Victory lap interrupted

Posted: May 05, 2003 12:00 AM

The drive to President Bush's speech Friday at United Defense Industries' Santa Clara plant went faster than it would have four years ago. Fewer jobs mean lighter traffic, and unemployment was why Bush had come to Silicon Valley, the capital of America's economic woes. Bush came to assure Americans that he won't rest on his laurels, not when there's work to be done to improve the U.S. economy.

What a shame Bush is still waging his father's last presidential campaign -- the campaign Bush pere lost because the economy tanked after his Gulf War victory.

On Thursday, when Bush landed on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln, he looked more buff in a flight suit than Bill Pullman in the UFO-movie "Independence Day." Even better looking -- from a political perspective -- were the troops who greeted Bush with enthusiasm, elation and respect.

There was so much to watch that it was easy to miss the important message embedded in the president's speech -- that American warfare has changed.

In my lifetime, the arms race involved a competition to amass the deadliest weapons. As technology improved, a weapon's potential body count rose as well. Now, the focus has changed. As Bush noted in his speech, in the last century, cities and civilians were cannon fodder, while enemy leaders often were the last casualties of war. "In defeating Nazi Germany and imperial Japan, Allied forces destroyed entire cities, while enemy leaders who started the conflict were safe until the final days," Bush said. "Military power was used to end a regime by breaking a nation."

The Persian Gulf War showed an America trying to avoid civilian casualties, but with less precision and clarity of purpose. The biggest difference, of course, was that U.S.-led forces hadn't made dethroning Saddam Hussein their ultimate goal.

Operation Iraqi Freedom, to the contrary, targeted Iraq's head of state and managed, politically and one hopes physically, to decapitate him. As Bush announced, "It is a great advance when the guilty have far more to fear from war than the innocent."

On Friday, Bush found himself at United Defense Industries, "The Home of Mounted Warfare Technology," a banner proclaimed. United Defense manufactures the Bradley fighting vehicles, as well as the M88 tank recovery vehicle that toppled the 35-foot-tall statue of Hussein in Baghdad's al-Firdos Square.

"The guy with the sledgehammer on the statute needed a little help," Bush quipped.

One of the many reasons that Bush didn't declare victory this week is that the fate of Iraq has now moved from the realm of high-tech weaponry to the realm of politics. Politics, if less bloody, are messier.

While on the Lincoln, Bush promised that the "coalition will stay until our work is done" -- a pledge that invites cynics to scoff at Dubya's post-9/11 about-face on "nation building."

I wonder if critics understand how difficult that shift will be for Bush and America. Iraqi snipers will continue to attack U.S. troops. Iraqis will protest continued U.S. presence. The oh-so-American response to similar messes has been to question whether the local people are worth American lives, then bolt before U.S. troops are engulfed in a foreign quagmire.

Bush understands that America's enemies are men who harbor grudges for actions that took place before they were born. Of course, such men have nothing but contempt for America's attention-deficit disorder foreign policy, with its cornerstones of quick wars and minimal casualties.

Bush had better improve the economy. Because if he loses in 2004, chances are the next president will return to the old shoot-and-run foreign policy. Bush better see to the creation of American jobs if he wants to convince the outside world that America will stick with a job until it's done.