WASHINGTON -- With the exception of the recent anniversary stories, Iraq was off the front pages most days during the past few weeks. Sometimes it got three paragraphs at the bottom of an inside page. There is a kind of abiding sense that everything's going to be OK; let's just "get over" Mesopotamia.
Much of this was, of course, because of the last days and the death of Pope John Paul II. But I suspect there has been something else behind Iraq's receding from our national consciousness: We're getting tired of our imperial games.
These themes came up among some of the nation's leading journalists gathered last week to receive the annual Weintal Prizes for diplomatic reporting awarded at Georgetown University. As it turned out, there was among them, contradictorily, both a hopefulness and a deep pessimism about the 21st-century saga of America and Iraq.
The New York Times' respected John Burns opened the award ceremonies with optimism: "By early this year, many of us had come to gloomy conclusions about where it all was going," he said, "but Jan. 30 and the elections changed our assumptions.
& quot;We stayed off the streets for the first few hours. We sent out our Iraqi scouts, and they called us on mobile phones. Suddenly, they were saying, 'There are people going to the polls!' We went out and found something quite impossible, and we began to wonder whether we had pulled back too far in our reporting: They were right and we were wrong.
"In that day, we found increasingly that the people of Iraq turned out overwhelmingly -- because on that day, they amounted to something. The fact is that something remarkable has happened -- the Iraqis are talking in conclaves of issues that have not been addressed for 50 years."
Seymour Hersh, another honoree who has done outstanding work in The New Yorker about the underside of the war, disagreed. "I think it's going to be a disaster," he told the audience brought together by the diplomacy and foreign service schools of the university. "Abu Ghraib was attacked twice last week. The people I talk to are very skeptical. Sure, the Shiites and the Kurds voted ... But we're still fighting the people we started fighting. And everything I know says we know little about the resistance."
About halfway through the evening, the talk among the four awardees -- the other two were David Ignatius of The Washington Post and Bernard Kalb, formerly of CBS News -- turned to the media, in the context of the Iraqi experience. Here the attitudes reflected not only the difficulties of working with this administration, but also a kind of new atmosphere in the country.
"I have never seen a time when what we write has such little effect on what the government does," Hersh said at one point. "This is not like Nixon and Johnson and Vietnam -- this group in the White House has an agenda, and it won't stop."
The Post's Ignatius was only one of the journalists who spoke of the bitterness and viciousness they were encountering (and I can concur with this) from the American public. "I think this is a bracing time for journalists," he said. "You have the administration actually hiring journalists ... There's never been anything like it. And I find reading my e-mails terrifying; it's like the solid ground of the country is evaporating."
Bernard Kalb countered with: "The war is on in the U.S. about what kind of journalism we want in America today. All that hatred against Dan Rather -- it was a war launched to intimidate, to see what kind of journalism Americans want."
But the most probing words of the evening came not from the journalistic literati but from a woman in the audience -- blond, wispy, respectful and obviously a woman of character -- who asked in the Q & amp;A period those of the group who had served in Baghdad: "Why do you now turn to measuring the war according to criteria we were never given? Why are we not measuring the war according to the lies told?"
And there was the crucial question. Yes, Iraq might work, in some curious and costly way -- but that has nothing to do with the original, major reason for the war: that we were threatened by weapons of mass destruction. Of course, there are always turns and twists of history, but this one of the last two years has been outrageous. Yet no one answered her question.
If she was right, then in America today, the ends justify the means and, even if Iraq should morph into some form of representative government, America will come out of it a very different country.
Universal Press Syndicate