The bipolar media

Posted: Mar 28, 2003 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON--The media could use some lithium. Not since I studied bipolar disease 25 years ago have I seen such dramatic mood swings as in the coverage of the first week of the war.

It began with ``shock and awe'' euphoria, the hailing of a campaign of immaculate destruction. It was going to be Kosovo II, Afghanistan with embeds, another war of nearly bloodless (for us) success.

And then on Sunday, bloody Sunday, the media discovered that war is hell, and descended into a mood as dark as any of Churchill's ``black dogs.'' But the blackness came from confusing two different phenomena: war and battle. The narrow focus of the camera sees not war, but individual battles, which, broadcast live, gave the home front the immediate (vicarious) experience of the confusion and terror of combat. Among the chattering classes, a mini-panic set in.

By Monday, the media were in full quagmire mode. Good grief. If there had been TV cameras not just at Normandy, but after Normandy, giving live coverage of firefights at every French village on the Allies' march to Berlin, the operation would have been judged a strategic miscalculation, if not a disaster. The fact is that after a single week we find ourselves at the gates of Baghdad, servicing the longest supply lines in American history, with combat losses astonishingly low by any standard.

In the current campaign, we have suffered from two major impediments: Turkey's betrayal and our own high moral standards. Turkey's refusal to let us send the 4th Infantry Division to attack Baghdad from the north has cost us heavily. It has allowed Saddam to concentrate his defenses to the south and essentially cut in half the size of the heavily mechanized enemy he has to deal with. (The president's supplemental budget request has $1 billion in aid for Turkey. Congress should strike every penny of it.)

Even more important, we've been held back by our own scrupulousness. It is safe to say there has never been a conflict in which one belligerent has taken more care not to harm the civilians of the other. And it has already cost us. We know that the ``irregulars''--the thugs whose profession heretofore had been the most barbaric internal repression in the service of Saddam's psychopathic son, Uday--use human shields, fight in civilian disguise and attack under a fake flag of surrender. Our restraint in choice of targets and in the treatment of those who appear to be civilians and those who appear to have surrendered has cost us not just time and territory, but lives.

And yet, being who we are, we do not change the rules of engagement. Which is what makes Kofi Annan's most recent pronouncement so deeply offensive. With his customary sanctimony, he said on Wednesday that he was ``getting increasingly concerned by humanitarian casualties in this conflict,'' and then immediately cited ``the report that a missile struck a market in Baghdad.''

This is staggering. If indeed the market explosion was caused by a U.S. missile, Annan knows that this was both entirely unintentional and a rare exception in a campaign of astonishing discrimination and accuracy. Annan's statement is doubly disgusting because he said nothing about Iraq's use of human shields, of fake surrenders, of placing a tank in a hospital compound in Nasiriyah. He says not a word about these flagrant Iraqi violations of the laws of war. Nor does he denounce the parading of POWs on television and the apparent execution of other American POWs. He is instead moved to speak out in response to what is at most an accident.

Tony Blair wants us to go back and deal with Annan and the rest of the U.N. when this is over. After the blood and treasure expended, why would we hand the fruits of victory to a man who tried his best to delegitimize this war before it began and now tries to cast moral taint on our conduct of it?

President Bush, meeting with Blair this week, should tell his good and courageous friend that returning to Annan and the corrupt institution he represents is a huge mistake. It will win no hearts and minds, no more than did the futile attempt to get the second resolution out of the Security Council.

The way to win hearts and minds is not to try to appease those who wish us no good, but to stay in Iraq and use the authority of the victor to build a decent and open society. We will not win the propaganda war with words. We will win it by overthrowing Saddam and exposing the nature of his barbarism--and the shame of those who supported him and tried to shield him from the just fate American and British soldiers are attempting to visit upon him today.