Straddling the line on terror

April 17, 2002|By Cal Thomas

ARLINGTON, Va. - The media are full of "news analyses" that say President Bush has lost his edge in the war on terrorism.

They suggest he should not have seen the world in black and white following Sept. 11 but in the gray and pastels in which analysts view most things. While some of these pundits view their favored issues in black and white, when it comes to war, most are still wearing rose-colored glasses and singing "Blowin' in the Wind."

Some conservatives agree that Mr. Bush is losing his edge - but for the opposite reason. They believe it's because he no longer speaks with the moral certainty that has driven his approval ratings to near universal acclaim. They're right to be concerned. One can't simultaneously have convictions and appear to vacillate. To straddle the line is to invite an erosion of credibility.

President Bush was right to say in September, and again in his State of the Union address in January, that if you're not with America, you're with the terrorists. Now he seems to be saying something else, and it's causing confusion among friends and delight among enemies.

In his new book Power Plays: 20 Top Winning (and Losing) Strategies of History's Greatest Political Leaders (HarperCollins), former Bill Clinton pollster Dick Morris examines selected political campaigns to see how politicians have won elections. In his first chapter, "Standing on Principle," Mr. Morris writes of how Ronald Reagan never wavered from his core beliefs.

"Time and again," says Mr. Morris, "Reagan demanded that the Republican Party be `revitalized' with a platform that is a `banner of no pale pastels, but bold colors which make it unmistakably clear where we stand.'"

In the "war on terror," America's enemies must wonder how resolute we are when all it takes is another meaningless statement from Yasser Arafat "condemning" terrorism for Secretary of State Colin Powell to get a meeting and shake the PLO leader's bloody hand.

For President Bush and the United States to recapture the momentum in the war against terror, several things need to happen. Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told me last week during a Washington visit that words must be properly defined.

"Terrorism," he said, "is defined by the nature of the act." There is no moral equivalency between what I call "homicide" bombings, which kill noncombatants, and Israel's efforts to root out terrorists. The killers hide among civilians in order to increase the likelihood of civilian casualties so that more pressure will be brought against Israel to accede to Palestinian demands.

The debate over land is really about "disputed," not "occupied" territory, because both sides claim ownership. Palestinian civilians killed by Israeli soldiers are accidental casualties. They are not targeted for death like Israeli civilians, Mr. Netanyahu pointed out.

He also said, "The root cause of terrorism is totalitarianism." He wants Mr. Arafat captured and deported. Mr. Arafat is not a democratically elected leader, but the creation of those who brought him back from exile in order to have someone with whom to negotiate.

President Bush's advisers, said Mr. Netanyahu, have caused Mr. Bush to be "inconsistent," which is also "hurting the ultimate war with Iraq." The United States must take out Saddam Hussein, Mr. Netanyahu said, or it will live (or die) to regret it because of Mr. Hussein's complicity in terrorism.

That's the kind of black-and-white language most people understand. When President Bush spoke this way, he struck fear into the hearts of our enemies. Now, at least in public, he seems more tentative. Those enemies will never embrace America or our beliefs, but using softer language will not win them over - nor should that be our objective now. Enemies must be defeated, or rendered harmless. Otherwise, says Mr. Netanyahu, we might see homicide bombers among us.

People who see us as evil and themselves as righteous do not suffer from blurred vision. They think they see clearly. What's our problem?

Cal Thomas is a syndicated columnist. He can be reached at Tribune Media Services, 435 N. Michigan Ave, Suite 1500, Chicago, Ill. 60611.

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