FOR the last few weeks in this era of instant communication, the war of words between Baghdad and Washington has been proceeding at ever increasing intensity. The presidents on both sides are firing the principal salvos. President Bush has spoken to the Iraqi people. Iraq's president, Saddam Hussein has sent a video tape, through the State Department, to the American media. To what end? Part of their motive certainly is to demonstrate to their domestic publics that they will not stand idly by while the other side distorts the picture as they see it. To their supporters elsewhere, they want to reiterate their determination to stay the course.
In addressing the populations of the adversary, each wants, in a conscious television age, to reveal his human side. Beyond that, believing that the truth is not getting through, each wants to tell his story. George Bush wants to be certain that Iraqis know of the international opinions and force arrayed against them. Saddam Hussein, certain that his views are being filtered through an unfriendly media, wants to be sure the American people understand the reasons for Iraqi actions against Kuwait.
Each has tactical reasons as well. In the stage of the conflict in which international sanctions are being implemented, one side seeks to maintain pressure and the other seeks to break the embargo through generating world sympathy for its privations. Finally, each hopes to undermine the public support for the other nation's policies. President Bush, for his part, would not be unhappy if his words led the Iraqis to repudiate Saddam Hussein.
Whatever the motives of such speeches, it is doubtful that the war of words will achieve significant results for either President Bush or Saddam Hussein. The facts of the struggle are probably already well known on both sides. Americans have been overwhelmed with details of the crisis. Iraqis undoubtedly listen, even if surreptitiously, to the transmissions of the British Broadcasting Corporation and the Voice of America and some assuredly have access to Cable News Network. Their underground network is certainly functioning, even under the oppression of the Baathi regime. Presidents do not need to become the purveyors of news.
President Bush's message concentrated on the problems of the Iraqis under Saddam Hussein. Such an approach runs the risk that messages consciously directed by outsiders at the public of another country in a time of tension will arouse national pride and have the opposite result from that intended. Americans do not like to be told by others - and especially by those seen as adversaries - how to think about a conflict.
In Iraq, any reaction is limited by the intimidation of the population, as well as by the sense of humiliation among Arabs at being reminded of the participation of non-Arabs in the affairs of the region.
If the message is directed at the leadership, little in President Bush's current attitude suggests any willingness to listen to what Saddam Hussein has to say. Conversely, in Iraq, the American leader's expressions of determination will be seen against the backdrop of other voices in the US democracy casting doubt on the president's policies and feeding Saddam Hussein's assumption that Washington does not have the stomach for a long struggle.
But perhaps the most serious problem with the current exchanges at the presidential level is that, in President Bush's case, at least, they debase the currency of the presidency. His speech was not a forthright statement of US aims and objectives in the confrontation; it was an attack on Iraq.
Such conscious efforts to speak directly to the Iraqi population for the purpose of reinforcing pressures makes him the chief propagandist rather than the chief diplomat.
An American president must continue to speak to his own public and, on occasion, to friendly nations. Adversaries will always be listening. Ultimately, in an era when diplomacy is more and more conducted on the open air waves, the time may come when a presidential message directly to the Iraqi people might be appropriate. Such an occasion should be reserved to signal a new level of US action or steps toward a solution; the message should be substantive, rather than psychological in tone. Until that time efforts to speak directly to the people in Baghdad involve the president in a broadcast war that does little more than harden positions and irritate populations.