Preening obscures unfinished business

January 24, 2002|By Maureen Dowd

WASHINGTON -- Everywhere you look these days, you see the Bush team bathed in an Olympian glow.

Laurel City, as 41 might say.

Self-consciously posing for Annie Leibovitz as Men of Steel plus Condi, the Bushies are hailed as conquering heroes and heroic conquerors in the new Vanity Fair.

Mr. Bush is favorably compared to Theodore Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan and Harry Truman, and proclaimed "the president who rose to the occasion." Dick Cheney is christened "The Rock" (a refreshing change from "The Drill"). And Colin Powell, "The Conscience."

Mr. Bush's weaknesses have morphed into his strengths.

"His predecessor ... would have happily stayed up for an all-night bull session debating the nature of evil, quoting Schopenhauer and Niebuhr until the birds started chirping," Christopher Buckley writes in the magazine. "Is such complexity of mind an asset or a liability in a commander in chief?"

Rolling out its own dramatic pictures of gray-flannel grit, Newsweek also interviews Cabinet members this week on "how they're winning the war" and on their mutual admiration society.

"If they were going to pick an all-star team," says Mr. Cheney's chief of staff, Scooter Libby, "they'd pick each other."

With burnished shots of the president and vice president -- nary a killer pretzel in sight -- NBC is promoting Tom Brokaw's day at the White House, airing Wednesday night, as a thrilling glimpse "inside the real West Wing."

Last week Karl Rove was crowing to Republicans that the party could ride this war to a Senate majority.

Democrats huffed and puffed about Republicans politicizing the war. But it was much like CNN hawking Paula Zahn as sexy. The only startling thing was that Mr. Rove said it publicly.

The GOP is giddy at polls showing that Americans once again see the party as the big, strong Daddy, protecting the Ponderosa from wolves and poachers.

I hesitate to interrupt the victory laps, the chesty posing, the passing out of medals. But something in me really wants to know: Is the war over? Did we win it or not?

The liberation of Afghanistan is a wonderful thing, of course. Our pledge to provide nearly $300 million to rebuild the ancient tribal battlefield into something resembling a democracy is well and good.

But as the late, great Peggy Lee sang, is that all there is? Wasn't it an essential goal to bring back, Dead or Alive, the Evil One and his one-eyed landlord?

Administration officials talk out of both sides of their mouths: They tell us we haven't won yet, but they keep strutting around as if we've won. They advise us to be patient, that this is a messy fight for the long haul. But wanting instant gratification, eager to milk the war for political ads, they have declared it a big success.

Given the president's own definition of the monumental goals in September, it is way too soon for Karl Rove to be dancing in the end zone.

It suits the administration to define victory in a way that makes victory achievable. This is just what the Bush 41 team did in '91. Defining victory as expelling the Iraqis from Kuwait, they quit while they were ahead.

But history has yardsticks for success that are more stringent than the ephemeral ones used by political consultants. In the case of the Persian Gulf war, history has deemed the Bush 41 definition of success too narrow.

Can we really have victory if we let the architect of Sept. 11 and his protector, Mullah Mohammed Omar, slip away? We let the Pakistanis spirit out some of the top Taliban warriors on planes. That was bad enough. Who knows where they are now, and whether they're planning a new attack?

Asked by Tim Russert whither Osama, Donald Rumsfeld said he could be in Afghanistan, Sudan, Somalia, Kashmir, Chechnya, Saudi Arabia or Yemen.

Mr. Russert asked if Americans could reach "closure" without capturing him.

"Oh, indeed, yes," the defense secretary replied.

Oh, indeed, no. Rummy may never get a Yemeni dagger handed to him by Osama on the deck of a U.S. warship. But maybe we should stop the premature congratulations and the Patton-like preening and try to finish the job.

Let's define our success by the standards of history, not the standards of politics.

Maureen Dowd is a columnist for The New York Times.

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