After more than four years of reporting from one of the world's most dangerous war zones, Larry Kaplow isn't sure he wants to claim the distinction as the senior American journalist in Iraq.
As one of the reporters who greeted American troops when they arrived in Baghdad in March, 2003, the 44-year-old native of Falls Church, Va., says he is "fighting off the title of the senior U.S. reporter here, partly because I'd rather be recognized for what I do rather than my duration here, and partly because it usually invites questions about my mental health."
Kaplow, who began covering the Middle East for Cox Newspapers in 1997 and arrived in Baghdad just before the U.S. invasion, recently joined Newsweek's Baghdad bureau after filing hundreds of stories chronicling the course of a war that is shaping up as the most important issue of the 2008 presidential and congressional elections.
In his final report for Cox Newspapers before switching jobs in May, Kaplow wrote about cleaning out old files and coming across the "Proclamation to the People of Iraq," issued by the American general who headed the Coalition forces after the 2003 invasion. "Together the noble people of Iraq and the Coalition will endeavor to re-establish a viable nation state and a model of success to the international community," the declaration read.
That optimistic assessment, and other claims of progress in Iraq by U.S. commanders and the Bush administration have obviously been called into question by subsequent events as Iraq has descended into a vicious civil war that has killed nearly 3,600 American troops and wounded more than 26,000, killed tens of thousands of Iraqis, cost most than half a trillion dollars and divided the American people.
"Each artifact and factoid represented a whole story on its own," Kaplow wrote after cleaning the files. "Lofty proclamations and plans gone awry, people praying, voting, working or dying, novel dangers and mysteries that, in time, in Iraq get overtaken by the next days' events, the next phase."
As Kaplow covers that "next phase" of the war for Newsweek, he's aware that, given the pervasive violence that has made much of Iraq too dangerous for Western journalists to visit, he may be pressing his luck staying for as long as two more years. But at the same time, he knows as a journalist that he's covering one of the most important stories in the world.
"All else being equal, my chances of avoiding trouble each time I return [from frequent breaks about every three months] are as good as the chances for anyone else getting off the plane with me," he told me in an e-mail interview from Baghdad. "I know there are lots of other good, award-winning foreign stories being written in other places. But I'm in a position to cover one of the central episodes of my generation, and I enjoy both the chance to define it for readers and the prominence it brings."
Kaplow, the son of veteran television reporter Herb Kaplow, is a graduate of Duke University who served two-and-a-half years in the Peace Corps in Guatemala before joining Cox at the Palm Beach Post in 1992. Excerpts from the interview follow. Because of security concerns, Kaplow asked that any personal details, other than his family links, not be disclosed.
On the difficulty of reporting from Iraq:
It's probably as hard to report from Iraq now as any other time. The kidnapping of five British citizens from the Ministry of Finance a few weeks ago drove that home. In the last couple months, I've not been reporting on my own outside the Green Zone because I haven't been working on stories that require it. But print reporters still do get out, traveling in low-profile cars that blend in with the traffic.
They can make stops to interview people as long as they aren't too public or long. While most of the city is probably off-limits, reporters can get around enough to size things up generally. They see the collapse of services like water and electricity, which is a city-wide problem, as well as the fear and insecurity. They can see the de facto road blocks people have made to protect their neighborhoods and they can talk to people about their experiences.
Is the view limited? Certainly it's frustratingly restrictive, but you can still derive a lot from the amount of movement that is doable. We do rely a lot on Iraqi stringers, but there are ways to check and confirm their information and you make sure you're careful about who to trust.
It does require an infrastructure, which makes it almost impossible for drop-ins or freelancers. You need a couple cars with a few Iraqis who know how to watch out for anyone who might be following you and who you can trust, and have some training, to remain calm. You need good phones or walkie-talkie radios and someone at your office who knows your movements.
On whether he is, indeed, the senior U.S. journalist in Iraq:
John Burns [New York Times] and Richard Engel [NBC] are still coming back and were also in the Palestine Hotel in 2003 ... It's possible I've spent the most time here over the last four years but I can't guarantee there isn't someone at the wires or a TV producer who can match me.
Keep in mind, we do get frequent breaks. I'm usually here about two months and off for up to a month. I've been outside the U.S. long enough to see others, journalists and others, who kind of lose perspective, forget what's right and wrong, develop wild eccentricities, so I look out for that. Trips to the states a couple times a year help.
I remind myself that I have to watch my stress levels and try not to get too used to these surroundings.
I was in Istanbul recently and heard loud boom. There are in fact explosions sometimes in Istanbul so I just assumed that's what it was. But this was thunder. That worried me a little.
On how his job with Newsweek differs from his previous one: I'm one of the two correspondents on regular Baghdad rotation (the other is the bureau chief). We bring in others from throughout the magazine in order to usually have two correspondents here. Cox Newspapers was very supportive of its Baghdad bureau but the office and staff at Newsweek are bigger than the one-correspondent set up at Cox. We have more resources, translators.
In some ways, it's not so different. Cox really stresses original, creative coverage in different voices and that's what you have to do at a magazine. But getting space in a weekly is much harder than in newspapers and the stories really have to be painstakingly conceived and reported with input from many people. It's more collaborative. I'm writing for the website frequently, which is a good way to show I can write on my own. Newsweek looks more for national or international themes whereas Cox was looking more for themes that related to people locally, as a chain of local and regional papers naturally would.
The Newsweek platform has been exciting. I did an interview Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that ran on our website and was picked up widely in other U.S. and Arabic media. Maliki [later] issued a statement clarifying "misunderstandings" about some of his remarks first quoted by us. He didn't name Newsweek or claim that we misquoted him, but our interview had gotten the ball rolling on a subject -- the U.S. arming of Sunni tribes -- that he and his aides were then asked about repeatedly throughout the week. That was a new experience in the spotlight that was both exciting and daunting.
On the biggest changes he's seen in Iraq since he's been there:
Overall, it's still just startling to me how much the security has deteriorated. Remember, it's not just western reporters who can't travel around.
Iraqis usually are afraid to go out of their neighborhoods or in areas where they are not the majority sect. They live in intense stress and fear. In 2003, you could drive anywhere in the country. When Saddam Hussein was captured in December, 2003, I jumped in a car with a driver and translator and rode up to Tikrit, arriving at dusk and interviewing locals. In 2004 and 2005 it became hard for foreigners to go many places. In 2006 it became too dangerous for Iraqis to move freely.
The intense Sunni-Shiite suspicion and animosity is one of the most destructive and tragic developments here. Most Iraqis still would rather live side-by-side but the violence by small segments of the population -- basically car bombers and militias -- has provoked fear and hatred even among former neighbors.
The fear and chaos strengthens the identity politics, the militias and the extremists and weakens the government and the U.S. influence. That, in turn, creates more chaos and fear. Iraqis are rational and strategic and calculate with whom to invest their lives -- their tribes, mosque, militia or the state-building effort here. The traditional, familiar, regressive trends win out in times like this.
On the nearly $20 billion the U.S. has spent to rebuild the Iraqi infrastructure:
The reconstruction never really took hold on an aggregate scale enough to build confidence in the new government and the United States, and now it appears to be sliding backwards -- Baghdad is in an unprecedented water shortage, electricity is still just around pre-war levels.
On U.S. troop morale, in light of growing opposition to the war by members of Congress and the American public:
Troop morale is still pretty good, but will it be strained by the lengthened rotations? No question. Having said that, many of the soldiers here now joined the military after the war started and seem less concerned with big-picture questions about the war. They say they don't tune in to the debate in the U.S. but I think for some it seeps in.
I would say there has been a marked reduction in soldiers' expectations of what they can accomplish here, especially among those in their second or third tours. The optimists say they are keeping the lid on what could be an all-out civil war. Many others say they just want to get their comrades home safely. Few talk about establishing a democracy or new Middle East, as some did at the start of this. They also tend to be better informed about what Iraq and Iraqis are like than the troops were in 2003.
On whether the so-called surge, the recent addition of some 30,000 U.S. troops, is helping achieve U.S. military goals:
What we've learned about the surge is that even if it succeeds it's going to be a very long, hard and incremental effort. We've seen big operations before and the crucial factor -- and shortfall -- has been in sustainability, whether the U.S. and Iraqi forces hold the ground they clear. In the past they weren't able to, but they are doing some things differently now.
The question of whether it's succeeding depends on how Americans define success. If -- and it's not definite that this is the case in the long run -- the presence of U.S. troops saves Iraqi lives, will Americans think that's worth the resulting loss in U.S. Lives?
As someone who knows a lot of Iraqis personally, I feel they deserve all the help they can get. On the other hand, it's still unclear how much the U.S. is able to help, especially as this goes on. I don't know.
Reporters debate the idea of a withdrawal over many dinners and we often change sides in the middle of the debate. (People might be surprised at how open-minded and unwedded to any particular point of view reporters are here.)
On the likelihood of a change in U.S. strategy when when the American military commander and ambassador to Iraq issue their report to President Bush and Congress in September:
I don't know if they will change strategy but they should be ready to. The insurgents are changing strategies weekly. I expect the officials reporting this fall will claim mixed results and argue that it's going slowly but on the right track, considering their assessment of the alternatives. Americans will have to decide whether that's worth continuing, depending on their own values and priorities.
On whether members of Congressional delegations (codels) visiting Iraq get a true picture of what's happening there:
It takes a very discerning and open-minded effort to get Something out of a quick visit here. It's possible but you have to look past just what you see in front of you on the visit ... The codel's view will necessarily be limited in time and scope. You do learn from it, but any sweeping judgments take expertise or repeated visits over time.
And keep in mind that Iraqis, like most people, will speak strategically, each word measured for its effect on the listener. It takes a lot of conversation and reading between the lines -- and experience -- to get at their real sentiments. Iraqi hospitality is a little like Southern hospitality. It's a matter of pride and self-respect to treat visitors in a friendly, non-confrontational way but that doesn't mean they're ready to risk their lives or livelihoods in joining your fight.
On whether Congress and the American public are getting a true picture of the war:
I think in the broad sense, they understand that things have gone wrong here, which took a while to sink in. They've also become aware of the grim psychic and moral costs of occupation, which is very hard for idealistic countries to recognize. But I'm not sure we've done a good job getting across the specifics.
For example, I often hear people talk about how the "Iraqis are killing each other." But they're not, really. A small group will kill the non-violent civilians of the opposing sect, then the other sect's minority militants will kill non-combatants of the first sect, which is what makes it so tragic. They aren't having many open battles between armed factions.
It just takes hundreds of stories to convey the reality of a place far away to a country the size of the United States - another fact that makes it fulfilling to be here.
On whether he has any personal opinion about the success or failure of the U.S. war effort:
Nothing too insightful here and no opinions. But I think it's objectively clear that, while there have been some great personal efforts and sacrifices, things haven't gone as the leadership indicated or expected it would. It's up to Americans to decide what is success or failure.