Can a guy think straight and serious in Las Vegas, a place where it's 90 degrees at 8 in the morning and a hung-over Elvis impersonator with a tattered gauze bandage hanging loose off his ankle just staggered across the hotel parking lot? I'll try.
First, on the death of al-Qaeda reign-of-terror leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi: Obviously, nobody in America will mourn the passing of a murderous thug who beheaded westerners and sought to foment and exploit sectarian strife. But it's predictably striking to note how the war's defenders are mocking any attempts by skeptical Americans to put his death in perspective and to suggest that perhaps his passing will not make much of a difference.
Call it the Dixie Chickification of skeptical thought.
Dare we recall that when Saddam Hussein was captured in December of 2003, during the ninth month of the war, President Bush's loyalists assailed anyone who had the temerity to suggest that this event might not be a watershed turning point in the conflict? Remember how Howard Dean was pilloried for saying that Hussein's capture would not necessarily make America safer? Dean had many flaws as a candidate, but that particular view is now shared by a majority of Americans, as the polls have long reported.
And dare we attempt to put Zarqawi's death into perspective? Sure, why not:
1. As Anthony Cordesman, an Iraq expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former Pentagon aide under Republican administrations, pointed out this morning in USA Today, the al-Qaeda operation in Iraq is a relatively small facet of a sprawling and decentralized Sunni insurgency. And, insurgency aside, many terror experts now say that the biggest threats to peace in Iraq are the sectarian militias, both Sunni and Shiite, that have infiltrated the government security forces.
2. Zarqawi, who was betrayed by somebody inside his organization, was already on the way to being sidelined as a leader of the al-Qaeda operation. This suggests that those bad guys were already in the process of retooling when he was taken out. Where have I heard that Zarqawi was being sidelined? From the conservative press, which reported this on April 4. Headline in the Washington Times: "Zarqawi replaced as al Qaeda chief."
3. With regards to Zarqawi, public amnesia plays to the Bush administration's advantage. Historical perspective does not. Apparently, they could have taken out Zarqawi four years ago, before the war. In March 2004, NBC reported that the White House in 2002 had thrice rejected a Pentagon request to target Zarqawi, who then was believed to be running a weapons lab in territory not controlled by Saddam Hussein's government. Jim Miklaszewski's sources told him that the administration balked at attacking Zarqawi and his terrorist camp, out of concern that "destroying the terrorist camp in Iraq could undercut its case for war against Saddam." Terrorism expert and ex-National Security Council member Robert Cressey told NBC that "People were more obsessed with developing the coalition to overthrow Saddam than to execute the president's policy of preemption against terrorists."
Some war skeptics have sought to provide this kind of perspective over the past 24 hours, but that is what the Republican National Committee is now calling "a commitment to defeatism."
One of the RNC's targets is Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, a Democrat who actually voted for war authorization and has not renounced that vote. He was labeled a defeatist for saying this yesterday on CNN: "I predict to you that two weeks from now you're going to be showing people being ripped off of buses, and beheaded still. I think you're going to be seeing every morning 10 to 50 people with their arms chained behind their back and shot in the head."
But somehow, in its eagerness to append its label, the Republican party omitted the fact that Biden actually defended Bush yesterday on NBC: "We get one president at a time....This election in November is not for President of the United States....I hope it (Zarqawi's death) does improve his standing and emboldens him to take bolder moves in terms of his policy in Iraq."
And it would be interesting to know whether the Republican party would label as "defeatists" those Marines on the ground in Iraq who are telling the media that Zarqawi's demise won't change the situation. Here's Maj. Tom Hobbs, executive officer for 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Rregiment in Ramadi, speaking this morning in USA Today: "Things will remain the same, or get worse as insurgent leaders conduct attacks to make a name for themselves and become the next top dog." He was seconded by Marine Capt. Andrew Del Gaudio, who said, referring to Zarqawi's death, that the insurgents "will get over it quickly and move on."
Nevertheless, having said all this, I can't help but note that sometimes the anti-Bush Democratic activists make it easy for the other side to mock them. Last night, here in Las Vegas, at a reception dinner for 1000 liberal bloggers, a comedian made a passing reference to Zarqawi's death. Very tepid applause. Then he mentioned that the indicted Tom DeLay had delivered his farewell speech In Washington. Wild applause, whistles, and whooping. And there it was, another gift for Karl Rove.
I want to finish with just a few words about Ann Coulter, and her attack this week on the 9/11 widows, who, in her view, are enjoying the fact that their husbands are dead. It's a waste of time to condemn Coulter, because she is merely the most extreme product of our increasingly uncivil era. Witness the fact that even Time magazine, that once venerable paragon of the eastern media establishment, has today given her yet another forum. The coarser the culture, the better for Coulter. She brings to mind a classic scene in the 1987 movie Broadcast News, when the news producer, played by Holly Hunter, rebukes the airheaded anchorman, played by William Hurt, for crossing an ethical line. And Hurt responds, "Well, they keep moving the little sucker, don't they?"