After Saddam Hussein's pledge of full cooperation with UN weapons inspectors led President Clinton to cancel air attacks at the last minute in mid-November, a strong wave of frustration swept through American news media.
The pattern was all too familiar, the refrain went. Yet again, the US government ended up taking yes for an answer from Iraq's cunning despot.
Many commentators griped about the cost of mobilizing and then not attacking. Each time the United States sends a fleet to the Persian Gulf, the buildup costs another $1 billion or so. What good is repeated deployment of enormous firepower if it isn't used?
Quite a few pundits sounded very disappointed — as if a long-desired ice cream cone was near their lips and then went splat on the sidewalk.
Two days after President Clinton proclaimed that “Iraq has backed down,” the most influential newspaper in the nation's capital — The Washington Post — filled its opinion page with caustic reactions from three prominent syndicated columnists.
Clinton again proved that he's a wimp, George Will observed from the front lines of his word processor. The commentator warned against restraint: “US forces should quickly destroy any site, such as a presidential compound, that inspectors are prevented from examining.”
Meanwhile, Charles Krauthammer wrote that “Clinton was given an extraordinary opportunity to strike a massive blow against Saddam. He flinched.” Krauthammer briefly noted that “the military's estimate of casualties from an initial strike” was “10,000 Iraqi dead” — but who cares? Uncle Sam should strive to “disarm, disrupt and destroy Saddam's regime. A relentless air campaign had a good chance of doing that.”
Liberal Richard Cohen was not to be outdone in the blood-thirst department. “Both countries backed down — one the world's only superpower, the other a Third World country, short of everything but gall,” he declared. “Something is out of balance here. The Clinton administration waited too long to act. It needed to punch out Iraq's lights, and it did not do so.”
Hypocrisy abounds, but never mind that. With US support, Israel has violated numerous UN resolutions while maintaining its occupations of the West Bank and Gaza as well as Southern Lebanon. Running weapons facilities that have produced about 200 nuclear warheads, Israel still refuses to allow any international inspection.
The United States invokes the sanctity of the United Nations when useful but ignores that world body whenever convenient — and reserves the right to unilaterally attack Iraq whether the UN likes it or not.
Often, the paramount US media concerns have been framed in macho terms. Recent news coverage focused on a question that led off a front-page New York Times article: “Who blinked?” Many American journalists lamented that Clinton did not entirely stare down Saddam Hussein.
The New York Post scornfully editorialized that Clinton had not been able to “act like a man.” The newspaper, owned by Rupert Murdoch, added that “whenever circumstances have demanded that this president rise to the occasion and really be president, he has failed the United States and the world.”
Frustrated as they were by the lack of military consummation, cable TV networks and other media outlets were soon able to replace the faded specter of a bloody high-tech assault with audio recordings of Linda Tripp and Monica Lewinsky.
Of course, the telephone tapes couldn't quite be touted as new — the printed transcripts had been released several weeks earlier — but more nuances were available. The Associated Press echoed the widespread hype by reporting that the 22 hours of tapes “gave America its first chance to hear Ms. Lewinsky's voice.” AP explained that “what was new Tuesday was the emotion and inflection.”
And so it goes. “Emotion” is supposed to matter greatly in some contexts. In others, such as past and future US missile attacks on Iraq, the emotions — in fact, the lives — of people at the other end of US missiles are unimportant.
As consumers of media images, we're offered one insulated kick after another. We easily slip into spectator mode, vicarious and detached.
The euphemisms are wrapped in smug bravado and playground posturing. “A relentless air campaign” is needed. The president should order the Pentagon to “punch out Iraq's lights.”
If necessary, don't spare them. But spare us the grisly details.