No shots were fired, but the United States and Iraq went to battle all the same -- on television. And in the war of images and words, both claimed success.
After President Clinton cautiously accepted a U.N.-brokered deal easing the latest standoff over Iraq's weapons, Iraqi television showed images of Saddam Hussein celebrating his "victory" over the United States. Before the agreement, Iraqi state TV had been showing pictures of dead women and children from the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
Meanwhile, at the White House, Clinton told reporters that the Iraqi president had surrendered to the terms of the agreement, but that the United States was still ready to launch an air attack if Saddam went back on his word.
"He has admitted that he has to honor commitments he made back in '91," Clinton announced from the Oval Office. "You know, I think that our tough response was essential to getting him to admit that."
Some call it the CNN factor of policy-making, with leaders and other officials using television to voice their side of the story.
"Once wall-to-wall coverage starts, policy-makers have to respond to public opinion very quickly," said Robert Lichter, co-director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs.
Andrew Winner, who was an analyst in the State Department's political and military affairs bureau during the Gulf War, says TV images heighten the political drama and "affect the timing of certain decisions." But he adds, "I don't think it fundamentally changes the nature of the choices."
Before the U.N.-Iraq agreement, Clinton's foreign policy team had taken to the airwaves -- on Sunday talk shows, morning news programs and for a tumultuous Ohio town hall meeting -- to make the case for bombing Iraq if free U.N. inspections were not allowed.
At the Ohio forum, Defense Secretary William Cohen flashed a picture carried on CNN -- which the White House noted Saddam watches -- of a dead mother and child killed by Iraqi chemical weapons in 1988.
"Madonna and child, Saddam Hussein style," Cohen said to the audience.
Kofi Annan, the U.N. secretary-general, played to the TV cameras to pressure the two sides into an agreement. Before Annan had officially presented the deal to the U.N. and the United States for approval, he declared that a conflict had been averted, making it more difficult for either side to walk away.
When the fighting is real, government officials also may tailor their public responses and private military planning with TV images in mind.
Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Gulf War, said he urged President Bush to end the war in part because of TV coverage of American fliers strafing the fleeing enemy and ivilians on the "Highway of Death" from Kuwait to Iraqi.
"The television coverage . . . was starting to make it look as if we were engaged in slaughter for slaughter's sake," Powell recalled.
Written by Laura Myers.
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