Lost on the way from there to here

March 10, 2003|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON - This is how we start the day now. We wake up, eat breakfast and watch the dogs of war being taken out for their early morning walk.

On one channel, a Pentagon spokesman is tallying up nearly 300,000 soldiers ready for battle. On another, an administration source drops another number into the air - 3,000 bombs in the first days. On a third, a general talks about a "shock and awe" strategy.

And then many of us go about our business, wondering how we got from there to here.

There? There was Sept. 11, 2001. There was a time we were collectively stunned by the realization that we had enemies, religious fanatics, who did indeed hate America more than they loved life.

There was when the French brought flowers to the American embassy in Paris and Le Monde ran a headline that read: "We are all Americans now."

There was when America was united behind the terrible necessity and moral clarity of bombing the Taliban out of their government seats and al-Qaida out of their caves.

But here? Here we are on the cusp of a preventive, pre-emptive war against Saddam Hussein, not Osama bin Laden - against a secular dictator, not a religious fanatic.

Here the French, the Germans, the Chinese and most of the world worry about our arrogance, not our vulnerability. Here the British public is evenly divided in one poll about who is the greater threat to peace - Saddam Hussein or George Bush - and the Turks equate a stand against America with a stand for democracy.

Here our own country is not only isolated but divided with a protest movement that is by no means limited to those who "always" blame America.

There to where? James Carville, in his own irreverent style, asks, "How do you lose a PR war with Saddam Hussein?" How do you lose in the court of world opinion against a certifiable despot who makes human rights violations his hobby?

This run-up to war has looked all too much like a PR battle, a matter of spin control. Last summer, Andrew Card said the White House was waiting until Labor Day to kick off the plan to confront Iraq. "From a marketing point of view," he said, "you don't introduce new products in August."

Since then, the White House has tried different tag lines and pitches on their product. They've made grander claims for Iraq's nuclear threat than they could back up. They've made stronger links to al-Qaida and 9/11 than the CIA did. They've tried to sell their own idea of multilateralism - getting other countries to use our brand. They've even used their superstar, Colin L. Powell, going back and back to the well of his credibility.

But it's conviction that fueled the trip from there to here. "You've probably learned by now, I don't believe there's many shades of gray in this war," said President Bush a year ago. "You're either with us or against us. You're either evil or you're good. This great nation stands on the side of good."

The conviction in the White House is that anything "good people" do must, by circular definition, be good. This conviction put Saddam Hussein's removal at the very top of their ethical checklist. But what happens when the belief in a good war comes up against the idea of a just war? When good is not necessarily wise or right?

Iraq falls into Mr. Bush's least favorite color: gray. None of the scenarios except the rosiest ones pits simple good against simple evil. We are stuck with choices between relative good and lesser evil. Between containment and war. Delay and invasion.

The pressure from the United Nations, pressured in turn by the United States, has made the dictator, stalling for time, disarm one missile after another. It's working. Why put aside a multilateral strategy of pressure for a unilateral strategy of "shock and awe"?

Preventive war, said Bismarck, is like committing suicide out of the fear of death. He knew about the unintended consequences of war. About the dogs of war.

In the '60s, Vietnam protesters said we should declare victory and leave. We can't do that with Iraq. We can acknowledge our success and stay this course. After all, if the president fears we don't have the patience for another season of pressured peace, would we ever get the patience for war itself and its uncertain, lengthy aftermath?

Many worried that a war in Iraq would upend old alliances, create chaos in the Middle East and unleash more anti-American sentiment in the world. Well, that mission has already been accomplished.

And here we are.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun. She can be reached via e-mail at ellengoodman@globe.com.

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