The good news

October 15, 2003

LAST WEEK there were neighborhoods in Baghdad with less garbage on the street than you would have found in Chicago. Last month there were sections of Iraq that had better supplies of electricity than vast swaths of Maryland and Virginia. Right now, there are dedicated people laying the foundation for democratic institutions in Iraq that are less distorted by money and celebrity than the democratic institutions of California.

What does this all add up to? It adds up to a country where six American soldiers are still getting killed every week, where thousands have been injured since hostilities began, where car bombs go off at embassies, and where Islamic extremists, Iraqi nationalists and Baathist holdouts have overcome their mutual loathing so that, together, they can wage war on the U.S. Army.

President Bush complains that the press accentuates the negative in its reports from Iraq. And he's almost right - far more is heard about ambushes in Fallujah than about the return of normal commerce to the shops of Kirkuk. But he misses two crucial points. One has to do with the nature of news; far more, after all, is heard about murders in Baltimore than about the planting of new flowerbeds along Pratt Street. The second point, the more important one, has to do with the nature of Iraq - because unless the fighting there can be contained, none of the rest of it matters.

The White House has cranked up the publicity machine to get out the word that all is fine in Baghdad, or at least will be soon. Some of this is standard procedure: the president gave interviews to "local" media, which are either less cynical or less well-informed than the Washington press corps, depending on your bent. Some of this is new, and ludicrous when exposed: Identically worded upbeat letters have been sent to local newspapers from units in Iraq, masquerading as actual letters composed by soldiers in the field.

The president must realize, though, that he's walking a fine line here. To say that the press pays too much attention to violence in Iraq is to say that the press pays too much attention to the deaths of American soldiers there. Is he ready to tell the nation that they were expendable?

The administration's fervid publicity show (and why does the old vaudeville expression "flop sweat" keep coming to mind?) suggests that someone in the vicinity of the White House is losing sight of reality. What's happening in Iraq is not a PR war - not while real bullets are still flying there, and real blood is being shed.

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