Bob Simon's hour-long report from the Middle East might come as a cold splash of water at the end of a Fourth of July heated to feverish levels by the welcome home of Desert Storm troops.
Simon, you might recall, is the CBS newsman who was, along with his camera crew, captured by Iraqi troops, imprisoned, questioned and beaten during 40 days of captivity in Baghdad.
Indeed, from the haunted look on his face when he emerged from captivity, you'd think the guy would never want to set foot in that country again. But, "Bob Simon: Back to Baghdad" is airing tomorrow night at 10 o'clock on Channel 11 (WBAL).
You get an idea in one of the first pictures of why Simon was so shaken. As if the Iraqi torture were not enough, take a look at
what's left of the country's intelligence headquarters. Simon was on the second floor when American bombs did their damage.
Simon does more than go back to Baghdad in this hour. He also surveys several countries in the region to see what, if anything, has changed since the war.
After an opening view of his Iraqi prison, he begins in Kuwait, which he finds devastated and dispirited, its citizens eager to point fingers at alleged collaborators but not to get to work to rebuild their shattered city.
The bottom line, Simon finds, is that the oil-rich Kuwaitis never have had to work so they don't really know how to go about such an elemental task. The emir stays in his palace, a few protesters mutter prayers, and Texans roll up their sleeves and try to put out the oil well fires.
In Saudi Arabia, the returning troops are cheered as mounds of oil money buy political complacency from the population. Women lTC who staged a protest during the war by daring to drive cars -- they were arrested for that offense -- have long since given up such revolutionary activities. Fundamentalist feudalism, now certifiably protected by American might, reigns.
Simon goes to Israel and its occupied West Bank to reveal the real losers of the war, the Palestinians. They backed the wrong side and now their intifada has turned into battles among street gangs as the Israelis ignore bargaining-table concessions.
An American peace plan is stalled. Israeli construction in the West Bank continues. An Israeli scholar, still complaining that his country could not fight in the war, says that negotiators make no headway because they don't allow for the fact that people in the Mideast really want to kill each other.
Simon ends the program in Iraq, and here his images are perhaps the most depressing, ironically because they are the most cheerful. These smiling faces aren't those of Kurdish refugees or Shiite survivors. They are the faces of the Iraqi majority, the Sunni.
That includes the ever-present visage of their leader, Saddam Hussein, whose many portraits are being repainted as his image is being repaired. He is telling the Iraqis that he stood up to imperialism and kept his country together. Whether or not these Iraqis are buying that doesn't seem to matter. Unlike the Kuwaitis, they seem to be working to rebuild their country. Life for them is returning to normal. Normality includes Hussein in power.
Didn't Iraq lose the war? You wouldn't know it from the Iraqis Simon talks to, not if you leave out the Shiites whose central town was battered by the Republican Guard after the brief, bloody anti-Saddam uprising.
The bottom line to "Return to Baghdad" is this: Despite all the tons of explosives, laser-guided smart bombs and displays of tactical genius, other than a lot of physical destruction and an increasing belief that the United States will come in and take care of any problem, the Mideast looks pretty much the same after the war as it did before Saddam invaded Kuwait.
Maybe it's enough that Iraq is out of Kuwait. But when you see his face beaming down on Baghdad, and you see the ruins of a Shiite city, and you see the oil sultans sitting fat and happy, and you hear the same intractable disputes in every country, the much-ballyhooed new world order looks pretty much like the old one.
As Simon states in a beautifully written coda that ends the hour, desert storms are known for not changing much of the sandy landscape that endures beneath their brief fury.
Perhaps this is not the vision you want to see at the end of this yellow-ribbon bedecked Fourth of July, but it might be time for a cold splash of water so that we can all take a sober look at the reality that's left behind when the tanks and planes go home for the parades.