Jewish World Review Jan. 26, 2004 / 3 Shevat 5764

Paul Greenberg

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Back to Earth | It was a shock. Like being transported from a bleak moonscape where all is ruin and isolation back to the turbulent waters and rocky shores of the real world. That's what it was like listening to the president's State of the Union address after having been immersed in the surreal world of the Democratic primaries.

In that fantasy world, the United States of America acts like some kind of evil empire engaged in an aggressive, unnecessary war against only imaginary threats. That's the sci-fi world of the Ted Kennedys and Howard Deans and Wesley Clarks . . . and it's now playing in New Hampshire.

But for an hour or so Tuesday night, the country was brought back to Earth with a solid thud. And the captain of the ship gave a quite different appraisal of the state of the Union - strong and getting stronger.

George W. Bush's was only one view of reality, and also subject to debate. A president's State of the Union address in an election year is always his first campaign speech, and this address had its surreal moments, too. (What was the president of the United States doing talking about steroids ?)

Despite the rhetorical flotsam and long list of legislative chores, there were moments of clarity, when the lightning flashed and you could see some things vividly. For example:

Early in his speech the president was interrupted by applause - from the opposition. That revealing moment came when he noted that the Patriot Act, which Democratic orators love to hate, would expire next year. But unfortunately, as the president went on to note, "The terrorist threat will not expire on that schedule." Suddenly reality had intruded. So did the president's message: This is no time to let down our guard.

Who would have thought in September of 2001 that more than two years would pass without another terrorist outrage here at home? The Patriot Act is one reason there hasn't been another September 11th, but the danger level is still high.

Yet this doesn't seem like a country that is at war, not for most of us. A superficial normalcy still reigns, despite the occasional inconvenience at airports or heightened terror alerts. But complacency is dangerous in the shadowy war now being waged against us. It is a war this country has prosecuted with an energy and reach that has surprised those, friend and foe alike, who thought America would do little more than initiate criminal proceedings again, and wait for the next blow.

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To quote the commander-in-chief Tuesday night: "After the chaos and carnage of September 11th, it is not enough to serve our enemies with legal papers."

But there are would-be leaders out there who are still stuck in a September 10th world, and see no reason for a war on terror, or at least a war against rogue regimes that sustain and support it. New Hampshire is full of such critics at the moment.

The opposition got its hour Tuesday night, too, or rather its 15 minutes or so. The distinguished leaders of the minority in the House and Senate, seated sedately in some quiet studio, seemed isolated in more than the physical sense.

Nancy Pelosi dutifully repeated the party line, sounding eerily like a wax figure circa 1940 as she made her case against a warmongering president: "He has pursued a go-it-alone policy that leaves us isolated abroad and that steals the resources we need for education and health care here at home . . . ."

The next one of these Bush-bashers who accuses the administration of going it alone in the war on terror really should be required to tell a British mother who's lost a son in Iraq - or an Australian mother, or a Polish or Ukrainian or Spanish mother - that America is going it alone, and only this country is making sacrifices. Now that would take some real guts.

The president himself had the best response to this line of attack Tuesday night when he began calling the roll of the Coalition of the Willing fighting with America in Iraq - Britain, Australia, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Italy, Spain, Poland . . . . He was interrupted by applause before he got to "and 17 others."

Yet there are still those who would confuse the world, or even Europe, with France and Germany. Those who depict the United States as isolated don't just ignore our allies but insult them. Instead, we should all be raising a toast to them, preferably with a good Australian shiraz. I recommend Black Opal, although Rosemount gets good reviews, too.

The light continued to break through Tuesday night as the president reminded us all of some details that might have been obscured in the electioneering of late. For example, the world is a safer place without Saddam Hussein.

This nostalgia for Saddam mystifies some of us. He is no longer in a position to develop strategic weapons, however far along he might have been in his efforts to acquire them before being so abruptly interrupted. And that is a good thing - in the real world.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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