Gulf crisis: Weasel words serve only to glorify grim reality of war

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NOT SINCE the journalist Christopher Hitchens proved that Charlton Heston didn't know where Iraq was - just before the 1991 Gulf War, the American actor claimed Bahrain as one of Iraq's neighbours - has so much unadulterated rubbish about the Middle East poured from the American media.

Press commentators, calling for the carpet-bombing of Iraq and warning of a possible nuclear war, have at last proved that if cliches could kill, America would wipe out Saddam Hussein many times over.

How many times have we heard these tired old lines? "The longer he waits, the more time Saddam has to hunker down," (CBS); "The world's bad boys need a real threat to keep them in line," (Time); "Is this the moment of truth? (Canadian TV); and, from NBC, "Difficult days lie ahead". Indeed they do - and not just for the journalists who have been pumping out this stuff on cue as if we hadn't heard it in 1990, 1991, 1993, 1996 and February 1998.

But who cares to ask what happens after America's air strikes when the big guns of The Wall Street Journal are churning out the kind of stuff that you can find in columnist Lawrence Kaplan's latest contribution to military strategy in the Middle East.

A serious effort to punish Saddam's "malfeasance" (note that legalistic term) would "require more strikes than there are cruise missiles in the US arsenal - thousands, not hundreds, of sorties, as part of a campaign lasting weeks, not days". Such a bombardment "would not make President Clinton another `Bomber' Harris. It would mean, however, taking hundreds, perhaps thousands, of lives".

The former under-secretary of state Joseph Sisco has been sounding off on the networks about "the quiet support of the Arab countries" for air strikes and suggesting Saudi Arabia will allow US planes to use its air bases - which is untrue. "Unfortunately, innocent people will die," he added.

Canadian television audiences were told that "nobody can say that the United States is shooting from the hip". And the US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, was allowed to get away with a claim that US strikes were intended "to significantly degrade his [Saddam's] ability to reconstitute his weapons of mass destruction" and "to protect his neighbours" - without once being asked which of his neighbours had sought that protection. It is the unquestioning nature of American journalism that constitutes the media's greatest folly in this, the sixth major Gulf crisis since the country's reporters first announced the "defanging" of Saddam in 1991.

While mildly critical editorials on Israel's continued settlement building have appeared in American papers, no connection has been made between Arab frustration at President Bill Clinton's failure to force Israel to abide by the Oslo accords and the Arab refusal to give military support to American forces in the Gulf.

When I was asked on Canadian television on Thursday whether this was "the beginning of the end of UN prestige" in the Middle East, the only possible reply was to suggest that it could prove to be the end of US, rather than UN, prestige. This was met by the interviewer, an otherwise sharp and intelligent man, with a facial expression that resembled my laptop computer when it announces "total disk failure" at the top of the screen.

There are a few droplets of doubt from US television presenters. One woman fronting a prime-time breakfast show did apologise when she confronted the phrase "collateral damage". In fact, she winced when she used the words. But it is otherwise familiar territory - complete with the requisite cowboy images so beloved of the former president Ronald Reagan. My favourite turned up in Time magazine this week under the byline of Josef Joffe.

Tired of confronting regional bullies, he suggested that America may have to "go back to High Noon, where in the end Gary Cooper had to slug it out with the bad guys all by himself". Ignored was the fact that the old monochrome Western was a total work of fiction - and that Cooper, the fantasy sheriff who'd been having an affair with an imprisoned gangster's moll, almost brought destruction on his own town. But why care when the spurious legends of America's Wild West can be brought in to shore up US policy in the Middle East?