Man Without Qualities

Saturday, September 14, 2002

A Trap Swings Shut

New York Times columnist Frank Rich began as an avowed theater critic - and remains an unavowed theater critic, reviewing without significant insight or depth the surfaces of world events as if they were theater performances. Reading Mr. Rich's column, one is continually reminded of the old New Yorker cartoon of a father changing a flat tire in a desolate landscape, while he squawks at his small daughter who is petulantly leaning from the car window: "No, we cannot change the channel. This is real!" Could Mr. Rich not have a plaque with the Shakespeare quote "All the world's a stage ..." somewhere in his office?

But while it is worse than pointless to refer to Mr. Rich for depth of insight, he often reveals tellingly if inadvertently the liberal establishment's unguarded reaction of the moment to the first flash of a major new development. Then, Mr. Rich's columns are to the liberal establishment like horribly unflattering snapshots of them guilelessly clicked at an uncomfortable social event. And so it is today, as Mr. Rich reels from the effects of President Bush's United Nation's speech and discovers all at once the awful truth: No matter what the Democrats do now, Iraq considerations will dominate the media until election day.

Perhaps the Democrats will stall a Congressional vote, against the President’s wishes. In that case, the media coverage will probably be dominated by tales of the Congressional maneuvering and its effect on the elections. Perhaps the Democrats will permit a Congressional vote. In that case, the media coverage will be dominated by tales of the consequences of those votes on individual Congressional elections and, most importantly, by tales of international and military developments as the Congressionally-empowered President (for there is no serious chance he will not prevail in such a vote) moves the nation towards war. Either way, international considerations will loom much larger in the media coverage through the upcoming election than the Democrats desired. And for the most part, Democrats will be reduced to publicly supporting the President as all that goes on. Of course, that is not the same thing as saying that individual elections will likely turn on such developments - social security, drug prices and the like will still burn through the Iraq fog. But their influence will be reduced about as much as they can be reduced in any off-year election.

How could this have happened, Mr. Rich fumes? He says that the 'real reason" the President waited until September was to avoid the media doldrums of August. An innocuous quip of Andrew Card is presented to support this rant, but does nothing of the sort. Nevertheless, the President and his team have probably played a very skillful game of politics on this issue. Their political efforts have not been as devious and effective and long-running as Franklin Roosevelt's efforts to bring the nation to its acceptance of World War II while cementing his own political position and that of his party, but the Bush efforts have essentially done the same job. The Democrats attempted to lie low and withhold specific comments provoking a true national debate on an Iraq incursion during the summer. But the "unexpected" comment by Messrs. Scowcroft, Baker, Kissinger and Eagleburger forced a national debate anyway. Odd that so many loyal Republicans, all of them closely connected with the President's father, chose to speak out while the Democrats saw it in their interest not to speak out. The result has been months of real national debate - and the elimination of one the Democrats' main arguments that might have held things off until after the election: we can't have a Congressional vote until we have had a national discussion. Mr. Rich sulks that the national debate has been mostly a Washington affair - but this is clearly wrong. He is even reduced to quoting from Peggy Noonan's pre-UN column ("Time to Put the Emotions Aside"), while disingenuously failing to mention her post-UN follow-up column ("Back With a Roar") - even though it was available at the time Mr. Rich wrote his column. Surely it is a sign of desparation that Mr. Rich is reduced to reliance on such an omission.

Mr. Rich is driven to rely extensively on the argument that the United States - which fought World War II in both Europe and Asia - cannot hope to run a war against Iraq and al Qaeda at the same time. It seems to be an unfortunate coincidence for Mr. Rich and the liberal establishment that just days after the President's central United Nation's speech - which turned the tables on the multilateralists and has his UN critics and their followers seriously on the run - the United States has at the same time engineered the capture of a top al Qaeda operative and broken up a terrorist cell in Buffalo, New York. As the Times put it: The twin breakthroughs in the antiterror investigation came at the end of a week in which Americans commemorated the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, were warned of a high risk of further attacks, and heard the Bush administration set out its arguments for taking the campaign against terrorism into Iraq.

But by far the most entertaining thing about this screed by a man who cares about little but entertainment value, is its palpable sense of the big city slickers waking up to understand that they have been snookered by the country bumpkin.


UPDATE: Saudi Arabia seems to have figured some things out. If this Saudi resolve is durable, another major objection to an incursion dissolves: the absence of local allies willing to allow bases from which the invasion may be launched and maintained. Qatar has already indicated it may allow its territory to be used.

Will Tom Daschle and the New York Times ever catch on?

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