“It was not the 2003 invasion that brought my country to its knees. Things have always been very bad… They just got much worse.” This is what my Arabic professor told me last fall, speaking of her home nation Iraq. I listened to her words and understood that this information was exclusive to the classroom; no one else was hearing her story. And now that the war is over, it seems even less likely that anyone will.
As media coverage of Iraq has declined, it is becoming less and less likely that Iraq’s story will be available to the American public. In the spring of 2007, the Pew Research Center’s Project for Journalistic Excellence reported that 22% of all US media related to Iraq. Since 2009, that number has been around 1%. However, this drop in coverage actually began in 2008, meaning that the lack of public awareness of the affairs of the Iraqi people is nothing new.
The decline was mostly caused by competing coverage of the economic recession and the 2008 presidential campaign. While candidates debated, Iraq was an afterthought for the average American. Furthermore, with news agencies being forced to cut back like everyone else, expensive overseas bureaus became something of a luxury, leading to the closure of CNN’s Baghdad bureau, among others. However, there was another, more intuitive, reason for the decline: the American people were tired of war.
While many Americans might wish that our engagement in Iraq had never happened, sadly, this wish will never be fulfilled. Instead, we must come to terms with the decisions of our government, our part in the development of today’s Iraq, and that the American people still have an obligation to the people of Iraq. Indeed, as President Barack Obama said to Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki and the people of Iraq: “you will not stand alone.”
Perhaps, if the media were to report on Iraq with the same level of scrutiny as during the occupation, Americans would be able to see their obligation for peace, and act on it accordingly. But as our attention is diverted further and further away, access to the lives of the Iraqi people is lost, meaning that it will be that much harder for concerned Americans, like myself, to positively influence peacebuilding.
And it’s not just the media whose attentions and resources have shifted elsewhere. The budgets of many NGOs have been diverted to other causes. Since 2007 the National Endowment for Democracy’s budget for Iraq and the Gulf Region has fallen by 66%. And while there are complex reasons for this shortfall, not the least of which is the economic recession, it indicates a shift in priorities by its main source of income: the U.S. government.
As a concerned individual, I believe that if Congress is not pressured to maintain an interest in Iraq, institutions like the NED and EPIC will struggle to make a necessary and significant impact towards peace in Iraq. Additionally, if there is no media coverage relaying the stories of everyday Iraqis, individual citizens will not realize the importance of or need for robust peace building efforts.
Now that our military involvement is officially over, we have an opportunity to reflect on this past decade. We have to decide what we, as Americans, want to represent. Will we allow ourselves to be defined by a war, or by the peace that has a chance to follow?