Monday, May 17, 2004

In his column last week, Robert Novak talked to a big bunch of Beltway insiders about Donald Rumsfeld’s future, or his lack thereof. Among my colleague’s sources was “one senior official of a coalition partner,” who, apropos the defense secretary, put it this way: “There must be a neck cut, and there is only one neck of choice.”

Lovely line.

Unknown to the big shot diplomat, round about that exact moment halfway across the world, Nick Berg’s captors were cutting his head off — or, to be more precise, feverishly hacking it off while raving “God is great.”

So Bob Novak’s “senior official” (some languid upper-class Brit or cynical Continental?) usefully reminds us of the difference between the participants in this war. On one side, references to decapitation are purely metaphorical; on the other, they mean it.

One way to measure the softness of a society is to look at how hitherto robust language becomes drained of all literal meaning. Take Mr. Novak’s own CNN show “Crossfire,” and a testy exchange on the subject from Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign. Contemplating Pat Buchanan’s experience as a TV host, Mr. Dole muttered, “I was in the real cross-fire. It wasn’t on television. It was over in Italy somewhere, a long time ago.”

Just so. Back before September 11, 2001, real cross-fire was long ago and far away. Not anymore. And that’s the problem: we still have a “Crossfire” culture in an age of real cross-fire. We have the ersatz warriors, the ham actors of Washington — Sens. Edward Kennedy, Carl Levin, Pat Leahy, Tom Harkin and others too fond of seeing their names in print to mention — “calling for Rumsfeld’s head” at a time when America’s enemies have already got Nick Berg’s and they’re swinging it around on camera for the snuff video they’ll be distributing as a recruiting tool.

The American people, no thanks to their media, still understand what’s real and what’s just cheesy Beltway dinner-theater. That’s why the Abu Ghraib scandal is dead, even if the networks don’t yet know it. It was dead before Nick Berg. It died because the Democrats and their media groupies overplayed their hand, as usual, and so turned a real scandal into just another fake scandal for senatorial windbags to huff and puff over.

In the last few days, The Mirror, a raucous Fleet Street tabloid, has published pictures of British troops urinating on Iraqi prisoners and the Boston Globe, a somnolent New England broadsheet, has published pictures of American troops sexually abusing Iraqi women. In both cases, the pictures turned out to be fake.

From a cursory glance at details in the London snaps and the provenance of the Boston ones, it should have been obvious to editors at both papers they were almost certainly false.

Yet they published them. Because they wanted them to be true. Because it would bring them a little closer to the head they really want to roll — George W Bush’s. If you want to see what the Islamists did to Nick Berg or Daniel Pearl or to those guys in Fallujah or even to the victims of September 11, you’ll have to ferret it out on the Internet. The media aren’t interested in showing you images that might rouse the American people to righteous anger, only images that will shame and demoralize them.

Goh Chok Tong, the prime minister of Singapore, was in Washington the other day and summed it up very well: “The key issue is no longer WMD or even the role of the U.N. The central issue is America’s credibility and will to prevail.” In Britain, they used to say that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton — i.e., it was thanks to the fierce resolve inculcated by an English education.

The War on Terror will be lost in the talking shops of Washington — i.e., it will be thanks to the lack of resolve inculcated by excessive exposure to blow-dried pundits and Senate hearings. The war now has two fronts. In Iraq, the glass is half-full. In Washington, it’s half-empty, and draining fast.

The administration, in trying to see its way through both the phony cross-fire and the real one, has been rattled by the fake war. Someone in the White House needs seriously to stiffen the Bush rhetoric. When the president talks about “staying the course” and “bringing to justice” the killers, he sounds like Bill Clinton, who pledged to stay the course in Somalia and bring to justice the terrorists, and did neither. Mr. Bush has to go back to speaking Rumsfeldian, not Powellite: he has to talk about winning total victory, hunting down the enemy and killing them.

He also needs to promise himself that he’ll never again apologize to some Arab despot — even relatively benign ones, like the King of Jordan — for events in Iraq. If he feels the need to apologize, he should apologize to the American people for apologizing to the Arab world.

This isn’t just because what went on in Abu Ghraib is a picnic — well, a Paris Hilton video picnic — compared to what goes on every day in the prisons of our Arab “allies.” More important than that, the Bush apology buys into one of the most fetid props of the region’s so-called stability — “pan-Arabism.”

If U.S. troops “humiliated” some Portuguese prisoners, the president wouldn’t apologize to the king of Norway or the prime minister of Slovenia. So why, when U.S. troops humiliate Iraqi prisoners, would he apologize to Jordan’s King Abdullah or Egypt’s thug-for-life? “Pan-Arabism” is one reason the region’s a sewer. If Iraq succeeds, it will be by breaking with regional solidarity.

By the way, you might wonder by now where the great procession of Arab leaders lining up to apologize to America for Nick Berg’s murder has gotten to. Only a few Middle Eastern men want to saw the heads of Jews and infidels. But an awful lot more — the majority in some states — are either noisily approving or silently accepting of such an act.

Winston Churchill wrote of two “curses which Mohammedanism lays on its votaries” — not only the “fanatical frenzy,” which you can see in the orgiastic pleasure of Berg’s killers in their clumsy work, but also the “fearful fatalistic apathy,” to which many more Arabs are prone. It’s the latter that makes them such easy waters for the sharks to swim in.

We always come back to that strong horse/weak horse thing. But the point to remember is that Osama bin Laden talked about who was seen as the strong horse: It’s a perception.

America may be, technically, the strong horse but, thanks to its press and its political class, the administration is showing dangerous signs of climbing into the rear end of the weak-horse burlesque suit. If America retreats into its own fatalistic apathy, there will be many more Nick Bergs in the years ahead.

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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