Iraq isn't the big story this month. Gas prices are. In May, the Associated Press reported, U.S. military deaths plunged to the lowest monthly level in four years and civilian casualties were down sharply, too. Gasoline also hit $4 a gallon. And you don't see as many "No war for oil" bumper stickers as you used to.
The success of the Bush surge -- with Iraqi forces having led offensives in three major cities and taking on Shiite militias -- has been greeted in America with a collective shrug. "My perhaps overly cynical view is that it's probably too much to hope for -- a lot of good news stories coming out of Iraq," U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker said during a recent conference call. But also, with the al-Maliki government clearing once dangerous areas and violence dropping, "Iraq no longer occupies the status as the overarching, all-encompassing crisis that requires full national attention."
Reporters based in Iraq have seen improvements. NBC News' Richard Engel told the New York Observer about a recent trip to Najaf, "I was walking around the city doing interviews, without any kind of security or back up at all. That felt great. I hadn't done that in years. A Chinese restaurant, takeout, just opened up down the street from our bureau. There were no businesses opening in '06 and '07. People are getting out more. You see more people on the streets going to markets. When I go to do interviews, I can stay longer."
And yet, there is a "marked drop-off in the appetite for stories from Iraq," ABC news' Terry McCarthy told the Observer. "That's partly due to the election, partly because of the fatigue, and partly because things have started to go right here. The spectacular car bombs, the massive attacks, you just don't see them anymore. A drip, drip story that's getting a little better day by day doesn't make a headline."
CNN's Michael Ware calls it "audience fatigue." Other journalists, who have risked their lives covering the war, complain that Americans aren't paying attention to their stories on Iraq.
If reporters think their work is unappreciated, imagine how U.S. troops in Iraq feel. They're working miracles -- to insufficient applause.
Four years ago, before the U.S. troop death toll hit 1,000 in September 2004, the war was the moral issue. When liberal Democrats were trying to take over Congress in 2006, they used the war to clobber President Bush and told America that if they were in power, the war would end. Well, they took control of Congress, and the war continues. So now there are fewer political points to be won banging the war.
As of Thursday, 4,098 U.S. troops had died in the Iraq war. Yet Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama's No. 1 issue is the U.S. economy. When the senator talks about the war, he often does so in terms of the $12 billion spent each month in Iraq. Clearly, Team Obama figures that it's not the toll of American blood but the price tag that enrages voters in this short-attention span nation.
It seems the better the war goes, the less interest some partisans show in Iraq. Their attention wanders if they can't play the blame game and chant, "Bush lied."
Ah, and this time, the critics were wrong when they argued the surge could not work. Obama was wrong, and, face it, opposing the surge was the politically easy thing to do.
Conversely, John McCain supported the surge -- and he did so in opposition to well-wishers and pundits who argued that his support for the war would doom his campaign.
So Team Obama is reduced to nitpicking at McCain. When McCain told NBC's "Today" show that it's "not too important" when U.S. troops are brought home -- "We will be able to withdraw, but the key to it is that we don't want any more Americans in harm's way" -- Obama surrogates pounced.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., called McCain "unbelievably out of touch with the needs and concerns of Americans, particularly of the families of the troops that are over there." Sure, McCain spent five years as a prisoner of war in the Hanoi Hilton. His 19-year-old son, Jimmy, just returned from his first tour in Iraq and another son, Jack, is in the U.S. Naval Academy. Yet somehow Team Obama paints McCain as out-of-touch with military families.
Four years ago, when Iraq was center stage and Democrats thought opposition to the war would lead to electoral victory, Kerry led off his address to the Democratic National Committee with a salute as he announced, "I'm John Kerry and I'm reporting for duty."
In 2008, now that prices at the pump are his big issue and Iraq is framed as an economic issue, what will Obama say: You deserve a break today?
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