Washington, D.C. -- where the hindsight is 20/20

Posted: Mar 30, 2004 12:00 AM

Couldn't we just turn off "The Dick Clarke Show" for a little while and reflect that, contrary to widespread belief, there's a war on?

Because there is, and people are dying, and the thing is profoundly serious and the outcome far from visible. And yet, amid it all, the "prestige media" and the Washington establishment have tied themselves in knots over what the president said to his terrorism adviser in 2001, what the experts thought about al-Qaeda and Iraq, whether the national security adviser should testify under oath, and so on.

My brothers and colleagues, my anointed leaders and counselors, would you all just kindly shut up?

You won't? That means I'll have to speak louder, concerning matters like

the 20/20 hindsight our Washington friends have suddenly developed.

The Clarke-Rice-Bush-9/11 commission fistfight is ludicrous. The reason comes in two parts.

Part 1: We're re-fighting, as it were, the Civil War. The Yankee brethren who have lived but a short time among us history-minded Southerners cannot know of what I speak. They cannot fathom the propensity we once exhibited for trying to straighten out, rhetorically, the Late Unpleasantness. Why, if ol' Peg-Leg Hood hadn't gone off into Tennessee ... and if Jeb Stuart hadn't been killed at Yellow Tavern ... and ...

Well, maybe. Who knows? But who can do anything about it at this vast remove? And what's the use of going on and on save for the high purpose of emotional relief? Or -- as I suspect in the present case -- political malice?

What you can't do anything about, it's unhealthy to go on and on about. (I note that our Southern proclivity for raking the historical coals never got the verdict of Appomattox reversed.) Better surely -- in Bill Clinton's phrase -- to "move on" and do something about what you can do something about. Which brings me to:

Part 2: That war that's currently on, the "war on terror" -- what a bracing way to fight it. Instead of laying into the terrorists, we lay into each other. What a bracing way, you might say, to lose such a war or at any rate to prolong it while sharply accelerating the costs, both human and material.

If the accompanying spectacle -- Americans with their hands around each other's throats -- seems unedifying at home, then in places like the Sunni Triangle, it must exhilarate.

Americans have a well-earned reputation for going through this sort of thing at intervals. We did it in the '70s for sure: slugging it out over Watergate and the apparent vindication of George McGovern's "Come Home, America" foreign policy.

The Soviets and the Iranians licked their chops as we licked our wounds, detaching ourselves from non-homefront concerns, slashing military spending, undermining intelligence capabilities. That whole range of responses to the American embrace of anti-Americanism prepared the way for -- among other fateful events -- the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian hostage crisis.

We might have troubled to note since then that a nation fighting an internal war is going to have some trouble fighting an external one. You might suppose that, in order to focus on the matter at hand, we could save for the post-war period all the post-war quibbles and queries.

Evidently not. For reasons known best to himself and God, Dick Clarke

dumps a wheelbarrow load of sour, self-justifying accusations into the debate. He says, in effect, to an immense public that previously had little idea who he was: "Boy, did those guys mess up after I left."

Do you know what? -- some, much, perhaps even all, of what Clarke says may be worth hearing and sifting. In the right setting. Is a bitter election year that setting? Is it the period just after the Madrid bombings and not long before the American handover of civil authority to the Iraqis?

Whether it is or not, my friends, the market for 20/20 hindsight prescription spectacles can't have been this strong since Appomattox Courthouse.

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