The contentious and ever more partisan argument over whether Iraq is finally convulsed in a civil war misses the point, it seems to me. Maybe it's the entire world that is finally convulsed in a civil war.
Tony Blair, who is even more embattled at home than George W. Bush is here, put that proposition in play this week, though not quite in such expansive terms. "This is not a clash between civilizations," the British prime minister told a press luncheon in London. "It is a clash about civilization."
The prime minister was not saying something particularly new to anyone who has been paying close attention over these many months, but he said it in a new and more compelling way, and the implications should have been enough to curdle the cream in everyone's coffee. Here at home, President Bush was saying familiar things about a war that is everybody's business, and in a new way, too, with a bit of humility and modesty of spirit that he doesn't often show us.
Taken together, and nobody suggested that the juxtaposition of the prime minister's luncheon remarks and the president's press conference remarks in Washington was anything more than coincidence, the events conspired to put a lot of the bickering and jockeying for partisan advantage -- on both sides of the Atlantic -- in sobering context for anyone trying to make sense of a world in which a lot of people have gone certifiably mad.
The clash of, by or about civilizations should trouble everyone who reads a newspaper, watches a television newscast or imbibes the Internet. Who among us has not been tempted to think that we in what we loosely call "the West" are under attack by barbarians, that what we've always considered one of the world's great religions has become instead a conspiracy of violence, hijacked by madmen determined to find a bridge back to the 12th century? Those widely published photographs of the "faithful in Iraq," cutting great gashes in their heads with long sabers as a penance of blood, merely inspire many of us to throw up our hands and wish that more of those faithful would only cut deeper, and let the rest of us get a little peace.
Tony Blair offers a more hopeful view, however difficult it may seem in the context of the morning's news. We, he says, must persuade the world that "we" can include everybody. "'We' are as much Muslim as Christian or Jew or Hindu," he says. "'We' are those who believe in religious tolerance, openness to others, to democracy, liberty and human rights administered by secular courts." That's a big mouthful of things that the evidence suggests a lot of barbarians do not share.
Selling the proposition of "religious tolerance, openness to others, to democracy, liberty and human rights administered by secular courts" will require an "activist approach" to settling accounts with the terrorists, and this is what underlies his government's method of dealing with everything from climate change to poverty in Africa to terrorism in Iraq. "The terrorists know that if they are to succeed in Iraq or Afghanistan or indeed Lebanon or anywhere else wanting to go the democratic route, then the choice of a modern future for the Arab or Muslim world is dealt a potentially mortal blow."
Back in Washington, George W. Bush might have been offering contrapuntal notes, trying to organize music of these old allies. "The terrorists haven't given up," he said. "They're tough-minded. They like to kill. There will be more tough fighting ahead." This was the familiar Bush. Then came the unfamiliar note of humility -- he intends to win back his once overwhelming public support by "talking realistically to the people" about the importance of the war in Iraq. He might have said, if he had the Englishman's gift of rhetoric in the language of kings, that the foe of American interests and values is the same foe who wants to eliminate the liberties of free men everywhere -- including millions of Muslims who aspire to the freedoms we in the West take as our due. "The only way to win is to recognize that this phenomenon is a global ideology," Mr. Blair said; "to see all areas in which it operates as linked, and to defeat it by values and ideas set in opposition to those of the terrorists."
Just so. But the weakness of the West is that a lot of us want to believe that we can wish the clash about civilization away if we just wish hard enough. That way lies the catastrophe of global civil war. This is the message Tony Blair and George W. Bush have to sell, and it's not a seller's market.