WHEN IT COMES TO IRAQ, media policy seems to be: Good news is no news.
Operation Iraqi Freedom was only a few days old when the press seers, often relying on the word of retired generals, began reaching for the "q" word--quagmire. Why didn't the coalition take Basra on day one? Why did an army supply convoy get ambushed? Why weren't Iraqis rising up against Saddam Hussein? The media provided their own answers to these questions: The war plan had failed. Donald Rumsfeld hadn't sent enough troops. Coalition forces were bogged down.
The commentariat was particularly gleeful in skewering supporters of the war effort who had predicted that the U.S. military would have little trouble toppling Saddam's regime. Echoing the views of many, the New Yorker's Hendrick Hertzberg warned darkly, "The longer the fighting continues . . . the higher becomes the cost of victory, until, at some unknowable point, victory becomes defeat."
As it happens, the issue of the New Yorker which contained this gem arrived in mailboxes last week--just as TV screens were showing pictures of the giant Saddam statute being toppled in Baghdad. Taking Baghdad in half the time, and at a third the casualties, of the first Gulf War would seem a lot like victory, not defeat. Especially because none of the widely predicted worst-case scenarios came to pass: No missile attacks on Israel. No use of chemical or biological weapons. No terrorist attacks in the United States. No widespread destruction of Iraqi oil fields. No repeat of "Black Hawk Down" in urban areas.
But the media continue to look for evidence to justify their earlier defeatism. This isn't a problem among in-country reporters, who have performed magnificently at considerable risk to their own lives. It's more a problem among stateside talking heads.
I was recently interviewed by a reporter for one of the major network affiliates in New York City. All his questions were about looting, suicide bombings, civilian casualties, Arab resentment of Christian military forces, the possibility of protracted guerrilla warfare, and even the specter of "another Vietnam." That's pretty typical of the news coverage, especially among overseas news outlets, but also among many U.S. papers and TV networks.
And mainstream TV executives wonder why the Fox News Channel--which has been a notable dissenter from this gloomy orthodoxy--has suddenly become so popular!
The rest of the press should get a grip. This is the most successful U.S. military intervention since 1945. This was no half victory like Kosovo, in which U.S. forces liberated only one province, or Afghanistan, where the U.S. left warlords in control of much of the country. This was the real deal: marching to the enemy capital and imposing peace on our terms. This calls for champagne and tickertape. Instead the press, and opponents of the war, are moving the goalposts.
It's not enough to win a smashing military victory at small cost. To listen to the critics, if Iraq doesn't suddenly become as law-abiding and peaceful as Switzerland, then we haven't really won.
A little perspective is in order here. The French, after their liberation in 1944, took a cruel revenge on many of those who had collaborated with the Nazis who had occupied their country for just four years. It would be unnatural if Iraqis were not bent on revenge against those who had oppressed them for three decades. It is hard to be overly troubled by the sight of Iraqis looting the homes and offices of leading Baathists. Why shouldn't the people take back a few of the regime's ill-gotten gains? To add a touch of poetic justice, Iraqis also cleaned out the German embassy and the French cultural center in east Baghdad, well aware that Germany and France tried to block their liberation.
There are, to be sure, some more troubling events going on, such as the looting of the national museum and hospitals, along with some scattered violence. Those events are regrettable, but also inevitable when one force suddenly collapses and another is just arriving. Given how few casualties have been inflicted so far on either Iraqi civilians or coalition forces, a few more tragic losses at this point are hardly cause to declare the entire mission less than a complete success.
Now that the fighting is dying down, coalition troops are starting to turn their attention to policing, and already Baghdad seems to be getting more orderly. But no matter how much things improve, it's a safe bet the press will find some bad news to report. Some of these nearsighted reporters just can't see the victory staring them in the face.
Max Boot is Olin senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of "The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power."