Jewish World Review April 16, 2004/ 26 Nissan, 5764

Wesley Pruden

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A little assurance for everyone | If the Iraqis who seek relief from the misery imposed by poverty, oppression and a benighted version of a primitive religion wanted a little reassurance, George W. Bush offered it to them.

If the Americans, who while not exactly gung-ho for a foreign war but are nevertheless wary of an irresolute government, yearned for reassurance that sacrifice has not been in vain, George W. Bush gave it to them, too.

The president, facing a gaggle of skeptical reporters ever aspiring to punditry, showed himself unmoved by the stresses of "a tough week." The Iraqis, and above all the cutthroats and assassins in Fallujah and Najaf, were waiting to take the measure of an American president, to see whether this one would back down in the face of Islamist challenge in the way that certain of his predecessors had.

Some of his constituents were, in fact, rattled by the horrific events of the week, as if wars do not always break things and kill people. Waiting in the wings, eager to come on stage, was the Tofu Man, ready to absorb whatever discontents and disappointments might be available for exploitation. "The truth is," as Tony Blair had said earlier in the week, "faced with this struggle, on which our own fate hangs, a significant part of Western opinion is sitting back, if not half-hoping we fail, certainly replete with schadenfreude at the difficulty we find."

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Indeed, nobody enjoys taking pleasure in the misfortune of others with greater relish than the ragged remnants of the counterculture, who never found their way home from the '60s and who sit now in the shade of their own impotence, simmering with bitter frustration.

George W. Bush has none of Tony Blair's eloquence and his ease at soaring on the wings of rhetoric; few American politicians do. It's probably the consequence of working in a borrowed language. But plain speech made his meaning clear enough, and loud enough.

"America's commitment to freedom in Iraq is consistent with our ideals and required by our interests," he said. "Iraq will either be a peaceful, democratic country or it will again be a source of violence, a haven for terror and a threat to America and the world."

The payoff for such resolution in the face of skepticism and wariness (and sneering contempt in certain quarters) was sure and swift. Within 24 hours, Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shi'ite holy terror wanted for murder, mayhem and presiding over mutilation, cried uncle, asking for "negotiations." Holy or not, Najaf suddenly didn't look like much of a sanctuary against the determination of the Americans who demonstrated in Fallujah that they mean business.

The Arabs, tedious though they are with their endless recitations of ancient offenses (some real, many imagined), nevertheless remember history. The feared Shi'ite uprising that an assault on Najaf might have invited, sending Iraq into chaos, suddenly looked considerably less likely.

The Shi'ites recall well enough what confrontation with the British cost them in the 1920s, when they missed an opportunity to project the power of their numbers to win a dominant role in the government. It dawned on Muqtada al-Sadr, whose "stronghold" was actually limited to a suburb of Baghdad, that maybe he wasn't as clever as he thought he was — or as wise as Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, the ayatollah who is the spiritual leader of all the Shi'ites. An imam can make trouble for an ayatollah in the way that a busybody Baptist deacon can make trouble for the preacher, but the smart money rides on the preacher. Ayatollah al-Sistani appears to be betting that the road to the future runs through the ballot box.

President Bush returned more than once to his firm insistence that the June 30 date for returning sovereignty to the Iraqi people is solid and settled. "As a proud, independent people," he said, "Iraqis do not support an indefinite occupation, and neither does America. We're not an imperial power, as Japan and Germany can attest. We're a liberating power, as nations in Europe and Asia can attest as well. We will not step back from that pledge. On June 30th, Iraqi sovereignty will be placed in Iraqi hands."

This is the promise that the cutthroats and assassins fear most. If George W. Bush can deliver on it — an "if" still of considerable size — he can say "mission accomplished." This time he can mean it.

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JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

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