Last week, the Onion offered a satirical story with a Baghdad dateline: "After 19 months of struggle in Iraq, U.S. military officials conceded a loss to Iraqi insurgents Monday, but said America can be proud of finishing 'a very strong second.' "
Not even Michael Moore would suggest that's about to happen.
Yet the reportage from Iraq is almost as bleak. Even as some media gurus accuse journalists of naively accepting officials' positive spin on the war, the sweep of coverage suggests that Iraq's occupiers have turned post-invasion chaos into a hellish nightmare and perhaps a quagmire -- and the consensus is that matters will only grow worse.
From the beginning, of course, there has been a counterpoint from those who are encouraged by what they see -- often expressed via the Internet. "As I head off to Baghdad for the final weeks of my stay in Iraq, I wanted to say thanks to all of you who did not believe the media," Ray Reynolds, an Iowa Army National Guard medic, wrote in an e-mail forwarded to the Los Angeles Times. "They have done a very poor job of covering everything that has happened." His e-mail cited a litany of positive changes in Iraq since the invasion, from increased immunizations and educational opportunities for children -- including, notably, girls -- to reopened hospitals, ports and improved delivery of drinking water and telephone service.
At least a few less-intimately involved observers also glimpse hope amid the televised images of 24-hour carnage, among them Christopher Hitchens, Michael Rubin, Frederick W. Kagan and Gary Schmitt.
It was a heartening story last weekend, about the huge generator being installed, piece by gigantic piece, in Baghdad. When it comes on stream in a few months, there will supposedly be more than enough energy to power all the new gadgets that liberated Baghdadis have been plugging in.
No, it wasn't a heartening story, either. Where was this generator when it was needed, about 18 months ago? Who was supposed to be in charge of seeing to that then, and why has he or she not been summarily fired?
Much of the good news from Iraq has been qualified or worse by a downside of this kind. Thus, if they hear a bang in the night, the people of Iraqi Kurdistan can now turn over and go back to sleep: It won't be the death squads of Saddam Hussein anymore. But this new security has given some the opportunity to decide they want to quit what they regard as the failed state that has replaced the regime.
On the other hand, there are some unambiguous gains. The Marsh Arabs, former inhabitants of the largest wetlands in the region and victims of an ecocidal assault, have seen their ancient habitat partly re-flooded. Politics has returned to the Iraqi Shiite discourse, which now has a reciprocal influence on the important debate within neighboring Iran. Iraq has been verifiably disarmed (not quite the same as taking Hussein's or Hans Blix's word for it) and the socially devastating epoch of Hussein-plus-sanctions (vamped on by the U.N. in its disgraceful Oil for Blood program) is over.
Democratic voices are being raised insistently, in Syria and Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, and though you may say this would have happened anyway, there is no doubt of what ignited the current debate.
Most important is the military traction that is being gained. One Welsh regiment of the British army recently killed more than 300 Mahdi army thugs for the loss of three soldiers: odds too painful for the boastful jihadists to take. A dangerous Osama bin Laden emulator, Abu Musab Zarqawi, imported to Iraq before the intervention, will very soon be destroyed along with his foreign infiltrators.
The U.S. armed forces are learning every day how to fight in extreme conditions, in post-rogue-state and post-failed-state surroundings, with the forces of medieval tyranny. Does anyone think this is not experience worth having, or that it will not be needed again? And does anyone want to imagine what Iraq would have looked like now if we had let it go on the way it was before? Too late and too little, to be sure, but nonetheless one of the noblest responsibilities we have ever shouldered.
As a visiting professor in Iraqi Kurdistan four years ago, I found that there were three words my University of Baghdad-trained interpreters could not translate: Debate, tolerance and compromise. The concepts did not exist in Hussein's Iraq. When I returned to Iraq in the aftermath of war, society was changing.
I watched city council meetings in places such as Kirkuk. Kurds, Arabs and Turkmens compromised on issues that spanned the languages taught in public schools to affirmative action within the police force. In the southern city of Nasiriya, taxi drivers, religious students and engineers debated the merits of federalism.
Dire predictions of civil war between ethnic and sectarian groups did not materialize, despite terrorist bombings against Shiite processions, Christian churches and Kurdish celebrations.