Speaking to the nation

Michael Barone

5/24/2004 12:00:00 AM - Michael Barone

 George W. Bush will speak to the nation tonight about what is happening in Iraq, and what will happen next in Iraq. It is about time. Wartime presidents must speak periodically to the people and explain, again and again, where we are in the course of the war. They must explain what setbacks we have encountered and how we are working to overcome them. They must keep in view the ultimate goal of victory, and explain why achieving it is worthwhile -- what dangers we will escape and what kind of better world we will make.

 Franklin Roosevelt did that during World War II with his fireside chats. The news was not always welcome: In one early speech, he explained why we would be driven out of the Philippines. And his address to the nation on D-Day was in a form that would arouse shrieking criticism if it came from Bush today: It was a prayer. But for the most part, Roosevelt did not have to deal with one problem Bush faces today. And that is that today's press works to put the worst possible face on the war.

 Hence the endless dwelling on the abuses in the Abu Ghraib prison and the breathless speculation that it would drive Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld from office. Instead, an ABC/Washington Post poll showed the public 69 percent to 20 percent against Rumsfeld's resignation. Hence the much lesser coverage given to the murder of Nick Berg. Hence the microscopic coverage of the finding of the deadly poison sarin in an improvised explosive device -- mustn't give credence to the possibility that Saddam was conducting (as inspector David Kay said) weapons of mass destruction programs.

 Hence the publication of obviously faked photographs of supposed atrocities by U.S. troops in the Daily Mirror of London and The Boston Globe. Hence the instant acceptance of the hostile Iraqi spin that U.S. troops fired on an Iraqi wedding near the Syrian border and an ignoring of the evidence, though reported by The Associated Press' Sheherazade Faramarzi, that they were actually firing on a safehouse for foreign fighters from Syria.

 To the criticism that they report and overemphasize bad news, reporters say, correctly, that bad news is news. But in a country like Iraq, ruled by a vicious dictator for the last 35 years, good news is also news. Reporters readily fan out to find bad news. But they seldom seek the good news -- readily available in Iraqi and military weblogs and confirmed in polls of Iraqis -- that incomes, electricity, schools, water quality, medical care, religious freedom and security are improving in Iraq. Some reporters, as the Daily Telegraph's Toby Harnden reports from Iraq, deliberately avoid good news because they think it might help George W. Bush win re-election.

 When Bush speaks to the public, he might follow the example of one considerably below him in the chain of command, Marine Corps Maj. Ben Connable, who wrote is USA Today: "This is my third deployment with the 1st Marine Division to the Middle East. This is the third time I've heard the quavering cries of the talking heads predicting failure and calling for withdrawal. This is the third time I find myself shaking my head in disbelief. ... Just weeks ago, I read that the supply lines were cut, ammunition and food were dwindling, the ?Sunni Triangle' was exploding, cleric Muqtada al-Sadr was leading a widespread Shiite revolt and the country was nearing civil war. As I write this, the supply lines are open, there's plenty of ammunition and food, the Sunni Triangle is back to status quo and Sadr is marginalized in Najaf. Once again, dire predictions of failure and disaster have been dismissed by American willpower and military professionalism."

 The president needs to put things in perspective. Iraq is not Vietnam. My Lai was a massacre; Abu Ghraib was abuse. Hundreds of thousands of enemy attacked in the Tet offensive; a few thousand fought for Moqtada al-Sadr, and they are being rejected by his fellow Shiites.

 The gains to be won by persevering in Iraq are great -- an example of decent government can change the Middle East. The losses to be suffered by not persevering are even greater: Vast gains by terrorists determined to attack everything we hold dear.

 George W. Bush must set out our next steps and show, once again, that the media have got it wrong.