Pundits to Saddam: Your evil derrihre is OURS!

TV Newsfolks, jonesing for a war with Saddam, are disappointed when Iraq accepts U.S. demands.

By James Poniewozik
Published November 17, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

I once heard somebody explain why Persian Gulf War videotapes appealed to military buffs, even though, as a piece of martial theater, the turkey shoot itself was a relative snooze: It offered a safe dry run (dry, that is, on our end) of World War III, putting billions of dollars of Cold War hardware to good use without any of the unpleasant aftereffects of having to roast two-headed rats in a post-nuclear moonscape. Waste not, want not.

In much the same way, since the Gulf War three national cable news networks had amassed a vast, high-tech strike force: Greener night-scope vision! Enough punditry firepower to cover major sex scandals on two continents simultaneously! Theme music a hundred times more powerful than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki explosions combined!

And yet this force had never properly been blooded. So the deployment of the American news machine on the Iraq crisis began by midweek to resemble a WWII ensemble picture: hard-bitten veterans like CNN's Christiane Amanpour mustering alongside eager greenhorns like MSNBC's "Morning Blend" host Soledad O'Brien (with George Will reprising his role as the prim chaplain). After 10 months on maneuvers at Fort Monica, it was time to head into the field and see what kind of damage this baby could do.

As in 1991, "Operation Desert Thunder" (defense cutbacks have gutted the Pentagon's creative nomenclature department) began with an air war that softened up the territory for an ensuing strike. But this time the advance sorties were carried out by the proud dirigibles of the American commentary caste. William Safire and various cable-news speculators, for instance, were volunteering by midweek the notion that during an air strike Saddam Hussein might blow up Iraqi citizens himself, meaning, essentially -- considering the slim chance of any independent verification afterward -- that any butterfingers on the behalf of the attacking forces would be kinda-sorta exculpated in advance.

But most important, the campaign was carried out in the supertitles and the screen graphics, where the first draft of history is now written. CNN and MSNBC staked out their positions in the tag lines for their coverage that rolled out Thursday: CNN called it "Showdown with Iraq," whereas MSNBC opted for "Showdown with Saddam," a turn of phrase that comfortingly implied we would shortly be launching missiles not against a crippled third-world people but rather straight between that sumbitch's eyes. One could argue that MSNBC's is in fact the more peaceful phrasing -- emphasizing that "our quarrel is not with the people of Iraq" -- but considering that history indicates "the people of Iraq" would end up better positioned to take a Tomahawk in the ass than their bunker-encased leader, it's a rather dicey distinction to make.

MSNBC certainly appeared to have invested the most in the pending war, including a frosted-glass-looking backdrop map of the Persian Gulf that would have made a lovely crudité plate. By Thursday, the network had developed 10-second agitprop promos worthy of Paul Verhoeven: As a close-up of a glowering Saddam was superimposed on the cross hairs of a radar scope, a voice-over intoned, "Is there only one way to deal with this man? The time for decision is near!" ("The only good bug is a dead bug! For its part, Fox News curiously decided against 24-7 Iraq coverage, offering heavy doses of impeachment news through the weekend; at one point on Saturday morning the network -- which seems hell-bent on being the definitive news channel for information on your pet's health -- stuck with a segment on spaying and neutering as the other nets went live with coverage of Iraq's reported acquiescence to sanctions.

By Friday night, the accepted wisdom on the networks was: War is inevitable. So the disbelief and outrage were all the greater Saturday morning when the dread dove of peace spread its malignant wings and shat the foul droppings of conciliation all over those fine graphics. "Has diplomacy defused an attack on Iraq?" a CNN anchor intoned gloomily. "It may have." (Meanwhile, back on "Morning Blend," O'Brien had reached the firm grammatical decision that the term "hands" is singular. "Isn't the president's hands tied?" she asked White House reporter John Palmer. "The government's hands is now tied.")

The networks shifted gears midmorning from 1991 nostalgia to analysis of how the United States could possibly have been snookered into having its demands accepted. The overarching theme: If Iraq had accepted inspections unconditionally, this would be Saddam's greatest stroke of evil genius yet. Within an hour of the Iraqi letter's release, defense analysts and former weapons inspectors were on air speculating on how the Clinton administration could "find an out" -- an "out," that is, from having won exactly the concessions it asked for.

It briefly appeared that Iraq's two-page annex of requests to the United Nations would be that out, but it was not enough. The consternation among the press came to a head at National Security Advisor Samuel Berger's press conference Saturday night. Leading the pack was Sam Donaldson, who practically accused Berger and the joint chiefs of being light in the loafers: "It's not clear why, if (Iraq's) letter is unacceptable," he barked, "you would not have gone ahead and (attacked)? Why wouldn't you 'proceed on your own timetable,' as you put it?" One half expected him to offer to push the button himself, if the administration was too chickenshit to do it. Gen. Donaldson returned to the theme with gusto Sunday morning on ABC's "This Week," implying together with George Will that someone in the administration, or maybe the Frenchies, had tipped off Saddam to the cruise-missile attack, enabling his last-minute cave-in. Capitulation or no, he declared, "Once those planes were launched, they should have been allowed to strike!" Surprisingly, Donaldson made it all the way to the commercial break without having to wrestle his hand down to the armrest.

The most striking difference between the coverage of this crisis and 1991's was the even greater dearth of dissent. Generally what passed for criticism was the opinion that the administration hadn't come up with a good enough plan to illegally whack a head of state. Analysts blithely strategized tracking and hitting Iraqi leaders, with hardly a nod to the standing executive order against assassination. ("Targeting command and control" was shaping up to be the "collateral damage" of 1998, the defining euphemism of Gulf War II.) A curiously timed New York Times report Saturday landed like a bloody horse head on Saddam's pillow, suddenly and gamely confirming that, earlier denials notwithstanding, the August air raid against Afghanistan was in fact intended to kill Osama bin Laden. But not to worry! Crack White House lawyers -- our experts on "what 'is' is" -- had determined the assassination ban didn't apply to terrorist "infrastructure," which apparently now includes those persons the U.S. government finds inconvenient. In other words, there's no need to officially overturn the executive order, because it's not an assassination if we really, really want the guy dead.

It may confound reason to say this in the age of the 24-hour op-ed, but this week we may have witnessed a news event on which there weren't enough opinions spouted; almost no one on the air argued against an assault entirely, except for Arab-American spokesman Hussein Ibish and Bob Novak (channeling the spirit of conservative isolationist Robert Taft on CNN's "Capital Gang"). Commentators from Bill Kristol to Margaret Carlson were now of the opinion that it was time to bring the pain immediately -- whether Saddam was willing to let inspectors back in or not -- in spite of the fact that those same, apparently useless inspectors were likewise in Iraq two weeks ago when the commentariat was seemingly unaware that Saddam Hussein still existed.

The lack of dissent may have been in part due to the speed of developments: Inside a week, the news cycle went from Dick Armey agonistes to a near-instant war footing. Thus, unlike last winter's buildup, culminating in the P.R. debacle of the Columbus town meeting, when the citizenry asked impolite questions about U.S. plans to attack Iraq, Americans had this intervention presented to them as a fait accompli without time to reconsider. Certainly the Rumble in Columbus seemed to be the unspoken subtext behind the cranky urgency of the talking heads.

However legitimate the arguments against trusting Saddam's diplomacy, there was something creepy and vaguely antidemocratic about this impatience, the constant harping that we were this close to launching on Saturday until the administration let a golden chance slip through its fingers -- push the button now, you morons, before somebody starts paying attention! Is it so paranoid to think that we had tried public discourse and found we didn't like it? That we witnessed a government preparing a blitzkrieg to gain the element of surprise not on its enemy but on the people and the press?

If so, it appears not to have worked yet. But buck up. If the worst happens and we see a cycle of buildup and backdown -- if Desert Thunder is forestalled and replaced by Desert Hail, Desert Snow and Desert Haze with Really Uncomfortably High Humidity -- it will at least prove a fecund news cycle to replace the sputtering impeachment story. If we know Saddam Hussein, the networks will again get the opportunity to shill for air strikes and cheer on administration hawks in their battle against the peacemongering Kofi Annans of the world. Pity the poor folk of Iraq, who will continue to have to rely on the compromised and monolithic broadcasts of the state-controlled media.

James Poniewozik

James Poniewozik is a Time magazine columnist on TV and media.

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