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Jewish World Review Oct. 16, 2001 / 29 Tishrei, 5762

Fred Barnes

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A Different Kind of War President: The compassionate commander in chief. -- PRESIDENT BUSH never tires of saying the fight against terrorism is "a different kind of war." He said it four times, in one form or another, at his prime-time press conference last week. But it's not only the war that's different. Bush himself is a different kind of war president. Sure, he stresses familiar themes like the nation's resolve to achieve victory and the goverment's concern for the safety of the American people. These are normal talking points for a wartime leader. But Bush has added some new elements. Though America was the victim of a terrorist attack by Islamic radicals headquartered in Afghanistan, Bush insists the war is not against Islam or Afghanistan. And while America is not at fault, he defends the country's goodness as if it were at issue. He repeatedly says we're compassionate, sending food to the Afghans, and tolerant, going out of his way to reassure Arab Americans.

Prior presidents would no doubt be shocked. They stuck to the patriotic perennials, even when the United States was part of a wartime coalition (World War II, the Korean War, the Cold War). But in the battle against Osama bin Laden and his terrorist network, America has Arab and Muslim allies so lukewarm they probably should be viewed as allies in name only. Bush feels he must make them as comfortable as possible being on America's side. Of course they're as terrified of bin Laden and Islamic radicals as America is and far more vulnerable to being overthrown. Still, Bush goes out of his way to coddle them rhetorically. He's gotten pretty adept at it.

The Bush war mantra has five parts, two conventional and three peculiar to Bush and the war against terrorism. He mentions at least a couple of them at every photo op and in every brief speech. At his nationally televised press conference, he hit all five: resolve, reassurance, compassion, tolerance, and what a different sort of war this is. It was a remarkable performance with Bush in total control, showing once again that the war has brought out the best in him. Press conferences, like speeches, used to be treacherous for Bush. Now he's become an effective communicator, especially disciplined at using repetition to make his points.

Nearly every Bush talk has a half-dozen punchy sentences in which he vows to see the war to the very end. "I'm determined to stay the course," he said at the press conference. "We will not tire," he declared at FBI headquarters on October 10. "We will not relent." And the day before that, at a White House photo op with German chancellor Gerhard Schroder, he said, "If it takes one day, one month, one year, or one decade, we're patient enough." And to business leaders in New York a few days earlier, he said that not only is "this president resolved, but America is resolved to rout out terrorism."

Reasurrance? Bush tries to reassure the public for the same reason he expresses resolve: It's what's required of a war president to keep up the country's fighting spirit and support for the war. Bush used a hostile question from Terry Moran of ABC at the press conference to assert his administration is on top of things. Moran asked skeptically about an FBI alert that more terrorist attacks on America may be imminent. Bush's response was unresponsive--preposterous, really--but clever. He said an alert in itself was reassuring. "It's important for the American people to know their government is on full alert," he said, "and that's what that warning showed."

Bush's case for American compassion is, in part, a straw man argument, but it also explains a unique policy. "As we strike military targets, we'll also drop food, medicine, and supplies to the starving and suffering men and women and children of Afghanistan," the president said on October 7 while announcing the start of air raids. This shows "the compassion of the American people," he later told reporters. Lack of compassion, however, is not one of the terrorists' criticisms of America. The bomb-and-feed policy also demonstrates, according to Bush, that while America is at war with the Taliban regime, it's "a friend to the Afghan people." To understand how unusual this argument is, imagine President Roosevelt saying, during World War II, that we're against the government of Japan but not at war with the Japanese people. Hard to imagine, but then Roosevelt didn't have to worry about queasy Muslim allies.

As for tolerance, Bush rarely passes up a chance to do a riff on it. He made the point several different ways at his press conference that America is not fighting a war against Islam or Muslims. This is another straw man. Does anybody honestly think America is targeting either? No. And does anyone believe Arab Americans face true repression, as Japanese Americans once did? Of course not. But Bush loves to repeat stories about Christians and Jews rushing to the defense of their Arab-American neighbors. The stories show the "true nature of America," Bush said. In fact, Bush said tolerance in America of other faiths and races is what "will ultimately defeat terrorist activity." Perhaps, but military force is bound to hasten the day.

In a modern war against terrorists, a war with religious overtones and ethnic sensitivities, Bush's politically correct themes of compassion and tolerance may have a place. It is, as Bush says, a different sort of war. He says this over and over to reconcile the country to a war that may drag on without smashing victories (or defeats). But the country may already be reconciled, thanks in large measure to Bush's unblinking focus on the threat we face. "The danger is here now, not only from a military enemy, but from an enemy of all law, all liberty, all morality, all religion," he said at a Pentagon ceremony on the one-month anniversary of the terrorist attacks. Everyone who heard him looked absolutely convinced.

Fred Barnes is Executive editor at the Weekly Standard. Comment by clicking here.


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