Jewish World Review April 25, 2002/ 23 Nisan, 5763

Wesley Pruden

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Cruising the river with the crow-eaters | AIGUES MORTES, France Cruising down the river, aboard a Rhone passenger barge with a fine (but unpretentious) French chef and a splendid wine cellar, is the idyllic way to savor the idiocies of the know-it-alls who turned out to know nothing about the war in Iraq.

The m.v. Provence, the pride of Continental Waterways and the queen of the Rhone locks, is further equipped with Internet access, CNN and a fax machine, making it easy to keep au courant (a visitor becomes fluent in menu French at the end of a fortnight's travels to plumb English and European attitudes) with what the pols and the pundits said, and how some of them are trying to cover up the evidence of their hubris and credulity. It's not easy.

Here at the mouth of the Rhone waterway, where Louis IX dispatched the seventh Crusade and a plaque in a park identifies the town as the birthplace of Charles de Gaulle (his official biographers place his birth at Lille, hundreds of miles northwest of here), you don't even have to miss the best of the insults to the French. Some Frenchmen collect the American and British insults as eagerly as any patriot in Peoria. Five reliably Anglo-Saxon surgeons, for example, were discussing their bloody trade.

"I prefer to operate on accountants," said the first. "All the parts inside are neatly numbered."

"Not at all," said the second, "the best patients are the electricians. Their organs are color-coded." The third surgeon set out his preference for librarians: "Everything inside, you see, is arranged alphabetically. There's no mistaking anything." The fourth surgeon made his case for construction workers. "They're very understanding if you have a few parts left over after the surgery, and they understand if you don't finish when you promised."

The last surgeon, whose wisdom and experience were belied by a fine shock of white hair, shook his head. "No, no," he said. "The French are the easiest patients of all. Everything is very simple and there's never a mess to clean up. There's no guts, no heart, no testicles, and no spine. Not only that, the head and the butt are completely interchangeable."

Jacques Chirac, scion of the race that invented arrogance, nevertheless managed a fairly graceful climb-down with a telephone call to George W. that the White House rightly described with a tone of cool dismissal. Gerhard Schroeder even managed an apology, sort of, conceding that he "much regrets" his "exaggerated" insults of the American president on the eve of battle.

But nobody has more to regret than some of our pundits, particular those of the New York Times, once regarded as a model of restraint (if not always as fair and balanced as it pretends to be). A bit of wit nevertheless occasionally emerges from the gray institutional humorlessness.

"Last September," Nicholas Kristof writes, "a gloom-and-doom columnist warned about Iraq: 'If we're going to invade, we need to prepare for a worst-case scenario involving street-to-street fighting.' Ahem. Yes, well, that was my body double while I was on vacation."

Johnny Apple, the Times' page-one pundit known affectionately to his colleagues as Johnny "Two Quagmires" Apple, has never found a body double up to such a big job, so his apologia for suggesting that the war in Iraq would swiftly descend into Stalingrad on the Tigris was not up to his usual polished and self-effacing standard. He tried this time to blend into the mob: "Nobody got it quite right." Quite right, but nobody else got it quite so wrong, polished or not: "With every passing day," he wrote on March 30, "it is more evident that the allies made ... gross military misjudgments." This was just before Tommy Franks' men began their tap-dance into Baghdad.

Peter Arnett is no longer the pretty face at CNN, so we couldn't get an update from his stern rebuke to the strategists in Washington and London, delivered just as "les Anglo-Saxons" began their strike into the heart of Saddam Hussein's crumbling empire. "The first war plan has failed," Mr. Arnett told us on March 30. "Clearly the American war planners misjudged the determination of the Iraqi forces, and I personally do not understand how this happened because I've been here many times and in my commentaries on television I would tell the Americans about the determination of Iraqi forces."

March 30, in fact, was a bleak day for the practitioners of columny. James Webb, who usually knows better, mocked the idea that the Americans would be greeted as liberators. "Welcome to hell," he wrote in the New York Times. "Many of us lived it in another era."

Just so. The generals are often accused of always trying to fight the previous war. That's a risk to the reputations of pols and the pundits, too. Google is so unfair.

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

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