Hearts and minds on war

Posted: Feb 11, 2004 12:00 AM
With Sen. John Kerry the massive front-runner, the '04 presidential race (once quaintly referred to as the "fall campaign") has begun in earnest. With President Bush's appearance Sunday on "Meet the Press," we have a chance to judge how the president, with a newly booming economy and two decisive war victories, will perform.

I think it's fair to say he has a problem on his hands. It's not just the polls that give Kerry a slight lead (Michael Dukakis was up 18 points at one time in the 1988 polls). It's the difficulty that President Bush has in framing the debate over the war.

Don't debate WMDs, debate the war on Iraq, the conventional GOP thinking goes. Take the "credibility" issue head-on: President Bush didn't lie on WMDs, he was fooled. Even Saddam Hussein was fooled into believing he had weapons of mass destruction. Saddam was a bad guy trying to get WMDs. We got him. We were morally justified in doing so.

"In other words, we looked at the intelligence and remembered the fact that he had used weapons, which meant he had weapons. We knew the fact that he was looking for suicide bombers. We knew the fact that he was funding terrorist groups. He was a dangerous man," the president told Tim Russert.

Bush is right to acknowledge that the American people are now questioning whether the war in Iraq was justified, but I don't think the key question for the public is whether it was morally justified. Our real question is: How was it in the interests of the American people?

President Bush talks of making the world safe for democracy. Very nice and very necessary, but is it sufficient? Is it worth sending our sons and daughters to die for democracy in Iraq?

Put it that way, and most Americans would say no, thank you, Mr. President. Not my son. Not my neighbor's son, either. We are, as President Washington put it so long ago, the friends of liberty everywhere, but the guarantors principally of our own.

But buried in the president's attempt to answer multiple questions at the same time (instead of focusing relentlessly on the one question that really matters to us) is a powerful public case for the war in Iraq. "(Saddam Hussein) had the capacity to make a weapon, and then let that weapon fall into the hands of a shadowy terrorist network. ... And the worse nightmare scenario for any president is to realize that these kind of terrorist networks have the capacity to arm up with some of these deadly weapons and they strike us," the president said.

President Bush's nightmare is a nuclear bomb (or the equivalent) going up in Manhattan. Our oceans protect us no longer. The best defense is a good offense, because international terrorists can only acquire these weapons and the infrastructure to use them with the passive cooperation of governments who turn a blind eye to their clandestine operations within their borders. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have put governments on notice: You can't count on America to turn a blind eye any longer, or wait for absolute proof, or get a majority of tyrannies who vote in the United Nations to agree. It is safer not to play footsy with terrorists. Not on President Bush's watch.

The war that counts is the war on terror. It is a war the president is winning. The proof is not in David Kay's report. The proof is in the fact that, when I send my son back to college in Manhattan, I no longer worry about what might happen to him as he passes through Grand Central Terminal. The proof is in our lack of constant fear. Life has gone back to normal.

That is President Bush's and our nation's triumph. Let's hope he can make sure he gets the credit he deserves.