one thing I’ve come to know about him is that he is not a corrupt man but rather a civil servant trying to do his best under incredibly complex constraints during a time of war. He has earned my respect, but some make it their life’s work to cut down such men.
So the NYTimes spent months sniffing around this story and found nothing, however, they didn’t manage to do something as simple as a spell check with all this time that they had. Let’s get this straight once and for all: Iraq is not Afghanistan, so the Afghani cultural habit of using a first name does not apply to Iraqis. Calling the Iraqi Defense Minister by his first name “Abdul Qadir” as Moore does is simply improper. His name is Abdul Qadir Jasim al-Obeidi. And the fugitive ex-Defense Minister is not “Hazam Shalan”; it’s Hazim al-Shalan. And the current planning minister is not “Ali Glahil Baban”; it’s Ali Ghalib Baban.
It’s the little details such as these that tell how serious a reporter is. I mean, if a reporter messes up the basics, then it’s no wonder that such a reporter would miss the point of the story.
This could have been a great story had it been an expose of how some pencil-necked paper-pushers over at the Pentagon are hampering the procurement and distribution of weapons to the Iraqi military by pedantically conforming to the “protocols spanning hundreds of pages” that shape the Foreign Military Sales program, or FMS.
Two years ago, Iraq put up billions of dollars of its own money to buy U.S.-made weapons, but these weapons have yet to reach those Iraqi soldiers battling it out on the frontlines of the insurgency. That’s why al-Obeidi turned to other, more expedient sources for arms like Serbia.
The reason that this story failed to be great was that it was leaked and spun by those same DoD pencil-necked paper-pushers that were worried that their failings would be exposed. So they did what many in Washington and the Green Zone have turned into a literal blood sport: Operation Blame It on the Iraqis.
Clearly, this was a hatchet-job instigated by Joe Benkert, the Ass. Sec. who handles FMS, who is quoted in the article yet is not taken to task for his agency’s shortcomings. His “it’s not my fault” dodge was passed off to al-Obeidi, and the NYTimes is in season to beat-up on the Iraqi government.
Because when those clumsy Iraqis forgot to sign and initial Form 173b-Section 9i-Addentum C18K, well, I mean, after such a travesty, what greater evil can be let loose upon the world?
Apart from Benkert, it seems that all the other detractors, both American and Iraqi, were allowed to speak anonymously, even though what they were saying was unsubstantiated, by the paper’s own admission. So why quote them anyway, when this antipathy could very well be a case of bureaucratic gripe? Every organization can relate to scenes from The Office, and there’s bound to be pockets of discontent and acrimony that can be tapped to badmouth an embattled Iraqi minister such as al-Obeidi.
But there’s an interesting component to this anonymous gripe, since it’s innermost coterie seems to be the same group that tried to peddle innuendo against the ‘Iron Lady’ herself, Basima Loay Hassoun, Maliki’s military advisor, for although she goes unnamed, her office gets its share of the snipping.
The deal was also supported by Iraq’s Office of the Commander in Chief, a shadowy group of Shiite advisers to Mr. Maliki that American officials accused last year of leading a purge of Sunni Iraqi Army commanders who had cracked down on Shiite militia leaders.I’ve never met Basima Loay Hassoun, but I applaud her for making so many enemies. She seems to have metaphorically castrated many chauvinists in crew-cuts, whether Iraqi and American, and that in itself is pretty cool. She’s accused of being a Shia sectarian, yet the two protagonists in this arms deal, the defense and planning ministers, are both Sunni—and she stood-up for them, according to the narrative.
The same group, which rejected suggestions that it bring in Western advisers, has marginalized senior uniformed officers charged with procurement decisions and kept American officials in the dark about Iraqi financing of arms deals, according to high-ranking American officials familiar with its workings.
Oh, and that whole paragraph about canceling the contracts committee is plainly inaccurate and I don’t have the energy to get into the minutiae that would correct the information.
So there you have it, the New York Times rushes yet another sexed-up yet leaky story to its front-page and further damages the reputation of its Iraq reporting. It is simply ridiculous to claim in the piece’s opening paragraphs that anonymous American commanders had said that the Serbian equipment had “turned out to be either shoddy or inappropriate for the military’s mission” without fully fleshing out this accusation of ‘shoddiness’ later in the piece.
Not only was the arms deal not “secret”, not only was there no evidence of “corruption”, not only does it seem that al-Obeidi acted appropriately and with the backing of his government while the NYTimes’ sources over at the Pentagon had dropped the ball during a time of war, not only does the reporter fumble the spelling of names, not only does the reporter editorialize content with adjectives that are unsubstantiated, not only is there no mention of the political atmosphere in Baghdad where the Sunni politicians who first brought al-Obeidi to power turned against him when they found that he couldn’t be controlled, not only is there no elaboration of the tensions that have arisen between Iraq’s executive branch and infantilizing American bureaucrats who are bristling at their fading ability to unilaterally command the situation, not only of so many other things that could have given this story more context; the NYTimes chose to mutilate an interesting story that could have taught us all about the myriad challenges being faced in Iraq into a badly-conceived and hastily-conjectured smear.
It’s too bad that they would do such a thing, and that they would get away with it too. But even so, I think that they’ve overplayed their hand—rushing as it is to foil the Petraeus testimony—and this sort of narrative won’t hold up until November; there’s just too much time left to shoot holes in it as Iraq turns rosier, and no amount of darker hues in journalistic print would be enough to hide that radiance.