For all intents and purposes, the war is over. From a U.S. perspective, it was a short, relatively painless, complete butt-whuppin' of the Iraqi military. Its success has made it popular, and its popularity will skew political discourse in the United States for the near future. This will offer the Bush administration a brief honeymoon within which to pursue any further aggressive foreign policy options it may deem necessary.
As far as the average American television viewer is concerned, the United States just whupped Saddam Hussein's butt. Never mind the overwhelming speed and ease of the war was in large part due to the still-confusing decision of the Iraqi military to decline combat on the battlefield. Never mind the complexities of navigating the postwar stabilization and reconstruction of Iraq. The United States won, and everybody likes a winner. Well, everyone except the loser. This quick and popular victory is already skewing political discourse on the subject. The major media have lost all pretensions of detachment, and political figures who opposed the war will look to domestic issues to refocus their message and salvage their election chances. This shift in discussion, if not perception, of U.S. foreign policy and military strategy will provide the White House with a window of opportunity to pursue other elements of its agenda. free from major criticism. With the possible exception of PBS, which must still appeal to an audience or vanish with the next pledge drive, U.S. news is commercial. There is no state-run television, showing state-run news. The U.S. media are in private hands: They are free to criticize U.S. foreign policy and military strategy and often find it good business to do so. But ultimately, the free press as constrained by its commercial underpinnings as it is liberated. Advertisers demand ratings, and ratings demand readers, listeners or viewers. And judging by the cable news network ratings, there is a decided demand from viewers for opinionated coverage of the news. Of the three major U.S. 24-hour cable news channels — CNN, MSNBC and Fox News — the unabashedly pro-war Fox has been consistently at the top of the ratings throughout the war. Some of this is clearly self-selection on the part of viewers. CNN, arguably the least opinionated of the three networks, has maintained second place in the ratings, suggesting there is a market for that type of coverage as well. But in the waning days of the war, CNN has begun to measurably shift the tone and content of its coverage toward the euphemistic "supporting our troops." As with media, the U.S. "first past the post" electoral system is consumer-oriented. It does not help one's electoral chances to loudly criticize a popular policy. Until the complications of postwar management of Iraq set in, the U.S. decision to invade Iraq would seem to be been borne out by the apparent results: The United States won, a tyrant is gone, the Iraqis are happy. Critics of the Bush administration will turn now to domestic issues to try to reshape the political debate away from the apparent foreign policy triumph. With the U.S. media and political opposition momentarily neutralized, the White House briefly has free rein in foreign policy. Domestic criticism will not go away entirely, and it will increase in tandem with the level of chaos in Iraq. And the international community will be no less suspicious of U.S. intentions. But in the near term, Washington can pursue what measures it deems necessary to consolidate the U.S. position in the Middle East.