Leadership, front and center

Posted: Apr 06, 2004 12:00 AM
For those who grew up politically as conservatives, the invocation of "leadership" brought on skepticism. We remembered, with suspicion, calls on FDR to exercise leadership by, in effect, commandeering the U.S. economy and devising a behind-the-scenes campaign to involve us in a world war.

Retrospectively, we can be grateful for some of what he did, yet wary of the lengths to which submission to leadership can take us. Many grew up watching the "Fuhrerprinzip" -- the unquestionable authority of Adolf Hitler -- take over a country. By the time Hitler was dead from suicide, 50 million other people were also dead, and not by their own hand.

Yet there has seldom been a time when leadership was more greatly needed than it is now. President Bush is the only man critically situated to draw the attention of the voters to the implications of the Shiite offensive in Iraq. The headlines have featured very ugly developments. It began with the ambush and killing of four American security consultants in Fallujah, the mutilation of their corpses, and the exhibition of two of them, hanging from a neighboring bridge. That was followed by exquisite equivocations from the area's imams. They deplored the mutilation, but not the killing. Make certain, they in effect advised their flock, to kill American soldiers completely. Make sure they are good and dead before you drag them through the streets.

Then came the deaths in Sadr City, and the virtual takeover of Kufa, where the challenge becomes legendary. This is OK Corral time with very big stakes. The young Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr is entombed in that huge mosque in Kufa with its golden walls and what seems a small army resolved to defend him to the death. And Sadr has said that he welcomes death, as an alternative to tolerating one day more of American occupation of his country.

The U.S. military are in a profound quandary here. Sadr cannot be uprooted without simultaneously immobilizing perhaps a thousand bodyguards -- and igniting Shiite loyalists to destructive rage against our coalition.

Military technicians can weigh various means of pulling Sadr out, or of handling his isolation. We might use gas, in an attempt to disarm his bodyguards. But Sadr himself, and no doubt some in his company, will have got gas masks, permitting them to live long enough to die fighting, which we do not want. We could attempt a siege, but it would be all but impossible to silence radio communications urging an uprising of Sadr's Shiite followers; besides which, his mere existence, day after day, fans the flames of bloody resistance to our hangdog ambition to bequeath upon the inhabitants of Iraq just a little freedom from rulers such as Saddam, and Sadr.

The temptation mounts among Americans to feel: The hell with those b-st-rds. Let them go back to killing their own people! That sentiment is unquestionably abroad, and it will build with every success of the Iraqi resisters, and with every failure of Iraqi security forces to stand up to their countrymen's protests against the occupation.

The great moment for the disruptive Iraqis will come when and if John Kerry, the challenger for leadership, finds the moment just right to call for Vietnamization of the Middle Eastern war. That word grew up around President Nixon's doctrine, which involved returning power to the South Vietnamese to wage their own war against the North, permitting the retirement of U.S. troops. And, a few years later, surrender.

Leadership is greatly needed. The first objective must be for President Bush to explain why a U.S. withdrawal under present circumstances would forfeit any claim we might assert over the next generation, to decisive influence in any part of the world in which a felt U.S. presence is thought strategically desirable. A withdrawal from Iraq would almost forever reduce our standing in the United Nations, in NATO and in the Pacific, undermining whatever assurances we have given, in formal treaties or in handshake conferences, to people and forces we have hoped to encourage.

And of course we would have betrayed our own soldiers and those of the coalition forces, and the Iraqis who supported us. To them we pledged a geopolitical enterprise which put at risk life itself, and has already cost the lives of 600 American soldiers. And to the nations on the border, we gave our word of a new order that would be made possible by the American intervention. To go back on that, chased out by Sadr and his terrorists, would undermine the forces working in the right direction in Pakistan notably, marginally in Iran and Syria, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Perhaps Qaddafi would announce that, on second thought, he was going to resume the pursuit of nuclear weaponry.

A gripping explication of these points by the president is needed now to affirm leadership. Inspired leadership does not necessarily bring a democratic nation around: The voters are always free to kick Churchill out. But an effort at leadership is critically needed.