Is Petraeus out of time for his fables of the reconstruction?

Is Petraeus out of time for his fables of the reconstruction?

Is Petraeus out of time for his fables of the reconstruction?

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
Sept. 9 2007 6:00 AM

Murmurs of a Reckoning

This promises to be a week of milestone events—Gen. David Petraeus' testimony to Congress on Monday, and the sixth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on Tuesday—and the Sunday front pages are weighted for the occasions. The New York Timesleads with a 4,000-word examination of the American troop "surge" in Iraq, finding modest signs of progress that nonetheless fall far short of the goals President Bush stated when he announced the troop buildup seven months ago. The Washington Postcounters with its own 3,700-word surge story, focusing on divisions within the military over strategy, but devotes much of its front page to a picture-laden investigation of the "new al-Qaeda," describing how the terrorist organization has regrouped and reorganized since its near-destruction in the fall of 2001. The Los Angeles Timesleads with a story about the ramifications of all these Chinese product recalls—in short, higher prices—but also fronts a profile of Gen. Petraeus.

The NYT's and WP's lead stories on Iraq are both all-hands-on-deck affairs—six reporters share a byline on the Post's story, while a whopping 18 contributed to the Times'—and the differences between the pieces say a lot about the respective papers' personalities. The NYT's story is Baghdad-centered and reads like an authoritative assessment, while the WP's story is Washington-centered and reads like a very momentous gossip column. The differing approaches underscore an old argument in journalism (and elsewhere) over whether history is made in the trenches or at the highest reaches of government. Anyone who wants to understand the debate in Washington next week should read both pieces.

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Considering the serious dangers Iraq presents to journalists, the NYT's story is a small masterpiece of ground-level reporting. (Many of the names in the contributor's box are Iraqi.) The reporters "repeatedly visited at least 20 neighborhoods in Baghdad and its surrounding belts," the story says, "interviewing more than 150 residents, in addition to members of sectarian militias, Americans patrolling the city and Iraqi officials." The resulting analysis is nuanced and surprising in many ways. For instance, it finds that some areas of Baghdad really have become more peaceful—but perhaps this is not due to the American troop buildup itself, the story suggests, but came about because once-mixed neighborhoods have been ethnically cleansed.

The WP's story, by contrast, starts in the White House, with a scene of a recent clash between Petraeus and his superior, Adm. William J. Fallon, the chief of the U.S. Central Command, in a teleconferenced meeting with President Bush. Petraeus argued for giving the surge more time, but Fallon advocated putting together a plan for troop withdrawals, saying the military needed to free itself to fight future battles, say in Iran. TP is not sure whether the tensions between the two top army commanders have been previously reported, but he's certain he's never seen a quote like this one before, from an anonymous senior civilian official: "Bad relations? ... That's the understatement of the century."

The LAT, for its part, takes a similar approach to the Post, profiling Petraeus, whom the paper says could turn out to be another Ulysses S. Grant (a general who turned the tide of a war), or another William Westmoreland (a general who didn't). The writer, Julian E. Barnes, seems to come down decidedly with those who think Petraeus is a hero, writing of his counterinsurgency expertise, his "Washington savvy," and his openness with reporters, which always wins the admiration of reporters. The fact that Petraeus is feuding with his superior officer, Fallon, never comes up.

It's not news that al-Qaida has managed to strengthen itself over the last few years. The WP's 9/11 anniversary story, however, explains the revival of the organization, and its new cast of key players, in a compelling (and scary) way. Key detail: Remember that Predator drone attack on a house in Pakistan that supposedly came this close to killing Ayman al-Zawahiri, while taking out a bunch of al-Qaida's top brass? Well, upon further review, "U.S. and Pakistani officials now say that none of those al-Qaida leaders perished in the strike and that only local villagers were killed."

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The WP's Outlook section also has a piece from the leaders of the 9/11 Commission, asking whether the United States is succeeding in its goal of neutralizing existing terrorists at a faster rate than new terrorists are created. "The answer is no," they conclude.

The NYT off-leads a piece on one of the most far-reaching consequences of 9/11. It says that documents unearthed via a recent lawsuit suggest that the FBI has "cast a much wider net" with its surveillance than previously acknowledged, snooping on Americans who have no firsthand connection to terror suspects.

In the Week in Review section, the NYT takes a detailed look at the political crosscurrents in Germany after last week's abortive car-bombing plot.

Yes, there are a few stories that do not concern war or terrorism. … The LAT's lead piece shows how quality-control issues in faraway China—many of them created, apparently, by U.S. retailers' demands for cheap goods, even in the face of rising production costs—will now likely lead to widespread price increases on basic household items. On the other side of the front page, there's a story that describes how the desperate political and economic situation in Zimbabwe is driving illegal immigrants across the border to South Africa, where they often run afoul of the local white farmers, many of whom are well-armed unreconstructed racists.

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The NYT fronts a feature that picks up on the strange story of the polygamist sect headed by the imprisoned "prophet" Warren Jeffs. Last year, the LAT wrote a series of stories that exposed how Jeffs controlled a settlement on the Utah-Arizona border, preaching a heretical form of Mormonism, marrying off underage girls to older men, and systematically driving off boys who might represent romantic competition. The NYT picks up on that final aspect of the story today, writing about a group home that's opened up for the so-called "lost boys," some of whom were disinherited by their families for offenses as minor as going to see a mainstream movie.

The WP fronts a piece on congressional earmarks that shows, shockingly, that despite efforts to curtail the practice, public officeholders still try to bring federal money into their districts. Just below that piece, the paper runs a story about the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, which does vital astronomical research and is suffering from severe federal budget cuts. One of the big problems, apparently, is that Puerto Rico lacks a congressman. "Earmarks get a bad rap, but this is a case when Congress should step up to prevent Arecibo's demise," an astronomy advocate tells the paper.

The NYT digs deeper into the mysterious question of where Democratic huckster Norman Hsu acquired all that money he was giving away to candidates.

The LAT, which is big on medical horror stories, has the story of a truly outrageous hospital screw-up.

On its op-ed page, NYT contributor Everett Ellis Briggs, a former ambassador to Panama, reminds the world that today is the last day of former Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega's prison sentence. The general won't be retiring to Miami Beach any time soon, however—he'll remain in prison for now pending his likely extradition to France, where he's been indicted for money laundering. God, don't you just long for the days when that guy was our worst enemy?