Thursday, February 12, 2004

“By God, this is suffocation!” That’s the quotation of the week — if not the new year. This exclamation, first reported in the New York Times, expresses the raw frustration of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian-born terror-master believed to be operating in Iraq and long thoughtto have been a Saddam Hussein-harbored linktoal Qaeda.His frustration is the result of American successin Iraq.

In a document intercepted last month by U.S. officials, the man believed to be Zarqawi bemoans U.S. resolve — America “has no intention of leaving, no matter how many wounded nor how bloody it becomes” — and U.S. progress in building an Iraqi security force. “The problem is,” he writes, “you end up having an army and police connected by lineage, blood and appearance. When the Americans withdraw … they get replaced by these agents who are intimately linked to the people of this region.” His conclusion? “The Americans will continue to control from their bases, but the sons of the land will be the authority. This is the democracy. We will have no pretexts.”

No “pretexts” for violence and anarchy, that is. Which, to the average terrorist with a totalitarian dream, is a cataclysm. He goes on to ask al Qaeda leaders for immediate aid in fomenting war between Iraq’s Shi’ites and Sunnis — which probably bodes a terrible intensification of terror-bombings in Iraq — before Americans transfer sovereignty to Iraqis in June. As the newspaper reports, “With some exasperation, the author writes: ‘We can pack and leave and look for another land, just like what happened in so many lands of jihad. Our enemy is growing stronger day after day, and its intelligence increases. By God, this is suffocation!’ ”

The dramatic story broke this week, but the only “news” around seemed to concern the Vietnam War — specifically, the details about the president’s National Guard service, and, as Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe likes to say, “the medals on John Kerry’s chest.” From White House briefing transcripts, for example, I counted only one question about the al Qaeda memo and well over 100 questions and interjections about the president’s guard record. Why the focus on Vietnam?

Part of the reason is that John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic nominee, is asking the American people to judge him as a Vietnam War hero; a multi-medal-winner; a man who, as he frequently reminds us, knows “something about aircraft carriers for real.” (This is a dig at President Bush’s ocean-visit to the USS Abraham Lincoln at the end of the military campaign in Iraq.) “If George Bush wants to make this election about national security,” Mr. Kerry says a lot, “I have three words for him he’ll understand. Bring. It. On.” (This is supposed to be a dig at what Mr. Bush told Ba’athist hold-outs and Islamic radicals who strike at coalition forces hoping to drive the United States from Iraq. “Bring ‘em on,” Mr. Bush told the terrorists attempting to derail Iraqi peace and democracy — tough talk to terrorists is an odd choice for parody by any presidential candidate.)

Mr. Bush, meanwhile, as a former Air National Guardsman, is neither war hero nor medal-winner. He flew F-102s over the Gulf of Mexico, and does not, therefore, know what Mr. Kerry knows about aircraft carriers. But he isn’t basing his presidential appeal on his guardsman record. Mr. Bush — who, quite spectacularly, has been named one of the three great grand strategists in American history in a forthcoming book by eminent Yale professor John Lewis Gaddis — is running for re-election as a battle-tested war president whose war — our war — is far from over.

That doesn’t mean Vietnam shouldn’t have its place in this campaign. For just as Mr. Kerry has a record as a naval officer that is universally praised, he has a record as an antiwar activist that is widely despised. A leading voice in the notorious appeasement group Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW), which frequently demonstrated under communist banners even as American servicemen were under fire, Mr. Kerry should now be called upon to defend that record, or to apologize for it. What does Mr. Kerry say now about having defamed American servicemen before Congress in 1971? About participating in “Hanoi” Jane Fonda-financed stunts and protests? About North Vietnamese Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap’s 1985 assertion that without the antiwar efforts of such organizations as VVAW, Hanoi would have surrendered? And what does he have to say about the tens of thousands of executions, the torture and the re-education camps that the North Vietnamese inflicted on South Vietnam after the American withdrawal?

It’s time to focus on the real news.

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