Trilogy of Error?

Unsatisfying media spectacles from Bush, Saddam, and a Virtual March


In a world with a gargantuan appetite for political theater, no fewer than three separate media events vied for our attention yesterday: the anti-war group MoveOn's "Virtual March" on Washington, D.C.; Dan Rather's televised interview with Saddam Hussein; and President George W. Bush's "major speech" on post-war Iraq. That all three were ultimately unsatisfying spectacles is perhaps not surprising, but is troubling all the same, especially as each adds to a growing sense that we're stuck in a great, anxious historical pause.

The Virtual March against invading Iraq apparently succeeded in its primary goals of tying up Capitol Hill switchboards and providing workfare for virtual actors such as Mike Farrell. Organizers claim that motivated crank-yankers placed over 1 million calls to the president, senators, and congressmen. Callers were encouraged to choose any or all of seven eminently defensible "talking points," ranging from "We can disarm Saddam Hussein without invading Iraq" to "What happens after war?" to "Young Americans will die in battle." MoveOn wisely counseled the antiwar crowd to steer clear of unconvincing tropes such as "no blood for oil" or Amiri Baraka's insistence that somehow Israel is the real enemy here.

Whether MoveOn's act of telephonic terrorism will help or hurt antiwar efforts is anybody's guess. "It's a useful tool for people to express [protesters'] views," said a White House flack who admitted that the president's phone rang "a lot" due to the protest. Still, sniffed the spokesowoman, "it's not objective or scientific or a way to measure public sentiments." One of the Virtual March's organizers, Tom Andrews, told the press that none of pols' offices "expressed annoyance," which may well be a greater sign of defeat than having one of TV's first female cops, Cagney (or is it Lacey?), working the phone tree.

At least this much is clear, based on last night's 60 Minutes II kid-gloves chat with Saddam Hussein: The "Arab Avenger" is not helping his own cause, unless his goal is committing suicide by U.N. resolution.

Dan Rather certainly seemed dedicated to burying his own Q rating every bit as deep into the ground as Saddam's reputed cache of chemical and biological weapons. The newsman's lengthy followup on the details of the absurd Saddam-Bush debate burned valuable time that might have been better spent asking questions about torture, starvation, and repression. And his bizarre request that Saddam utter some pidgin English for the camera—"would you speak some English for me? Anything you choose"—stopped just short of "What's the frequency" weirdness. One needn't invoke the good old days when high-hat hacks such as Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite bestrode the Earth to realize something's seriously wrong when Martin Bashir's Q&A with Michael Jackson is harder-hitting and more revelatory than a "serious" journalist's talk with the dictator du jour.

For his part, Saddam's jesuitical lies regarding his obvious non-compliance with United Nations resolutions, his insistence that Iraq evacuated Kuwait as the victors in the Gulf War, and the legitimacy he invested in being chosen "unanimously" to lead Iraq's terrorized population all helped put an inhuman, sociopathic face on a tyrant that even the most ardent anti-war activists don't defend. Other offhand comments (e.g., "Jealousy is for women…men are not supposed to be jealous of one another" and his self-described "funny anecdote" about only calling the first President Bush Mr. after he'd left office) merely cemented the image of Saddam as someone whose reality principle vanished a long, long time ago.

The best case for not attacking Iraq—that, as U.S. intelligence has held all along, Saddam was not involved with 9/11 and that he can be contained with force short of an invasion—is still wholly legitimate. But Saddam's every utterance speaks directly to the hawk in every dove.

More important to most anti-war protesters, who typically invoke the U.N. as the ultimate arbiter on action in Iraq, is this: If even Saddam agrees with the letter and law of the current U.N. resolutions—"We have committed ourselves to Resolution [sic]"; "No violation has been made by Iraq to anything decided by the United Nations," —he has legitimated an international strike against his regime, even if the U.N. itself watches from the sidelines.

If Saddam's table talk with Dan Rather gave pro-U.N. antiwar activists something to think long and hard about, President's Bush's speech at the American Enterprise Institute's annual dinner, tried to focus attention away from fighting and toward the sort of rosy, best-case scenario usually directed at economic activity rather than the resculpting of a complete world region. Deposing Saddam by force if necessary could, said Bush, lead to a flourishing of democracy in the Middle East, the end of global terrorism, and a final settling of the Palestinian issue. Bush, who came to power articulating a "humble" foreign policy that explicitly eschewed nation-building and what are generally called humanitarian interventions, has patched together themes that, however at odds with his earlier stance, combine something for liberals and conservatives alike (in his phrase, "liberty for an oppressed people, and security for the American people").

While this has been to date Bush's sharpest articulation of his administration's aims in Iraq, to call his scenario simply overly optimistic borders on Saddam-like delusions. "Old patterns of conflict in the Middle East can be broken, if all concerned will let go of bitterness, hatred, and violence, and get on with the serious work of economic development, and political reform, and reconciliation," proclaims Bush, as if there was something original or magical in articulating such an obvious conditional statement.

Indeed, recent adventures in nation-building have been less than smashing successes; rebuilding an entire region will only vastly multiply the degree of difficulty of such a task. It is also not at all clear that such efforts will help bring Al Qaeda to justice or secure American borders and people against further terrorist attacks. As important, when Bush declared that "we will remain in Iraq as long as necessary, and not a day more," he may have been setting us up for the sort of essentially permanent camping trips U.S. armed forces have been on in Europe and the Korean Peninsula.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of last night's speech is that the once-controversial assumption at the core of Bush's foreign policy—the doctrine of preventive war, of striking enemies who are not posing immediate threats—has now become taken for granted as a starting point for action, even as it conceivably justifies an endless repetition of military interventions all around the globe. Last night, Bush spoke of a post-war Iraq in the most flattering and attractive terms Americans could hope for. But if we're to ponder such a potential reality even before the first shot has been fired in this first preventive war, we're also all left to wonder where the next such conflict will take U.S. troops.