During the Public Broadcasting Service's coverage of President Bush's January 10 prime-time address, New York Times columnist David Brooks asserted that Bush's "description of how we got here -- the Samarra bombing [of a very prominent Shiite mosque by Al Qaeda in Iraq in February 2006] and all of that ... was the accurate, right description," and it was "[r]ealistic." But Bush's short historical summary -- which suggested that U.S. efforts in Iraq were succeeding up until shortly after the December 15, 2005, Iraqi elections -- was neither "accurate" nor "realistic." In fact, while the Iraqi situation has significantly worsened since the Samarra bombing, the violence there was already substantial and rising at the time of the December 15, 2005, Iraqi elections. Indeed, 2,152 U.S. troops had been killed in Iraq as of that date.
At the beginning of his speech, Bush presented the following account of recent events in Iraq:
BUSH: When I addressed you just over a year ago, nearly 12 million Iraqis had cast their ballots for a unified and democratic nation. The elections of 2005 were a stunning achievement. We thought that these elections would bring the Iraqis together, and that as we trained Iraqi security forces we could accomplish our mission with fewer American troops.
But in 2006, the opposite happened. The violence in Iraq -- particularly in Baghdad -- overwhelmed the political gains the Iraqis had made. Al Qaeda terrorists and Sunni insurgents recognized the mortal danger that Iraq's elections posed for their cause, and they responded with outrageous acts of murder aimed at innocent Iraqis. They blew up one of the holiest shrines in Shia Islam -- the Golden Mosque of Samarra -- in a calculated effort to provoke Iraq's Shia population to retaliate. Their strategy worked. Radical Shia elements, some supported by Iran, formed death squads. And the result was a vicious cycle of sectarian violence that continues today.
As Media Matters for America noted, in late November to mid-December of 2005, in response to falling public approval of Bush's handling of Iraq, the Bush administration released a "National Strategy for Victory," and Bush gave a series of four speeches in which he touted progress there. Even then, several news reports noted that Bush's characterizations of the situation in Iraq were misleading. For example, in a December 7, 2005, article, The Washington Post reported that "others involved in assessing Iraq argue the president's portrayal is, at best, too rosy":
"Progress is running far behind Iraqi expectations in virtually every area," said Wayne White, head of the State Department's Iraq intelligence team from 2003 to 2005 and now an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute. "In their view, most Iraqis are not seeing 'amazing progress.' All too many of them live in constant danger, with less electricity in many areas than under Saddam Hussein."
In a December 8, 2005, article, The New York Times reported that "[a] major problem with assessing the progress in Iraq is that it is too dangerous to allow visitors to visit the projects freely, said Rick Barton of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. 'I bet if we could get around and see these places that they would not be the story that he's telling,' he said. 'And I think he'd be shocked to see the story he's being fed.' " On the same day, the Los Angeles Times further reported (purchase required) that, in November 2005, one Iraqi city whose progress Bush had touted, Mosul, "was judged too dangerous for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to fly over in a helicopter -- much less to drive on its streets -- during her brief visit to a U.S. military base near the city."
According to data compiled by the Brookings Institution, there was an average of 90 to 100 daily attacks by insurgents and militias from October through December 2005, and an average of 75 in January and February 2006. From August 29, 2005, through February 10, 2006, attacks by insurgents and militias averaged around 550 per week, up from about 475 between February 12 and August 28, 2005. A one-page classified U.S. Central Command slide reportedly shown at an October 18, 2006, briefing placed Iraq's "Index of Civil Conflict" prior to the Samarra mosque bombing at just over halfway from "peace" to "chaos." The slide was published in the November 1, 2006, edition of The New York Times.
Also, regarding the training of Iraqi troops, Media Matters pointed out that the number of Iraqi battalions capable of operating independently had dropped from three in June 2005 to none in February 2006, according to the Pentagon. In June 2005, senior U.S. commanders disclosed that, of the 107 Iraqi battalions formed at the time, three had achieved "Level 1" status, indicating their capability to plan and conduct independent operations. On September 29, 2005, however, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top U.S. commander in Iraq, informed the Senate Armed Services Committee that this number had dropped to one battalion. Pentagon officials stated on February 24, 2006, that the number of Level 1 battalions had fallen to zero.
In addition, as Media Matters noted, the Iraq Study Group wrote that there is "significant underreporting of the violence in Iraq." According to the commission, the Defense Department "standard" for recording acts of violence functions "as a filter to keep events out of reports and databases," and commented that "[g]ood policy is difficult to make when information is systematically collected in a way that minimizes its discrepancy with policy goals."
From the 9 p.m. ET hour of PBS' January 10 coverage of Bush's speech:
LEHRER: What do you think of the strategy that the president outlined?
BROOKS: Well, first, I thought the speech was appropriately sober and I thought the description of how we got here -- the Samarra bombing and all of that -- was pretty much -- was the accurate, right description.
BROOKS: Realistic description of what's happened.