Jewish World Review August 6, 2001/ 17 Menachem-Av 5761

Wesley Pruden

Wes Pruden
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A good lesson for all, even a president -- GEORGE W. BUSH is teaching the world a lesson in what strong leadership can do, and he should make sure he's learning from it himself.

The presidency, as 41 men before him learned, is a bully pulpit indeed, and in the space of six months the new president has changed the way America's "allies," such as they may be, regard his missile-defense shield.

He did it by defining the terms of the argument, going against a unanimous contrary opinion in the chanceries of the West, a hostile environment in Washington and a dutifully compliant media. He made his arguments and stood his ground. When everyone assumed it was only a matter of time until he would back down in the usual way of Republicans, he made his arguments again, and stood his ground again.

Slowly, slowly, the "allies" began to come around. He got a break with the Italian elections, when Silvio Berlusconi was elected as the rare Italian tough guy with a look of semi-permanence. Tony Blair was emboldened to think maybe he didn't have to play the plucked English chicken, after all. Vladimir Putin recognized reality and saw that neither reality nor George W.'s convictions were going away, and even he, fresh from Beijing where he made noises of solidarity with China against the United States, began to deal with the inevitable.

This was all the more remarkable because no one but the president was saying anything good about missile defense, even though, as Condoleezza Rice observed when she came to coffee and cakes with the editors at The Washington Times earlier this week, most Americans -- busy with baseball, shopping malls and keeping up with Julia Roberts' husband-hopping -- imagine, if they ever give the matter a thought, that there's a missile defense already in place (reached through 911).

"Every story [in the media] is pretty negative," she says, "with 'the test failed,' 'the test was dummied up,' 'you're going to crash relations with the Russians,' or 'you're going to crash relations with the Chinese.'"

All true, and the silliest argument is that a missile shield will never be perfect, that even if it works it might let a missile through the shield. But if it stops a single missile aimed at Boston, or Cleveland, or Dallas, no one could put a price on the 500,000 men, women and children who would otherwise be dead. Everyone who lived there would call that a bargain.

These are the arguments rarely heard, but George W. is nevertheless prevailing because he and his administration have made it clear that he means it when he says America will build a missile shield whether the Russians, the Germans, the Chinese or even the French like it or not. The administration has "a preferred course," Miss Rice says, of working out a deal with the Russians to "get beyond" the 1972 treaty that bars defenses against long-range missiles.

"But at the end of the day, [the president] is going to have to go forward, and since we don't plan to violate the treaty, that would mean we would have to withdraw [from] it."

Hear, hear. This is the kind of bold and straightforward talk that encourages others to follow. Boldness always works better than the one step forward, two steps sideways and one step back that only encourages drift, dissent and disagreement. Boldness is called "leadership," and leadership is what we all yearn for.

What the president himself could learn from his example is that this would work on other issues as well. He campaigned, for example, on imposing common sense on the barracks, of implementing the unanimous recommendations of the Kassebaum Commission that men and women be separated at least during basic military training. Certain long-in-the-tooth feminists would object, but George W. could put them in their place with an exposition of the Kassebaum reasoning, and by standing his ground. His generals won't do this: Pentagon generals are by definition bureaucrats, not warriors, and most of them got where they are by keeping their heads down when the bullets fly. The commander in chief would be surprised by what he could accomplish here with missile-shield leadership.

Who knows where this would lead? George W. could even disarm his immigration critics, for example, by making the common-sensical point that as a nation of immigrants, we all owe newly arriving immigrants a helping hand, enthusiastic welcome and not resentment, and that the newly arriving immigrants have a similar obligation to learn our language, learn our history, and enthusiastically adopt the culture of their new homeland. This is the kind of truth-telling that terrifies politicians, but leadership is ultimately more satisfying than pandering. Even for a pol.

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

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