WHEN IRAQ'S Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced last week that a US air strike had killed terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Iraqi reporters burst into cheers and applause. It was a heartwarming -- and to American eyes, unnatural -- show of joy. Most American journalists would think it unseemly to cheer anything said at a press conference, even the news that a sadistic mass murderer had finally met his end.
Important and welcome as Zarqawi's assassination was, it didn't put a dent in the quagmire-of-the-week mindset that depicts the war as a fiasco wrapped in a scandal inside a failure. Typical of the prevailing pessimism was the glum Page One headline in The
Virtually from day one, the media have reported this war as a litany of gloom and doom. Images of violence and destruction dominate TV coverage. Analysts endlessly second-guess every military and political decision. Allegations of wrongdoing by US soldiers get far more play than tales of their heroism and generosity. No wonder more than half of the public now believes it was a mistake to send troops to Iraq.
Some of this defeatism was inevitable, given the journalistic predisposition for bad news. ("If it bleeds, it leads.") And some of it was a function of the newsroom's left-wing bias -- many journalists oppose the war and revile the Bush administration, and their coverage often reflects that hostility.
But there have also been highly negative assessments of the war from observers who can't be accused of habitual nay saying or Bush-bashing. In a dispiriting piece that appeared on the day Zarqawi's death was announced,
Another thoughtful commentator, The Washington Post's David Ignatius, had been even more despairing one day earlier: "This is an Iraqi nightmare," he wrote, "and America seems powerless to stop it."
But not everyone is so hopeless.
In the June issue of Commentary, veteran Middle East journalist Amir Taheri describes "The Real Iraq" as a far more promising place than the horror show of conventional media wisdom. Arriving in the United States after his latest tour of Iraq, Taheri says, he was "confronted with an image of Iraq that is unrecognizable" -- an image that "grossly . . . distorts the realities of present-day Iraq."
What are those realities? Drawing on nearly 40 years of observing Iraq first-hand, Taheri points to several leading indicators that he has always found reliable in gauging the country's true condition.
He begins with refugees. In the past, one could always tell that life in Iraq was growing desperate by the long lines of Iraqis trying to escape over the Iranian and Turkish borders. There have been no such scenes since the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Instead of fleeing the "nightmare" that Iraq has supposedly become, Iraqi refugees have been returning, more than 1.2 million of them as of last December.
A second indicator is the pilgrim traffic to the Shi'ite shrines in Karbala and Najaf. Those pilgrimages all but dried up after Saddam bloodily crushed a Shi'ite uprising in 1991, and they didn't resume until the arrival of the Americans in 2003. "In 2005," writes Taheri, "the holy sites received an estimated 12 million pilgrims, making them the most-visited spots in the entire Muslim world, ahead of both Mecca and Medina."
A third sign: the value of the Iraqi dinar. All but worthless during Saddam's final years, the dinar is today a safe and solid medium of exchange . Related indicators are small-business activity, which is booming, and Iraqi agriculture, which has experienced a revival so remarkable that Iraq now exports food to its neighbors for the first time since the 1950s.
Finally, says Taheri, there is the willingness of Iraqis to speak their minds. Iraqis are very verbal, and "when they fall silent, life is incontrovertibly becoming hard for them." They aren't silent now. In addition to talk radio, Internet blogs, and lively debate everywhere, "a vast network of independent media has emerged in Iraq, including over 100 privately owned newspapers and magazines and more than two dozen radio and television stations." Nowhere in the Arab world is freedom of expression more robust.
As Congress embarks on a wide-ranging Iraq debate this week, Taheri's essay is well worth reading. "Yes, the situation in Iraq today is messy," he writes. "Births always are. Since when is that a reason to declare a baby unworthy of life?"