JERUSALEM — I turn on CNN, and I see people being grilled — Bush and Blair. What did you know, and when did you know it? If you had known then what you know now, would you have done what you did? Or did you already know it, and pull a big hoax on all of us?
The War on Terror is barely two years old, and already the two statesmen mainly responsible for waging it are in the dock. The grim media interrogators, our self-appointed “representatives,” fire questions at them. The opposition parties sling mud at them. And one can’t blame it all on the Left: Britain’s Conservative Party is trying to conserve its prowar stance at the same time that it pillories Blair.
Since Vietnam, things have had a way of working out this way. In that conflict, the “moral” castigation of America mounted, Nixon found himself in the Watergate dock, and finally all U.S. forces were yanked from the arena — setting the stage for the boat people, the “reeducation centers,” and the Cambodian holocaust. Along came smiling Jimmy Carter, proclaiming peace on earth, only to be stunned by evidence — the Iran hostage crisis, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan — that there were still bad guys out there unimpressed by all that American “niceness.”
A couple of years later Israel tried to wage a war on terror in Lebanon, but after a few months it found itself in the dock over the Sabra and Shatilah massacres. Forgotten — actually, hardly anyone ever cared — was the PLO’s brutal occupation of southern Lebanon; now all the rage was Israel’s alleged sins. Meanwhile, the war’s one significant achievement — the exile of Arafat and his gang to Tunis, creating breathing space for Palestinian moderacy — was forgotten, too; and in 1993 an Israeli Labor government revived the PLO, brought it here, and plunged Israel into its ongoing nightmare.
Reagan, in the 1980s, had to deal with calumny and hysteria over Pershings in Europe and a tough anti-Soviet line, until — what, ho! — the Soviets collapsed. The open, undeniable brutality of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, the threat to oil, made it easier — relatively — for Bush Sr. in the first Gulf War; Clinton’s status as a beloved Democrat made it easier for him in Bosnia and Kosovo.
But the general pattern has been that democratic leaders who wage war on terrorists, totalitarians, enemies of freedom, are guilty until proven innocent. Never more so than now, when alleged intelligence failures, alleged deceptions, are all the rage. The Free World turns in, snarling, upon itself.
Meanwhile, ricin shows up in the U.S. Senate. Eight flights from Europe to the U.S. get canceled in one day because of intelligence tips that they’ll get blown to bits. Bombers kill forty in Moscow; seventy in twin attacks in Kurdistan. A bus bombing in Jerusalem hardly registers anymore. Ho-hum, I never promised you a rose garden. But Bush and Blair are in the dock, and grim committees are searching every cranny of what they knew, when they knew it, and what they did.
Should citizens of democracies blindly follow their leaders? Of course not. Do those leaders never do anything wrong? Of course not. Bush and Blair may have oversold the WMD threat (at least, it’s easy to say now; I wasn’t saying it then). America’s incremental approach to Vietnam looks — in hindsight — unwise; it should either have stayed out, or fought to win — that’s the view from 2004. Israel shouldn’t have let the Phalanges militiamen into those camps — now, at least, it seems clear.
No, the leaders of democracies are mortals; they err, they misjudge situations, they take wrong tacks. But I wonder if, in wartime, we shouldn’t give them more leeway, as they used to do in the pre-Vietnam era. The greater humility and deference that populations — and even the media — showed their leaders in those days was a way of acknowledging that these guys had the toughest job, that if we were the ones making all those decisions, we wouldn’t get them all right either. It was also a way of maintaining a basic moral perspective, a basic distinction between elected, civilized leaders and deadly enemies.
If the domestic opponents of Bush and Blair were claiming that they can manage the War on Terror more effectively, that would be one thing. But most of them, instead, are casting doubt on whether this war is necessary at all — and using a flap about WMD and intelligence to try and delegitimize Bush and Blair altogether. Considering the very real threats we continue to face from al Qaeda, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, et al., that’s what really scares me.