George W. Bush is not necessarily the wittiest man to campaign for president since Abraham Lincoln's dry wit drove his detractors to distraction, but he's capable of the occasional zinger. When John Kerry finally answered a crucial question posed by the president and said that, yes, he would have voted to go into Iraq to depose Saddam Hussein even if he knew he wouldn't find a stockpile of weapons of mass destruction, the president replied with deadly deadpan:
"I want to thank Senator Kerry for clearing that up," he said. "Although there are still 84 days left in the campaign."
The Kerry staff, recognizing that the race is over when one of the candidates becomes a recognized figure of fun, sent out the big guns to add a soupcon of nuance. The candidate would have waited longer, brought on more allies and worked from a detailed plan to win the peace. Exactly how, no one can say.
Adding insult to insinuation, Susan Rice, Kerry's chief foreign-policy adviser, accused the president of asking "silly questions." When a reporter asked why Mr. Kerry bothered to answer a silly question, she did not reply.
Of course, the question was not silly and it goes to the heart of the reasoning for why we went to war - it was the right time to stand up to Saddam Hussein. Sen. John McCain, campaigning with the president, got it right: The president "took the fight to the enemy ... in a noble and just cause."
Campaign rhetoric, for all of its flaws, forces the focus on the reasons for going to war, and for going to this war specifically, how to fight terrorism in general and what exactly to do next in the present circumstances. Language shapes understanding and analysis. But the language in the debate over the war on terrorism remains vague and imprecise. Walter Laqueur, who has written several books on the subject, reminds us that terrorism is hardly new. It merely comes at us from a new direction.
"Thirty years ago, when the terrorism debate got underway, it was widely asserted that terrorism was basically a left-wing revolutionary movement caused by oppression and exploitation," he writes in the current Policy Review. "Hence the conclusion: Find a political and social solution, remedy the underlying evil - no oppression, no terrorism."