Not down the middle

For the last few days, publications from dailies to weeklies to really happening websites have been putting the final touches on news and views packages on the Iraq elections, to be held Sunday (though expatriate voting has already started). And here the issue of news judgment becomes interesting. Should editors bet on chaos -- go with ominous headlines and op-eds predicting embarrassment and defeat for the United States? Should they strike a contrarian posture -- run struggling-against-the-odds stories and predict that everything will come up aces? Or should they take the more predictable approach and play it down the middle -- indefinite stories and dueling op-eds?

My estimation, from my current resting spot with my big toe dipped in the currents of media-rich Washington, D.C., is that they'll take the easy and -- to my mind -- boring, balanced route. If I had editorial control over a media outlet, I don't think I'd take that approach. Then again, the odds on any bet I would be willing to place have vacillated wildly this week.

I started out with my hell-in-a-handcart default setting but then had lunch with a gent who does something that few have been willing to do: He has closely monitored Iraq and broader Middle Eastern media.

I wanted to have lunch with him because he had made a shocking statement to me while we were on the way to a party recently. I asked his opinion of the future of Iraq and he said, "We've won." No equivocation, just "We've won."

So I asked him to expound on that over lunch. He said the U.S. invasion plan was brilliant and the occupation was a perfect cock-up, except for one thing: The terrorists had defeated themselves. According to my friend, the local reaction to Abu Ghraib and then the Nick Berg decapitation (and other decapitations) was not unlike the U.S. reaction: horror followed by grim resolution.

In the case of the U.S. that meant seeing it through until the regional elections and not budging on the date, even as the body count mounted. But the reaction of normal Iraqis and the broader Muslim world was more interesting. It was a kind of blowback -- against the terrorists. The barbarity was such that many people were ashamed these were the images the rest of the world was seeing from Iraq.

My friend explained that there are now serious grassroots efforts to "take back the Koran" from those who would use it to justify what amounts to human sacrifice, and there has been some sympathy for the U.S. troops. When the military leveled Fallujah, for instance, the responses from Iraquis ran from muted to jubilant, and the the usual diplomatic hand-wringers forgot to take their outrage pills that morning. He highlighted some statements by terror mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi about the incompatibility of Islam and democracy as evidence that the man is growing desperate, because he knows he is about to be handed a smashing defeat.

I would certainly like to believe my friend is correct on this one. I do think it interesting that if the Iraq elections are to come off OK and lead to a government in which the Shi'ite majority doesn't use its electoral power to crush the Sunnis or the Kurds, it will owe much to the pronouncements of the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. It would be the best thing since those "don't fight the foreigners" fatwas that some clerics issued when the U.S. was rolling into the country.

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