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CNN effect: edge-of-seat diplomacy

The "CNN effect," the media analysts call it - the way instant news affects foreign policy decisions. Like President Bush having to send troops to protect the Kurds in northern Iraq in 1991 once television had shown their suffering. Or Americans pulled out of Somalia once television had shown an American airman's body being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. Officials will tell you they often learn of important developments on CNN before they hear from embassies or the CIA.

Often officials, aware that citizens are seeing what they are seeing, must improvise instant policies. In 1962, President Kennedy had the luxury of six days to deal with the Cuban missile crisis before the public became aware of it. That is not likely to happen today. Our global village is also a global intercom for communication among leaders.

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Never has there been a more dramatic example of the "CNN effect" than what happened on Saturday, Nov. 14. Were it not for CNN, the bombs might well have been raining down on Iraq before President Clinton knew that Saddam Hussein was ready to yield on weapons inspection.The attack was set to "go" at 9 a.m. Eastern Standard Time. B-52 bombers were already in the air. A few minutes after eight, national security adviser Sandy Berger was called at home by a subordinate. CNN correspondent Brent Sadler was on the air from Baghdad with word from an Iraqi official that President Saddam Hussein was responding "positively" to an overnight letter from United Nations Secty-Gen. Kofi Annan appealing to him to let the weapons inspectors come back.

Mr. Berger rushed to the White House, arriving at 8:15. In the next half-hour, monitoring CNN all the time for further details, Mr. Clinton consulted his security team by telephone, including Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, airborne on her way to Asia. At 8:45, with 15 minutes to go, the president called the Pentagon with orders to delay - later to abort - the attack.

Since then Iraq has shown signs of renewed resistance to inspection, but the Clinton administration has evinced no immediate inclination to carry out its threat of attack without warning. Think about how CNN may have changed the course of history. Think about the communications age we live in and the way nail-biting officials must make fateful decisions without time to think. And, if you're like me, you will worry a little bit when powerful people make snap decisions, trying to keep up with the information curve.

* Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.

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