Peter Arnett: whose man in Baghdad?

Mona Charen

4/1/2003 12:00:00 AM - Mona Charen

In keeping with his reportorial record, even Peter Arnett's apology lacked credibility. While he apologized to the American people for making a "misjudgment," he vitiated the request for forgiveness by adding, "I said over the weekend what we all know about the war."

Not exactly. Arnett, who had been reporting from Baghdad for NBC, gave an impromptu interview to Iraqi TV that could have been scripted by Tariq Aziz. American war planners "clearly misjudged the determination of the Iraqi forces," Arnett explained. He then offered this endorsement of the Iraqi Ministry of Information (which has expelled reporters from the major networks): "For 12 years I have been coming here, and I've met unfailing courtesy and cooperation." Well, I wouldn't brag about it if I were you, Peter. You've been their chief toady over the years. Besides, to praise the Iraqi Ministry of Information is like praising Joseph Goebbels.

But Arnett was just warming up. He praised the spirit of the Iraqis in resisting the coalition. "This is clearly a city that is disciplined. The population is responsive to the government's requirements of discipline." Discipline is such an anodyne word -- so much nicer than terror, which is the real source of the regime's power.

But then Arnett really went over the top, so keen was he to demonstrate to his Iraqi hosts that he was helping their war effort. "It is clear that within the U.S. there's a growing challenge to President Bush about the conduct of the war and also opposition to the war. So our reports about civilian casualties here, about the resistance of the Iraqi forces are going back to the U.S., and it helps those who oppose the war."

And so, ladies and gentleman, there is no doubt that Peter Arnett wins the useful idiot contest for this week. (NBC, after initially defending Arnett, gave him the ax the following day.)

But the fact that NBC, and before it, National Geographic Explorer, hired Arnett at all after his debacle at CNN reveals the tolerance among many in the press for anti-American bias of a particularly nasty kind.

This is hardly Arnett's first slip. As it happens, Arnett makes an appearance in my book "Useful Idiots" for his reporting from Vietnam. Remember the phrase, "We had to destroy the village in order to save it"? It has become totemic. Arnett was the originator of the phrase. The trouble is, as first B.G. Burkett and then I discovered after a little investigation, the report was wrong. It wasn't the United States that destroyed Ben Tre (a town, not a village), but the Vietcong. And the soldier Arnett was most likely quoting remembers saying, "It was a shame the town was destroyed," not the fatuity Arnett made famous.

During the Gulf War in 1991, Arnett made himself useful to the Iraqi regime in many ways, most memorably by supporting its claim that a plant destroyed by coalition bombs was making only baby formula.

And in 1998, Peter Arnett reported a totally fabricated story on CNN on the so-called Operation Tailwind. Arnett told viewers that in 1970, during the Vietnam War, the United States Army had secretly hunted down American "defectors" in Laos and killed them using poison gas. The only problem with the report was that it was completely false. Someone more fair-minded than Arnett would have had the sense to question his producers more closely on their sources of information. As it is, CNN was humiliated, two producers were fired, and Arnett's contract was not renewed.

And yet, even despite that history, NBC snatched him when he showed up in Baghdad for the current war. NBC clearly has a very high tolerance for anti-Americanism. It must regard the tendency to believe the worst about the United States as evidence of honest reporting. But how honest was Arnett when it came to Iraqi behavior?

Throughout the Cold War, liberals surrounded themselves with people like Arnett -- people whose skepticism about the United States made them seem "independent" and "objective." But some, like Arnett, were tawdry, America-hating weasels. Their welcome within the liberal fold is a continuing scandal.