Headlines the next morning focused on this message: "President Tells Hussein to Leave Iraq Within 48 Hours or Face Invasion" (Washington Post); "Bush Gives Ultimatum to Hussein: Leave in 48 Hours or Face War" (Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel); "President Gives the Iraqi Dictator One Last Deadline" (San Antonio Express-News).
One story, however, at the bottom of an inside page in the New York Times, had a different message: "Allies Will Move In, Even if Saddam Hussein Moves Out" was the headline over a page A16 story by Times military correspondent Michael Gordon. "Even if Saddam Hussein leaves Iraq within 48 hours, as President Bush demanded, allied forces plan to move north into Iraqi territory, American officials said today," the article began.
Gordon pointed to a little-noted line in Bush's speech: "It is not too late for the Iraqi military to act with honor and protect your country by permitting the peaceful entry of coalition forces to eliminate weapons of mass destruction." While in the context of the speech, this seemed to refer to what Bush hoped Iraqi commanders would do in the event that his ultimatum was rejected, Gordon reported that this was actually a signal that regardless of what Hussein chooses, the U.S. would still, in Gordon's words, "enter Iraq to search for hidden weapons of mass destruction and help stabilize the nation so that a new and more democratic regime could take over."
Even if the Iraqi military were to overthrow Hussein, Gordon wrote, "a military intervention seems very likely." He quoted Colin Powell's statement on March 17 to the effect that "the only way for Iraq to avoid an attack is for Mr. Hussein to leave the country and 'allow this matter to be resolved through the peaceful entry of force.'"
In other words, there is nothing that Iraq can do to avoid invasion and occupation; its only choice is whether or not to surrender. Why dress up this straightforward policy with a claim that Saddam Hussein's refusal to step down within a 48-hour deadline "will result in military conflict"? Presumably because the White House knew that the media would find the drama of the ultimatum irresistible, and would therefore frame the upcoming war not as a choice that Washington was making, but as a final test for Saddam Hussein.
Media have by and large failed to challenge this spin campaign, and continue to frame the story as a "defiant" Saddam Hussein spurning the last chance for peace. "Saddam Sneers Back: Hell No, I Won't Go" was the New York Daily News' front-page headline on March 19. The cable news channel MSNBC actually had a "DEADLINE" clock in the lower-right hand corner of its screen at all times, ticking away the seconds until the meaningless deadline passes.
Even the New York Times itself did not seem to have grasped its own correspondent's report: "War Imminent as Hussein Rejects Ultimatum" was the paper's lead headline (3/19/03), with an accompanying story beginning, "The White House said today that Saddam Hussein was making his 'final mistake' by rejecting an ultimatum ordering him to leave Iraq or face war."