Today's Papers

Tomahawks and Doves

Everybody leads with the U.S. air strike against Iraq. Banner headlines abound, with USA Today’s–“U.S. Bombs Iraq”–the biggest and boldest. The New York Times headline is the newsiest: “Impeachment Vote in House Delayed As Clinton Launches Iraq Air Strike, Citing Military Need to Move Swiftly.” The Los Angeles Times’s is close behind, and is the only one that gets British involvement into the big type. President Clinton, in a televised speech shortly after the strikes were announced, appealed to a UN report released earlier in the week that documented Iraq’s systematic obstruction of the UN’s weapons inspection efforts in violation of promises it made last month, a report that was the NYT’s off-lead yesterday, and was below the fold at USAT, but was inside elsewhere. The NYT notes that the strikes mark “a clear policy departure” for the Clinton administration, in that the president had previously indicated that keeping the inspection effort viable was a reason not to engage in a major military action.

The papers report that sea-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles and Navy bombers were the weapons used. The NYT says 200 cruise missiles were launched in what it termed the largest military action against Iraq since the Gulf War. USAT says some of the strikes targeted Iraqi Republican Guard bases in southern Iraq and that two people had died in Baghdad and 30 were wounded as a result of hits there. The NYT also mentions the Republican Guard and says that ambulances had been seen near one of Saddam Hussein’s Baghdad palaces. The Times forecasts that the next wave of attacks will include B-52-launched cruise missiles and F-117 stealth attack aircraft.

The Wall Street Journal has some particularly good detail on why the current action may be more effective than the Desert Storm air war: it will involve a much higher percentage of precision weapons, the cruise missiles now have satellite guidance, there isn’t the distraction of also trying to attack an army deployed throughout the region, and the targeting is now being done off seven years of intelligence. The Washington Post reports that according to intelligence sources, the first wave of the strike caught Iraqi forces off-guard, before they could get very far into their usual defensive practice of dispersing their equipment. The Post goes on to say that the November plan that the current operation was apparently spun out of projected 10,000 Iraqi dead, most of them combatants. Although the stated goal is anti-proliferation of mass-destruction weapons and enhancing regional stability, both the WP and WSJ report an additional one: giving Iraqis a motive and an opportunity to overthrow Saddam.

Much is made of Trent Lott’s non-support of the airstrikes. USAT calls his stance “almost unprecedented.” The WSJ terms it a “surprising break with the tradition of congressional support for military actions once they begin.” The LAT and USAT note that Speaker-to-be Bob Livingston said he would leave it to the American people to evaluate the timing. (A classic example of criticizing by not criticizing.) The NYT adds that Rep. Gerald Solomon was “furious in accusing the president of using the Iraqi air strikes as a political foil to impeachment,” and that former Bush Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger said the operation’s timing “smells to high heaven.” In their lead stories, the LAT and WP play Lott’s demurral much lower than everybody else. But once the WP broaches the topic, it adds this quote from Dick Armey: “the suspicion some people have about the president’s motives in this attack is itself a powerful argument for impeachment. After months of lies, the president has given millions of people around the world reason to doubt that he has sent Americans into battle for the right reasons.”

The NYT and WP state that planning for the mission started in November during the last round of Iraqi intransigence. All the majors save the WSJ omit mention of “Wag the Dog” in their airstrike news stories. This is as it should be. If important politicians question the timing, their questioning should be reported, and if there is evidence of suspiciousness in the timing that evidence should be reported as well. But absent such findings, it’s irresponsible to talk about “Wag the Dog” in a news story. All kinds of things have been portrayed in movies, but unless their connection to real events is shown, they’re not news. But at least the Journal also raises a legitimate question relating the domestic and international situations: “Could the U.S. handle war and impeachment at the same time?”

At the very least it looks like the Pentagon operation-naming troops are over-stressed. Leave it to William Safire’s column to notice that the U.S. name for the operation, “Desert Fox,” was the nickname for a “Nazi-era German general.” (Meaning Erwin Rommel.)

Everybody dutifully reports that one factor in the timing of the operation’s onset was the U.S. desire to avoid beginning an operation during the Muslim holiday of Ramadan, which starts this weekend. The WSJ quotes an expert on Islamic movements saying that Muslims don’t restrain themselves this way. So why should we? There’s a further incoherence here that the papers don’t get into. Why is it a sign of respect for your religion to kill you before instead of during your holiday?