- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 12, 2003

The president of the United States had good reason to be concerned. People with reason to know had warned him: A ruthless dictator whose aggressive intent had already been amply demonstrated now aspired to develop new and awesome weapons of mass destruction.

Once in possession of those weapons, the tyrant would be undeterrable. The national security and that of the free world depended on beating him to the punch.

The warning had come in the form of a letter dated Aug. 2, 1939, and signed: Albert Einstein. “Some recent work by E. Fermi and L. Szilard,” it began, “leads me to expect that the element uranium may be turned into a new and important source of energy in the immediate future…. This new phenomenon would also lead to the construction of bombs, and it is conceivable — though much less certain — that extremely powerful bombs of a new type may thus be constructed.”

There was no time to waste. “I understand,” Einstein told the president, “that Germany has already stopped the sale of uranium from the Czechoslovakian mines which she has taken over.” He added that experiments with uranium were even now being conducted at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin.

The rest is history: The appointment of a research committee, the speedy awarding of secret government contracts (which would have scandalized the open-government, competitive-bidding crowd today), the first self-sustaining chain reaction at the University of Chicago, the Manhattan Project, the test at Alamogordo and eventually a mushroom cloud rose high above Hiroshima on the morning of Aug. 6, 1945. The war was over.

The United States had won its race against Hitler’s scientists. “We may be grateful to Providence,” Harry Truman told a relieved nation, “that the Germans got the V-1s and V-2s late and in limited quantities, and even more grateful that they did not get the atomic bomb at all.”

By that time, Nazi Germany had fallen, and although every scientific laboratory and secret arsenal in the country was being scoured, there was no sign that Germany was anywhere near having a nuclear weapon. Working under the venerated Heisenberg, the German physicists had taken a wrong turn, and were still playing with heavy water while our guys were doing the equations and engineering at Los Alamos.

Does that mean the danger never existed? That Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman had overreacted? That Einstein was an alarmist? The American people did not seem to think so. On the contrary, they understood that it was the commander in chief’s responsibility to anticipate the worst case, not assume the best. And to act.

Today, because another president acted to avert a clear if not yet present danger, he is accused of having misled the American people since no weapon of mass destruction has been discovered in now uneasily occupied Iraq.

But the prewar debate was not about whether Saddam Hussein had a nuclear weapon, but how to keep him from getting one. He didn’t. Mission accomplished.

It’s no surprise that only circumstantial evidence of other weapons of mass destruction — the chemical and biological kind — have been found so far in Iraq. As Secretary of State Colin Powell told the United Nations back in February, Saddam’s weapons programs were deliberately designed to avoid detection. Of course they have not been easy to detect.

But it’s not just President Bush that his critics are unhappy with. They’re disappointed in the American people, who don’t seem much bothered by his decision to go to war and his determination to win it in short order. Any more than they blamed Franklin Roosevelt for developing a terrible weapon, or Harry Truman for using it. Even if, as it turned out, the threat of Hitler’s having an atomic bomb was never imminent.

Maybe the American people intuitively understand some things that reflexive critics of American presidents do not. Like the need to confront a growing danger before it becomes an imminent threat.

But with every report of American casualties in Iraq, and every new firefight there, criticism of this president and commander in chief is bound to grow — and its tempo increase. Those nostalgic for the anti-war rallies of the 1960s must go to sleep every night with visions of Vietnam dancing in their heads. Ah, those were the days.

The administration’s critics can’t offer any realistic alternative to its worldwide offensive against terror. All they can propose is drift under some other name — containment, multilateralism, any high-sounding euphemism for inaction will do. They invite a devastation and call it peace.

Once again the straw men multiply, arguing for drift over mastery, doubt over faith, for anything but action, risk, sacrifice — for anything but a forward strategy that takes this war to the enemy. Instead, the straw men just rustle in the wind.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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