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Jewish World Review Feb. 20, 2002 / 8 Adar, 5762

Chris Matthews

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Who hijacked our war? -- A MONTH ago, I knew exactly why we were fighting. You knew exactly why we were fighting. We were getting the Sept. 11 killers before they could get us again. Even if we had to track down Osama bin Laden and his filthy gang to the ends of the earth, we were up to the task.

So what happened to that gutsy war of bringing the World Trade Center and Pentagon attackers to justice? Who hijacked that clear-eyed, all-American front of September-to-January and left our leaders mouthing this "axis of evil?" line? Who hijacked the firefighters' and police officers' war of righteous outrage and got us now reciting this mantra about Iran, Iraq and North Korea of all places?

Let me lay it out for you.

Before this year's State of the Union address, we were mopping up Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and hunting for bin Laden.

America was doing what we'd set out to do: bring the killers to justice or justice to the killers, whether it happened in Somalia, Yemen, Indonesia or the Philippines.

Since Jan. 29, we seemed to have lost our way. A presidency that found a fresh voice surrounded by New York firefighters now speaks in the practiced lingo of Washington, DC ideologues. In place of the street-corner straight talk, we have President Bush talking about some "axis of evil" extending from Tehran to Pyongyang. We're watching Secretary Powell pledge "regime change" in Baghdad.

Who's writing this script? Who hi-jacked our war?

Answer: a coterie of "neo-conservative" thinkers led by Weekly Standard publisher William Kristol and deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz. Out of the ashes of Sept. 11, they and their rightist associates found what they've long yearned for: an American government heading toward war in the Middle East. They have diverted the hunt for bin Laden much as the Crusades of a millennium ago were diverted from saving the Holy Land to idiotic conquests of Belgrade, Constantinople and any number of targets along the way.

Kristol and Wolfowitz have wanted this for a long time.

"We are writing you because we are convinced that current American policy toward Iraq is not succeeding," they demanded in an open letter to President Bill Clinton in January 1998. They urged him to use his upcoming State of the Union address to back "the removal of Saddam Hussein's regime from power."

"We stand ready to offer our full support in this difficult but necessary endeavor."

Kristol and his unmerry band could hardly have expected President Clinton to accept his offer to help topple Saddam Hussein given Kristol's upfront role in trashing Hillary Clinton's 1994 national health care scheme.

In January 2001, Kristol and Wolfowitz had a new president to recruit to their anti-Iraq agenda. Kristol publicly commended his partner, Wolfowitz, now deputy Pentagon chief, for knowing that U.S. forces, both air and ground, "could well be necessary to bring Saddam down."

The attacks of last Sept. 11 gave Kristol a new opening.

"It may be that the Iraqi government provided assistance in some form to the recent attack on the United States," he wrote in an open letter to President Bush on Sept. 20. "But even if evidence does not link Iraq directly to the attack, any strategy aiming at the eradication of terrorism and its sponsors must include a determined effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq."

As before, the letter included the familiar list of neo-conservatives. One new name was that of former UN ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, who in 1984 had ridiculed members of her former party as "San Francisco Democrats" for what she judged as their insufficient manliness in foreign policy.

On Oct. 1, Kristol used his Weekly Standard to resume the drumbeat. "Evidence that Iraq may have aided in the horrific attacks of Sept. 11 is beginning to accumulate." On Nov. 26, Tom Donnelly, an associate of Kristol's Project for the New American Century, declared "a consensus has emerged that it is high time to remove Saddam Hussein from power."

On Jan. 26, Weekly Standard writer David Frum, now a speechwriter for President Bush, authored the term "axis of evil." Iraq was now in the crosshairs. With Kristol working from the outside and Wolfowitz from the inside, the neo-conservative campaign against Saddam Hussein was directly and officially on mark. Finally, a U.S. president was speaking from the script.

What good has it done?

It's scared the hell out of the South Koreans, who wonder if the nuts in the North will use the "axis" language to cross the 17th parallel.

It's driven President Khatami, a moderate, into the welcoming arms of the zealots and millions of Iranians of the streets with renewed shouts of "Death to America."

It's given Saddam Hussein a golden chance to pledge support for Iran, a country with which he fought an eight-year war, should it come under American attack.

Just as its forged an "axis of evil" where there was none, it has driven a wedge between the United States and Russia, with President Putin railing against global "blacklists."

Worse yet, it has robbed America of its manifest, No. 1 priority: to bring justice to the killers of Sept. 11.

I don't write open letters to presidents. But if you're reading this column, Mr. Bush, please stop listening to the Washington beltway intellectuals and start recalling the cause of the New York firefighters and police officers. Don't let what happened to the last crusade happen to this one.

JWR contributor Chris Matthews is the author of "Now, Let Me Tell You What I Really Think". and hosts a CNBC show of the same name. Comment by clicking here.

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