Nearly three months ago, on June 7, the U.S. military managed to locate and kill Abu Musab Zarqawi. Zarqawi was the leader of Iraq's al-Qaeda, a terrorist gang that is both associated with and a rival of Bin Laden's al-Qaeda mothership.
Zarqawi was responsible for numerous bombings, kidnappings, beheadings and, last spring, the only militant jihadi promotional video in memory to feature a supposed terrorist mastermind wearing white New Balance sneakers.
When the Sunni insurgency began in 2003, we were told that Saddam Hussein and his sons were leading it and that, once they were dead or in custody, the insurgency would taper off. By December 2003, Saddam was de-spiderholed and his sons were de-lifed, yet the insurgency continued. It was around then that the Bush spin machine began to latch on to Zarqawi.
Like many of its predecessors, the Bush administration likes to personalize complex international military and political issues. It helps to establish a good vs. evil narrative that plays "real good" with voters.
Zarqawi was the Bush administration's swarthy, bearded face of evil in Iraq. Rather than fess up to how badly the U.S. was botching the Iraq occupation, the White House-Pentagon-Fox News-RNC-Limbaugh message machine made sure that as much attention as possible was focused on Zarqawi. It's part of the Boogeyman Theory of foreign policy. The theory states that every minute spent discussing some swarthy evil guy with facial hair is a minute spent not talking about how incompetent the Bush administration is.
Zarqawi, we were told over and over again, was the leader of the Sunni insurgency. He was Bin Laden's man in Iraq and proof that the White House was correct to expand the War on Terror™ to Iraq. In April 2006, Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, spokesman for the U.S. military in Iraq, said that Zarqawi was responsible for 90 percent of the suicide attacks in Iraq. In the same statement, Lynch went out of his way to poo-poo any suggestion that the United States was intentionally exaggerating Zarqawi's influence. "Nothing could be further from the truth," he said.
On June 7, the U.S. military killed Zarqawi. The White House-Pentagon-Fox News-RNC-Limbaugh spin machine immediately went into high gear. President Bush said the killing could "turn the tide" in the war, after which he flew to Iraq for a smiley photo op with its elected leaders.
The Fox News-RNC-Limbaugh portion of the operation talked up the importance of Zarqawi's death and impugned the patriotism of anyone who talked down Zarqawi's importance. Fox News host John Gibson went so far as to describe critics of the Bush administration as "demoralized" by Zarqawi's death.
It's been nearly three months since Zarqawi's death. Was it indeed a turning point in the war, or just a talking point?
If Zarqawi was responsible for 90 percent of the suicide bombings in Iraq, and if Zarqawi was, as President Bush described him June 8, the "operational commander of the terrorist movement in Iraq," then his death would have precipitated a noticeable drop-off in the violence in Iraq, don'cha think?
Sadly, it did not.
Violence in Iraq has increased since Zarqawi's death. In June, 3,149 civilians died in the violence there. That was the highest civilian death toll recorded in Iraq until, unfortunately, the following month, when 3,438 civilians died.
In July, 2,625 roadside improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, were found in Iraq, the highest monthly total yet recorded.
Although the Bush administration remains optimistic and boosterish in public, in private it is apparently starting to grasp the magnitude of Iraq's collapse. An Aug. 17 New York Times story quotes a military affairs expert who was briefed by the White House as saying that the top administration officials are preparing for the demise of Iraq's democratically elected government. "Alternatives other than democracy" is the phrase the person used.
Is that the turning point they were talking about?