Wednesday, March 06, 2002

The War and Its Critics

What do you think the chances are that New York City will be hit again before the year is out? Fifty-fifty? Two-to-one? If you asked the people who see and read all of the classified intelligence reports and have access to every last al-Qaeda file, what do you think they would say? I doubt they'd put the odds at anything less than 50-50.

Given this reality -- the near certainty that another truly heinous act against American citizens will be at least attempted in the next 9 months -- you would think that the Democratic Party and its like-minded allies in the press corps would grant the Bush Administration the benefit of the doubt with regards to its management of the War on Terror. Especially so when one considers the manifest competence of its efforts to date. But you would be wrong.

The press carps and whines. The Democrats parry and thrust and play politics with national security fire. Michael Kelly has an excellent column on this subject today, which I urge you to read. He's a bit more forgiving than others have been with regards to Senate Majority Leader Thomas Daschle (D-SD). Kelly dismisses Daschle as an unserious hack.

As for the press, I suppose the question is: what did you expect? And I suppose the answer is that I didn't expect that in such a short period of time the major newspapers and newsmagazines would approach the War on Terror as a "factor" in the mid-term elections, or as a platform from which to lecture us all about civil liberties or as a seminar within which we might discuss the root causes of Islamo-fascist anger or as an opportunity to debate "unliateralism" and the needs of the EU.

You don't have to go to far afield to find frivolous press commentary and reportage. Consider the following paragraph inside an otherwise straightforward news story in The Washington Post:

"Behind the business-as-usual appearance, White House aides know the truth about public opinion in wartime: The more images Americans see of body bags or bereft families, the more likely they are to question a mission. There has been no decline in public tolerance for losses so far, and Bush is eager to keep it that way."

Consider the various conceits. First is the conceit that the author has any idea what is going on behind the scenes at the national security command post that is the White House. I can say (as can you) with virtual certainty that he has no idea what's going on behind-the-scenes in Ms. Rice's office or Director Tenet's office of Paul Wolfowitz's office or anyone else's office where the most serious matters of national security are discussed.

As for White House aides knowing "the truth" about body bags on television, I have no doubt that there are some on the White House staff who worry about such things, but so what? Does anyone think that President Bush turns to Secretaries Rumsfeld and Powell and says, "we can't attack those A-Q forces in eastern Afghanistan because there might be body bags on television.."? Does anyone think that Mssrs. Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz and Powell and Ms. Rice would work for a man who even thought that way? Does the press really think that these extraordinary public officials, who have now devoted their lives to this War, are so shallow that their real, "behind-the-scenes" concern is how it all looks on television?

And who says that the more body bags there are on television, the more queasy the public becomes? Was that true in World War II? No. It certainly wasn't true in Vietnam. The public's response to body bags on television during the Vietnam War was increased support for wider, more ferocious warfare against the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese. Most Americans believe that if you are going to fight a war, then fight it with every weapon at your disposal. Richard Nixon and George Wallace received 57 percent of the total vote in 1968 and not because they were anti-war. Richard Nixon, running against the explicitly anti-war candidate George McGovern in 1972, was re-elected by the largest landslide in modern American history. Nearly one-third of all Americans today believe we should use nuclear weaponry in the War against terror.

What is this Washington Post correspondent talking about? America, once provoked, is a warrior nation. And once engaged, we are spectacularly good at it. We do not shirk the responsibility. We understand what it implies. The body bags on television are a given; the cost of freedom. The cost of no body bags on television -- inaction -- is incalculably higher. The country, especially WalMart America, solidly supports President Bush's War on Terror. The only thing that will crack that support is if the country concludes that he is not waging the War vigorously enough.

If I were in Tom Daschle's shoes, I would make it my business to add "software" to President Bush's "hardware," for the simple reason that it would be helpful to the War effort and would therefore be good politics as well. There are any number of "software" initiatives that are at least worthy of consideration, if not implementation. One is organizing the Iraqi opposition to Sadam. Another is organizing the Iranian opposition to the mullahs. Another is figuring out how to get the US fundamentalist community more active in certain African nations (on humanitarian missions of mercy). And the list goes on and on.

Instead, Daschle whines that he is somehow out of the loop. Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV) bloviates about the Defense Budget request being too high. Senator Joe Biden (D-DE) tries to position himself for left/liberal Democratic presidential primary voters by back-handedly sniping at the scope and strategic outline of the War on Terror. Meanwhile, the press sneers at Attorney General Ashcroft, moans that al-Qaeda prisoners in Cuba are being "mistreated," complains that Bush has no respect for the First Amendment and on (and on) it goes.

I suppose Michael Kelly's dismissive verdict -- that Daschle and company are simply unserious -- is right. But at some level it's worse than that; a kind of denial. It's as if they still believe that what's important is their spin for or on the next news cycle. Instead of the news itself and what it implies.