Add "domestic spying" to the long list of botched attempts to unseat George W. Bush. The New York Times' would-be bombshell alleging Nixonian snoopery has detonated in its builders' faces. The story not only hasn't shaken Washington, it has restored the president's standing by reinforcing popular suspicions that he, unlike leading Democrats, takes seriously (a) terrorists' intentions and (b) the necessity of winning the war.
The seriousness gap is important. While the president attempts to press the case for continued engagement, key Democrats respond with hollow grade-school cant. Not even they believe their claims that the president is a liar, a slaver, a BTK-type voyeur, a draft-dodging mass murderer. Nor do they buy the alternative scenario that George Walker Bush is a feckless dope in the thrall of the Rasputin-like Dick Cheney and a cadre of cigar-munching, rib-eye slurping, back-slapping, conniving oilmen.
Similarly, the media have failed to depict the Commander-in-Chief as a petrol-punk. One-by-one, the would-be exposes have crumbled into dust: Abu Ghraib, the Koran in the Guantanamo toilet, secret prisons, horrifying interrogations, endless Halliburton conspiracy theories and, now, the "domestic spying" tale.
For whatever reason, the president's critics are dodging the one question that really matters: Is the war morally justifiable? Americans care about such things. We have a national desire to do the right things for the right reasons at the right times.
Until recently, just-war questions were easy to answer: Nations had a right to fight back against aggressors and oppressors: Japan bombs, FDR responds.
But what happens when the invader isn't a nation, doesn't have formally constituted or uniformed armies, doesn't play by rules, doesn't declare its martial intentions and doesn't even have leaders with whom one might reason or negotiate?
And what do you do when that enemy doesn't want to seize ground but merely wants to commit scattered acts of mass destruction? How should the world's pre-eminent superpower respond to jihadis who strike indiscriminately against Christians, Jews and Muslims, on the soil of Asia, Africa, Europe, America and Arabia?
Statecraft won't do the trick. The Clinton administration tried it after al Qaeda attacked New York (the first World Trade Center bombing), Saudi Arabia, Kenya, Tanzania and Yemen. It turned down the chance to take custody of Osama bin Laden, citing legal concerns, and instead tried to scare him by bombing some empty tents and taking out the night watchman at a Sudanese aspirin factory.
Bin Laden interpreted these actions as weaknesses and ordered the hijackers to board their jets on Sept. 11. Team Clinton responded to the killing of 500 Americans by attempting a mix of diplomacy negotiations through third parties and symbolic action. Al Qaeda responded by killing another 3,000.
That scenario lays the groundwork for a new definition of a just war. A just war is one in which peace is not an option and the alternative to war is not tranquility but carnage. As Michael Novak argued three years ago, "The aim of a just war is the blocking of great evil, the restoration of peace and the defense of minimum conditions of justice and world order."
By those standards, the war in Iraq is just. Saddam Hussein was the perpetrator of great evil. Far more Iraqis died by his hand in "peacetime" than have perished in the three-year war. Furthermore, he was active in trying to organize and foment global terror.
Meanwhile, contrary to the frettings of the pant-soiling Murtha brigades, the war hasn't failed. Previously inimical Shi'a, Sunni and Kurdish factions are busy cutting deals and forming a new government that's progress and we haven't had a repeat Sept. 11. That's progress, too.
As for establishing conditions for justice and global order, the war has put terrorists to flight, reducing al Qaeda to little more than a production company for bad jihadi videos. Death-loving Islamosadists, while still active, have been forced to alter their plans and targets. And tiny seeds of democracy have begun to sprout throughout the region.
The one argument used most commonly against the war that it was for oil hasn't panned out. The people chiefly interested in Iraqi oil were the ones most opposed to the war the French, Germans, Russians and Chinese.
This leaves critics with a simple put-up or shut-up choice. They can look for principled arguments against the moral basis for the war, or they can continue playing the "I'm for the troops but against the war" game. Either way, they'll have to explain how the abandonment of Iraq would make the world a safer place.