The trip to the war zone had, perhaps inevitably, the trappings of a stunt, played for photo ops and political advantage. But there was also real substance to it, and a commitment to see the job done. “We were attacked in New York by forces of a failed state,” said Senator Hillary Clinton on her Thanksgiving visit to Afghanistan. “We can’t ever forget that, and we can’t ever let it happen again.”
She criticized various Bush administration policies, as is natural in an ambitious leader of the opposition party. Yet, while some of the suggestions made by her and Senator John Reed of Rhode Island, her companion on the trip, came at the President from the left-urging a bigger U.N. role in Iraq-others, arguably, came from the right: calling for more troops in Afghanistan, and worrying that the latest timetable for a hand-off of political power in Iraq might be too hasty.
If Senator Clinton is looking ahead to 2008, it is interesting that she is looking ahead in this way. The Terror War will be the work of years, which means that Democrats as well as Republicans must fight it. With the tone of the Democratic Presidential contest being set by a pugnacious anti-warrior (Howard Dean), a desperate one (John Kerry) and assorted mixed nuts (Dennis Kucinich, Wesley Clark), Hillary offers the hope that Democrats-if not the Democrats now before us-could also do the job.
President Bush’s Thanksgiving trip to Baghdad sent a similarly determined message, with the gravitas and dazzle that the Presidency can summon, if the holder of the office is willing to summon them. “We did not charge hundreds of miles into the heart of Iraq, pay a bitter cost of casualties, defeat a ruthless dictator and liberate 25 million people only to retreat before a band of thugs and assassins,” he said. Pass the turkey, and the ammunition.
The trip also played to a particular strength of Mr. Bush’s, which can only be called his common touch. However wayward Mr. Bush’s relationship with the English language, his command of body language and gesture does not desert him when he is with people in the trenches. The first notable example was his visit to Ground Zero two days after 9/11; when he stood on the ash heap and told the rescue workers that the world would soon hear them, he suddenly seemed ready for the long road ahead. They had inspired him, which allowed him to inspire them. He enacted the same rite of communion in Iraq.
How George W. Bush developed a common touch is a mystery. Sons of Presidents, and graduates of Andover, Yale and Harvard Business School, do not commonly have it. On the surface, Mr. Bush is still reacting scornfully to the elite liberalism he encountered at Vietnam-era Yale; whatever William Sloane Coffin is against, me an’ the boys are for. More subtly, he is rebelling against his adored but alien father, even as he sticks up for him. By becoming a late-vocation roughneck, Mr. Bush can lose and win the Oedipal battle simultaneously. Wherever he gets the knack, he and we are lucky that he has it.
Three days after President Bush’s trip, 46 thugs and assassins met their maker after staging an unwise ambush of American troops. No doubt we have been killing Saddamites all along, and chose to release this story because of its fortuitous timing. Civilization and scum will both sustain losses as the weeks and months pass. But isn’t it possible to see that we are winning?
The Baathists and jihadists are fighting a guerrilla war without all of the necessary preconditions. Their numbers are essentially finite: old regime cadres, supplemented by foreign doodlebugs. They have no hinterland-no jungle-covered Ho Chi Minh trail leading to a hostile neighboring power. They have cash, looted by Saddam’s minions from government banks and ministries as the regime fell (where was the public outcry in our press about that?), with which to suborn gunmen and deluded suicides. But even this stash won’t be replenished; the Saddamites can’t grow poppies. Say at worst that the public space of Iraq will be no better than Belfast, or Spain’s Basque country. It will not be Algeria or Vietnam.
Why, in that case, go on week after week about this war? One goes on because the war goes on, and the larger war of which it is only an episode. What else is there to talk about? Gay marriage? Medicare? Michael Jackson? But one also goes on because the antiwar left, and the liberals who are intimidated by them, go on, mocking our leaders, questioning our motives, ignoring our situation and disdaining our achievements. Mr. Bush is Alfred E. Newman, Richard Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld are evil old men out of George Grosz. We went to war for oil, for Halliburton or for neocons (four-letter word, begins with J, rhymes with choose ). In a world where two of our greatest buildings were demolished by airplanes, and where a handful of deaths by anthrax and snipers gave us the willies, we were supposed to give a murderous anti-American dictator who had mocked U.N. inspectors for 12 years the benefit of the doubt. Week after week, the witless arguments materialize like roaches from under a baseboard. No bug bomb works, only swatters.
One goes on, finally, because from time to time, amidst the spin and chatter, one reads something that gives pause. Such a thing appeared in the wake of President Bush’s trip: a posting by an Iraqi blogger, who calls himself the Mesopotamian, was rattling around the Internet. The post was addressed to “GWB,” whom the blogger called “friend and ally.” He acknowledged that Mr. Bush’s visit was brief, but called it “meaningful” all the same. He regretted that the “masses” could not give Mr. Bush “the welcome that you deserve, but the day will come, the day will come (God’s Willing).” Then, this: “The bones in the mass graves salute you, Avenger of the Bones.”
I yield the floor.