- The Washington Times - Monday, December 15, 2003

Christmas arrived early this year, and all the dwarfs got were a few lousy lumps of coal.

George W. Bush, who has had a very good month with the economy beginning to bubble and squeak and now the war in Iraq going the way America’s wars are meant to go, is trying to suppress the glee a little boy feels when he sees everything he asked for — not only the little red wagon and the electric train, but the Lincoln Logs as well — under the Christmas tree.

Only he’s not supposed to let on. Having been burned once when public pleasure over the deaths of Saddam’s two sickie sons turned into embarrassment over the spurt of violence that followed in the wake of their spectacular demise, the president is wisely shy. He put on his most practiced somber face when he announced that Saddam Hussein had been taken like a wet rat from his hole in the ground. The White House put spin doctors to work early to knock down any suggestion that the president will allow himself even a tight smile with his coffee this morning.

But the president need not fret. There’s no shortage of glee across America and most of the rest of the world. The German foreign minister, straining at the effort, pronounced himself pleased with the capture of Saddam, the most notoriously evil dictator since, well, ah, Adolf Hitler. Even Jacques Chirac said nice things about the accomplishment of American intelligence and arms. The worldwide celebration, which ranged noisily across Iraq and Kuwait, was measured and occasionally subdued in much of the rest of the Arab world, and it’s easy to imagine the nervousness in some of the capitals of the Middle East. Uneasy rest what passes for the crowns in Damascus, Tehran and other places where despots rule. (The only distraction of the splendid Sunday was that ubiquitous footage of a medic inspecting the inside of Saddam’s mouth, playing continuously through the day on the nation’s television screens, enough to gag a convention of dentists.)

As good Americans, the Democratic presidential candidates no doubt take pleasure in the capture of Saddam, but as presidential wannabes their private joy was easily restrained. You could read it in their faces on the Sunday morning talk shows.

Howard Dean, the man the wise men say is running in front of everyone else even though the first convention delegate is yet to be chosen, cut his losses early and quit for the day: “President Bush deserves a day of celebration. We have our policy differences, but we won’t be discussing those today.” Then he left for Los Angeles to make “a foreign-policy speech,” though he might be tempted to look for a hole in the ground for himself. It was a day for the other dwarfs to leave George W. Bush alone and throw rocks at the warm and cuddly former governor of Vermont.

They all said nice things, more or less, about the accomplishment of the commander in chief’s men. It was a day on which it was hard to grouse. But some of them tried. “For many years, we will be confronted with a war on terrorism that is unfinished,” said Rep. Richard Gephardt. Sen. John Kerry, whose campaign has been on the edge of implosion for a fortnight, fell back on the most popular Democratic clich. “Today is another opportunity to invite the world into a post-Saddam Iraq and build the coalition to win the peace that we should have built to win the war.”

This clich assumes that the rest of the world wants to be invited to share the dirty and deadly work of rooting out evil in Iraq. Kofi Annan talks a brave game, but the U.N. has already cut and run, leading the most ignominious skedaddle since the first battle at Bull Run. Given his circumstances, it was about the best the French-looking Mr. Kerry could do.

The Democratic dilemma is that the dwarfs and the angry activists who make the early primary decisions can’t be pleased by the turn of events. The brighter the prospects for success in Iraq, the dimmer the prospects for throwing George W. out of the White House. The more they grouse and grumble now, the more the eventual nominee will pay later. So the dwarfs have to act pleased with those lumps of coal in their stockings. It looks like a Merry Christmas for the rest of us.

Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Times.

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