Somalian, Haitian mire gains primacy from TV ON POLITICS

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

October 18, 1993|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- It has become a commonplace these days to point out how television coverage drives world affairs. That has never been more obvious than in the situations in Somalia and Haiti that have proved so vexing for President Clinton.

The question now is when, if ever, the public will be able to view their TV screens with enough sophistication so that the politicians of the world aren't constantly reacting to every new image on the screen.

The decision by President Bush and the United Nations to intervene in Somalia in the first place was dictated in large measure by television coverage of the starvation there last year. There were, at the same time, other places in which large numbers of people were threatened with starvation but it was Somalia that won the attention and the help.

Then it was another graphic television picture -- of Chief Warrant Officer Michael Durant as a captive of Mohamed Farah Aidid -- that set off the eruption of outrage in this country and around the world about the Somali "warlord" and that raised the questions, still unanswered, about what a realistic and proper role in Somalia might be.

Even if the obviously injured and distressed Durant had not been shown, the same response might have been evoked by other simultaneous images from the television screen -- those pictures of the body of an American soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu.

Now some similar dramatic film has crystallized the questions about the U.S. and U.N. role in Haiti -- this time the pictures of the bloody bodies of the Haitian justice minister, Guy Malary, and his two bodyguards on the streets of Port-au-Prince.

One obvious inference is that the notion of sending unarmed U.S. soldiers into Haiti as technical advisers to a new government was probably an extremely risky initiative at best. Another may be that nothing has changed or is likely to change in Haiti -- that is, that these "attaches" who are the successors to the Ton Ton Macoute of another generation are just as controlling as they ever were.

Starvation, the abuse of captured soldiers, assassinations in foreign capitals are nothing new. What is different these days is that the images are thrust into every living room so immediately and by themselves can control public opinion and dictate the political equities of foreign policy decisions.

There are, of course, some exceptions. The television coverage of the war in Bosnia raised a demand for intervention, particularly among liberals, that President Clinton found almost impossible to resist a few months ago when he declared it was essential to act "quickly and decisively" to end the slaughter.

But European leaders resisted and in the end Clinton had to back away. But that was a decision based on the reality that there was little or nothing that could be achieved militarily without a mammoth commitment of outside forces that public opinion would not countenance even after being conditioned by those television pictures.

There are also times when the government can use the same medium to build support for its actions. That was the case when the Department of Defense made available the film of all those "smart bombs" striking targets in Baghdad with what appeared to be uncanny precision.

Most often, however, it is a case of the pictures driving the government.

This is the case even with issues less than global in their significance. In Somalia, for example, Clinton was in a box until Aidid decided to release Durant. The pictures of the helicopter pilot, his family and neighbors tying yellow ribbons in Berlin, N.H., personalized the crisis to the point that any withdrawal that left him behind was unthinkable.

The importance of the medium in world affairs is something not lost on people like Aidid. That was demonstrated when the Somali "warlord" suddenly emerged as a "clan leader" and held a meeting with reporters and a camera crew to show himself in the role of a reasonable leader quite capable of negotiating with world powers, not some wild man.

Opinion polls show Americans in a remarkably isolationist mood these days, focused far more on their jobs and health care than on world affairs. But on any day that can change if a television network comes up with some graphic pictures of another outrage somewhere far away.

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