Will it be now, in Iraq and against terror, as then?

Posted: Jun 03, 2004 12:00 AM

Time flies - or from campus days, tempus fugit . And a lot is coming unglued. The question is: Does enough time remain to stick everything back together?

Other questions, equally important - or more so: Does America have the stomach to prevail in Iraq? Indeed, will our morals allow us to win the War on Terror?

Each news cycle seems to pile the worse on the bad. Nicholas Berg, bullet holes in mosques, an attack on a wedding party (wedding revelry, with children in attendance, at 3:00 a.m.?), the ransacking of the office of a member of the Iraqi provisional counsel, offense given (and offense taken) to seemingly every key mullah on the landscape, and Abu Ghraib - ever Abu Ghraib, even unto the most sanctimonious precincts in the U.S. Senate.

Western civilization, the West, has a problem - one, two, many problems. Perhaps the foremost is war. World chess champion Garry Kasparov, a Russian, puts it well: "The war is not about defending Muslims; it is about Western civilization and America as its representative." This war has been launched against us by fascist terrorists finding justification for their actions in each day a new perversion of Islam.

There's a parallel track here called moral equivalence. It runs from preemption, through WMDs, to Abu Ghraib - and erodes what had been the moral high ground. Who were we - goes the argument - to wage preemptive war on the basis of the demonstrably false premise of Saddamite WMDs? And who are we to preach civilizational superiority when Americans commit in Saddam's most notorious torture chamber abuses against humanity no less than his?

And then follows the line, direct or implied: The game is up. Americans are dying in a useless, mistaken, indefensible cause. Time to come home.

Abu Ghraib goes ever on, like Watergate; as the latter destroyed a presidency, so the former may yet destroy this one - and lose the War on Terror in the bargain. The media hive buzzes relentlessly about it, finds it horrifying and stipulates a moral equivalence.

Yet to find in the depredations at Abu Ghraib a moral equivalence is at once to miss the point and to set us on the road to defeat.

Abu Ghraib, however awful, was hardly equal to 9/11. It was not the throat-slitting of Daniel Pearl or the beheading of Nicholas Berg. It was not the slaughter of Americans in Fallujah and the desecration of their bodies.

Still, the news budget of stories about Abu Ghraib buries stories about the discoveries of mass Saddamite graves containing the bodies of hundreds of thousands. Likewise, that same budget somehow obscures stories about discoveries of precisely some of the gases and ingredients Saddam's apologists say he never had: sarin, mustard gas, chemical and biological toxins.

And what have you read of the poison gas attack foiled early this month in Jordan - one Jordanian authorities estimate could have killed 80,000? Jordan also believes the ingredients for the gas originated in Iraq.

Donald Rumsfeld, during a surprise visit, told American forces in Baghdad that Abu Ghraib "doesn't represent America. It doesn't represent American values. And it doesn't represent the values of each of you here in this room." He was right - no matter what America's enemies and apologists for Islamofascism may say to the contrary. Western morality, embodied in its highest contemporary form in America, is far nobler and more honorable.

But as with Israel, so with the United States: Our morality may make it difficult to win against an enemy that finds no compunction in blowing up buses or bombing pizzerias - or hijacking airliners and flying them into buildings, or beheading innocents on site to help.

Perhaps worst of all, some among us - too many - see moral equivalence in moral distinction and turn our own morality against ourselves to end an anti-terror enterprise initiated for our own survival.

The Vietnam War was not lost on the battlefields of Southeast Asia but in American streets and living rooms, on American television, in American hearts and minds. We lost our stomach, our nerve. We drifted. We accepted a steady diet of anti-American baloney that cut away our will to win, even to fight, slice by slice. A traduced morality, a twisted equivalence, created the atmosphere in which we could cut and run.

Will it be now, in Iraq and against terror more broadly, as then? Or this time will the nation at last pull itself together and, as U.S. commanding General John Abizaid urged Congress last month, galvanize to "fight this war and defeat this enemy"?

Time flies.