Demonstrating yet again how dangerous it is for him to venture into public unaided by a teleprompter, President Bush managed to provide some startling insight into what this war on terror business is really all about last week during an interview on NBC's “Today” show.
The reporter asked, "Can we win the war on terror?"
Let's face it, that's not really a trick question, though Bush handled it as if it were some sort of incredibly nuanced, philosophically convoluted Chinese conundrum.
To the nation's astonishment, the man who has been beating his chest at whistle stops around the country for the last two years, issuing macho declarations of just how far and how fast we were going to kick some terrorist butt and hang the consequences, whiffed badly. "I don't think you can win it," he said. "But you can create conditions so that those who use terror as a tool are less acceptable in parts of the world."
The incident caused a flurry of spin doctoring by Republican interpreters who tried to picture it as nothing more than a simple case of misunderstanding by a too-scrupulous press corps eager to catch their guy with his foot in his mouth.
Democratic spokespeople, stung by all the references to John Kerry as a "flip-flopper" on controversial matters, rushed to point out that the president's words betrayed his even greater propensity to flail wildly around the compass dial on tough issues.
The Kerry camp asserted our hero-warrior candidate's belief that if he were in charge, the war on terror would certainly be won. His comment was actually more distressing to me than the candor shown by Bush when he blurted that "I don't think you can win it."
Of course Dubya managed the next day to go on Rush Limbaugh's show and insist that he, too, actually believes not only that the war on terror is winnable but that in fact we are winning it already. He may have hoped that his revised answer would serve as damage control, but in light of what was going on at that instant in Chechnya, Palestine and in the Sunni triangle, he came across as simply whistling past the graveyard.
All this nonsensical posturing is backdrop for the November election. The campaign is beginning to sound ominously like it will be waged over which of the candidates will put the biggest hammer down the fastest on the evil-doers. How do we get ourselves in these messes?
Bush actually spoke two truths on the “Today” show. (He was flat out lying on the Limbaugh show, but we won't belabor that point.) We need to take seriously what he said because it provides an important insight into the future of this country in the coming decades if we accept the premise that we can/will/must defeat terrorism with our bullets/
His first truth is that he doesn't think you can defeat terrorism that way. His second is that we are preparing to wage that kind of warfare for the foreseeable future.
To repeat: You can never kill every terrorist out there who is so angry and hopeless that he or she is willing to commit suicide to hurt us. Yet we are prepared to expend our national treasury, sacrifice the lives of thousands of our young men and women (our real treasure) and alienate an entire planet of former allies in the process ... for as long as it takes. In other words, forever.
This is the bleak prospect held out by the leader of the wealthiest, most powerful nation on Earth. Decades of warfare. Unceasing strife. Soaring military budgets. A crusade against Islam that will return us to medieval conditions. One that cannot, truly, ever, be won.
And so far his opponent's alternative vision has amounted to "Think he's tough? Ha! Let me tell you, I'm a whole lot tougher."
It is being described as the fourth world war. You know, the two big "wars to end all wars" and then the 40 years of Cold War against the godless communists. Now the fourth one, the Cultural War, the war between Christian fundamentalism and Islamic fundamentalism.
Or is it really the war to bring the world's markets and natural resources under our economic control; the war to protect American corporations' uncontested pursuit of profit; the war to assure we will always spend more on munitions than on education, bombs than on health care, fighter jets than on housing?
No one could ever get elected on such a dreary platform, no matter how many U.S. Supreme Court justices they controlled. So what we get instead is a cynical and quite dangerous appeal to our deepest, most primitive motivation: fear. We are threatened. Our homeland security is at risk. Trust us to protect you.
Bush, in a rare, unscripted moment, was right. The war on terror cannot be won; not with bullets. Every terrorist we shoot and every innocent civilian bystander we wipe out has a dozen brothers, children, friends determined to avenge them. Teaching, healing and housing the millions of hopeless people in the world should be our strategy against terrorism. When we start treating them as partners instead of enemies, we can avoid the grim century of the Fourth World War.