Sunday, July 29, 2007

Today, The New York Times published a letter to the editor I authored. I am going to republish the letter here and break down my thinking. Before I do, however, I will give you the full story.

As noted in this blog, the Times wrote an editorial observer column a few weeks back that criticized its own reporting on Iraq. The Times admitted it was not appropriately defining the distinction between Al Qaeda in Iraq and the Al Qaeda in Pakistan. [This blog is quickly turning into my observations regarding that distinction, by the way.] The summary by Clark Hoyt that prefaces my letter today does an excellent job of summarizing the Times introspection:

The battle over the nature of the war in Iraq is heating up.
The New York Times and other news media have become more aggressive in questioning President Bush’s rationale for continuing the war, and particularly his argument that it is primarily a battle against Al Qaeda.
On Friday, July 13, Michael R. Gordon and Jim Rutenberg reported on the front page of The Times that Bush’s “references to Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, and his assertions that it is the same group that attacked the United States in 2001, have greatly oversimplified the nature of the insurgency in Iraq and its relationship” with Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda, which according to a new National Intelligence Estimate (N.I.E.) has found safe haven in Pakistan.
That intelligence report, released on July 17, concluded that the United States faces a heightened threat of terrorist attacks because Al Qaeda has been able to regroup in the lawless, semiautonomous provinces along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan. The report said that Al Qaeda would seek to take advantage of the “contacts and capabilities” of its ally in Iraq, which sprang up after the U.S. invasion in 2003. Intelligence officials briefing reporters about the report said that group is led by foreigners.
President Bush isn’t backing down from equating the two Al Qaedas and declaring them the main enemy in Iraq. In a speech Tuesday to a military audience in Charleston, S.C., he said the Iraqi group is a “full member” of bin Laden’s terrorist network and takes its cues from it.
The Times said the president used what aides described as newly declassified intelligence to make his case. “But the White House and intelligence officials declined to provide any detail on the intelligence reports Mr. Bush cited, including their titles, dates and origins,” the newspaper said.
It quoted Edward M. Gistaro, a principal author of the July 17 N.I.E., as saying that Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia is “focused on the conflict in Iraq at this time.”

Now here is what I wrote and what the Times published today, with commentary from me:

I admit I was confused by the classification of “Al Qaeda” as one of the groups involved in the fighting in Iraq. It is reassuring that The Times is going to be less “sloppy” in its reporting from now on.
As to the larger thesis of the complicated nature of the battles in Iraq, I find that the Times is presenting the Iraq situation in clearer terms than might be the reality. In reading coverage on July 9, for example, I saw mention of only two of the insurgent groups involved in the fighting (Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia being the primary one), when in reality there likely were many others.
Now, don't get me wrong. I love the New York Times. I read it every day, and would subscribe to it if a subscription actually saved me money off the newsstand price (for home delivery in Boston, it does not). At the same time, I think reporters and politicians are trying to make the Iraq war understandable. In the process, they are simplifying the war too much. "The insurgency," it would appear, is not defined by one, two or even a dozen different groups of insurgents. In fact, the very nature of the groups is amorphous. The Times has taken a great step in deciphering the President's insistence on a connection between Al Qaeda in Iraq and Al Qaeda in Pakistan, but it has not gone far enough to adequately explain the unexplainable war that has taken hold in Iraq. Now back to my letter, picking up where I left off:

But as a whole, I applaud the Times coverage of the fighting. For example, in the July 8 Week in Review was an informative article that traced the roots of a recent decline in violence in Ramadi. It was not clear whether the decline was the result of the recent increase in American troops, or merely that Sunni groups there are fed up with the fighting. This is an interesting contrast to Senator John McCain, who insisted on July 10 that the drop in violence in that region is directly related to the Bush administration’s surge.
In my discussions with the letters editor at the Times, I noted how many others besides Senator McCain have now advocated that the drop in violence in Ramadi is a result of the surge. In fact, Senator McCain is not even the strongest proponent of that message. But at the time I wrote the letter, Senator McCain was the one advocate I saw.

Also, there is an assortment of views on how the Sunni groups in Ramadi have decided to stop the violence. Some are saying that they have reached agreements with U.S. troops there, while other say they are just "fed up," and it would have happened whether U.S. troops are there or not.

ROSS LEVANTO Waltham, Mass., July 10, 2007

By the way, it's woth noting that the New York Times has an editor whose sole job is to compile letters sent to the Editorial Observer column. She called me this past Thursday, told me the letter was going to run, and even sent me the letter as it would appear. She confirmed the dateline of Waltham-- asking me where I was when I wrote the letter, and not where I live. That's pretty darn thorough....

Note: Excertpts are taken from New York Times, "Other Voices: Al Qaeda and the Enemies in Iraq," by Clark Hoyt. July 29, 2007.


Kate said...

Nice job getting published Ross!

Amanda said...

I just read this. Congratulations! You are well on your way to fame and punditry!!