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Western Press Review: Media Wars In Iraq, Treatment Of POWs, And Gauging The 'Arab Street'

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 26 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The attention of the major Western dailies remains focused on the war in Iraq, now in its seventh day. Specifically, we take a look today at the treatment of prisoners of war, the Arab world's views of America and the West, how real-time media coverage is influencing the conflict, and why this war is "fundamentally flawed," in the words of one commentary.


"The New York Times" in an editorial discusses the international conventions regarding the treatment of prisoners of war and remarks that the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush is not generally seen as a big supporter of international law. But America, "as the world's most far-flung military power, has a strong interest in how captured soldiers are treated." This should entail "insisting that other governments honor the Geneva Convention's requirements, and scrupulously following them itself."

The paper says such standards should apply to Iraqi prisoners of war, but also to the captives from Afghanistan now held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The third Geneva Convention on prisoners of war "was signed by the United States, Iraq and more than 180 other governments. It is designed to protect the lives, health and dignity of uniformed combatants; the civilians accompanying them, like war correspondents; and some guerrilla fighters. It includes guarantees of things like food, clothing and shelter, and protections against torture, coercion and humiliation."

The conflict in Iraq, and the plethora of accompanying media coverage, has made it easy "for Washington to grasp its own self-interest in upholding the Geneva Convention." But "The New York Times" says the U.S. administration "has shown far less wisdom [regarding] the battlefield captives now being held at Guantanamo."

Washington "should make sure that its own handling of battlefield captives sets the desired example" for the treatment of war prisoners.


In a contribution to the "International Herald Tribune," West Point military school graduate Lucian Truscott IV says that while the U.S. Pentagon was initially reluctant to allow the news media close access to the fighting in Iraq, it is now "making the most of it."

Truscott says, "Make no mistake: The news media are being used -- in more ways than they realize." Since their entrance into military units as "embedded" reporters, the media "have marched practically in lock step with the military."

The U.S. administration, which Truscott says is "adept at managing information and manipulating images," has "beaten the press at its own game." It has "turned the media into a weapon of war, using the information it provides to harass and intimidate the Iraqi military leadership."

None of the early, precise attacks on Baghdad targeted the energy sector or the communications infrastructure, he notes. Instead, images of bombs falling "on palaces and government ministries" were broadcast live, "used as a force multiplier."

But Iraqi leaders are also attempting to manipulate the media, he says. They have made images available of downed U.S. aircraft, prisoners of war, and injured or dead civilians in an attempt to mobilize public opinion against the conflict.

"Both sides are taking an enormous gamble by using the news media," says Truscott, as it remains uncertain whether such tactics will achieve the desired results for either side.


A commentary by Mark Lawson in the British daily "The Guardian" says all three main war leaders in the Iraq conflict use the media in different ways.

U.S. President George W. Bush "rarely gives press conferences, favoring scripted addresses to the nation or the stiff, quick 'access' after cabinet meetings."

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein "makes frequent use of televised speeches, although with the twist that never before has the question of whether a program was live or recorded been so important."

British Prime Minister "Tony Blair, by contrast, gave a live one-hour televised press conference yesterday."

"The Guardian" says, "Given the current rumors that Saddam may now be the first [president] running the country on pre-recorded cassettes, the fact that Blair was appearing in real time was propaganda in itself."

Blair appeared, in part, to counter rumors that he was unwell. The paper says perhaps some parallel assurances are needed about Blair: Before any "destabilizing rumours [begin], let's be clear that this definitely was the real Tony Blair. No actor or double could have sounded so anguished and sincere."

Despite a cough that the paper says appeared to be as much due to nerves as to any illness, the British prime minister seemed fairly well during his televised address. "Even the nervous cough may play to his advantage when polls suggest that Bush's cowboy cockiness revolts the British," says the paper. "Against all the usual rules of political television, looking anguished may be the smart move on this occasion."


In a contribution to the "Chicago Tribune," James Harold of the philosophy department at Mount Holyoke College says war is often discussed "as a business of calculation, balancing risks against benefits." But this assessment "misses something absolutely crucial: the rule of law."

Since World War II, he says, Europe and the United States "have taken the lead in establishing a rule of law for nations. The first and most important of these laws is articulated in the UN charter: the principle that disputes between nations must never be resolved by force, except in cases of self-defense."

He says the U.S. administration has now violated this principle in a manner that "threatens the very foundations of international peace and cooperation. The principle forbidding war as a tool of foreign policy stands as the centerpiece of virtually every international agreement," Harold writes. "The future not just of the UN as a body but of real international cooperation of any kind depends on not allowing ourselves to think of war" in merely pragmatic, "cost/benefit terms."

In thinking of war as just another legitimate strategy for resolving conflicts, "we undermine the rule of law and we lose track of the moral principles on which that rule depends. And such a loss is not a mere cost to be factored into one's calculations -- it is beyond price."


A brief commentary in the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" says there are two wars going on in Iraq, a military one and a political one.

Since Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein has inferior military capabilities, his struggle is primarily a political one. His only chance of survival is to exert pressure on Washington and London by stressing and exaggerating the number of casualties and attempting to win the political war.

This strategy relates, among other things, to the issue of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. As yet, Saddam has not used any such weapons, which the American and British administrations accuse him of harboring. If he did use them, he would confirm U.S. suspicions and legitimize the U.S.-led war.

No one without highly privileged information actually knows the truth about such weapons, and the paper says the fact Iraq has not made use of them is not proof they do not exist. Such a claim would be neglecting to grasp a fundamental political factor in this conflict -- that Saddam cannot afford to lose politically, as well as militarily, by legitimizing the U.S.-led action against his regime.


In a piece republished in today's "International Herald Tribune," Nicholas Kristof of "The New York Times" discusses the U.S. administration's initial assessment that Iraqis would welcome being "liberated" from the regime of Saddam Hussein.

If the White House prediction were true, and Iraqi citizens cheered the arrival of U.S. and British troops, it "would go a long way to defuse antagonism toward America in Europe and the Arab world." Kristof says: "So far, though, the effusive welcome the White House counted on has been largely absent. In Safwan, some residents did shout blessings on the Americans. But reports from Basra, Nasiriyah, Umm Qasr and other towns suggest there are few signs so far that the population is cheering the invasion."

Kristof says he is "troubled" by the way the U.S.-British war plans "seem to be based not just on first-rate U.S. military expertise, but also on hunches by ideologues in Washington who have never set foot in Iraq." For example, the war plan "assumed that Iraqis would welcome Americans as liberators, even though every visitor to Iraq heard ordinary people warning that they would pull out their guns and take potshots at any invaders."

The U.S. and its allies have enough firepower that they "can win the war without sensitivity" to Iraqi public opinion, but U.S.-British forces "can't survive the occupation that way."


In a contribution to the "International Herald Tribune," political economy professor Uwe Reinhardt of Princeton University recounts seeing a Marine chaplain recently on CNN admonishing the platoon assembled before him to pray, not only for themselves, their fellow soldiers or their country, but also for the enemy soldiers.

"After all," Reinhardt says, "they are just soldiers, [doing] what they are ordered to do."

Reinhardt says the chaplain's words were "a refreshing departure" from what he often hears, which is an emphasis on avoiding "coalition casualties" and "innocent Iraqi civilian casualties." He asks, "Should not the proper minimum in any war be loss of human life, period -- which in this case includes Iraqi soldiers, too?"

Reinhardt says: "There is nothing neat about maiming and killing people with precision bombs from the air or gunfire on the ground -- even if they're wearing enemy uniforms. Young lives are snuffed out; parents, siblings and lovers weep; and so should we.

"We want our troops to win a quick victory, to be sure. As the father of a young Marine officer on the front lines in Iraq," Reinhardt says, "I certainly do.

"But let us heed that Marine chaplain who, like anyone who has ever witnessed war, knows whereof he speaks. Let us hope and pray for a minimum loss of human life -- period."


Writing in "The Times" of London, Michael Binyon says the "political divisions in the Arab world -- between the rulers and ruled, the Gulf and the Levant, the Islamists and the secularists -- have long thwarted the search for Arab unity." Among the questions that continue to divide: "Is the West a model for Arab society or a threat? Is America the Great Satan or the land of opportunity? Is Arab impotence the result of foreign domination and Western/Israeli conspiracies or is it due to the lack of democracy, freedom and progress in most of the Arab world?"

Binyon says Arab liberals "are often those who are most vociferous in condemning America." They believe U.S. support allows "many undemocratic regimes [to] remain in place -- largely because [Washington] turns a blind eye to their human rights records."

But Arab radicals also blame the West "for keeping in power governments they believe are hostile to Islam and rulers who verge on being apostates, the worst sin in Islam. They see America as the force that holds back social revolution [which] would bring to power the poor and the downtrodden in an Islamic government."

And both liberals and radicals project varied frustrations onto America. "The liberals [do] not trust America to deliver; the radicals do not want what they think America will deliver."

Thus Binyon says that although most Arabs would not mind Saddam Hussein's regime being toppled, "they do not want it [done] at America's hands."


In discussing Turkish foreign policy, Gerd Hoehler in the "Frankfurter Rundschau" says Recep Tayyip Erdogan could not have made a worse start in his new position as prime minister.

First, his government failed to gain parliamentary approval to allow 10,000 U.S. troops to be based in southern Anatolia in order to launch an attack on Iraq's northern front.

Secondly, Hoehler says, Erdogan is embarking on a dangerous military adventure by possibly sending Turkish troops to northern Iraq. This will renew friction with the U.S., which has no desire for another war between the Turks and Kurds in the area. Erdogan claims to be making this move for "humanitarian reasons." But Hoehler says this is only "a half-truth."

Turkish forces want to stop refugees from Iraq coming to Turkey, but above all, they want to hinder Turkish and Iraqi Kurds from declaring their own state in the region.

"The opportunist Erdogan has tried to ingratiate himself with everyone but is satisfying no one," says Hoehler. The majority in Turkey is against the war with Iraq. He has alienated the U.S. by delaying the decision to allow the use of Turkish bases. And he has not satisfied his generals, who are obsessed with the Kurdish issue and are pressing for an occupation of northern Iraq.

Hoehler says Erdogan apparently "has no strategy of his own, and in the end will lose everything."


Writing in France's "Le Monde," Martine Silber says the United States will undoubtedly win the war in Iraq, due to its superior military might. But he questions the long-term consequences of this victory.

Silber cites a 23 March editorial by Juan Luis Cebrian of Spain's "El Pais" newspaper as saying that the U.S.-British intervention in Iraq will ultimately lead to a less certain world. What Spain's Cebrian calls the "humiliation" of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein may merely serve as a pretext for Islamic radicalism and result in a divide between the Judeo-Christian and Muslim worlds. Such a division would affect the diverse populations in many democratic countries, he adds.

Silber says the White House has maintained that this war will not spread to other countries. But he cites Cebrian as asking, Now that the precedent of a preventive war has been established, what other wars might be launched under the same pretext? Will the Pentagon continue down the list of the "axis of evil"?