Jewish World Review Sept. 4, 2002/ 27 Elul, 5762

Wesley Pruden

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The rousing chorus of Nervous Nellies | The Alfred E. Neuman Chorale, named for the hero ("What? Me worry?") of Mad magazine, grows louder.

Only yesterday Nelson Mandela, Richard Lugar, and the Russian foreign minister joined Kofi Annan, Gerhard Schroeder, Dick Armey, Brent Scowcroft, Oprah, Phil Donahue and the editorial board of the New York Times to demand that the president stand down from his confrontation with Saddam Hussein.

Nelson Mandela is "appalled," Sen. Lugar wants to "re-energize" our European allies (though nothing short of goat-gland transplants are likely to restore them to robust manhood). The Russians, who are selling the Iraqis all manner of sophisticated machinery of mass destruction, can't find a "single well-founded argument" that Saddam is a threat to the United States.

The Alfred E. Neuman refrain is that America's salvation lies with the United Nations, that Saddam Hussein's mustard gas and anthrax and dirty bombs are no match for the resolution (and the resolutions) of the distinguished delegates of the General Assembly. If a dirty bomb fries half of Manhattan, well, that's a risk the courageous statesmen from Upper Volta, Equitorial Guinea, and Lower Slobbovia are willing to take.

George W. invited this, perhaps as the great debate that everyone says we must have, by sending out surrogates (Don Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, Dick Cheney) to make arguments for "regime change" on Monday and then sending out others (Ari Fleischer, Colin Powell) on Tuesday to say "nah, don't pay any attention to them."

By encouraging the Nervous Nellies and Fearful Fannies to hyperventilate now, the president can't be credibly accused when the shooting starts of having not listened to his critics. By then the critics will be pushing each other out of the way to grab a pom-pon, try a cartwheel and join the cheer-leading squad. Hillary Clinton will be shouting the hurrahs the loudest.

But what if George W. does the usual Republican turn, and climbs meekly down from the confrontation he so carefully set up and nurtured for the months since September 11? Wouldn't this give Saddam Hussein the triumph he craves, avenging the humiliation of the Gulf war and making him the master of the Arab world, revealing George W. to be the champ of chumps, the wussy of the West and the standard by which presidential wussyhood would be forever judged?

That's why it can't be allowed to happen. But the president has only himself to blame if the debate seems to be getting a little out of hand. The Iraqis are engaged in a diplomatic offensive, in Europe and Africa, and our own secretary of state gives comfort if not aid to Saddam's surrogates. Some of the criticism of the administration's war plans at home verges close to scorn of the president. George W. allows this to grow at his peril.

When Anthony Zinni, a retired Marine general who is an adviser to the secretary of state, lobbed a remarkably nasty insult at the president, the vice president and the secretary of defense, sneering that war planners who had "never fired a shot in anger" should leave the war planning to the generals, there was no rebuke, either of Mr. Zinni or of Colin Powell, who let the remarks go unchallenged.

Mr. Zinni made the fool only of himself, and demonstrated once more why the Founding Fathers prescribed stringent civilian control of the military. Mr. Zinni would have excluded Woodrow Wilson, FDR and Lyndon Johnson from the War Room during three of the great wars of the 20th century. We can only imagine how swiftly old soldier Harry Truman would have dealt with such insolence. It was George W.'s rival from the 2000 campaign, John McCain (more intimately acquainted with the brutality of war than Anthony Zinni, his brass and braid notwithstanding), who reminded Mr. Zinni of Clemenceau's famous admonition that "war is too important to be left to the generals."

If all this is part of the set-up of his critics, George W. will be entitled to a hearty private chortle. But it has become apparent to everyone that the tide that rose with the stunning military success in Afghanistan has ebbed dramatically. This, too, has been largely of the president's making. He called it a war on terror, but it's so far more skirmish than struggle, fought largely through harassing action against elderly ladies at the nation's airports, and there's so much official fraternizing with the enemy that it's difficult for the rest of us to understand who we're supposed to be at war against.

Sixty-three years ago this morning Hitler's jackbooted legion continued the march through Poland in the first week of World War II. His generals took with them a commission from der Fuehrer that echoes in Saddam Hussein's Iraq: "Act with brutality, and close your hearts to pity." And now September 11 approaches, and soon we'll be locked in an observance of an anniversary that is likely, given the media's gift for empty and sudsy sentiment, to become a wallow in tears and treacle, the easy substitute for the grit and gristle necessary to fight a war against emboldened evil.

We're about to see whether George W. Bush is the master strategist, the pol with the unerring moves, or the master chump, destined to join his daddy as the dynamic duo of history's could-have-beens.

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

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