Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The End of An Affair

By Joe Bruns   

     It is hard to put a precise time on when I fell out of love. There was no big argument or momentous event that caused a sudden rift in our relationship. Instead it happened gradually, imperceptibly. But I have now come to terms with the fact that she is no longer a central part of my life. We stay together, mostly out of habit. But I no longer cherish waking up with her every morning and finding her fresh, entertaining, and endlessly interesting.
     I do remember falling in love with her, though. It was the mid-seventies. It was love at first sight. This was the Watergate era, and she had an uncanny inside access to all the sordid details as the scandal unfolded. Every day I looked forward to hearing what new facts had been uncovered, and how the mighty were falling. My, she did know how to tell a story. She also had wide-ranging interests. In addition to politics and world events, she could spellbind with the depth of her knowledge in culture, the arts and sports. Yes, she was a great sports fan and seemed to enjoy them all, going beyond just knowing the scores and statistics with colorful commentary about anything from the Redskins to high school rivalries.
     She seemed to know everything that was going on in Washington. She may not have cared very much for the suburbs, but she knew the city, its movers, its shakers, its flaws and its characters. Everyone who knew her had a favorite topic and was eager to learn what she knew. She was regularly quoted at power lunches and solons throughout the day.
     While she was older than I, she had youthfulness and an enthusiasm that was infections. At times her opinion seemed to color her judgment, but for most of us that was part of her charm. We matured together over the years. She had her rivals, of course, but was never threatened by them, especially on her home turf. She knew she occupied center stage and could therefore just ignore them as they came and went from the scene.
     She was generous and compassionate, she noted births and attended funerals. When tragedy struck she could be counted on to offer assistance, and always knew the right thing to say to bring understanding and comfort. But she could also deliver criticism when needed, a wake-up call where she saw injustice.
     The eighties were her “Hollywood” phase. She made new friends, many from California and the West, who exuded glamor and style more than intellect. But the men were handsome and the women beautiful.  In the nineties, she had a fling with a younger man, a “bad-boy” who was able to charm her in ways that allowed her to overlook his flaws.  When his past caught up with him and his star faded, she stuck with him and defended him against his detractors, though I could see she was hurt.

Old love dies hard...

     But then things began to change. Without noticing it at first, but seeing it now in retrospect, her freshness wilted. Her stories, which once rivaled those of Scheherazade, began to seem repetitious and stale. Her eloquence began to fade; she made grammatical errors that broke the spell. Worse, I began to realize that I had already heard the stories she was now telling. Sometimes, I even heard them from her the day before. She was less engaged in the world and began simply to repeat what others were saying. She said there was a web conspiring to bring her down.  She began to go to bed early, and seemed to be indifferent as to whether she had anything new to say or not. Her opinions, once fresh and insightful, now were entirely predictable, cranky, even boring. Those she brought into her circle to share opinion consisted of the same people who had been around for years, seldom anything or anybody new. And when someone new was added to her circle, it seemed more for the label than for the wine. 

     It was clear that her world was changing far more quickly than she either desired to or could. Some say she suffers from poor circulation, and others have suggested an extended trip to renew her energy, perhaps an adventure to the Amazon to revitalize her.  I don’t know, but for me the old magic is gone.

      Old love dies hard. She is still part of my life, just not as important to me. I no longer consider her my window to the world, and sometimes find myself ignoring her entirely. But we had some great times together over the years. There is always that.      

     I miss the better days with The Washington Post.

This article first appeared on Trail Mix

Monday, October 6, 2014

Ebola, International Broadcasting and Social Media

'International media organizations need to take up a role beyond journalism. In addition to reporting about the disease, they need to push vital information to a needy public'

By Joseph Bruns

These are busy times for those engaged in international politics on social media. Russia’s propaganda machine is at full throttle twisting facts on the ground in Ukraine inside out. ISIL has developed slick and sickening videos and has turned social media into a recruiting office. Meanwhile, the US State Department has created in 2010 a Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communication to play catch-up in a medium that they have previously treated with suspicion. Not surprisingly, our efforts seem more reactive than proactive, and it is clear that, while public diplomacy is important, it will not be the decisive factor in these theaters of conflict.

In contrast, there is a critical and life-saving role that public diplomacy and particularly the Voice of America can play in supporting US and international efforts to curb the spread and ultimately control the Ebola virus outbreak.

…the Ebola outbreak in West Africa is “a threat to global security.”  President Obama

To date, about 3000 people have died of Ebola in West Africa. The Centers for Disease Control projects as many as 1.4 million cases within just a few months. While most public health officials think pandemic Ebola is unlikely, the potential is there, especially if the virus undergoes mutation. But even if the spread is confined to the countries of West Africa, the region is facing extraordinary suffering and social chaos.

The West African countries of Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone are at risk of social collapse because of the disease itself and the drastic measures taken to control its spread. Closed shops, empty marketplaces, and grounded air flights are the norm. NPR has reported that construction projects have been halted and farmers have stopped planting out of fear for the future.  Why plant now when the future is so uncertain and markets are closed? This has already had a major impact on GDP. And too often, economic stress, coupled with fear and lack of authoritative information lead to unrest and the real possibility of failed states, with all that implies. It has been reported in the past weeks that villagers driven by fear and disinformation have killed at least eight health aid workers in Guinea.

While NGOs such as Doctors Without Borders, have done heroic work, the official international community has been slow to respond to the outbreak. Now President Obama has announced a Pentagon led effort to help build infrastructure needed to treat the disease and support the USAID mission. The World Health Organization and other international bodies have also begun to provide resources and mobilize at a scale that can make a difference.

In disasters such as this one, it is important that direct aid and assistance be provided to the people in need. But also of vital importance is that trusted sources provide reliable and accurate information to care providers, local officials and the general population of affected areas. We tend to think an international story as well-covered by media when it regularly appears on the evening news, and CNN has dispatched a covey of reporters. While this news about a crisis is valuable in focusing attention and spurring action, it does little to directly alleviate the suffering. What is often needed is important information directed towards those immediately affected. A villager in Liberia doesn’t need to know that NIH is working on a new vaccine, she needs to know where to take her sick child.

A Role for Media, New and Old
In crises such as this one, international media organizations need to take up a role beyond journalism. In addition to reporting about the disease, they need to push vital information directly to those with the greatest need for the information on how to prevent, treat and cope with the disease. The audience in this case is health care providers, government officials and the general citizenry within the affected area.

International broadcasters, including BBC and the Voice of America, are stepping up this effort. In addition to reporting the news about the outbreak to the region and the world, they are using their multi-language and multi-media capabilities to provide timely and life-saving information to people in the affected areas on specific actions they can take in the face of the disease. They are providing practical information such as how to treat symptomatic relatives, how safely prepare and bury the dead, how to protect oneself, how to obtain local assistance and information in basic pictures and language that helps debunk myth and disinformation surrounding the disease.

Much more must be done. These broadcasters, already spread thin covering other world events, need more resources directed to this effort.  More needs to be done using social media, cell phone messaging and low-bandwidth Internet sites to reach as much of the general population as possible with accurate information. By doing so, the international broadcasters can help bend the curve of the Ebola crisis.

Joseph Bruns is a former Director of International Broadcasting, USIA and a retired public broadcasting executive. September 25, 2014

This article first appeared on the University of Southern California Center for Public Diplomacy Blog

Thursday, October 2, 2014

You don’t have to roam for more dinosaurs

 April 19

To the dismay of parents across the Washington area, on April 28 the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum will close the dinosaur hall for a major renovation. When it reopens in 2019, the new exhibit will include the Wankel Tyrannosaurus rex, one of the most complete T. rex skeletons discovered.
But in the meantime, what do you do with your budding paleontologist? By the time the new exhibit opens, that magical period of fascination with all things prehistoric may have passed. While the Smithsonian will continue to display other dinosaur fossils, sometimes your imaginative child just needs to experience big and bad.
Fortunately, there are a number of good options to choose from. Some can be visited during a day trip; for others, you’ll want to spend a night or a weekend. You also might want to take advantage of your child’s interest to introduce him or her to the broader world of scienc.
But let’s start with dinosaurs. Many children develop an interest in dinosaurs between the ages of 5 and 7. They’re becoming aware of, and interested in, the natural world around them, and the idea of big, lumbering beasts roaming the world and creating havoc — well, what’s not to like? Even better, they really existed, unlike the monsters from the fairy tales. And, even though they no longer roam around, a child can easily engage with the tangible evidence of massive skeletons and models presented in a simulated environment.
So while the Smithsonian exhibit is under construction, explore beyond the Capital Beltway. Just up the road in Baltimore, the Maryland Science Center offers a small but interesting collection of about a dozen full dinosaur specimens, including a forty-foot T. rex. You can also see the Maryland’s state dinosaur (yes, there is one). It’s called Astrodon johnstoni, and its display at the science center shows it being attacked by an acrocanthosaurus. The center makes the most of its collection and includes a working field lab demonstrating the effort involved in unearthing these fossils. Like a lot of smaller exhibits, what the center lacks in size, it makes up for in intimacy.
A little farther up I-95 is the Delaware Museum of Natural History in Wilmington. This collection, too, is modest, but it does have nice examples. And beginning Sept. 27, the museum will have on exhibit the prehistoric snake fossil Titanoboa, measuring in at a whopping 48 feet — longer than a school bus. This creature from the Paleocene epoch will definitely impress even the most dinosaur-savvy kid.
Still farther up I-95 is Drexel University’sAcademy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. On display there is an impressive 42-foot skeletal display of a T. rex along with more than 30 other dinosaur species, including many full skeletons. Of particular interest is the life-size model of a Stegosaurusshowing its internal anatomy. The academy also has a green-screen display that allows children to walk among the dinosaurs, a trick sure to amaze. The Academy of Natural Sciences, known locally as the Dinosaur Museum, is the oldest natural history museum in the country and displayed the world’s first mounted dinosaur.
If you are taking older children, or if you can interest your younger ones in science beyond dinosaurs, be sure to take advantage of your trip to Philadelphia to visit the Franklin Institute — one of the best all-around science museums anywhere. Emphasizing a hands-on experience, the Franklin Institute has something for every age group, from “KidScience: The Island of the Elements” for children as young as 5 to a “Blue Angels Adventure Flight Simulator” for older kids (there is a minimum height requirement). In Washington, we often overlook the fact that Philadelphia is a great city for museums and is within a reasonable distance.
The Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, after a two-year renovation of its dinosaur hall, now features “Dinosaurs in Their Time,” an exhibit that has been carefully created to portray dinosaurs in their contemporary environment. Complete skeletons and a chronological progression should fascinate and educate children across a wide age spectrum. The museum also features a paleo lab and interactive features. As with the other museums, the Carnegie provides plenty of opportunities to explore natural history beyond dinosaurs.
And then there is the marvelous American Museum of Natural History in New York, where you’ll find two large halls — one dedicated to Saurischian Dinosaurs, or those with grasping hands (think T. Rex), and the other for Ornithischian dinosaurs. It also has a very cool exhibit of primitive mammals.
Combined, there are more than 100 dinosaurs and related beasts on display. And, if your time and budget allow, you can arrange for your child to have “A Night at the Museum.”
Speaking of budgets, some Washingtonians are surprised to learn just how pricey admission to museums can be. A family of four can drop more than $60 just for basic admission. Add parking and some attractions, like IMAX tickets, and the price goes up. In the District, we’re fortunate to have world-class museums that survive on a combination of private and public support and offer free or low-cost admissions.
Look for bargains. Some of the museums listed here have reciprocal arrangements for those who are members of other museums. Others offer discounts on certain days or reduced admission for organized groups. If your budget is tight, consider packing your lunch. And before you go, check online to avoid any nasty surprises, like additional fees, exhibit closings or days the museums are closed.
Finally, use this window of opportunity when a child’s imagination and curiosity about nature combine to broaden the learning experience. Visit the National Aquarium in Baltimore (did I mention pricey?), nearby science museums or Calvert Cliffs State Park in Maryland, where you and your kids can dig up fossils. You will be rewarded as your child experiences both engaging displays of nature and a wide assortment of hands-on activities.
And, of course, life will go on without dinosaurs on the Mall, opening up possibilities to explore whole new species and epochs.
This article originally appeared in The Washington Post

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Voice of America: A Worthy Mission for the 21st Century


Recently, there has been a great deal of debate, and no small amount of axe grinding,  regarding the mission and effectiveness of US international broadcasting under the Broadcasting Board of Governors. This debate has now been brought to a head with the passage in the House of Representatives of the boldly named US International Communications Reform Act of 2014, HR 4490, which would create a new structure for US international broadcasting and attempts to create a division of responsibility between the VOA and the multiple surrogate services such as Radio Free Asia, which have proliferated since the end of the Cold War. The authors of the legislation take the view that efficiency is better served by consolidating all of the surrogate services together under a new board, and then turning VOA, with its own separate board, into a specialized service, a kind of super Washington news bureau, reporting only on the United States news, interests and policies. By doing so, HR 4490 would seriously weaken VOA as a broadcaster and as an instrument of foreign policy.

This article is the first of two that will focus on the role and mission of US international broadcasting, and will make that case that each service serves important foreign policy objectives in important, yet distinct ways. As HR 4490 correctly finds, both  services need to be better managed, resources need to be reallocated, and the actual news gathering and reporting strengthened for the effective projection of US interest and prestige. Unfortunately, the Bill misses its mark. This first article will focus on the Voice of America.

"For fifteen years now the Voice of America has been bringing to people everywhere  the facts about world events, and America's policy in relation to these events."  President Dwight Eisenhower, February 25, 1957

The Legacy of VOA

VOA has historically had a global mission that serves the national interest independent of the existence of any tactical surrogate service. In fact, it was always assumed that, ideally, a surrogate service would eventually accomplish its mission, working itself out of business as countries moved toward democracy, as they did in Eastern Europe. It was never a choice of VOA or Radio Liberty broadcasting to the USSR and Russia, for example, it was always VOA and Radio Liberty. Both were important instruments of US foreign policy, and both were, and in the case of Russia, still are needed.

In 1942, VOA’s initial broadcast began with the pledge, “The news may be good or bad for us, we will always tell you the truth.” This statement set the precedent that VOA would counter disinformation with straight reporting of the facts. In 1982, President Ronald Reagan signed NSDD 45, in which he emphasized the importance of international broadcasting as an important component of his muscular foreign policy. President Reagan went on to direct that the “VOA should take steps to strengthen existing mechanisms for relating program content to current US foreign and national security policy objectives, while ensuring the integrity of news broadcasting … in accordance with its legislative charter.” The charter, of course, refers to the VOA Charter signed into law in 1976.

It is within that context that VOA operated with success through the end of the Cold War. VOA had a comprehensive news reporting mandate that required it to be truthful and balanced in its reporting, VOA was to produce programming that explored and explained American culture and institutions, and it had a policy mandate which could take many forms, but was intended clearly articulate America’s policies and interests. By effectively carrying out these program elements, VOA was supporting US national security interests.  And, cumbersome though the different requirements might appear, it worked through the end of the Cold War in a kind of equilibrium between the Presidentially appointed VOA Director, the USIA Director and national security and foreign policy elements of the Administration.

With the establishment of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, and the dissolution of USIA, though, much has changed. But the real and potential importance of VOA to support US national security interests is no less now than then. But VOA’s mission does need to be restated and reasserted for the 21st century.

The VOA Mission

In a world of multiple media outlets and wide access to external information sources (though not always guaranteed) what is the mission of the Voice of America?

First, as HR 4490 correctly states, the VOA should literally be THE Voice of America. VOA should report on America and its place in the world. It should feature stories on the American people American institutions and culture. It should explore the American democracy in all its triumphs as well as its shortcomings. People striving for freedom take heart in knowing that the democratic ideal is aspirational, and that it requires constant work to maintain and expand it. The VOA should be an honest recorder of the American experience.

The VOA should also clearly report American foreign policy and its formulation. There are a number of ways that VOA can carry out this aspect of its mission, but VOA should never leave a doubt in the audience’s mind what American policy is once such a policy is articulated. The first and most effective way to present and explain American policy is through in-depth coverage of news from the White House, Congress, the Pentagon, the State Department and other official policy arms. Accurate news reporting of important American policy developments should be given priority in VOA broadcasts. Policy also can be explicated by interviews with key policy makers and spokespersons. And, in keeping with the VOA Charter, policy needs to be put into the context of the debate surrounding a particular policy position, and allow for responsible dissenting voices to be fairly presented. Respect for opposing views is a critical element in any working democracy, and in America’s divided government today there are few policies that enjoy unanimous support.

Of utmost importance, the Voice of America should be a comprehensive and credible reporter of global news. The proliferation of media available generally to the public through multiple channels has not led to a concomitant improvement in the quality of the news reporting. The VOA should cover and report on important events wherever they occur. Its audience expects it to be a full-service news source. Ignoring news that does not directly link to the United States will lead to loss of audience and credibility and will project to the world the sense that if news does not directly affect Americans, it’s not important. The VOA provides a critical service by being comprehensive and authoritative in covering global news and reporting local and regional news of importance to foreign audiences. People throughout the world first want to news that is important to them. By providing it, VOA builds important bridges and audience.

Who is the Audience?

Public diplomacy is simply an effort to advance US national interests by reaching out to the broader public.  It is based upon the American principle that just government is derived from the people – people and their opinions matter. The VOA is and always was a part of this effort. The VOA should strive to reach as large an audience as possible within the resources that it has available. Often, communications with our allies or nations non-aligned in a crisis is as important as reaching our foes. Its target audience is anyone who has an interest in America and the desire to obtain news from an America news source, and especially influentials.  That audience can be drawn from every segment of society. Public diplomacy is arguably as important in democratic countries where public opinion can move governments as it is in repressive ones. HR 4490 completely misses this important point, and would direct broadcasts only at information-denied societies unless an exception were granted.

Since English is the language of America, it should be the first language of the Voice of America. Throughout the world there are English speakers, and many more who desire to learn English. This has to be VOA’s first worldwide language service.

Beyond that, VOA should broadcast in the major languages of the world, and in those languages whose speakers the United States has a particular need or desire to reach. Obviously, resource constraints will require choices. The goal is to reach the greatest number of people with the greatest need and of the most critical importance to the United States.

Reaching the Audience

The VOA must be able to reach its intended audiences. During his Presidency, Ronald Reagan proposed a massive modernization of VOA’s infrastructure, with particular emphasis on shortwave broadcasting and satellite television service. In the end, close to $1 billion was appropriated to this purpose. But the media environment has radically changed. To its credit, the VOA was the first international broadcaster to utilize the Internet to reach audiences. But it has since moved too slowly in adapting to a new media environment.
Photo: RFA

The VOA has to use every medium available in order to effectively carry out its worldwide mission. Not every medium is available everywhere. Different media require different styles and personnel skills. Just as television is more than ‘radio with pictures,’ the Web and social media also have their own characteristics that require specialized editorial and production skills. VOA should be organized to allow each medium to reach its full potential rather than simply shifting financial and personnel resources to the next new thing or making it a collateral duty. New media tends to be a resource hog, but it necessary if you are going to go where the audience is.

VOA management needs to bear in mind that in a major crisis, the means to reach an audience can be quickly reduced to a few. Domestic disasters can provide a lesson: electricity fails, cell phones become bricks, and often the only remaining means of reaching people is through old- fashioned radio. A report by the US Army likened Hurricane Katrina to a WMD attack in its impact on communications infrastructure. Having a reserve capacity of radio transmitters, AM, FM and shortwave may prove important in an international crisis. With regard to shortwave, VOA should discuss with other international broadcasters, particularly BBC, whether sharing transmission facilities may make sense to maintain a surge capacity if needed while reducing infrastructure costs to each. VOA should cooperate with the DOD on maintaining a mobile radio transmitter reserve.


To paraphrase President Eisenhower, organization cannot overcome bad leadership. Still, it is clear that the current management structure of the BBG and the IBB needs to be changed. It was flawed from the beginning, and became especially unworkable after the breakup of the USIA.

Baring the unlikely reinstitution of USIA, The VOA needs to be an independent government agency with a Presidentially appointed/ Senate-confirmed head of Agency. That individual should have full executive authority over the VOA appropriation, and should participate as an active member of the foreign affairs structure. As in the past, this Presidential appointee would bear the responsibility for balancing policy with the requirement for honest news reporting. I have seen VOA Directors handle this responsibility in the past with great integrity, and it can be done again in the future. And, let’s drop the pretentious ‘CEO’ title that has been proposed. If ‘Director’ is good enough for the FBI, it should also be for VOA.

VOA would benefit from an appointed advisory board, whose responsibilities would consist of helping insure that the terms of the Charter are being satisfied, and reporting on the effectiveness of VOA operations.

Structure and Resource Allocation

The new VOA needs to have a much flatter organization. From the beginning, the BBG and IBB have allowed an expansion of overhead positions and bureaucratic superstructure at the expense of carrying out VOA’s actual mission. Those resources need to be redirected into news operations.  This will require a restructuring of VOA. To be effective in the field, the VOA needs substantially more teeth, and substantially less tail. Importantly, the language services, where some of the finest reporting has always originated, need to be enhanced and given a greater editorial role. They will benefit from the flatter organizational structure, one that can be more quickly responsive to international events. VOA needs to be faster and more agile and can be by eliminating bureaucratic layers, while still maintaining the highest editorial quality.

The VOA has had an illustrious past. It has been on the front lines of America’s wars since 1942, both hot and cold, and has performed honorably. Its faults arise from bureaucratic bungling, loss of focus on mission and poor resource allocation. It has also been undercut by a false sense of competition with the surrogate broadcasters, important in their own right.

In this world of instant communication VOA is needed perhaps more than ever. Disinformation has grown at least as fast as truthful information. While there is no dearth of media output in the world, the singular commitment to authoritative, objective and balanced reporting on the United States, its policies and world events is a commodity in short supply. This is no time for retreat.

Next Steps?

HR 4490 is a step backward. The Bill makes important findings, but reaches the wrong solution. If and when the Senate takes this up more work will have to be done to craft legislation that fully restores American international broadcasting as a powerful voice in support of American leadership and our national interests throughout world. The VOA is a valuable instrument of American public diplomacy. It sorely needs a rededication to its mission.

Joe Bruns joined VOA in 1986. He was named Deputy Director of VOA during the George H. W. Bush administration, and served as acting Director of VOA for the first 14 months of the Clinton Administration. Bruns also worked in USIA’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. He recently retired from WETA after fifteen years in public broadcasting.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Updated Saturday, June 14, 2014

Originally published Monday, October 21, 2013


Iraq might be off the front pages, but our legacy is still unsettled
Joe Bruns
Joe Bruns
By Joe Bruns — The United Nations mission in Iraq reports that 979 Iraqis were killed and another 2133 wounded in acts of terrorism and violence just in the month of September, bringing the death total to 5740 so far this year.
In Baghdad, on September 30 alone, there were 15 car bombs detonated as the violence continued to wreck devastation on what is left of the country. Car bombings have become a way of life, averaging more than two per day, with multiple coordinated car bombings frequent.
Nor is the violence confined to Baghdad. Just this week, suicide bombers, probably Sunni, killed 19 people of the small Shabak sect in attacks near the city of Mosul. And on September 29, ten people were killed and 62 injured in bombings in the generally peaceful Kurdish autonomous region.
Violence in Iraq is pervasive and comes from multiple quarters. The traditional animosity between Sunni and Shia has existed for centuries. Regional differences have diced the country into ethnic enclaves often under the control of local militias. The Kurdish autonomous area is becoming virtual Kurdistan. Even within sectarian groups, sub-factions battle for control. In Sadr City, Moktada al-Sadr finds himself in a power struggle with Asaib al-Haq, who has ties to Iran and has sent support to Syria to aid President Bashar al-Assad. Added to this are the professional insurgents, Baathists (dead-enders as they were once known), Iranian backed Hezbollah, resurgent al-Qaeda related groups, and clans seeking to settle old grievances. While the violence has not yet reached the stage of the bloody years of 2006-2007 when there was a virtual civil war it is increasing.
Iraq Ethnic and Religious Distribution -- WorldPress
Iraq Ethnic and Religious Distribution — WorldPress
Meanwhile, the Nouri al-Maliki government celebrates oil production goals and buys Russian war materials. But al-Maliki’s regime is rife with corruption, is unable to regularly provide basic services and, importantly, lacks an independent judiciary. In an act the United Nations human rights chief Navi Pillay called “obscene and inhuman,” the al-Maliki regime this month carried out mass executions of 42 prisoners. Ms. Pillay went on to characterize Iraq’s justice system as too corrupt to warrant use of the death penalty at all, let alone on such a large scale.

An American Legacy

Ten years ago, the United States invaded Iraq for the purpose of overthrowing Saddam Hussein, securing his [non-existent] weapons of mass destruction, and establishing a democratic beachhead in the middle east.
It is not a neocon pipedream … that Israel, Palestine, Turkey, Afghanistan and Iraq can create [democratic] momentum that Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and … even Syria or Iran would find hard to resist,” said Victor Hanson (Hoover Institution) in 2005.
This grand crusade began with a spectacular display of American military might: shock and awe.
March 19- 20, 2003 Shock and Awe in Baghdad (Photo BBC)
March 19- 20, 2003 Shock and Awe in Baghdad (Photo BBC)
General Tommy Franks commanded the invasion, and executed it with precision, demonstrating the particular strength of the American led coalition forces in striking hard and fast. The southern oil fields were quickly secured, and resistance to the invading forces, while at times fierce, was quickly overcome. By April, Baghdad fell.
By May 1, the invasion of Iraq had gone so well that President Bush declared on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, “Major combat operations have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.”
USS Abraham Lincoln (5/1/2013)
USS Abraham Lincoln (5/1/2013)
But we quickly learned that defeating an opposing army and bringing peace, stability and democracy to a complex country were two quite different things. The problems started almost immediately.
The very nature of the invasion strategy left the coalition ill prepared to stabilize the country in the aftermath of military victory. We deliberately went in ‘light.’ Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric K Shinseki in Congressional testimony estimated that an occupying force of several hundred thousand troops would be necessary to secure Iraq post-invasion. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz ridiculed Gen. Shinseki’s estimate, sticking by an earlier estimate of about 100,000 troops. We will never know if even Gen. Shinseki’s number would have stabilized Iraq. What we do know is that the troop level was insufficient to create civil order. Perhaps more important than sheer numbers, troops specialized in civil administration were insufficiently mobilized, and Arabic language speakers were in short supply. This, when combined with purge of Baathist bureaucrats and skilled workers and the administrative ineptitude of the Coalition Provisional Authority under Pro Consul Paul Bremer soon led to rioting, looting, and outright insurgency. By 2004, a full-scale civil war was breaking out.
You break it, you own it” — Colin Powell on the danger of regime change in Iraq.
Second Battle of Fallujah, November 2004 (photo BBC)
Second Battle of Fallujah, November 2004 (photo BBC)
By the time the United States withdrew in 2011, as many as 461,000 Iraqis had died, although this figure is disputed. What is not disputed is that American and allied forces suffered 4804 deaths. More than 32,000 American troops were injured. According to Associated Press, an astounding 45% of the 1.6 million veterans of Iraq an Afghanistan have filed disability claims with the Veteran’s Administration.
Wars also leave impressions on the national psyche. In any war there are examples of jaw-dropping heroism as well as disgusting examples of atrocity. Unfortunately, it is the atrocities that we easily remember. Lynndie England and Abu Ghraib come easily to mind, but many other worse atrocities have been documented. Far less well known are the individual acts of heroism, including the four Americans – a Marine, two Soldiers and a Navy Seal – who were awarded the Medal of Honor, all posthumously. Wars also lead to new tactics and technology. World War I gave us air combat and poison gas, WWII gave us Kamikaze flights, the blitzkrieg and the atomic bomb, Viet Nam offered large-scale irregular warfare, napalm bombings and Agent Orange. Iraq introduced improvised explosive devices, the surge and the widespread use of drones, which have now found new use for killing terrorists wherever they hide, along with too many innocent civilians. Like poison gas, the atomic bomb and napalm before it, the use of drones has become an issue of moral debate.
Wars have unforeseen consequences. World War I led inevitably to World War II, as well as the unfortunate configuration of the Middle East. WWII led to the division of Europe and the Cold War. Defeating Iraq’s army and overthrowing Saddam Hussein was the easy part. It was a mission for which our military was designed. Nation building is the hard part, and is one that our army is ill-suited for, even when supplemented by vast support of contractors and multiple civilian agencies. The overthrow of Saddam and subsequent instability in Iraq has clearly changed the balance of power in the Middle East, and particularly with regard to Iran. It may also have contributed to the “Arab Spring,” with outcomes still unsettled—just like our own legacy in the region.
We have spent trillions of dollars equipping and manning the most powerful armed force the world has ever known. Our machines can defeat their machines, our men and women can outfight any foe. What we continue to demonstrate, though, is our inability to win hearts and minds — to win the peace.
– Joe Bruns (Cajun Joe) is a Trail Mix Contributor