PARIS — Paris. One thing that should be said for journalists in the Persian Gulf is that if the war should go badly, nobody can blame them. This indeed is no Vietnam. It is the most heavily censored war the United States has ever conducted.
The censorship is largely indirect, and works by limiting journalists' access to the military, and to the scenes of action, and by supervising all contacts between reporters and military personnel.
It is essentially a political censorship. Military security offers no 22 serious problems. Reporters demonstrated in World War II, Korea and again in Vietnam that they were perfectly capable of recognizing sensitive military matters and respecting military secrecy.
The present censorship is intended to keep the war politically acceptable, above all to the American public. Neither the coalition command in Saudi Arabia nor officials of the Bush administration wish to have reports -- least of all, television footage -- depicting military confusion, inadequacy, error or excess, or the necessary horror of battle itself.
This is a natural position for them to take. The American government believes the war necessary. The military have its job to do. They do not want the press making difficulties for them. They know that current popular support for the war in the U.S. is fragile and that opinion is easily reversed there and elsewhere among the coalition nations. Opinion in Egypt, Morocco,
Pakistan and Syria is volatile and potentially very explosive.
There appears to be no constitutional problem. The press agreed beforehand to be censored. At least the American press did, in 1984, after the Grenada invasion. The British and French press in the gulf haven't much choice, since the United States is running the show. They complain that when their journalists try to escape the censorship system they are as likely to be denounced by their American competitors as to be detained by the military authorities.
There is, though, a problem of principle in all this. In a democratic country -- and democracies supply by far the largest part of the coalition force -- the public is supposed to have the last word on war and peace. It is also supposed to have independent #F accounts of what is going on, and not to be compelled to reach its conclusions solely on the basis of what the authorities want the public to know.
However, the American public is for the present censorship. The polls demonstrate that. The majority of the public wants to believe what the American government has repeatedly said, that ''this will not be another Vietnam,'' and the military ''will not fight with one hand tied behind their backs.'' They do not want to be told something different by journalists.
Unfortunately, the old patriotic solidarity of World War II, when reporters described a crusade everyone believed necessary and morally justified, was damaged by the Korean War and finished off in Vietnam and by what has happened since. A patriotic alliance of press and government will not be restored in our time because public opinion itself is divided.
The public majority may back what is being done in the gulf today, but it can also change its mind tomorrow. That's what the censorship is meant to prevent. Elizabeth Drew writes in a recent New Yorker magazine about the people in Congress who voted for war but are getting cold feet today, as serious ground casualties seem increasingly in prospect. A colleague says of them, ''They voted for a short war.''
The great patriotic causes do not come along that often. Even then, it took the attack at Pearl Harbor to get the United States into the World War II. Expedient wars like Iraq, Korea and Vietnam, justified by domino theories and abstract arguments of national interest, are not the stuff from which crusades are made. Their tendency is to divide.
But then Tocqueville warned more than a century and a half ago that democracies are ''decidedly inferior to other governments'' in their conduct of foreign relations precisely because of their volatility of public opinion -- their ''propensity . . . to obey impulse rather than prudence, and to abandon a mature design for the gratification of a momentary passion. . . .''
However, the censorship now in place in Saudi Arabia is unlikely to survive very long after the ground war is launched. The public now wants reassurance and news about how it's all going to be a great success. When things get serious, people are going to want to know what really is going on and why.
Congress -- which gets most of its information from the press -- will not be content with managed news. Truth will out in the end. But for that to happen the public has to want the truth -- at least that provisional but indispensable approximation of it which the press can provide. Up to now, the public has felt more comfortable without it.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.