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Maliki's Endorsement of Obama's Iraqization Policy

Hoisted from Comments: Tom F. writes:

Grasping Reality with Both Hands: Today's NYTimes headline is "Comment Stings Iraqi Leader on Eve of Obama Visit".

Well, we've all read the comment and it contains no poison-tipped barb, so what or who did the stinging?

Presumably, the American's "stung" Maliki over the comment. Let's see. Diplomatic back and forth... US officials express surprise & confusion... Iraqi spokesman says comment was contact b/t Maliki and US directly...Hey, where's the sting?

So, in the headline, the NYTimes is basically playing the role of the teacher's pet on the courtyard saying to Maliki "Oooh, you're gonna be in trouble" even though the teacher (the Pentagon and Bush admin.) haven't disciplined him yet. The NYTimes is more royalist that the king!

Why read so much conscious intent into the headline? Because it bears information that is entirely tangential to the story. The story does not scream out "Maliki Stung!", that's an entirely grafted concept.

Quite revealing, though nothing new. Vintage death spiral watch.

Yes, the New York Times death spiral watch continues. Why oh why can't we have a better press corps?

UPDATE: Todd Gitlin writes:

TPMCafe: By unimpressive contrast, the Washington Post's Sudarsan Raghavan and Debbi Wilgoren took the lazy way out, stenographically copying the Maliki's spokesman's denial and repeating Spiegel's boilerplate "stands by its interview." If I were in the business of writing textbooks, the contrast would be my choice for a textbook case of careful vs. perfunctory reporting.

No, Todd. It's not laziness. It's corruption. The Washington Post death spiral is far more advanced than the New York Times's. This is not to say that the Times can pull out. Josh Marshall writes:

Talking Points Memo | New Details Emerge: [T]he [New York Times] headline is misleading ("Iraqi Premier Steps Back on U.S. Troops Comment"), [but] the article itself [by Sabrina Tavernise and Jeff Zeleny] is quite good. And it contains two key details. First, any question of mistranslation or misunderstanding is put to rest. The interpreter was al Maliki's, not Der Spiegel's.... There is also a more detailed explanation of the White House's pressure on the Iraqi government... to walk back Maliki's comments. The gist of the White House's explanation is that the Iraqis and Maliki specifically were simply too unsophisticated to grasp the implications of Maliki's remarks...

I disagree with Marshall. Not only is the headline very bad, but the article itself practices Bush-favorable stenography. Look at how it begins:

Comment Stings Iraqi Leader on Eve of Obama Visit: On the eve of Senator Barack Obama’s visit to Iraq, its prime minister tried to step back Sunday from comments in an interview in which he appeared to support Mr. Obama’s plan for troop withdrawal. The interview with the prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, was published Saturday in the online version of Der Spiegel, a German magazine. It was widely picked up by American newspapers because it appeared to give an unexpected boost to Mr. Obama, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, who has called for an expedited withdrawal.... Scott M. Stanzel, a White House spokesman with President Bush at his ranch in Crawford, Tex., said that embassy officials explained to the Iraqis how the interview in Der Spiegel was being interpreted, given that it came just a day after the two governments announced an agreement over American troops. “The Iraqis were not aware [of how the interview was being interpreted] and wanted to correct it,” he said...

That last is simply untrue. The Iraqis do not want to correct anything. As Brian Murphy writes:

Iraq sees hope of US troop withdrawal by 2010: Iraq's government spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, followed talks between Obama and Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki — who has struggled for days to clarify Iraq's position on a possible timetable for a U.S. troop pullout. Al-Dabbagh said the government did not endorse a fixed date, but hoped American combat units could be out of Iraq sometime in 2010. That timeframe falls within the 16-month withdrawal plan proposed by Obama, who arrived in Iraq earlier in the day as part of a congressional fact-finding team...

Robert H. Reid provides the journalism that neither Sudarsan Raghavan, Debbi Wilgoren, Sabrina Tavernise, nor Jeff Zeleny dare:

Iraq playing US politics for best deal: The Iraqi prime minister's seeming endorsement of Barack Obama's troop withdrawal plan is part of Baghdad's strategy to play U.S. politics for the best deal possible over America's military mission. The goal is not necessarily to push out the Americans quickly, but instead give Iraqis a major voice in how long U.S. troops stay and what they will do while still there. It also is designed to refurbish the nationalist credentials of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.... Now an increasingly confident Iraqi government seems to be undermining long-standing White House policies on Iraq.

The flap began Saturday when Germany's Der Spiegel magazine released an interview quoting al-Maliki as saying U.S. troops should leave Iraq "as soon as possible" and that Obama's proposed 16-month timeline to remove combat troops was "the right timeframe for a withdrawal."... A top al-Maliki adviser, Sadiq al-Rikabi, insisted the Iraqi government does not intend to be "part of the electoral campaign in the United States." But that is precisely what the Iraqis intended to do: exploit Obama's position on the war to force the Bush administration into accepting concessions considered unthinkable a few months ago. Already, the Iraqi strategy has succeeded in persuading the White House to agree to a "general time horizon" for removing U.S. troops — long a goal of the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government.

According to senior Iraqi officials, the decision to play U.S. politics emerged last month after Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari's trip to Washington.... The visit took place as the U.S. and Iraq were negotiating rules that would govern the American military presence in Iraq once the U.N. mandate expires at the end of the year. The talks had bogged down over U.S. demands for extensive basing rights, control of Iraqi airspace and immunity from prosecution under Iraqi law for U.S. soldiers and private contractors.... With the talks bogged down, the Iraqis sensed desperation by the Americans to wrap up a deal quickly before the presidential campaign was in full swing. "Let's squeeze them," al-Maliki told his advisers, who related the conversation to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

The squeeze came July 7, when al-Maliki announced in Abu Dhabi that Iraq wanted the base deal to include some kind of timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops. The prime minister also proposed a short-term interim memorandum of agreement rather than the more formal status of forces agreement the two sides had been negotiating...

Also take a look at Jonathan Chait, who writes:

Maliki's Endorsement - The Plank: The Bush administration and the McCain campaign have replied by suggesting that Maliki doesn't really want an American withdrawal, he's just saying it for domestic political purposes. Maybe so. But that just underscores the point. If Maliki has to publicly favor American withdrawal, this shows that the Iraqi polity is not going to stand for an extended occupation. President Bush may not have been sincere either when he came out for a prescription drug benefit and campaign finance reform, but he signed those measures because he had to. That's the nature of democracy. If Iraq is going to be a democracy, then we're not going to stay there forever. So the bigger story, beyond the presidential ramifications, is that we know how the Iraq occupation is going to end...

And Juan Cole, who writes:

Informed Comment: Despite all the talk about Iraq being "calm," I'd like to point out that the month just before the last visit Barack Obama made to Iraq (he went in January, 2006), there were 537 civilian and ISF Iraqi casualties. In June of this year, 2008, there were 554 according to AP. These are official statistics gathered passively that probably only capture about 10 percent of the true toll. That is, the Iraqi death toll is actually still worse now than the last time Obama was in Iraq!...

The hype around last year's troop escalation obscures a simple fact: that Obama formed his views about the need for the US to leave Iraq at a time when its security situation was very similar to what it is now! Why a return to the bad situation in late 05 and early 06 should be greeted by the GOP as the veritable coming of the Messiah is beyond me. You have people like Joe Lieberman saying silly things like if it weren't for the troop escalation, Obama wouldn't be able to visit Iraq. Uh, he visited it before the troop escalation, just fine....

Ali al-Dabbagh, who is usually described as al-Maliki's spokesman but actually seems to work for the CENTCOM or Pentagon Middle East command, was trotted out to make vague statements about Der Spiegel's having mistranslated or misinterpreted what al-Maliki said. This denial was issued through CENTCOM! When the original demand came from al-Maliki for a timetable for US withdrawal, it was al-Dabbagh who reinterpreted it as a 'time horizon.' Al-Dabbagh was contradicted by National Security Counsellor Muwaffaq al-Rubaie, who seems actually closer in this thinking to al-Maliki. My guess is that al-Dabbagh has been recruited by some agency in Washington, DC, to explain away al-Maliki's statements whenever they contradict Bush's.

Der Spiegel stood by its story. The text of Der Spiegel's statement is here. It turns out that the translator involved works for al-Maliki, not for Der Spiegel, and so presumably knew what the prime minister's words meant in Arabic. And for the piece de resistance, it turns out that Der Spiegel has an audiotape of the Arabic....

But you see, it does not matter that al-Maliki actually said what he said. It does not matter that Der Spiegel can prove it. All that matters is that the Goebbelses around Bush and Cheney have managed to muddy the waters and produce doubt, taking the hard edge off the interview. Even AFP, the usually skeptical French wire service, asserted that al-Maliki had "denied" the accuracy of the Der Spiegel interview! Of course, al-Maliki has done no such thing...