America is already tired of the war. It has been seven whole weeks, and everyone is asking why we have not
defeated a foe that has been at least 25 years in the making. The discussion sounds similar to when we were little and would demand pettishly of our weary, long-suffering parents: “When are we going to get there?”
The questioning from the press, but also from ordinary citizens, over the efficacy of the war effort reached such a crescendo this week that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who usually keeps his cool, became slightly hot under the collar with the Pentagon press corps. “History 101” was his chosen syllabus.
While smoke is still rising from the World Trade Center, he said, we might deign to consider some historical perspective: “After the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, it took four months before the United States responded to that attack. It took eight months after Pearl Harbor before the U.S. began a land campaign against the Japanese.
“On the European front, the Allies bombed Germany continually for nearly five years. It took the United States two years and six months after Hitler declared war on us before we landed in France. Many things about this war are different from wars past but, as I have said, one of those differences is not the possibility of instant victory.”
In fairness to the administration, this is what they have been telling us from Day One at Ground Zero: that this was going to be a long drawn-out conflict, far more like World War II or the fight against communism than the bitter but brief skirmishes of Somalia, Haiti or even Bosnia that have marked our recent experience.
But our leaders do have a problem not with their policies, but with the immediate-gratification mentality of so many Americans, most definitely including members of my own profession, who seem to believe in the possibility of some kind of virtual war that takes place in some kind of virtual world.
I don’t believe the problem is whether we have a strategy (we do) nor even whether we can win this conflict (we can), but whether the American people can last it out.
Is there really a strategy? Well, if creating in a mere seven weeks a cordon of cooperating countries around Afghanistan to work with us, if moving America’s huge military machine into place in the region, if getting the Europeans to start seriously dealing with the terrorists in their midst, if cracking down on terrorist financing, and if working to form a representative Afghan government after the war is not a strategy, what on Earth is?
I agree with Secretary Rumsfeld that the war is going as well as can be expected (or as well as any war, with all its capacity for confoundment, ever does). What is truly remarkable and encouraging is that street demonstrations in fragile Pakistan seem to be dying down. Only this week, Armenia and Azerbaijan joined the (more-or-less) “allied” coalition and Turkey, the Muslim secular state par excellence, announced it was sending 90 of its elite Special Forces group to train Afghan anti-Taliban fighters. Turkey is the first Muslim state to do so.
Putting all of this into place in less than two months is indeed overnight in terms of history’s judgment. This controversy about the ripeness of tactics and strategy reminds me of my favorite quote from the Austrian 16th-century philosopher Paracelsus, who said: “Anyone who thinks that all fruits ripen at the same time as the grapes knows nothing about the strawberries.”
In addition to the immediate-gratification mentality, which emerged full-blown out of the ‘60s, impatient to have everything at once (oh, and at no cost, please), there are the ebbs and flows of the press. These are as inexorable and as predictable as the waxing and waning of the moon. If a policy is a success one week, it must be judged more harshly the next, if only to have a “different” or “new” take on the story. If you praise George W. Bush one day, you must critique him the next, if only to preserve your standing among your peers.
The problem here is often generational. Younger reporters often come from affluent suburban families. They are professionally skeptical, if not cynical. Unlike farmers, they have never had to wait for the fruits of their labor, to watch them grow in their own time and at their own pace. Unlike manufacturers, they have never had to actually produce and stand behind the quality of their products. Unlike soldiers, aside from foreign correspondents, most have never had to live with the inexorable outcomes of their decisions.
Ironically, it was the impatient Americans who gave us the terrible conflict we now face. That mind-set, of the Clinton administration and of arcane intellectuals who advised it, rushed us in and out of Somalia, Haiti and Bosnia and convinced the Osama bin Ladens of the world that there was nothing to fear from America.
This administration is trying to do it a different way, the old, more sober way. We should give it our total support until and unless we can see something going badly wrong.
For one has the feeling that these men and women know how corn grows in Wisconsin and Iowa, and how orange trees blossom in California. And that they do know the difference between the ripening of the strawberries and the ripening of the grapes.
Georgie Anne Geyer is a nationally syndicated columnist.