Somalia: Press steals the marines' thunder

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The Independent Online
WASHINGTON - George Bush may profess himself pleased, but the Pentagon's media watchdogs most definitely are not. Operation Restore Hope's goal of bringing succour to starving Somalia is impeccable. Alas, the stars of its debut were less the grease-painted marines who kicked it off, but the camera-wielding cohorts of the press there to greet them.

The elite of the US forces have made their amphibious landings before. Never though has one taken place live beneath the arc lights of global television. Anxious to extract the maximum public relations benefit from the unique humanitarian nature of the mission, officials had tipped off news organisations where and when the operation would take place.

The result was a farcical blend of the Normandy landings and opening night at La Scala. Astounded and - if scattered call-in reaction is any guide - often appalled, millions of US television viewers watched the crack reconnaissance and frogmen units hit Mogadishu beach, to be greeted not by enemy fire, but a foe they had not been trained to handle: the world media with bright TV lights which rendered the military's sophisticated night-vision equipment useless.

Nowhere though was outrage greater than at the Pentagon. 'My first reaction was of anger,' said the Defense Secretary, Dick Cheney. 'The fact of the matter is, they couldn't be certain it was going to be a peaceful arrival.' But he went on: 'I cooled down after a few minutes. There were no major problems, and no one was hurt.'

None the less, December 1992 in Somalia appears destined to become one more chapter in the brittle history of relations between the Pentagon and the press. Eighteen months ago during the Gulf war, the Defense Department was furiously assailed for its tight control on reporters. This time, it is argued, it has erred in the other direction - although to have kept a complete lid on proceedings would have been impossible.

By the time the first marines landed, two of the three networks were running their prime-time evening news shows from Mogadishu, complete with anchormen in designer safari jackets.

But the operation that really counts, of securing supply lines for an effective relief effort, seems to be moving ahead. Everything was going 'very well, very smoothly,' Mr Cheney said, and President Bush was described by his spokesman as 'very positive about progress so far. Although US troops are bound to be in the country when Mr Bush leaves office, the Pentagon says that withdrawals could be underway by Inauguration Day, with more permanent UN peace-keepers gradually taking charge.

If anything, however, the American role might actually grow under Bill Clinton, who this week has sounded more hawkish than the outgoing administration. 'An artificial timetable' could not be imposed on such an operation, he insisted.