SO MANY TELEVISION hours to fill, so little said that’s new or important or even just plain interesting. Once the war actually begins — and, indeed, it may have by the time you read this — the three major networks will kick in, and there will be something to cover. The Pentagon’s willingness to " embed " reporters with military units this time around would seem to ensure that there will be real news, even though the information that gets out is subject to official censorship.
Until the networks begin continuous coverage, we are left with — ugh — the all-news cable channels. Of the three, only CNN’s screen was relatively unadorned following Bush’s speech. The Fox News Channel started waving an electronic American flag in the upper-left-hand corner from time to time, while the barely watched MSNBC began running a clock titled " Deadline, " just above the crawl, continuously showing right down to the second how much time Saddam and his sons had to pack up the gold bullion and screw. The quality programs, such as CNN’s NewsNight with Aaron Brown and, in the non-cable world, ABC’s Nightline, didn’t have all that much to report. Brown actually finished too early on Monday. " How we doing on time, guys? " he asked, panicking slightly. On Nightline, Ted Koppel had American soldiers show him the teddy bears some of them keep in their pockets.
The down-market stuff was just idiotic. And these days there’s nothing more idiotic than Fox’s Hannity & Colmes. Even catching only a few moments was enough to leave me appalled. On Monday, right-wing co-host Sean Hannity " debated " Democratic activist Susan Estrich over the critical remarks (and subsequent apology) that Dixie Chick Natalie Maines made about Bush’s Texas roots (see " Don't Mess with Dumb-ass, " This Just In, page 7). Estrich, who managed Michael Dukakis’s 1988 presidential campaign, is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California. I point that out only to ask, Doesn’t she have anything better to do?
On Tuesday, Hannity was blasting Senate minority leader Tom Daschle for being unpatriotic because he had dared criticize the botched diplomatic efforts of his " commander in chief. " (In fact, Daschle’s rather tepid words have gotten him in trouble with everyone, including one of his home-state newspapers, the Argus Leader, of Sioux Falls, South Dakota. An editorial in that paper called Daschle " out of line " and added: " When the war starts, all Americans will rally behind our men and women in uniform. " Perhaps truth is actually the second casualty of war; the first is dissent.) Say what you will about Fox’s loud-mouthed know-it-all, Bill O’Reilly. His Tuesday show, at least, resorted to no such gimmicks, featuring reasonably substantive interviews with Senators John McCain and Joseph Lieberman and New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, a former UN ambassador.
The best stuff, not surprisingly, was on PBS. On Monday, The NewsHour dared to include radical historian Howard Zinn, of Boston University, in its post-speech scrum. Zinn called Bush’s intended pre-emptive attack " a shameful moment in American history, " and observed, " We are going to kill the victims of Saddam Hussein. " Frontline broadcast a two-hour special drawn from 10 previous documentaries on Iraq. It could have been called " The Triumph of W., " and by that I don’t mean George W. Bush. Rather, Frontline explained how Paul Wolfowitz — currently deputy secretary of defense — has been pushing for a strike against Iraq (and other inconvenient regimes) since the presidency of Bush’s father, and has finally triumphed, along with fellow neoconservatives such as William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, and Richard Perle, chairman of the advisory Defense Policy Board. The aforementioned Now was worthy, too. The best part featured an interview Bill Moyers conducted with former Time editor and CNN head Walter Isaacson, now president of the Aspen Institute, and Columbia University historian Simon Schama, who said of Bush’s plans: " It’s a hell of a jump out of the plane, and I just hope the parachute opens. "
But it was left to Jon Stewart, host of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, to capture the moment in all of its weird unpleasantness. Stewart was in top form on Monday, showing a clip of Bush with Tony Blair and Spanish prime minister José Maria Aznar — " what he [Bush] calls the coalition of the willing and what everybody else calls England and Spain. " Stewart also expressed disbelief that the Bush-Blair-Aznar summit lasted just an hour — the time it takes to get a pair of bifocals made at LensCrafters, he observed — and then cracked that, of that 60 minutes of diplomacy, there was probably " 45 minutes of ‘Hey, why is France such a dick?’ "
IT IS WEDNESDAY, just a little before 5 a.m. In less than 15 hours we could be at war. Perhaps Saddam will leave. Perhaps he’ll be assassinated by his own generals. Perhaps he’ll torch his oil fields, blast American and British troops with nerve gas, and launch Scud missiles at Israel. Perhaps we’ll march in as liberators — or kill thousands of Iraqi civilians during an intense aerial bombardment named " Shock and Awe " by the Pentagon war planners. In any case, the murk should have given way to some clarity by the time you read this.
But history suggests that this war will have unintended consequences. Just as the 1991 Gulf War led to the permanent US presence in Saudi Arabia that convinced the then-unknown Osama bin Laden to declare jihad against the United States, so will this war create monsters that don’t yet have a name.
In Slate this week, Robert Wright predicts that Iraq hawks will soon be openly mocking those who opposed the war. But, he argues, it’s not that simple. No, the war won’t be long and messy, as many critics predicted; but the occupation " will be very long and increasingly messy. " No, Saddam won’t unleash weapons of mass destruction; but the war " will make the future use of nukes more likely. "
On Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal published a piece headlined past mideast invasions faced unexpected perils. The article details numerous misadventures in the Arab world, such as Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt, Britain’s occupation of both Egypt and Iraq, and Israel’s move into Lebanon, all of which ended in disaster for the invading forces.
" Again and again, " write staff reporters Hugh Pope and Peter Waldman, " Westerners have moved into the Mideast with confidence that they can impose freedom and modernity through military force. Along the way they have miscalculated support for their invasions, both internationally and in the lands they occupy. They have anointed cooperative minorities to help rule resentful majorities. They have been mired in occupations that last long after local support has vanished. They have met with bloody uprisings and put them down with brute force. "
Now it is George W. Bush’s turn. At this point, there is nothing to do but hope it goes well. The people of Iraq deserve it, as do American and British troops.
Unfortunately, there is nothing in history or in Bush’s own performance as president to suggest that this story will have a happy ending.
Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy[a]phx.com Read his daily Media Log at BostonPhoenix.com.