- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 22, 2004

How goes the war? No, not Vietnam. The other one. You remember. It was in all the papers until a month ago when Vietnam returned for a Democratic Party dinner-theater tour starring Massachusetts’ answer to Robert Goulet.

Can’t get into it myself. I dozed off the other day watching a White House press conference in which President Bush was asked nary a question about anything that had happened since 1972, and I dreamt there was a muffled explosion from al-Qaeda down the street blowing up the Capitol. And, when it had died away, the press corps brushed the plaster dust off their suits and said, “But, Mr President, critics point out that National Guard pay stubs from the ‘70s are notoriously easy to forge. …”

It has been said America is divided into September 11 people and Sept. 10 people. The former category are those for whom September 11, 2001, changed everything. The latter are those for whom Sept. 10, 1972, changed everything. That’s when Mr. Bush didn’t show up at the Air National Guard base because he was dancing naked on a bar in Acapulco with Conchita the surly waitress. Or whatever.

If you think this is the most important issue facing America, feel free to vote for John Kerry, who back in 1972 was proudly serving his country by accusing its armed services of war crimes. Or whatever. Like I said, I can’t get my head round the whole retro this-is-the-aging-of-the-dawn-of-Aquarius scene.

Meanwhile, there’s this whole other war going on, the one Mr. Bush has to attend to while everyone else is on cable TV talking about the early ‘70s. This war has an ambitious aim: the transformation of the most dysfunctional region of the world. You can’t do it overnight. But, 10 months after the Iraqi liberation, it should be possible to discern a trend. And right now all the Middle Eastern dominoes are beginning to teeter in the same direction.

Last year, about a month after the war, I was heading back through Iraq’s western desert to Amman, came to Jordan Junction just past Rutba and decided to take a swing up the road to the Syrian border. A weird sight: on one side, the frontier guards of the last surviving Ba’athist regime; on the other, American troops.

It must have looked a lot weirder from the Syrian side, if you’re suddenly spending your entire shift a few hundred yards from U.S. soldiers, relaxed and chewing the proverbial gum.

It seems to have concentrated the mind of Bashir Assad, Syria’s boy dictator. He has no desire to wind up looking like Saddam when they fished him out of that hole.

So the other day Syria’s vice president, Abdul Halim Khaddam, said his government had sent messages to Israel via Turkey, offering to resume peace talks with the Zionist entity.

Might be serious. Might be just a meaningless gesture. But the fact Syria feels the need to be seen making a meaningless gesture is itself something.

What’s happening is that most countries in the region are moving toward the American position; the only variable is the speed. Libya’s Col. Moammar Gadhafi decided to throw in the towel completely. This time last year he was still beavering away on his Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) program. Did you know he had one? The International Atomic Energy Agency — the body John Kerry and the Democrats place so much faith in — were blissfully unaware.

But he has now opened it up to British and American inspectors, and, in turn, we now know much more about his nuclear allies in North Korea, Iran and Pakistan. Even in that last ramshackle state, where Gen. Pervez Musharraf recently pardoned A.Q. Khan, the father of the Pakistani bomb, for his various freelance forays into pan-Islamic nuke-sharing, the Bush approach has managed to flush Mr. Khan into the open: He’ll never be able to retreat into the shadows again.

In Europe, the war caused Tony Blair some political difficulties, but they’re as nothing compared to those of Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder. The French press reacted to the Gadhafi cave-in by descending into a slough of gloomy self-contemplation about whether their glorious republic was entirely irrelevant.

The Germans are desperately trying to rebuild their burned bridges to Britain and America, or, indeed, anyone other than Mr. Chirac.

Meanwhile, the U.N.’s much-vaunted “Oil for Food” program has been revealed to be a corrupt racket, and there are calls for more financial accountability at the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), the permanent floating crap-game of Western do-gooderism that in far too many places does far less good than it ought to, given the dough it sluices up.

In other words, the “coalition of the willing” has effected more positive change in the last 10 months than the multilateral establishment has in the last 10 years.

If President Bush loses in November because he can’t provide sufficient witnesses to prove where he was on certain weekends in 1972, he’ll still have an impressive legacy: He has toppled two dictatorships, neutered a third and put the squeeze on several more. Yes, Americans are still being killed by Islamists in Iraq. But they’re not being killed by Islamists in New York offices, or Washington government buildings, or U.S. Embassies and ships.

Assume for the purposes of argument the media are right — that John Kerry’s four months in Vietnam are so impressive they outweigh two decades of zero accomplishment in Washington, save for a series of votes remarkable for being wrong on every major issue, from Ronald Reagan’s raid on Libya to the Gulf war to every new weapons systems for the U.S. military. What will President Kerry do?

This is how he characterized the war on terror to Tom Brokaw: “I think there has been an exaggeration,” he said. “They are really misleading all of America, Tom, in a profound way. … It’s primarily an intelligence and law-enforcement operation.”

That’s all I need to know. Mr. Bush wants to take the war to the enemies, fight it on their turf. Mr. Kerry wants to do it through “law enforcement.” If the Empire State Building gets blown up, Mr. Kerry will launch an investigation immediately. It’s not enough. Even if Mr. Bush was AWOL 30 years ago, on everything that matters John Kerry is AWOL now.

Mark Steyn is the senior contributing editor for Hollinger Inc. Publications, senior North American columnist for Britain’s Telegraph Group, North American editor for the Spectator, and a nationally syndicated columnist.

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