Imagine if Secretary of State Colin Powell said the following the first Sunday after Sept. 11:
"I understand the anger. I understand the political issues involved, but what I have to concentrate on right now is getting the violence down and getting a political discussion under way.
And the political discussion ultimately has to involve the government of the United States, it has to involve the Afghan leaders, and, right now, Mullah Omar is an Afghan leader that the Afghan people look to. He has associates who work with him, who are in leadership positions, but they are empowered in their work by Mullah Omar, and so that's the reality I have to deal
When asked whether Mullah Omar was a terrorist, imagine if Powell replied: "The reality I have to deal with is that whether you put a label on him or not is sort of irrelevant to the reality that he is the leader of the Afghan people."
You catch that? "Whether you put a label on him or not" and "irrelevant to the reality."
Funny, I thought the whole point of the war on terrorism was to decide who is a terrorist and who isn't. If the labels don't matter, how can you have a war on terrorism? Could you have a war on cancer if you refused to label what is or isn't cancer?
Should doctors not concern themselves with the silly question of what is or isn't cancer? How about the war on drugs? If a dead cat or an old tire can be a "drug" - after all, the labels don't really matter - maybe we should call that off, too.
Oh, I'm sorry, I'm getting ahead of myself. The above hypothetical from Colin Powell is exactly what he said April 21 on ABC's "This Week." Exactly, that is, except for the parts where I changed Israel to the United States, Yasser Arafat for Mullah Omar and Palestinians for Afghans.
So, as I was saying, it's next to impossible to declare war on something if you refuse to identify what the "something" is. For months, President Bush framed the issue matter-of-factly: "You're either with us or you're with the terrorists."
Straightforward. Simple. Clear.
Now that's out the window, which is the biggest source of Bush's troubles with the right these days. The mainstream media has been stunned by the "Pro-Israel" reaction of American conservatives in recent weeks. The Washington Post and The New York Times have published multiple in-depth accounts of how, and to what extent, the Republican Party has become the "Pro-Israel party."
I don't want to discount what is a legitimately significant development in American politics. Historically, the Republican Party has always been more willing to criticize Israel from time to time. As the left becomes obsessed with identity politics, knee-jerk anti-Americanism and what I like to call the cult of the impoverished, Democrats are having a difficult time speaking with one voice in favor of Israel. Meanwhile, the right has become increasingly dominated by Evangelical Christians who - for religious and moral reasons - look with sympathy on Israel.
But, to the extent conservatives are disappointed with Bush's zig-zagging on Israel there's another motivation worth noting: The war on terrorism doesn't make sense if Yasser Arafat isn't a terrorist. There's vastly more evidence that Yasser Arafat is a terrorist than there is against Osama bin Laden. Don't get me wrong, I think there's more than enough evidence against bin Laden, but Arafat has been killing innocent people around the globe for decades, from the Munich Olympics to the most recent suicide bombing.
Even if you believe every single excuse, alibi and apology made in Arafat's behalf, he still qualifies as a terrorist according to the Bush doctrine because Arafat has given aid and comfort to terrorists. According to Bush, if you harbor a terrorist, you are a terrorist. TV footage from Arafat's bunker in recent weeks showed Arafat's inner circle to include known terrorists, including the men responsible for killing an Israeli Cabinet minister.
You don't have to be "pro-Israel" to understand this point. When presidents get caught bending core principles, they disappoint core supporters. (Bill Clinton seems to be an odd exception to this rule, for reasons too lengthy to get into here.)
Bush's stumble doesn't rise to the level of his father's "no new taxes" blunder, but it does reveal the fundamental problem with declaring a war on terrorism - as opposed to, say, Islamic fanaticism or anti-American terrorism or some such.
Terrorism isn't an "ism" like communism or fascism. It is a tactic. Declaring war on a tactic makes sense only if you are willing to follow such convictions wherever they take you.
But if terrorism becomes just another irrelevant "label" whenever your convictions become inconvenient, you're going to get yourself into trouble with the people who took you seriously.