Don't jump to conclusions about the Iraqi 'good news' reports

I understand the arguments of Americans who didn't want the US to go to war in Iraq, and those who want to pull out now, even though I disagree with both positions.

I understand, and agree with, Americans and others who think the postwar operation has been mishandled.

But that was then, and this is now, and however things turn out, I do not understand why some people have difficulty understanding President Bush's vision for the future of the Islamic Arab world.

It is to remove from Iraq the legacy of Saddam Hussein (who occupied Kuwait, warred with Iran, and massacred hundreds, and probably thousands, of his own people) and launch Iraq on the road to freedom - a selfless goal that might trigger movement toward democracy in other Islamic lands. It is the same kind of motivation that caused America to want to liberate Europe from Naziism and the Far East from Japanese militarism in World War II, and later South Korea from the China-backed north, and more recently Afghanistan from the Taliban.

But if America is to nurture and spread democracy, it must itself practice it and be seen to practice it. That is why it is distressing to see actions taken supposedly in support of this goal, but that besmirch it and are in contradiction to the principles we profess to stand by.

One such action is that reported last week of attempts to buy Iraqi journalists and their newspapers, and maybe television as well, to plant favorable news stories about the war and reconstruction efforts.

The White House was swift to say it was "very concerned" about this. After an initial meeting with Pentagon officials, Sen. John Warner, Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the program was a serious problem. "A free and independent press is critical to the functioning of a democracy, and I am concerned about any actions which may erode the independence of the Iraqi media," he said.

A Pentagon investigation is under way. As of now, we don't know the respective roles of the military and private companies engaged in the project under contract to the military. We don't know to what extent the government involvement in the news stories was disclosed or totally disguised. We don't know whether this was a project authorized at high level, or the brainchild of some gung-ho lower officials.

It is also true, as a military spokesman in Baghdad declared, that the insurgents lose no opportunity to exploit the Iraqi media with negative information about the US and the Iraqi government.

But many American officials, and American journalistic organizations outside government, have been working to install and train and bolster a free press in Iraq and throughout the Islamic world. One of the most basic precepts preached to these foreign journalists is that they should not accept payment from interested parties or governments to print articles or government propaganda disguised as news.

Such exploitation of journalists recalls the bad old days of the cold war before glasnost and perestroika. Russian intelligence officers posing as embassy officials in such countries as India paid some reporters to write scandalously untrue stories about the US and Americans. The stories, when published, were often picked up by news agencies which disseminated them without corroboration to media outlets around the world.

Another topic that gives propaganda ammunition to the enemies of the US is the Bush administration's position on torture. The horrifying pictures sent around the world of inhumane treatment of hooded prisoners at Abu Ghraib have been a propaganda coup for the forces which proclaim that America preaches a good sermon on freedom and human rights but does not itself heed it.

It does not matter that this was a night-shift aberration by a rogue and poorly led reservist unit that had little or no training in the proper handling of detainees.

Such negatives as Abu Ghraib gain far more traction among critics than the administration's protestations that it abhors torture. These protestations are further undermined when the president threatens to veto an antitorture bill approved by 90 votes to 9 in the US Senate. The provision is appended to a major defense-spending bill and is being advocated by Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, a former prisoner of war in Hanoi, himself subjected to torture there.

Discussions under way between Senator McCain and the White House may bring compromise. That would bring a welcome solution to yet another issue that enemies of the US use to decry America's commitment to freedom.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, served as assistant secretary of state for public affairs in the Reagan administration.

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