Listening to the Bush administration's increasingly ridiculous attempts to spin the disastrous reality on the ground in Iraq, I'm wondering if they've hired the venerable messaging team of Ionesco, Beckett, and Genet. The theater of war meets the theater of the absurd.
Don Rumsfeld is the lead absurdist (and we'll get to him in a minute). But let's start with Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who appeared on Meet the Press on Sunday, and, on the heels of the recent outbursts of sectarian violence that has pushed Iraq to the brink of civil war, declared: "I'd say things are going well. I wouldn't put a great big smiley face on it, but I would say they're going very, very well from everything you look at."
Really? He can look atbombed out Shiite holy sites, Sunni mosques attacked in retaliation, clerics kidnapped and murdered, militias running wild, an average of 70 attacks each day, and a sputtering political process and think that it's "going very, very well'? What would it take for Pace to say things are just going "very well" -- another 70 attacks a day?
He isn't waiting for Godot. He's waiting for a clue. And an insurgent to say "Have a nice day!" so he can slap that great big smiley face sticker on the brewing civil war.
Later in the interview, when asked why his rose-colored assessment of the war was shared by so few people, Pace slipped off his General's helmet and donned his PR flack's hat, claiming that the real problem isn't the administration's failed policies, it's the failure of the media to spread the word that "we're making very, very good progress."
"I don't think we're getting the goodness out to the American people the way we should," he said. "If you remember back when the war began, we had 24/7 coverage: Folks could watch television, they could read newspapers, they could read magazines, and they could put together their own opinion of what's going on. Now, the amount of coverage from the war zone is much less than it used to be... People don't get a chance to see or hear about all the good things that are happening."
Well, General, it's hard to "get the goodness out" if you can't leave your hotel without being blown up or abducted. Sixty-four journalists have already been killed covering the Iraq war (by comparison, 54 were killed in Vietnam). And 39 have been kidnapped. There are now fewer than 75 foreign journalists covering Iraq, compared to the more than a thousand who were there in Pace's halcyon days of "24/7 coverage".
But why quibble over process? "The media are the problem" is the administration's story -- and it's sticking to it.
Rumsfeld picked up on Pace's blame the media theme at a Pentagon briefing today, claiming the media has blown this whole civil war thing out of proportion: "From what I've seen thus far, much of the reporting in the U.S. and abroad has exaggerated the situation." Sure, what's a little sectarian bloodshed among warring factions, right? As the man said: "Stuff happens."
Rumsfeld was even more expansive on the "press problem" during an interview he gave on Friday to Plum TV, a local TV outlet in Vail, Colorado. "The impression one gets by reading the press," he said, "is that Iraq is aflame. I was over there a month, I guess, ago, and every time I go it's not aflame." This raises the question: just what does he see when he goes to Iraq? Must not be the same scenery all those hyperbolic reporters are seeing. Or maybe he just has a narrower definition of "aflame" (ie if the entire country doesn't resemble the "Backdraft" ride at Universal Studios, then it's "not aflame").
More from Don Rumsfeld, media critic: "If you put a generator into a hospital and save people's lives, it's not newsworthy... What's newsworthy is when some terrorist straps himself up with a suicide vest and goes in and kills a bunch of innocent Iraqis." On some sick level, you can almost admire these guys' gumption: They fight an unnecessary war, create a nightmare in Iraq, and they want us to focus on hospital generators.
And check out this self-contradicting media-bashing Rumsfeld gem: "The impression that one gets from the media that [Iraq] is in total disarray simply isn't accurate. That is not to say that what is being reported doesn't happen. It does." And: "I think that people do understand that [the media] dramatizes things. But that's not to say it's inaccurate."
Got that? It's not that what reporters are reporting "doesn't happen" or is "inaccurate", it's that what they are reporting is "exaggerated" and filled with "a steady stream of errors". Ionesco would have been proud. I half-expected Rummy to turn into a rhinoceros in mid-sentence.
But Rumsfeld truly qualified for the absurdist pantheon when he put his media-trashing aside long enough to put the blame for the White House's Iraq troubles squarely where it really belongs: "I think the biggest problem we've got in the country is people don't study history any more. People who go to school in high schools and colleges, they tend to study current events and call it history... There are just too darn few people in our country who study history enough." There you have it, America's biggest problem when it comes to Iraq: lousy high school history teachers. Damn them!
Here's the theater of the absurd curtain closer on Rummy's Vail interview: it turns out he was in town to pay an unannounced visit to 24 wounded soldiers -- all patients at Walter Reed in D.C. -- who had lost limbs in Iraq and Afghanistan, and were taking part in a program that gives wounded vets an-all-expenses paid opportunity to travel to Vail to learn how to ski and snowboard.
It's an incredibly worthwhile program, and Rumsfeld deserves credit for taking the time to show his support for these courageous soldiers. But the fact that he could spend time with those who have sacrificed so much -- seeing the horrific results of his failed and misguided policies up close and personal -- and then turn around and rail against the sins of war journalists and high school history teachers reminds us that the ultimate absurdity is that he's still the Secretary of Defense.