That Riddle Again: 'Tell Me How This Ends'

Posted by Michael Getler on

The quote in the headline above, one of the more enduring to survive the decade-long U.S. war in Iraq, is part question, part riddle. It was posed in 2003, during the initial assault toward Baghdad, to a Washington Post reporter, Rick Atkinson, who was embedded with the 101st Airborne Division, by the then Major General commanding that unit, David Petraeus.

On Tuesday night, July 29, PBS’s premier investigative series, Frontline, did a 90-minute special titled, “Losing Iraq,” billed as “the inside story of the war we left behind…a story over a decade in the making.”

The night before, on PBS’s Charlie Rose show, the host devoted the entire hour to an exclusive “conversation” with Khaled Meshaal, the political leader of Hamas. The subject, of course, was the latest, ongoing and quite brutal struggle between Israel and Hamas. Toward the end, Rose asked: “So the killing will go on?” Part question, part statement.

I expected to get a lot of mail about these programs, but that hasn’t happened, at least so far. I did get a couple of sharply critical emails aimed at Rose for giving “Hamas a platform for all its lies and propaganda,” as one viewer in Maryland put it. Portions of the Rose interview had been aired earlier on the CBS programs Face the Nation and Morning News, where Rose serves as a co-anchor. So that may explain the lack of more mail to me.

As a viewer, I thought both of these programs, dealing with very potent, emotional and seemingly intractable conflicts, were handled very skillfully, presenting material that increases public knowledge and speaks well for public television.

But in the absence of much viewer response directed toward the ombudsman’s mailbox (there is a good collection of reactions on the Frontline website), I wanted to make a few personal observations about one or two things that struck me in each program.

With respect to “Losing Iraq,” I felt that Frontline, as usual, did a powerful recitation and presentation of the decisions and errors of the Bush administration that got the United States into that war, and was also unsparing about the impact of questionable decisions President Obama made that took American forces out of that war on a pre-announced timetable.

Where I felt, personally, that Frontline stumbled a bit was in not handling well enough the conundrum Petraeus had posed 11 years ago, “Tell me how this ends.”

The program, all the guests, and the on-the-ground reality today, all make it pretty clear that this is going to end badly. I felt that the majority of the program had been given over to the actions of the Bush administration, which were expertly laid out but are also pretty well known by now, but that the portion focusing on President Obama’s contribution to the ending, and the chaos, seemed hurried and lacked at least some balance and complexity.

The program, properly, gave time and space to the effectiveness, at least temporarily, of President Bush’s decision to “surge” even more U.S. troops into Iraq in 2007 to stave off some even greater setbacks. And it was also clear that Obama was intent on ending this war from the time he took office and putting it behind him and the country. And it is fair game, and important, to question the way he went about it. I thought the program did that quite well.

But the criticism of Obama’s role and tactics seemed pretty relentless in the presentation, with not much sense of the context and tone of the country at the time. There are no voices asking or trying to answer a version of the issue Petraeus raised. In this case, in a 2011 version, it would have been more like, “What are the alternatives?” How long should we stay in Iraq? How many more years, troops, lives and dollars? Was an eight-year-long war impeding the need for economic recovery in this country? Why, after so many years and training dollars, should not the Iraqi army be able to fight? Can a stable democracy ever evolve or be imposed amid such violent religious hatreds? How do you, or why should you, sustain a seemingly endless war when opinion polls in 2011, when Obama announced his decision to withdraw nearly all troops by the end of the year, showed that 75% of Americans agreed with that?

'Mr. Charlie'

Charlie Rose, or Mr. Charlie as Meshaal occasionally referred to him, I thought handled this potentially explosive, and sure to be divisive, interview very well. Rose’s questions were informed, challenging and, in several key places, immediately reactive to something Meshaal had said.

Just for one example, when Rose asked about the three Israeli teenagers who were murdered before the larger conflict started and “Did Hamas have anything to do with it?” Meshaal said they did not know who did this and brought up the case of the young Palestinian who was burned alive by Israeli settlers in an apparent revenge killing. But Rose pointed out that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu immediately called the boys’ parents with “great apology and grief” for the young man. “But you have not called the parents of the Israeli teenagers who were killed,” Rose said. “In fact, you said I cannot condemn the killing of settlers.”

Meshaal spoke fast and in Arabic and the translation was equally fast and this ancient conflict that is hard to follow in real time was at times even harder to follow during some of the interview. But whatever one’s opinion of Hamas and its role and responsibilities, it was valuable, in my opinion, for a PBS audience to hear, and make of it what each viewer wants, the spokesman’s version of the situation that afflicts some 1.8 million people basically sealed in to a very tiny piece of land, an “open air jail,” as Meshaal described it.

When Rose suggested that, in the end, the problem is that Israelis and Palestinians simply don’t trust each other, Meshaal said: “Mr. Charlie, do you think that the key for solution is trust? We are actually enemies. The solution doesn’t start with distrust…the solution starts with the international community’s volition to say to the Israeli occupation, stop. Enough is enough.”

What If Those Rockets Worked?

As someone who has paid attention to this issue for many years, a main point about this current conflict, in particular, that I feel goes unchallenged—not just on this program but on many news accounts elsewhere—is when Meshaal and others, including some journalists, discuss the huge disparities in casualties of the fighting.

Meshaal put it this way: “We do not like to launch rockets. We do not want to target people, excuse me, I would like to give you an example. If you look at martyrs, the Palestinians' martyrs, most of them are civilians. However, on the other side, they are militants, they are combatants.  But this is emblematic of the morality of the resistance and the immorality of the Israeli aggression.”

Actually, this is not emblematic of any such thing. There are a number of reasons why there have been some 1,300 Palestinians killed so far—mostly civilians—and almost 60 Israelis, most of them military. One is that Israel has a good shelter and civil defense system. Another is the Israeli air defense system, known as “Iron Dome,” which has reportedly shot down many of the thousands of rockets fired from Gaza, although there is some debate about its overall effectiveness.

But most importantly, these are unguided rockets, many of which probably fall harmlessly. But they are intended to kill Israelis and, with no defense, could easily have killed hundreds or thousands of Israeli civilians. While there is much discussion of Palestinian civilian deaths because of Hamas rocket placements in urban locations, the point about the intent, rather than the results, of the Hamas rockets strikes me as rarely made, and the numbers game distorts it.

Posted at 1:32 p.m.

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As ombudsman, Michael Getler serves as an independent internal critic within PBS. He reviews commentary and criticism from viewers and seeks to ensure that PBS upholds its own standards of editorial integrity. Read More >
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