Now that the "moonless night of Nov. 17" has passed without a television spectacular in the gulf, the assembled media pundits are starting to talk about the equally moonless period around Jan. 23 as the favorite date for the war's outbreak. But then, they would say that, wouldn't they.
When television networks send not one but three or four crews to the farther reaches of Araby to report on an impending war -- and they have no choice, because all the competition is doing the same -- then the journalists must justify the expense by generating war news. Otherwise, the accountants will crucify them.
If you are spending $50,000 a day to keep those crews in the region, then you'd damn well better get $50,000 worth of daily reports out of them -- even if there is no war. So instead they speculate endlessly on when and how the war will start.
The editors back home shape this speculation into an emotional roller-coaster ride. One week war is imminent, the next week there's a gleam of hope somewhere, and the following week Armageddon is once again just around the corner.
The Iraqis can be relied on to predict at least once a week that the "mother of all battles" is imminent, and time after time this meaningless remark is turned into the lead for a story. Even more welcome are the calculated indiscretions, programmed by the psychological war experts to frighten the Iraqis, that are duly leaked by government spokesmen in Washington and other Western capitals.
Imagine that a U.S. State Department official, refusing to be identified, sidled up to you and said: "The only realistic prospect for avoiding war is a complete, or at least almost complete, withdrawal from, Kuwait by Saddam -- probably at the last minute sometime in early January. But the choice is now stark. He backs off, or he gets rolled over."
My reaction, and probably yours, would be that this official had taken too much testosterone and ought to lie down for a while. But it was solemnly reported as an indication of official thinking in Washington. God help us if it really is, but far more likely it is merely a propaganda message intended to be conveyed by the media to the other side.
The feverish warnings of those trying to forestall war by inflating the casualty toll are relayed with an equal eagerness. The Center for Defense Information in Washington, for example, is never so well-loved by the media as when it is predicting disaster.
The CDI generally takes the opposite side from the Pentagon on any issue. It released a study predicting a total of almost 300,000 casualties, including 65,000 dead, in a war between the United States and Iraq. Of these, around one-sixth, including 10,000 dead, would be U.S. casualties.
Needless to say, this estimate was meant to scare the socks off the American public and deter the Bush administration from going to war. But it is based on an assumption: that the United States would not stop at liberating Kuwait by force, but would conduct a huge land campaign ending with the military capture of Baghdad.
Why on earth would the United States do that? It wouldn't retain a single ally by the time it was nearing Baghdad, not to mention the uproar that would be building at home over such a huge butcher's bill. The whole estimate is founded on implausible premises deliberately chosen to produce scary figures -- and much of the media fell on the numbers panting and slavering.
The media give credence to such things because they need to focus the continuing non-story of blockade and embargo on an exciting potential war instead. But the war need not happen. With any luck, it will not happen.
There are many ways for this crisis to end satisfactorily (in the sense that Kuwait is restored) without a war. As the sanctions begin to bite in the new year, Saddam may yet withdraw voluntarily. Or he may be overthrown by colleagues who do not want to do down with the ship.
Though less dramatic, these outcomes are to be preferred. It's worth waiting a while longer. And it's much more likely that governments will wait than the media pretend.
GWYNNE DYER, a native of Canada, is an author and commentator in London, England.