AUSTIN, Texas -- It is clear we will need to practice hard on our credulity in the future just to get a grasp on how dumbfounding the entire Iraq War is. We need credulity up to the Wonderland White Queen's standards, believing as many as six impossible things before breakfast every day -- practice, practice, practice.

For starters, we find the Pentagon investigating itself over the secret military practice of paying to plant news stories in Iraqi papers. Now, since it's a secret practice, I don't know if the Pentagon will be able to find out much, but the way it works is U.S. military personnel, also known as soldiers, write "news" stories full of reassuring news.

National Public Radio reports that stories are filled with hyperbole and pro-U.S. rhetoric. One story written by the military and obtained by NPR dated Nov. 22 says military leaders are succeeding in stopping terrorists. It continues, "They have proven this as quiet slowly begins again to settle on the streets of western Iraq. " At the time, insurgents were staging over 700 attacks per week -- up from 150 a week the previous year.

That this might not be the shrewdest move ever seems to have occurred to some. Retired Rear Adm. Stephen Pietropaoli, who was head of the navy's public affairs department, told NPR, "When people find out that what they've been peddled isn't what they thought it was, they tend to take a dim view of every other thing that that government says."

The stories written by the U.S. military are then handed over to a defense contractor called the Lincoln Group, run by young Republican political operatives. They, in turn, pay local Iraqi newspapers and television stations to run the stories.

In an attempt to justify this, former Army spokesman Charles Krohn told NPR: "I don't think there's any need for secrecy, but I think it's pretty well understood that it's the custom in that country to pay journalists and to pay newspapers. And certainly, I think the record that Saddam has done this and others do it is pretty well established."

Isn't it nice that we're following in Saddam's footsteps? The problem is one of credibility, in a nutshell. Bruce McCall has performed a great public service in the New Yorker by imagining headlines for U.S.-created stories in the Baghdad Daily Bugle:

"26 million Iraqis Unhurt in Latest Terror Blast."

"Few Changes Needed to Turn Abu Ghraib Into an Applebee's."

"Voting Machines in Upcoming Elections Donated by Florida."

"New Automatic Citizenship Law Turns U.S. forces Into Crack Iraqi Army Overnight."

This should immediately fire your imagination so that you, too, begin spinning off ideas for terrific stories about how well things are going in Iraq. Haven't the conservatives been saying all along what we needed was the media to report the good, dandy, better, best news from Iraq? Turns out we've actually been paying for it, and look what a difference it has made: "Good News Stories Stop 750 Attacks a Day!"

If you still can't think of any good news to create, study the recent work of the American news media, particularly cable TV, on the subject of the Iraqi elections. Just like Charlie Brown and the football, they fall for it every time. Those heroic purple thumbs, "70 percent of Iraqis Vote." How would anyone know? Well, there were long lines. There were long lines in Ohio last year, too. It meant there weren't enough polling places. Does anyone know what the Iraqis were voting for? Does three separate little statelets seem a likely answer? (Some analysts actually think this may be the optimum outcome.)

Meanwhile, we are further tested by the president's improbable proclamation that he has the right to ignore the laws and Constitution of this country because he is a wartime president. Actually, that's a real problem. We can't declare war because we haven't been attacked by any government, territory or military. The War on Terrorism is like those other odd wars on nouns -- the wars on drugs, the war on cancer, etc.

Dick Cheney, it turns out, has been fretting about this since the Nixon administration, when we used to talk about the imperial presidency. Trouble is, none of the administration's actions have ever been discussed -- Bush and Cheney just usurped the authority.

If Bush were a different kind of president, they might have gotten away with it right after 9-11. People were genuinely frightened, and there's always that old fantasy that somehow Daddy Will Take Care of Us If We Do Exactly What He Tells Us to Do.

But George W. Bush is not a daddy president, he's the Testy Kid -- Mr. Snippy. Every question is lese-majeste to the Snappy Prince, and a follow-up question is outright treason. He sees no reason why he should answer to us.

Attention Americans: We have, under the Constitution, a strong executive, noticeably more so than in other democracies. The whole history of the struggle for freedom is about how to curb and balance the powers of the executive.

The United States of America has over 200 years of experience with these questions, and you know what? George W. Bush is not the smartest guy to come along in over 200 years. Be cautious. Be very cautious. Do not endorse authoritarianism out of knee-jerk partisan impulse -- this shoe will be on the other foot eventually.

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