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Monday, September 03, 2007

Adventures in Stagecraft

Coverage of President Bush's "surprise" visit to Iraq raises a question for nearly every visual talking point intended to come out of the trip.

Where to Land?

Some have theorized that the Bush Administration selected Al-Asad Air Base in the Anbar province over Baghdad as the site for the visit for symbolic reasons, principally that a province where we have focused military stabilization efforts with surge forces has enjoyed a turnaround and is safe enough for even the American President to visit. CBS reported the site may also have been chosen for the public picture of a Shi'ite dominated government being able to communicate with Sunni Iraqis who dominate the region.

In reality, it seems clear that few other sites were remotely suitable, either from a security or public relations standpoint. The southern city of Basra was not a useful PR choice because even though Iraqi forces are officially taking over from the British (that's the goal, right?), they're taking over because the British decided it was time to leave, regardless. Oops, don't want to remind the American public of that. Baghdad itself was not a viable security or PR choice because we have failed to make a material dent in reducing violence there on anything larger than a block by block basis.

In the end, even the sites involved with the President's visit or on-the-street interviews of General Patraeus by Katy Couric were not terribly useful for the Bush Administration's purposes. Bush arrived at an heavily protected air base and never left the base to venture anywhere in the province outside the base. Katy Couric's walking-the-street interview with Patraeus involved a street seemingly deserted bombed out street and a ride in a presumably heavily armored HumVee in which he said the streets are now quite safe. Really? Why the HumVee?

What Surprise?

The American press uniformly described the trip as a top-secret surprise visit, which of course makes perfect sense given that Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice also attended. But was it a surprise?

Russ Mitchell and Harry Smith filled in for Katy Couric on the CBS Evening News late last week as she traveled "on assignment" to Iraq to set up coverage for the inevitable focus on the upcoming Patraeus report to Congress. In her Monday report, Katy summarized all of the locations that would be involved with her reporting which included Basra, Fallujah, Baghdad and one or two other major towns, all at opposite ends of the war-torn country. All of this makes perfect sense.

Despite that adventurous travel plan and a Sunday spent almost entirely with General David Patraeus, Katy managed to wind up at precisely the location where President Bush arranged a pep rally in front of troops at Al-Asad Air Base and managed to score a one-on-one interview with Der Decider. I could believe if the President arrived at a major American position within the country and CBS had a stringer reporter or a major "name" reporter like Lara Logan nearby who could then rush in to nab the scoop. However, for the anchor to be in the right place at the right time with the degree of secrecy normally required for an American President to drop into a war zone smacks of stagecraft and a media willing to help set the stage. Bush Administration, meet Katy Couric, your new stenographer. Here's your "scoop." We won't have to wait long to see what was in the scoop.

What's The Mission Again?

The meeting at the Al-Asad Air Base gave the President a chance to give the troops stationed there a pep talk and well-deserved morale boost. But again, let's consider the stagecraft. The video of Bush's talk with the troops depicted him amidst a backdrop of probably 20-30 troops and what sounded like at least 200-300 people in front of him in the facility. As short-staffed as we are across Iraq, I find it puzzling how that large a number of troops, who typically work 12-15 hours probably 6 out of 7 days or 13 out of 14 days, would be all available and on-base to provide scenery for the President's appearance. Obviously, knowing the Commander in Chief was coming would alter daily schedules to increase security but 300 troops cheering the President are 300 troops NOT patrolling the streets of Anbar province and rooting out "evil-doers." What exactly is the mission again?