When the master of ceremonies at "Miss Congeniality," the movie send-up of Miss America, asked what they wished for most, every girl knew to put on her most sincere look and answer breathlessly: "World peace."
Almost every girl. Gracie, an undercover cop parading as beauty queen, almost blows her cover. When she wishes for "harsher punishment for parole violators," a hush falls across the audience. Without missing a beat she flashes a smile as bright as the Vaseline applied to her teeth. "And, of course, world peace." The cheers rattle the rafters.
Gracie learned that neither the judges nor the audience wanted to hear about anything practical, like locking up parole violators. They wanted popcorn, to participate in a moment of morality. Who doesn't want world peace?
Gracie has a future in politics. President Bush, tough-minded as he is about the stakes in the war against terror and the battlefield in Iraq, has curiously ceded to his critics his strongest argument - the moral argument. By emphasizing only the important pragmatic arguments, he makes Gracie's mistake and cedes the moral high ground to critics and competitors. He forgets that sometimes a president has to make a bow to Miss Congeniality.
"Was our intervention pragmatically right, was it essential in self-defense?" asks David Gelernter in the Weekly Standard. "Yes; but reasonable people can differ. Was it morally right? No one can dispute that."
Indeed, no one can dispute torture chambers and mass graves. No one can dispute that the "coalition of the willing" put an end to one of the most oppressive regimes since the Nazis oppressed Europe. The president should keep reminding us of this.
Gelernter compares the president's opponents to the appeasers in England of the 1930s, who let themselves believe that Hitler marched on Prague on behalf of a greater virtue. "They saw themselves as inhabiting a higher sphere," he writes. "They cared for moral questions. They stood (they believed) on the high ground, which trumped all practical considerations. ... They stood for peace."
Their appeals to peace were as empty as the aspirants' to "Miss Congeniality" were naïve, but such appeals were persuasive enough for a nation that didn't want to go to war, that thought virtue was enough to prevail against the war machine of an evil madman. Winston Churchill was left with the pragmatic issue of national security, easily trumped by appeasement draped in morality. He talked strategy; the appeasers talked "peace" and the appeasers prevailed. Churchill knew the importance of peace and he also knew the price of it.
Churchill finally got his voice, of course. He stressed strategy, but it was his voice that armed England at last with the old-fashioned moral concepts of honor and duty, justice and mercy. The voice called a nation to the fight for the survival of freedom.
The critics who decried the war to depose Saddam Hussein, who prescribed endless delays and more time for the United Nations to act, who wanted to make a virtue of powerlessness in the name of peace, are having a merry old time with the president today. Without finding weapons of mass destruction, the president is left defending a strategy that may have been based on a fact, but a fact that can't be proved. There were practical arguments for going to war against Iraq, but persuasive only to those with a knowledge of the stakes in the war against global terrorism.
Saddam Hussein was a monstrous bully to his own people and a menace to the security of the West. But George W. Bush is not making the obvious moral argument that the United States and its allies are doing the right thing in Iraq. He should. Americans always respond when a president calls them, as John F. Kennedy did in his inaugural address, to defend freedom.
"The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it," he said, "and the glow from that fire can truly light the world. And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: Ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man."
This is the argument that Americans find most congenial of all.