Shut up, he explained

March 31, 2004

WITH TERRORISTS striking in Uzbekistan and evidently preparing to strike in England, the United States is still preoccupied with the mess in Iraq. Someone else is going to have to fight terror for the time being, because Americans are busy fighting themselves over who said what, when. In Iraq itself, the American idealists are trying to figure out how to impress upon the ungrateful citizens the glories of a democratic system, up to but not including free speech.

Sending in soldiers to padlock the front gates of the newspaper Al Hawza, as chief U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer III did Sunday, suggests that the American occupiers have little faith in their own powers of persuasion, and aren't bothering to be subtle about it. When, in contrast, the White House wanted to silence Paul H. O'Neill, the former treasury secretary, it resorted to vague threats of criminal prosecution. When it wanted to silence Richard A. Clarke, the former chief of counterterrorism, it launched a smear campaign. But in Baghdad, Mr. Bremer just sends in the Army - with chains and guns.

In the spirit of constructive criticism, we would suggest that the Americans should consider borrowing a page from Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, who rules a country where there is no need for censorship of any kind because - get this - accounting irregularities have a nasty habit of being discovered every time a news organization feels a stirring of independence. That's subtle. That's a brand of nuance that even the nuance-phobic President Bush could appreciate.

When Al Hawza prints a scurrilous attack on Americans - to use one of Condoleezza Rice's favorite words - the thing to do is to send in not the GIs but the CPAs. Or how about leaning on advertisers to boycott Al Hawza? What's that? It doesn't have advertising? Wow. This democracy-building business is going to be harder than it looked.

So let's get back to basics. The American goal is a better Iraq and a more obedient Iraq, but they're not the same and it's clear obedience comes first. The thing about Al Hawza is that it printed fantastic and provocative lies about U.S. responsibility for lethal bombings. Any occupying force would have felt justified putting a stop to those lies. A democracy-building force would not have. The Americans, in this, showed their true colors.

Mr. Bremer might ask himself why those lies are so widely believed - and what that says about American credibility, which has already taken hits over the mirage-like weapons of mass destruction and the obsessive but phony argument that Iraq had something to do with terror. Well, let the Uzbeks and English (and Spanish and Filipinos) worry about terror. We're busy.

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