The Phony War

That was an interesting speech President Bush gave last night in Georgia. Its subject was homeland security, and in terms of content, style and tone it seemed to be, essentially, nothing new. And yet by the end and after reading it, I thought: He’s telling us a great deal here.

The terrorists “want to kill Americans, Jews and Christians”; we’ve seen this hatred before in history, and “the only possible response is to confront it and defeat it.” The bad men “have no religion, have no conscience and have no mercy”; it is a war “to save civilization itself”; the way to win peace is “to take the battle to the enemy and to stop them.”

He talked at length—at too great length, I think—about how we as a people are buoyed by faith and family, how flags are flying everywhere, how Americans have contributed a billion dollars to relief efforts and charities, and how this would be a good time to mentor or tutor a child.

This has already been said, but it allowed him to underscore what he wants us to absorb, and every day: that the terrorists brought out the very best in our people, and the very best is what it will take to defeat them.

It was a speech in which the president was determined not to announce but to underscore, and to leave his audience inferring. Inferring that yes we’re in a heck of a war, and yes we’ll get through, yes the government is on the case and yes, we must continue to live and love life and refuse to let the terrorists diminish the simple joys of dailyness.

It was a long-haul speech, not a review-the-current-crisis speech. It was the kind of thing we’re going to be hearing from him for a long time, because the war will go a long time.

Along the way he announced as his subject “how to live”—Tolstoy’s great question, which suggests someone in speechwriting has been hitting “War and Peace.” Mr. Bush continued to accent the importance of viewing Islam as peaceful and the terrorists as its abusive misinterpreters.

Most interestingly, I thought, he seemed to suggest along the way that Sept. 11 has given us as a people an opportunity to revisit our long history, and understand better what it is we are fighting for. “Ours is a great story, and we must tell it,” he said. I suspect very soon now he will be expanding on that thought, and asking our public schools to return to the old history curriculum, the one that told our story from prerevolutionary days through the Civil War through the age of invention to all the great social and moral movements that have swept the past century. Our children, that is, for the first time in 25 years, may be taught our history again. What a boon this would be for our country.

In the middle of the speech Mr. Bush touched on ways to mobilize the interest and energy of our newly aroused country. Most significantly, he said he will ask state and local official “to create a modern civil-defense service,” to help us win the war at home. Well done, hooray, and just in time.

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Where we are right now is 1939, and what we’re in right now is the Phony War. That was the placid time that followed Britain’s declaration of war against Germany, after Germany invaded Poland. Everyone knew that what would soon be called World War II had begun, and yet things were relatively quiet. John Bull found his daily life undisturbed and actually quite pleasant in the way that walking out of a funeral on a pretty summer day makes you see the buds on a tree more brilliantly and receive them more gratefully. That was the autumn of ‘39; it was followed by 1940, and the German invasion of Paris, and the Blitz.

But for now and until the next shoe drops—I like that phrase, which people use to mean “until the next terrorist attack,” but it’s not really the right phrase unless you are envisioning a centipede with a lot of different shoes—the phony war is what we’re in. Difficult times loom ahead, and most of us know it, but tonight we’re on our way to the movies or to dinner or to buy a new car to take advantage of the fantastic values being offered.

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A phony war is better than a real one. We’ll be happy as long as it lasts and safe as long as we remember it’s phony.

The other night I heard a man say, “While we’re in a war . . .,” and I said “No, we’re not in a war. We’re at war, but we’ll be in it soon enough.”

It is a question of time, and timing.

Tony Blair, who has been bold and stout hearted in his support of America, is reported in the London Independent to be urging the Bush administration not to widen the American bombing campaign to include Iraq. At the same time the New York Times reports (and The Wall Street Journal Europe reported three weeks ago) that two highly placed defectors from Iraq’s own intelligence agency have revealed that Iraq has been hard at work training Islamic terrorists at a local terror camp since 1995. The defectors said they knew of a highly guarded compound within the training camp where Iraqi scientists, led by a German, produced biological agents. One of the defectors told the Times the terrorists receiving training came from Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and other countries. “We were training these people to attack installations important to the United States,” he said. “The Gulf War never ended for Saddam Hussein. He is at war with the United States. We were repeatedly told this.”

This report is of course not surprising. It is just more data that backs up what we already know. It’s the kind of thing Richard Butler, the former United Nations weapons inspector, has been talking about for years. Now people listen.

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The argument about targeting is an argument about timing. The argument about whether to bomb and take Iraq is not an argument about whether to take Iraq, it is an argument about when, in this long war, it will be best to move on Iraq. If Secretary of State Colin Powell does not know this he will know it soon enough; if President Bush does not know (I believe he knows, in spades), he will find out; if Mr. Blair doesn’t know, he will find out too.

Why is it only a question about the timing of the effort and not the size and scope of the effort? Because we cannot survive—the West in its entirety cannot survive—in a world in which Saddam and his friends are able to unleash what they desire to unleash. We cannot last in a world in which those whom Christopher Hitchens aptly calls Islamic fascists mean to and can kill us by inches, or yards.

There is another question about time, and timing. I know people who think this struggle may last years. I will be grateful and surprised if it does not last decades. Some of that will depend on whether we widen the war quickly or not. If we don’t, history will widen it for us.

The enemy has already bombed our country and unleashed biological warfare on us, clear acts of war. We are now bombing the Afghan areas in which we believe the terrorists are hiding, and feeling impressed and rather taken aback at the sight of hardy Northern Alliance soldiers charging would-be terror enclaves on horseback. They remind me of the Polish cavalry, whose efforts in defense of their country in World War II were as gallant as they were doomed. (More heartening thought: They put one in mind of the fearless and quite crazy Arab tribesmen who charged Aqaba during World War I. They took it. Still, as I watched what appeared to be a Northern Alliance cavalry charge on the news last night, I thought: This is how David Lean would have shot it in “Lawrence of Arabia” if his producer, Sam Spiegel, had drastically cut the budget. Mr. Lean had a cast of thousands; the Northern Alliance looked like dozens.)

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Let me tell you why I have a hunch that Mr. Bush sees it all, in his head, as ultimately a matter of timing and not mere targets.

On the morning of Sept. 11, when he was in Florida with his top staff unveiling an education initiative at a local public school, the second World Trade Center tower was hit. This was exactly the moment at which all the most sophisticated people understood, and said, “This is terrorism. This is no accident. This is a terrorist incident. It’s Arab terrorists.”

That was the smart and obvious thing to think.

But at the point where most sophisticated people were saying “this is terrorism, he said, “We are at war.”

He jumped ahead of the obvious and went straight to the not-so-obvious. I found it interesting that his heart-head-and-spirit apprehended immediately the fix we were in. (And let me tell you, presidents are not quick to say sentences like “We are at war.”)

I found it interesting when, on Tuesday, Mr. Bush told European leaders that the terrorists are trying to get their hands on nuclear, biological and chemical weapons to use against the West, though I did not understand why he said “are trying to,” as opposed to “have acquired and are attempting to acquire.” Some accused him of scare-mongering, but he was not. He was underscoring the obvious. And underscoring the obvious is a good thing to do when the obvious is not obvious to everyone.

Everything I hear about him and of him, everything he says that I watch or read, tells me he is ahead of the curve in his thinking on what we are in. This is only a hunch—I have neither seen nor asked—but let me tell you what I feel certain he knows.

It will not only be a long war, he will probably be only the first (though perhaps the most crucial) president who fights it. It will be a terrible war, too. This war happens to be the reason he is president: because something big and bad and dark was coming, and he was the man to lead us through it. He didn’t, you will remember, really hunger for the presidency only two years ago, did not have the famous fire in the belly; when the local preacher talked about what God wants us to do to help our country, his mother really turned to him and said—I paraphrase—He’s talking to you, George. It is interesting that she felt she had to say it. But the president feels none of his old ambivalence now.

The new war has given shape, form and historical purpose to his presidency. My sense is that he walked into office knowing huge history was coming but not knowing when, what, where. Now he knows. I can quite imagine him thinking, This is the reason I’m here.

I’ll tell you something else I keep thinking about him. It is the thing he did, or that happened to him, that no modern president has ever done, that no past president is reported to have done. As George W. Bush took the Oath of Office on the steps of the Capitol last January, his eyes filled with tears. You could see them on TV, and the people around him saw them up close.

And I remember thinking: Those tears have meaning, those tears are about something, and I wonder if he knows exactly what. Because sometimes people have presentiments they don’t even understand until later.