At this stage of a war, when it is vital to quickly secure the support of the vast majority of the indigenous population, Washington and the Central Command should adopt a simple while counter-intuitive slogan: "Tanks are good but Frisbees are better."
The pictures shown on American television last week of laughing Iraqi children catching Frisbees thrown by U.S. soldiers in an armored column rolling toward Baghdad were more than a brief, happy tableau amidst the destruction and killing of war.
Those video images of prancing children and colorful plastic saucers -- far more than any pictures of coalition combat force -- are the key to the next phase of this war.
In my safe retirement seat far from the action, I could not tell if the Frisbee tossing from the M-1 tanks and armored personnel carriers was spontaneous or planned. If it was planned, they should make the planner a general and give him carte blanche to organize the final takeover of Baghdad.
I offer this "Frisbee First" because the next phase of this war to bring a decent government to Iraq will resemble a political campaign more than a straightforward military operation.
The U.S. and its coalition partners need to convince the Iraqi people, beaten down by three decades of one of the worst fear machines in modern history, that we are there as saviors (or at least helpers) not conquerors.
The Bush Regime in Iraq is like a candidate looking for support from a confused and fearful electorate.
Although my experience in war is more limited, I did cover hundreds of political campaigns in my years as a reporter, and I saw how images -- contrived or accidental -- could determine the way people view the candidates. As long as the subject of tanks has been raised, just ask defeated presidential candidate Michael Dukakis about the power of images to affect popular opinion.
America has a head start in winning any contest over imagery.
We invented television and we know how to use it to leave the best impression.
Our political consultants, sad to say, are the envy of the world. They are hired to run elections from Borneo to Belfast. More important, the GI's who are the representatives of America most Iraqis will see are proving to be both warm hearted and smart in their uncomfortable role as liberators.
If you saw pictures of the Marines defuse the touchy situation at an Iraqi mosque, finally dropping to one knee and turning their weapons away as their commanders urged them to "back off and smile" you know exactly what I'm talking about. American young people -- especially those in uniform -- are among our most impressive exports, and we should exploit that.
At a Pentagon briefing a couple of days ago, spokeswoman Victoria Clarke showed a picture of an Iraqi newborn brought into this world by U.S. military doctors. We should have a positive anecdote of that type ready to tell the world every day.
It won't be difficult. Such humanitarian assistance is always common in a U.S. military operation. All Washington and CENTCOM have to do is put those stories out where all can see them.
As any good political consultant would advise, a little bit of creativity will go a long way, and we should not forget about life's seemingly superficial pleasures.
On the dusty streets of a town called Umm Khayyal, British marines ginned up a soccer match against a local Iraqi team. More than a thousand spectators showed up and cheered as the Iraqi team, which brought their own referees, took the match.
The fans, obviously soccer nuts, were familiar with the names of all the big stars of British professional soccer. They chided the marines that they should get the pros in to help. A few more athletic matches all over Iraq, featuring coalition troops versus hometown talent, would be a good idea about now.
If you have any doubts that a political campaign -- with TV images as the central weapon -- is under way in Iraq, you must have missed the supposed appearance of Saddam Hussein on the streets of Baghdad Saturday.
A man who is obsessed by fear of assassination by his own people goes out in streets filled with citizens carrying sub-machine guns? Common sense tells us that either those pictures weren't Saddam Hussein or the whole episode was staged using Saddam loyalists raising phony AK-47 rifles to the sky.
Either way, there's only one reason why the dying Iraqi regime arranged the TV pictures -- it's a photo op in a campaign.
The U.S. government must combat this phony campaign with a real, and well-run campaign of its own.
By Eric Engberg