MEETING WITH Tom King, the British defense minister, here the other day President Bush complained that Saddam Hussein was making "a conscientious effort on his part to raise the propaganda value of accusing us of indiscriminate bombing of civilians, and it's simply not true." Saddam is operating, Bush said, "this one-sided propaganda machine cranking out a lot of ++ myths and falsehoods."
What was being overlooked, the president argued, is "a lot of the brutality that's so evident and so purposeful on his part -- the treatment of the prisoners, the Scud missile attacks [that] have no military value, the environmental terrorism."
Playing the straight man, King added: "We didn't see many television pictures of the casualties in Kuwait, did we?"
Bush: "No. Still going on."
King: "And of the civilians and the -- the tens of thousands of civilians who must have lost their lives there."
The message in this exchange was clearly that Bush was unhappy with the progress of the propaganda war. The message was particularly pointed because it was delivered right after Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev had questioned whether the continued bombing of Iraq might not have gone too far from the original goal of freeing Kuwait.
The implication was that the coalition forces are not playing this propaganda game although they have plenty of ammunition for doing so. But then, less than 24 hours later, a military mistake demonstrated both how difficult it is to control the propaganda war and how absolutely essential it has become to fight that war in an age of instant worldwide communication.
No one who has followed the war in the Persian Gulf imagines for an instant that the United States would deliberately bomb a shelter and kill civilians, most of them women and children. If the military decision-makers had known the shelter was full of civilians, they would have skipped the target even if convinced of its military importance. Indeed, the steps the U.S. forces have taken to avoid civilian damage with pinpoint bombing have been successful that the world was not prepared for the kind of accident that happened in Baghdad.
But it did happen, and now the U.S. and its allies have no choice but to recognize that Saddam has been handed a valuable piece ammunition in that propaganda war. The question becomes how to neutralize it -- and whether the effort to do so should be allowed to shape such military decisions as when to scale back the bombing of Iraq and when to open a ground offensive that could cost heavily in American casualties.
The president has a great mass of evidence to use against Saddam Hussein, at least in any rational debate. The Iraqi leader has such a long history of bestial behavior that his complaints about the U.S. are the ultimate hypocrisy. Americans may weep at the pictures from Baghdad, but they know the kind of brutality they are facing.
Moreover, the damage from the shelter episode might be minimized if U.S. military briefers were more forthcoming with details of the intelligence that persuaded them the shelter was a military command post. The military leaders are predictably and nTC correctly reluctant about revealing anything that might give the enemy a more accurate picture of the U.S. intelligence capabilities. But this may be a case in which the cost is worth paying if it makes the bombing more clearly understandable to those who are genuinely trying to understand.
Much of the debate about the war in the Persian Gulf is, however, more emotional than rational. For Arabs already predisposed to believe the United States is bent on indiscriminate destruction of an entire people, the grisly films from Baghdad are the only evidence required.
The political reality, nonetheless, is that fighting the propaganda war successfully is important on two counts. It is essential in the immediate future to hold the coalition against Saddam together when the first questions are being asked within the alliance on the necessity for the continued bombing of Iraq. And it is essential later to give the United States an influential voice in the region after Kuwait has been liberated.
President Bush is correct when he says Saddam Hussein has been "cranking out a lot myths and falsehoods." That is true even when a tragic accident plays into his hands. But it would be a mistake to believe the propaganda playing field should be left to the Iraqi leader in the expectation that his lies will fall of their own weight.