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November Surprise, the Sequel | The Nation

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The Notion

Unfiltered takes on politics, ideas and culture from Nation editors and contributors.

November Surprise, the Sequel

Are we really surprised? The Saddam Hussein verdict, scheduled for October 16 and then suddenly delayed last month (supposedly because the Iraqi special tribunal needed more time) to November 5, the last news cycle before the US midterm election, has now come in and the former dictator (and monster) has been found guilty. The Bush administration, struggling desperately for face time in the media these last weeks, has one day of Iraqi front-page headlines and lead TV news stories of its dreams in an election season in which the Iraq War has more or less shoved every other issue off center stage.

The possibility that this particularly convenient verdict postponement might have been the result of Bush administration planning and pressure to create a November surprise for the midterm elections was first raised here at the Nation magazine's "The Notion" blog on October 17. Since then the mainstream American media has failed to explore the subject.

Just to review for a second: Saddam's trial, as the Washington Post's Ellen Knickmeyer reported last January, was a key priority of the Bush administration, which spent hundreds of millions of dollars exhuming evidence for it, refurbished the courtroom for it, trained judges for it, provided security for it, and even drafted many of the statutes under which Saddam was to be tried. The trial has been significantly stage-managed and run on a daily basis by the US Regime Crimes Liaison Office, working out of the US embassy in Baghdad.

As the Media Matters website has ably reported, the Bush administration (think: Karl Rove) has a penchant for and a "history of timing national security-related actions to the political calendar," thereby causing presidential approval ratings to providentially bump up at just the right moments; and White House Press Spokesman Tony Snow, when asked last week by CNBC's Larry Kudlow whether the verdict would be a "November surprise," even welcomed the question, as well as the prospective verdict, this way:

"[Y]ou are absolutely right, it will be a factor. But you know what, it may fit into a larger narrative about an Iraqi government that has been doing what the president has said all along which is developing the capacity to sustain itself, defend itself and govern itself and to help us out on the war on terror."

You would think that all this might have inspired the odd editor at the odd major (or even minor) newspaper to assign a story, however speculative, on the possibility of a Bush-manipulated Saddam-execution special, or that a major columnist somewhere might have commented, or that the odd reporter might have called someone other than the usual suspects. But no such luck, it seems.

Instead, where reporters did anything on the subject, they took the charge of possibly tampering with the verdict date for political advantage on the "home front" directly to administration figures -- last week, Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad (""The United States had nothing to do with the selection of the date and we don't know whether the judges have come to a judgment or not."); this Sunday, Tony Snow ("absolutely crazy"; "‘The idea is preposterous,' he said in an interview on CNN's ‘Late Edition,' that ‘somehow we've been scheming and plotting with the Iraqis.'") -- who naturally denied that it was faintly conceivable. In fact, in such articles, all you could read were denials of the charge. There was never a sense that the charge came from anywhere.

In the meantime, the idea was mocked on CNN; while NBC's Tim Russert fluffed it off, based on administration denials, evidently without (like every other reporter around) even bothering to explore the all too plausible possibility, or calling anyone on Earth who might have another opinion. How about, for instance, the articulate and knowledgeable human rights lawyer Scott Horton, whose private e-newsletter, "No Comment," first tipped off "The Notion" to the providential postponement? (Leading Democrats, of course, just ducked as always.) For our "balanced" press, this was little short of dereliction of duty.

When the tampering possibility slipped into stories at all, it was as a formulaic paragraph or two deep inside pieces deep inside the paper. Typical was this from the Post's usually able reporter Knickmeyer (who knows too much about the nature of Saddam's trial to have covered this issue so poorly):

"In Baghdad, US officials close to the trial deny that the announcement of the verdict, set for two days before US congressional elections, was timed to give a boost to the Republican Party. ‘If we had that kind of power to set dates like that, the trial would have been concluded in about five months,' said one of the officials, who all spoke on condition they not be identified further. ‘The fact of the matter is: No way.'"

So here we are, just a news cycle before election day, and both George W. Bush ("a milestone in the Iraqi people's efforts to replace the rule of a tyrant with the rule of law") and Ambassador Khalilzad ("an important milestone in the building of a free society") are once again able to use one of those classic administration Iraq words -- "milestone" (think Saddam's capture, the purple finger election) -- that otherwise had disappeared from our news. This won't last more than a day or two, of course, before the Iraqi bad news begins to pour in again; but right now those few crucial hours are manna from heaven for an administration whose vice president has already declared that it will be "full speed ahead" in Iraq after the midterm elections, no matter what.

I have little doubt that, weeks, months, or years from now, we'll learn just who carried off this particular administration political ploy--and just how. In the meantime, this is but another small, pathetic tale of how the mainstream media has failed its readers and viewers, blindly and blandly spreading yet another administration fiction about the increasingly fictional land of, and "government" of, Iraq.

Look for a blunt account of this fiasco in the normal outlets. You'll do so in vain. If you're curious, take a look instead at what Riverbend, the "girl blogger of Baghdad," has to say today about the verdict, about what it's like--in an Iraq "at its very worst since the invasion"--to experience firsthand "the frustration of feeling like the whole country and every single Iraqi inside and outside of Iraq is at the mercy of American politics." So are we, unfortunately; and, on this election eve, you can offer some part of the thanks for that to the major paper or TV network of your choice.

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