Jewish World Review March 1, 2004/ 8 Adar, 5763
It's the war, stupid
A year or so back, a publisher took me to lunch and pitched me several cheerfully trashy ideas, including one where I'd follow the Democratic nominee around and mock him mercilessly. Didn't appeal. So he said, 'Well, is there any book you've got in mind?'
I replied that there was. 'It's about the end of the world,' I said. He guffawed and I said, 'No, honestly, I'm serious,' and started to explain. But, 15 seconds in, I got the vague sense he was planning on slowly backing towards the exit without making any sudden movements or undue eye contact - or he would have done, if only he hadn't been wedged into the banquette. Instead, he said wistfully, 'You know when I first started reading your stuff? Impeachment. You did the best Clinton blowjob jokes.' He signalled the waiter. 'Check, please.' I got the impression he was feeling like the great pop guru Don Kirshner when the Monkees came to him and said they were sick of this bubblegum stuff and they needed to grow as artists.
So, when the news broke that John Kerry may have an 'intern scandal', my heart sank. I like 'the politics of personal destruction' as much as the next chap, but it somehow represented the reductio ad absurdum of this perversely trivial election season: interns were back! Five years ago, I used to wake up to a flurry of interesting emails from shadowy corners of the vast right-wing conspiracy about who killed Kathleen Willey's cat. Mrs Willey, you'll recall, was the fragile beauty who claimed Clinton grabbed her breasts on the day her husband was found dead. The President, you might also recall, indignantly denied the incident to an aggrieved Monica Lewinsky on the grounds that 'I'd never hit on a woman with such small breasts.'
Anyway, Mrs Willey's cat disappeared in mysterious circumstances, and for a long time I used to get intriguing tips as to his whereabouts. Now, I wake up to a flurry of interesting emails about possible yellowcake shipments from the Horn of Africa. Long-trousered stuff, not no-trousers stuff. Towards the end of the impeachment trial, I was standing by the elevators when Senator John Chaffee, weary of the proceedings and disinclined to hear any new evidence, announced impatiently, 'It's too late now to get into Kathleen Willey' - which, oddly enough, was probably how Clinton felt in his more ruefully reflective moments. That's how I feel. It's too late now to get back into Kathleen Willey. I'm like Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca: 'I put that dress away. When the Germans march out, I'll wear it again.' I put my Clinton sex jokes away. When the Islamofascist nutters are history, I'll do them again.
America, it's said, is divided into September 11th people and September 10th people. I'm in the former category. I'm a single-issue guy. All the other stuff can wait. Not all of us single-issue guys are Republicans. There's a category called '9/11 Democrats', though nobody's quite sure how many there are. They include, up to a point, the Blues Brother Dan Aykroyd, who's campaigning for his dream ticket of Bush '04/Hillary '08. 'Let this administration finish this war and this fight against terrorism,' he says. 'If Bush is re-elected, then Hillary is set up to run for President in 2008. I'll be there with my band to help her. Then we'll have the glory days back for the Democrats.'
Sounds good to me, at least the first part. But most Democrats see no need to wait, and the most salient feature of the party's primary season is the marginalisation of the war. The stump speech of pretty-boy Senator John Edwards, which I've heard often enough to be able to mouth along with him, has room for everything, including vivid, wrenching portraits of despair: 'Tonight somewhere in America a ten-year-old little girl will go to bed hungry, hoping and praying that tomorrow will not be as cold as today because she doesn't have the coat to keep her warm.' You'd have to have a heart of stone not to be doubled up in laughter at that line. Thanks to the cheap textile imports Edwards and Kerry have pledged to crack down on, girls' coats have never been cheaper. At JC Penney, Edwards' shivering ten-year-old can get a brand-new quilted winter coat with faux-fur collar and cuffs for $9.99. At my local thrift shop, you can get a nice second-hand girl's coat for three bucks. If John Edwards can produce, anywhere in the United States, a ten-year-old coatless girl I will personally send her a brand-new one with the Spectator logo attractively stitched on the left-hand side in return for one substantive passage on foreign policy in his stump speech.
As it is, the only reference he makes to the post-9/11 unpleasantness is a pledge to 'put a stop to this war profiteering that's going on in Iraq'. For Edwards, the only enemy in the Middle East is Halliburton, which is code (barely) for Bush and Cheney. Unless, of course, he's implying that German and French firms aren't getting a fair shot at the reconstruction contracts, which is certainly a tenable position, though not one that a guy campaigning against the rampant 'outsourcing' of American jobs can logically make. Edwards has nothing to say about the war, and nobody seems to mind.
That's because, to many Democrats, there is no war. It's a fraud got up by Bush because Halliburton were itching to get the exploitation rights to Afghanistan's supply of premium rubble. Or something like that. It's hard to follow. But Al Gore popped up the other day and summed up what Dems feel about Bush: 'He betrayed us!' Or, rather, 'He-aaah be-uh-tray-uhd uyyuusssss!' He was trying out a new accent. A bit like the one he used in 2000, when he was addressing the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People and trying to sound like Aretha Franklin but it came out like Pat Boone doing Al Jolson. This one was more like televangelist Jim Bakker leading his first pledge drive after being caught with the hooker. He endeavoured to drop an octave on the 'tray' of 'betrayed', which was a nice touch.
This is, when you think about it, a very odd situation. Generally speaking, when a nation's at war, its citizens recognise it as such. In, say, 1944, even the conscientious objectors did not attempt to argue that there was, in fact, no war. But in 2004 America is divided between those who want to fight the war and those who want to fight the guy who invented the war as a means of distracting us from the tax cuts for his cronies and his plan to destroy the environment.
At which point enter John Kerry. Unlike Edwards, he does have something to say about the war. It's the same thing he says in answer to everything: 'I served in Vietnam' - as in, 'I served in Vietnam, so I know something about aircraft carriers for real.' If you asked him about John Edwards's hairdo and its striking bangs, he'd drone, 'I served in Vietnam, so I know something about scary bangs for real.' Last weekend, Senator Saxby Chambliss, Republican, of Georgia, attacked Kerry's '32-year history of voting to cut defence programmes and cut defence systems'. True enough. Pretty much everything used in Afghanistan and Iraq - B-1 bombers, cruise missiles, Apache helicopters, etc. - is something the Massachusetts Senator wanted to cancel. But Kerry responded, 'I don't know what it is about what these Republicans who didn't serve in any war have against those of us who are Democrats who did.'
Got that? Question: Why did you vote to cancel the Patriot missile?
Answer: 'How dare you! I served in Vietnam.'
Question: Why did you vote to cancel the B-2 stealth bomber?
Answer: 'Don't you know who I am, you impertinent jackanapes? I served in Vietnam.'
Question: Why aren't you in favour of gay marriage?
Answer: 'I deplore the low politics of these attacks on my patriotism. I served in Vietnam.'
And, just in case you miss it from him, he's got campaign sidekick Max Cleland, defeated by Chambliss in the 2002 elections, to reprise the point in his own distinctive way: 'For Saxby Chambliss, who got out of going to Vietnam because of a trick knee, to attack John Kerry as weak on the defence of our nation is like a mackerel in the moonlight that both shines and stinks.' 'Like A Mackerel In The Moonlight'? Wasn't that Dorothy Lamour in Jungle Princess (1936)? Lovely ballad: 'Like a mackerel in the moonlight,
Sometimes you shine,
Sometimes you stink,
I've got you on my line,
And I'm going to make you mine,
Then drop you back in the drink.'
By now Kerry had decided to go for the big fish: the President. Having attacked Chambliss for not serving in Vietnam, Kerry then attacked Bush for siccing Chambliss on him to 'reopen the wounds' of Vietnam. 'As you well know, Vietnam was a very difficult and painful period in our nation's history,' he wrote to the President. 'So, it has been hard to believe that you would choose to reopen these wounds for your personal political gain. But that is what you have chosen to do.'
Huh? Kerry's been talking Vietnam non-stop for a year and a half. When he's up on stage flanked by veterans, it's all you can do to stop him literally reopening his wounds and showing them to the cameras. Chambliss wasn't attacking Kerry for the four months he spent in Vietnam, but for the three-and-a-half decades since he got back. The Dems' frontrunner is betting that his stint in uniform inoculates him from the fact that he's got every major foreign policy question of the last 30 years wrong, from the Viet Cong to Saddam.
In a field that ranged from happy warriors like Joe Lieberman to goofy peaceniks like Dennis Kucinich, the party's primary voters seem to have gone for the most cynical option: a man who's weak on defence when it counts but can be passed off as the exact opposite for the purposes of the campaign. Either that or they find him a subtly reassuring presence: as an anti-war campaigner in the early Seventies, he talked America into abandoning a war it was tired of. Who knows? Maybe he can do it again.
The other day Kerry drew a distinction between himself and Bush in the war on terror. 'I think there has been an exaggeration,' he said. 'It's primarily an intelligence and law-enforcement operation.' But fighting terror through intelligence and law enforcement means not fighting it at all. As the Clinton administration demonstrated, there are always more reasons not to do something. Intelligence is unreliable and not always actionable, and, when it is, it's highly perishable: in a risk-averse, legalistic environment, by the time you've run what you'd like to do past the lawyers it's too late to do it. As for fighting terror through law enforcement, nobody's interested. The Saudis don't mind if Washington sends in commandos to kill the guys. But they've no desire to see them on the witness stand talking about which princes they met when. So a legalistic approach means it's over: it's not possible to fight it that way.
If Gore or Kerry had been in the White House on September 11, I'm certain the Taleban would still be in power, and Afghanistan would still be a playground of terror camps. Oh, to be sure, there'd have been sanctions and Security Council resolutions and some arrests of associates in the US, but the broad context of 9/11 would have been different: it would have been a 'tragedy', not an act of war; mounds of teddy bears, not regime change. For that critical, liberating distinction we have to thank Don Rumsfeld and George W. Bush. According to Rowan Scarborough's new book Rumsfeld's War, at one o'clock that afternoon, as the Pentagon still burned and after he'd helped with the injured, the Defence Secretary told the President, 'This is not a criminal action. This is war.'
November's election is a referendum on Rumsfeld's judgment that day. After Pearl Harbor, Admiral Yamamoto said that he feared all he'd done was wake a sleeping giant. But it's been two years now. If you figure it's time the sleeping giant resumed his slumbers, Kerry's your man.
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JWR contributor Mark Steyn is North American Editor of The (London) Spectator and the author, most recently, of "The Face of the Tiger," a new book on the world post-Sept. 11. (Sales help fund JWR). Comment by clicking here.
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© 2004, Mark Steyn