The heat was on Saddam this weekend. Saturday morning, a column of the Third Infantry cruised through his capital city, took a look, and went on to the airport, already in American hands.
The Iraqi information minister, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, in a series of increasingly surreal press briefings, denied any of this had taken place, claiming instead that the incursion was a hoax, that the Americans had been pushed out of the airport and that they were trapped and taking what al-Sahaf called a “pounding” from the Republican Guard. But because the power was off, the Iraqis were not able to watch al-Sahaf on television. Instead, they were forced to get their news from broadcast sources such as the BBC’s World Service — who provided general, if not specific, validation of the bizarre Iraqi claims. For most of Saturday, the BBC’s Baghdad correspondents reported to the citizens of Baghdad and the rest of the world that they had no evidence of the American incursion and said the situation at the airport was “confused.” (I can offer a more complete account of the World Service’s dismal weekend performance in today’s Duck Season.)
By Monday morning, however, the BBC was portraying the Americans in Baghdad as butchers — “shooting at anything that moves,” was how the Sueddeutsche Zeitung was quoting a BBC dispatch; on the World Service, BBC correspondents were reporting “horrific” and “overwhelming” hospital scenes (as retailed to them by U.N. workers, ) and fears of health emergencies and starvation (as told to them by “eyewitnesses” in rural areas). But at least by this morning, even as al-Sahaf conducted more crazy, rooftop press briefings on his last day at work, it was clear even to the BBC that the Americans were indeed in the center of Baghdad, that the game was up for Saddam’s regime, and that the end of this stage of the war was finally in sight. What’s next?
For most of the Euro-Left, the action in Iraq is only an aspect of a larger war against America — the “hyper power” as the U.S. is known in the French press. The goal of France and Germany, of anti-American Britons and Belgians, and to a lesser extent Russia, is to turn what seems to be an American victory in Iraq into an even larger victory for Old Europe, for the EU and for their strategic tool, the U.N. In the Left-wing European press, Iraq is only a chapter of a much longer story.
The first stage of the Iraqi conflict took place at the U.N. They see that stage as a loss for America and Britain, because they think the U.N. really matters. The second stage — beating up Saddam — has no real significance: Despite the quagmire theory advanced in today’s wistful Le Monde cartoon — which shows Saddam under fire, but still patiently sucking the Yanks into his trap — most of the Euro-Leftists who oppose the U.S.-British position are not particularly impressed that the world’s only superpower has been able to conquer Iraq.
So they are now turning their attention to the third stage of the conflict. Judging by some of the media coverage recently, this promises to be the most vicious battle yet. The opening positions of that battle were described last week, when most of the European press busily reported the disagreements they perceived on the role of the U.N. in postwar Iraq in the positions of Rice and Powell and George Bush and Tony Blair.
The initial skirmish involves how long the U.S. will run Iraq. The length of time an American administration runs Iraq fascinates the European press, since apparently — and with good reason, obviously — they believe that how this question is settled will have a substantial, immediate impact on the U.N.’s influence. In today’s Daily Telegraph, with the Belfast meeting between Blair and Bush in the background, Toby Helm provides a helpful outline of the way the British and Americans are trying to find a common strategy regarding the U.N.’s role in Iraq (Paul Reynolds does something similar in his useful online report for BBC News) while in the Times, the picture of a postwar interim government is a more confusing one. The IHT carries a story sure to make Euro-hands wring: Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz told Fox News yesterday that six months might be needed to make a sensible transition — three months more than what Blair has been hoping for, six months more than what Chirac has been praying for. In France, meanwhile, there’s a deep concern that the Americans will simply run Iraq until France is frozen out of the reconstruction bonanza. Today’s Liberation, for example, carries a brief interview with Ahmad Chalabi, in which the Iraqi opposition leader suggests the Americans should run the country for “years” — or at least until he can secure his powerbase. Ahmad, that’s the Savimbi strategy and it doesn’t work. It’s unlikely the U.S. will want to commit arms and money forever just to help an ambitious guy like you get a job.
No matter how much street fighting is going on today in Baghdad and Basra, the real violence directed against Americans is to be found, as usual, in the nuttier pages of Britain’s lefty press. The Independent, which has operated in a state of more-or-less perpetual anti-American outrage for the entire duration of the Iraq campaign, finds space between its Damn-Yankee rants on its editorial page today to sandwich a warning that America must not be allowed to dictate the terms of the peace: “After his one-sided war President Bush should turn his limited attention to Israel/Palestine and leave the U.N. in charge of Iraq,” says the Indy’s easy-going leader-writer.
In the Guardian, John Stevens, an ex-Tory Eurocrat, argues that the entire future of Britain hinges on ridding the U.K. of its Trans-Atlantic Alliance and joining the Chirac-Schroeder tag team as quickly as possible: “It is inconceivable, following the monumental bust-up of recent weeks, that it will be possible to persuade the British people to merge our economic and political future with the French and the Germans without a radical rejection of our present pro-American policy.” The Brits could always declare war on the U.S. That would be radical.
Ironically, it’s in the French press where you can find a suggestion that maybe a softer touch might have a better effect on the Americans. Today’s Figaro carries a lead editorial calling for a careful approach to the situation, suggesting that maybe France has finally tired of moral indignation — the way most of us have tired of food and sex.
— Denis Boyles is a journalist based in Europe.