Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Marginal anti-utility of scandal

Steve Benen at the Carpetbagger Report is passing along the latest news on Blackwater in Iraq, and it is not pretty:

“This is a nightmare,” said a senior U.S. military official. “We had guys who saw the aftermath, and it was very bad. This is going to hurt us badly. It may be worse than Abu Ghraib, and it comes at a time when we’re trying to have an impact for the long term.”
At this point, the State Department seems to be treating Blackwater contractors as the agency’s own private army, accountable to no one outside the department. The Maliki government believes Blackwater is a criminal enterprise, the Iraqi people resent Blackwater’s presence, the Pentagon believes Blackwater is lying about the Sept. 16 incident in Nisoor Square, and congressional Democrats have questions about what has transpired — which the State Department refuses to answer.

This is a debacle so severe and humiliating, only the Bush administration could pull it off.
I really don't know if this could be any worse than Abu Ghraib in Iraqi public perception terms as the marginal dis-utility of scandal, humiliation, and torture is real. Abu Ghraib was the first bright shining light of American recognized non-angelic nature of war that Iraqi civilians had been aware of for the previous year. The mistreatment of detainees was a catalyzing event that Iraqis knew about way before Seymour Hersh reported on the photographs. It served to discredit American public diplomacy and credibility. It moved many marginal supporters and indifferents to anti-American positions for varied reasons.

Fast forward four more years, and opinions have hardened in a continuous downward sloping trending. Decent stories and localized successes by American forces are discounted by prevalent local attitudes. Tacit and formal cooperation between insurgent groups and US forces has not reversed this trend as the insurgent groups and their civilian supporters believe that they have accomplished their primary objective and can play divide and conquer against a local nuisance (foreign jihadis) with a rich and ignorant supporter.

Any new information will be assimilated and orientated within this thought environment. Positive news will be severely discounted against past history, and negative news such as the alleged Blackwater massacre will also be discounted as 'business as usual.' Many lefty bloggers have complained about Bush Administration scandal fatigue as yet another round of lawlessness gets reported and ignored, and I suspect the same dynamic occurs in Iraq. The information and perception filters have already been set and only shocking news will jigger these filters. Mercenaries shooting up a block is no longer shocking new information in Iraq.

Update By Cernig
First, my apologies to Fester for hi-jacking his post somewhat, but I've been meaning to mention this all day and it seemed better to put it all in one place rather than two.

The folks at TPM have really been on top of the Blackwater story as it develops, and Josh Marshall is promising to keep devoting considerable TPM attention to the matter.
As Spencer has been reporting and David further explains, the Department of State is telling Blackwater the company may not answer Congress's question without the specific approval of the State Department. What's more, Condi Rice has told Chairman Waxman (who plans an investigation of the incident) that she will not testify about Blackwater or contracting corruption cases in general.
Now, I see that SecDef Gates has ordered a team of investigators to Iraq to examine ways in which the pentagon can exercise more oversight of private contractors. His deputy has also written a memo reminding military commanders in Iraq that they already have authority to ensure that private contractors comply with Pentagon rules. The memo tells the commanders that they have the authority to ensure that all security contractors are authorized and trained to carry weapons and that none has unauthorized weapons or ammunition. Sounds to me like a turf war is brewing inside the administration, with Gates, being Bush Senior's man, not caring much if Junior's fundraising friend is inconvenienced while Rice backs her work-husband.

Steve Soto writes that "these troubles undermine Bush Administration efforts to sell the Iraqis on a long-term presence for American troops," and continues:
The fears of CENTCOM are being realized. Yesterday, in a little-noticed story, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said he now doesn’t foresee a long term presence for American troops in Iraq, saying that parliament would have to approve such an agreement at a time when al-Maliki is now saying that civil war has been averted and that the Bush Administration is overstating Iranian influence. Today, the same Iraqi parliament that has been deadlocked on reconciliation efforts found the consensus to draft a new law that would eliminate the immunity Paul Bremer granted private security companies like Blackwater. And now it appears that State is no longer going to be shielding Blackwater from congressional inquiries, after al-Maliki met with Bush yesterday at the UN and probably indicated that the Iraqis will not be backing down on this.

Although the Iraqis are not asking for an immediate American pullout, they are clearly signaling that over the next 12-24 months they expect us to withdraw, don’t want a long-term presence for American troops, and have cast their lot with Iran and other regional neighbors.
Steve believes that Blackwater may just have sunk Dubya's notion of an extended Korea-like presence in Iraq. Maybe.

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