Pundit Pattons

Like boxing cornermen disappointed that their fighter had to settle for a draw, the U.S. commentariat exuded recriminations when American air attacks on Iraq were called off 10 days ago. "Once those planes were launched, they should have been allowed to strike!" bemoaned Sam Donaldson on ABC's This Week. Across the dial, similar wails were heard, as pundits lamented the outbreak of peace. The sudden turn of events led to an outbreak of clichés, wrote the Independent's Robert Fisk—more "unadulterated rubbish about the Middle East from the American media" than at any time since the Gulf War.

The comparison is apt, for just as in 1991, the U.S. media not only acted as cheerleader for war, but couched conflict as a macho drama, sidelining the actual combatants and victims of violence. "Clinton was given an extraordinary opportunity to strike a massive blow against Saddam. He flinched," complained realpolitikian Charles Kraut-hammer in The Washington Post. So-called liberal Richard Cohen whined in the same paper that "the Clinton administration waited too long to act. It needed to punch out Iraq's lights, and it did not do so."

By reducing the prospect of the bombing to a mano a mano contest, the media turned the crisis into a measure of Clinton's manhood. "Who blinked?" asked the Times. The president, of course, responded a New York Post editorial, because he "just couldn't...act like a man." On Fox, Al Haig, as one might expect, had an even more hysterically macho formulation: Clinton's response would be "limp-wristed."

The corollary to this metaphorical personalization of war—the Bill vs. Saddam Desert Thriller—is, of course, the depersonalization of actual victims. Despite a U.S. estimate that bombing Iraq would cause 10,000 civilian deaths, the media studiously avoided meditating on that fact. Indeed, the last two weeks saw a reprise of Gulf War network ads for "smart weapons," perhaps the ultimate symbol of guilt-free war-making.

An NBC report on the Tomahawk cruise missile, for example, breathlessly repeated a Navy claim that the missile "can fly 1000 miles with a 1000-pound warhead and hit a 50-foot bullseye." Never mind that in August's raid on Osama bin Laden's compound in Afghanistan, at least one Tomahawk strayed wildly off course, landing almost 400 miles away in Pakistan. In the October 12 New Yorker, Seymour Hersh reported that two other missiles accidentally hit Pakistani intelligence camps in Afghanistan, killing at least one person. And when the U.S. bombed Iraqi intelligence headquarters in Baghdad in 1993, three of 23 cruise missiles fired went astray, killing eight civilians—including the well-known Iraqi artist Layla al-Attar.

But, to revive another Gulf War term of art, that would be "collateral damage," and besides, said George Will on ABC This Week this Sunday, that 10,000 figure is obviously propaganda, "ginned up for a purpose." The dark design, he suggested in inimitably stilted prose, "was to give a momentum for restraint." Why the Pentagon, which issued the death estimate, would be nefariously subverting U.S. war plans remains unclear, but that was not about to stop Will, who seized on Iraq's weekend document clampdown to call for a ground war. How much of a troglodyte is Will? Consider this exchange from Sunday's program:

Will: "The only way to [topple the Iraqi regime] is with men on the ground with rifles."

Cokie Roberts: "Men and women, George."

Will: "Men on the ground with rifles."

Armchair General Will was pumping for bloodshed all last week, comparing, in a Tuesday column, "recidivist liar" Clinton to Scott Ritter, the U.N. official who resigned this summer to protest U.N. vacillation in Iraq. Will followed other major U.S. newspapers, which cited Ritter 133 times in the two-week period surrounding the Iraq stand-down and in the week following his resignation. Meanwhile, Denis Halliday, another U.N. official who resigned in protest this summer, got eight mentions in the equivalent periods. But then, Halliday resigned to protest the sanctions against Iraq, which he said were killing 6000 to 7000 Iraqis each month.

As Madeleine Albright said on 60 Minutes in 1996, when Lesley Stahl noted that as many as half a million children had died in Iraq since sanctions were imposed: "We think the price is worth it." Far be it for the press to question that judgment.


Suhartless

Though hardly a maverick act of moral courage, The New York Times did manage to editorialize on Saturday in favor of a faster path to civil rights in post-Suharto Indonesia. "[President B.J.] Habibie and his political allies want the army to retain its hand in selecting presidents for 5 to 10 more years," said the paper. "A quicker, cleaner transition to full civilian democracy is needed, and Washington should not be shy about saying so."

This was a refreshing sentiment from the Times, considering a previous Nicolas Kristof dispatch, in which the erstwhile Tokyo bureau chief characterized the Indonesian Army as "the institution that used to keep the passengers in the back seat and maintain order"—rather than as the genocidal legion of murderous thugs they are.

Nonetheless, the Times didn't inquire as to the likelihood of Washington putting the screws to Habibie. Maybe that's because the chances are slim, in part because of the extraordinary and baleful influence of an American multinational: New Orleans mining behemoth and Suharto ally Freeport McMoRan Copper and Gold. Not unlike Chiquita in Honduras, Freeport—through a combination of lobbying and campaign donations over the past two decades—has helped ensure that U.S. policy supported the corrupt Indonesian status quo. Now, Freeport has an apparent friend in Robert Livingston, the new Speaker of the House.

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