WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Last weekend, there was a series of newspaper articles in all the major papers that struck me as odd. They attempted to describe how the president is doing during these vestibular days before war with Iraq. He is relaxed. He is the same in public as in private. He is comfortable with his decisions.
Well, of course he is. George W. Bush is a very straightforward man. He is among the most genuine men to reside at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. since Warren Gamaliel Harding. Wait, wait, that is not meant as a slight. Coolidge and Hoover were genuine. Truman was genuine. Ronald Reagan was a genuine guy and perhaps even Bush I, though Bush I has held so many positions in public life it would be difficult for him not to adopt certain artifices. Bush II is, however, down home and genuine. People who meet him usually recognize this. He does not take credit for things he has not done, and some of the admirable things that he does he does not boast about.
He has come to the conclusion that terrorists and "those who harbor terrorists" are a threat to his fellow citizens. Like only one other president in the three decades during which terrorism has claimed the lives of four thousand Americans (about a thousand before 9-11), he intends to treat terror as an act of war not a crime. That other president was Ronald Reagan.
President Reagan sent American warplanes in April 1986 to bomb Col. Qaddafi's compound after the Libyan dictator capped numerous bellicose acts worldwide by sending agents to a West Berlin disco frequented by American soldiers. There they set off a bomb that killed two American soldiers and wounded some 200 innocent people, among them 50 more American soldiers. Even in that surgical military strike against a dictator who had been terrorizing the world, certain European sophisticates were against us, most memorably Jacques Chirac, then only the French prime minister of France.
Chirac denied French airspace to our strike force, causing its pilots to fly 2,400 more miles to attack Qaddafi. Chirac's motives were the same then as they are today: commerce, moral posturing and procrastination. At the time in this column, I described Qaddafi's network of terror as "a new abomination in the annals of war."
Expressing the disappointment that millions of Americans feel toward now-President Chirac, I wondered if the French "would have allowed our planes to fly over a more precisely designated rout, leapfrogging such places as Ardennes, Suresnes, Rhone, the Lorraine Valley, St. James, St. Laurent and Espinal. All contain military cemeteries where American men lie face up, forever gazing into the skies of France. Surely these men would not object if they were to see once more the underbelly of an American bomber flying far from home to defend the values of the West."
The lines struck a chord then. Pilots from the USS John F. Kennedy wrote me to tell me that they posted the column on their bulletin board. I reproduce part of it in hopes of stirring today's pilots as they prepare to strike against an even more monstrous brute than Qaddafi. The American military has served the cause of freedom as few other military forces ever have.
I also reproduce these lines to remind us that the obduracy of certain European powers is not new. Nor is their reliance on American resolve. There is also another reason to recall our action against Libya. It sent Qaddafi hunkering. The fiery brute lost his fire. Reagan went on to stare down the Soviet Union, which gave up on the Cold War a few years later. Peace unfortunately is not secured by French procrastination. They might have learned that from their decade of appeasement in the 1930s.
The resolute man in the White House is of course mounting a vastly larger strike against Saddam today than President Reagan mounted against Libya's tin pot colonel. Yet he has more of the world on his side. He has most of Europe, the Arab emirates and Jordan, and Turkey probably will be with us. Students of war as knowledgeable as Britain's John Keegan estimate the fighting will last only a week or so. First will come the most formidable aerial attack in history. Then air-mobile assaults will be mounted with heavily armed helicopters and elite troops from our airborne divisions and special-ops units. Finally, our ground forces will roll against what is left of the Iraqi army. Within a few days, Baghdad will be surrounded. Saddam will be dead or under arrest.
The great questions that now cannot be answered are: Will the Western alliance recover? Will terrorism subside? Will Iraq accept peace and civilized government? My guess is that the answer to all three questions is yes, but the work that follows the war will be as arduous as the work that led up to it.