Potemkin Marketplaces

I almost missed the key point because the article's written in feature style rather than with a standard inverted pyramid lead, but Sudarsan Raghavan's story in The Washington Post contains what certainly looks like a well-documented charge that General Petraeus is creating Potemkin villages in Iraq:

Nearly every week, American generals and politicians visit Combat Outpost Gator, nestled behind a towering blast wall in the Dora market. They arrive in convoys of armored Humvees, sometimes accompanied by helicopter gunships, to see what U.S. commanders display as proof of the effectiveness of a seven-month-long security offensive, fueled by 30,000 U.S. reinforcements. Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. military leader in Iraq, frequently cites the market as a sign of progress.

"This is General Petraeus's baby," said Staff Sgt. Josh Campbell, 24, of Winfield, Kan., as he set out on a patrol near the market on a hot evening in mid-August. [...]

Even U.S. soldiers assigned to protect Petraeus's showcase remain skeptical. "Personally, I think it's a false representation," Campbell said, referring to the portrayal of the Dora market as an emblem of the surge's success. "But what can I say? I'm just doing my job and don't ask questions."

The article goes on to make clear that though visitors see what they're told is a marketplace returning to life thanks to American security measures, no such thing is actually happening. The marketplace is, in fact, kept safe through a combination of massive influx of American manpower, severe restraints on the operations of the Iraqi police, and draconian security measures. These last ("Vehicles are not allowed inside for fear of car bombs. Customers are body-searched at checkpoints") render the marketplace non-viable as an actual venue for commerce. Many of the 300+ stores are said not to sell any meaningful goods, and the whole thing only stays open for a few hours. The businesses are viable under these conditions because of large American cash subsidies and direct expenditures on capital improvements. Thus, when visitors are brought by during the market's few open hours, they see what appears to be a viable marketplace, even though it is, in fact, no such thing.

I read Greg Sargent's trenchant analysis of the media's coverage of the "surge" the other day, and while I agree with essentially all the points he made, it is worth saying that the past couple of weeks have seen quite a few great articles like this one from Raghavan, the AP and McClatchey looking at casualty counts, etc. This really is one of those times when press critics in the blogosphere would have basically nothing to run with if not for our ability to leverage other, better articles like Raghavan's against the worse coverage.