It's time for some rational thought in the media

Posted: Jun 04, 2004 12:00 AM

  WASHINGTON -- ``Today the guns are silent. ... The entire world is quietly at peace.'' So said Douglas MacArthur in September 1945. Last week, seeing that quotation, now inscribed in stone at the new World War II Memorial in Washington, I was struck, touched, by its optimism. 

     And transience. The end of the war brought peace to Germany and Japan, which had been reduced to rubble. But that was the peace of the grave. There was no peace in Greece or China, where guerrilla war continued through the 1940s. There was tremendous civil unrest in France where communist parties came very close to winning power. And then, of course, the postcolonial aftermath: wars in India, Palestine, Indochina, Burma, and the list goes on.

     A few days after my encounter with that MacArthur quotation, I read a brilliant and impassioned article by the eminent British military historian, John Keegan, skewering the commonplace and ahistorical idea -- claiming World War II as a model -- that wars end cleanly, neatly and completely. Keegan's article (London Daily Telegraph, June 1) detailed the bloody aftermath that continued for years after MacArthur's words on the battleship Missouri.

     Keegan's larger point was contemporary, however. ``The British and American media retail with evident satisfaction every scrap of information'' -- bad war news, coalition soldiers' misconduct -- that ``undermines any expectation by readers and viewers of a successful outcome to the Iraqi involvement.'' The fact that transition from the coalition conquest of last April 9 to whatever new Iraq emerges will be difficult and bloody and contentious is the historical norm, argues Keegan, and yet it has been used by critics to discredit both the war and Bush and Blair for having undertaken it.

     Keegan does not just know more history than all the sage Iraq critics combined. Within hours, his resistance to the Iraq panic sweeping Washington and London was looking prescient. The panic-mongers had been telling us that all was chaos, that the June 30 date for the handover of power to an interim Iraqi government was approaching with nothing but violence, bickering, and no one to hand the reins to.

     As of this week, we have an interim Iraqi government, remarkably balanced in terms of ethnicity, region and tribe. Such encouraging developments, however, are apparently not to be permitted to puncture the current defeatism.

     A moderate Shiite is appointed prime minister, and the headlines prominently mention that he was supported by the CIA, thus implicitly encouraging the notion that the man is illegitimate.

     First of all, from where was an Iraqi exile, hunted by Saddam, to get help, if not from the CIA and MI6? From France? Germany? Russia? Kofi Annan? George Soros?

     Secondly, Ayad Allawi cooperated with the CIA in a mission that was entirely honorable (though terribly bungled by the CIA): a coup to overthrow the Saddam dictatorship.

     Then it is said that this new Iraqi government is illegitimate because it consists of just the old, discredited interim Iraqi Governing Council reappointing itself. In fact, the new government of 36 ministers contains just four from the Governing Council.

     Then comes my favorite: the new government has no legitimacy because it is composed of so many exiles. What kind of political leadership does one expect in a country that endured three decades of Stalinist tyranny in which any expression of opposition met with torture and death?

     Strange. I do not remember any of these critics complaining about the universally hailed Oslo peace accords that imposed upon the Palestinians a PLO government flown in from Tunisia composed nearly entirely of political exiles.

     Ah, but Yasser Arafat, thug and terrorist, instantly wins legitimacy in the eyes of Western intelligentsia because he is a self-proclaimed revolutionary, while Iraq's interim prime minister, who was nearly axed to death by Saddam's agents in London, is dismissed as an ``exile.''

     Who better than these exiles -- some rather heroic, many of whom created and sustained organized political opposition for decades -- to run a transitional government? Note: Transitional. Unlike the Palestinian Authority, a tyrannous kleptocracy that grabbed power and has not relinquished it for 10 years, this new Iraqi government will be out of business in seven months. Its major function is to prepare elections, which will ratify the rise of new indigenous leaders who have emerged in the (by then) year and a half since the fall of Saddam.

     Yes, Iraq is a mess. Postwar settlements almost invariably are. Particularly in a country where the removal of a totalitarian dictator leaves a total political vacuum. Of course there are difficulties and dangers ahead, and no guarantee of success. But the transition to Iraqi rule is under way. The first critical step has just been taken.