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Jewish World Review July 26, 2004/ 8 Menachem-Av, 5764

Mark Steyn

Mark Steyn
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We can nitpick forever, but what's changed? |
I'll get into Sandy Berger's pants, crowded as they are, momentarily. But let me sneak up on them in a roundabout way. A few days ago, I woke up to find an e-mail from a pal enclosing the following UPI story:

"Iraqi security reportedly discovered three missiles carrying nuclear heads concealed in a concrete trench northwest of Baghdad, official sources said Wednesday."

"Isn't that GREAT NEWS?" asked my friend, rhetorically. Well, the story didn't pan out, and a couple of hours later he e-mailed again to apologize for the premature yelping and high-fiving, and adding that he hadn't meant it was GREAT NEWS Saddam had nukes, only that it was GREAT NEWS because it would ruin John Kerry's and Michael Moore's day.

True. And that sums up perfectly the rotten state of domestic politics in America. A frivolous uncivil civil war is draining all the energy away from the real war. We warmongers didn't start the nitpicking, but somehow the entire landscape of U.S. politics has tilted so that a nation supposedly at war is spending most of its time looking through the rear window sniping about what was said and done in 2002, 2001, 2000, like the falling calendar leaves in a Hollywood flashback. The Democrats will always win on this playing field because, like some third-rate soap opera, their characters are not required to have any internal consistency.

Take, for example, Max Cleland, Vietnam veteran and former Georgia senator. Last week, speaking in his role as Kerry campaign mascot, he said Bush went to war with Iraq because "he basically concluded his daddy was a failed president" and he "wanted to be Mr. Macho Man" so he "flat-out lied."

Blistering stuff, huh? Would this be the same Max Cleland who voted to authorize war with Iraq in the U.S. Senate? Perhaps, as he's so insightful about the president's psychology, he could enlighten us as to his own reasons for wanting war with Iraq? Any daddy hang-ups there, Mr. Macho? This would be unworthy language for any senator to use about the commander-in-chief in time of war but it's especially ludicrous from a senator who ran campaign commercials in the 2002 election boasting that "Max Cleland is a respected leader on national security who supports the president on Iraq.'' What a pitiful clapped-out hack. At least Michael Moore is a consistent Bush-hater.

Cleland is tangentially relevant to the 9/11 commission's report. The senator lost his re-election in 2002 not because "Republicans attacked my patriotism," but because they attacked his demand that the new Homeland Security Department be filled with the same old featherbedded jobs-for-life unionized federal workers you can never fire no matter what they do. Like those INS guys who approved Mohammed Atta's and Marwan al-Shehhi's student visas six months after they'd died on Sept. 11, piloting their respective planes into Tower One and Tower Two. The INS took decisive action against those responsible, moving Janis Sposato "sideways" to the post of "assistant deputy executive associate commissioner for immigration services.'' I don't know what post she was moved sideways from — possibly associate executive deputy assistant commissioner. Happily, since then, the INS has changed its name to some other acronym and ordered up a whole new set of business cards, extra-large if Sposato's title is anything to go by.

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And that's really what Americans should be asking. Aside from the letterheads, what's changed? The 9/11 report is fine and dandy if you want to know what went wrong that morning. But at least those underperforming federal mediocrities had an excuse: They didn't know it was 9/11. What excuse did Sposato and her colleagues have six months later when they were mailing out the al-Qaida visas? And what are those federal agencies like now, three years on? My sense is that the administration has found it very difficult to change the complacent bureaucratic culture Max Cleland wanted to preserve.

And here's where I have some sympathy with Sandy Berger and his overloaded pants. By his own words, he's guilty of acts that any other American would go to jail for. He "inadvertently" shoved 30-page classified documents down his pants and then "inadvertently" lost them at home and then "inadvertently" returned to the National Archives to "inadvertently" take another draft of the same 30-page document and "inadvertently" lost that, too. He "inadvertently" made forbidden cell phone calls from the room with the classified documents, and he "inadvertently" took more suspicious bathroom breaks while in the Archives than that Syrian band took on that L.A. flight that was in the news last week. If the former national security adviser has an incontinence problem, that at least explains where he was during the '90s when Osama bin Laden was growing bolder and bolder on his watch.

But, if Berger was simply covering his buns (literally), I don't care. The minute the decision was taken to convene a 9/11 commission during election season, it was obvious that it would boil down to who was most to blame for the day — the eight months of the Bush administration, or the eight years of Bill Clinton — and, given the Clintonian penchant for playing fast and loose with the rules, Sandy Berger wandering out with his pants stuffed tighter than Al Gore's jeans on that Rolling Stone cover has a kind of tacky inevitability about it. Who screwed up worst should have been left to the historians, which means when the war is over.

By way of comparison, in 1940, when Neville Chamberlain resigned as Britain's prime minister, his successor Winston Churchill asked him to stay on as leader of the Conservative Party and to remain in the Cabinet. Chamberlain did so, serving loyally under Churchill until cancer forced him from office. He died four weeks later, and Churchill paid him handsome tribute and wept at his bier. I'm not saying Clinton, Berger & Co. are the Chamberlains of this new war. The point is even Chamberlain wasn't Chamberlain when he died: Posterity had yet to chisel him the one-word epitaph "Appeaser." And neither side of the appeasement debate thought it worth spending the 1940s arguing about the 1930s: There were other priorities. And, in fairness to Chamberlain, the overwhelming majority of the British people supported "appeasement," just as, in fairness to Clinton, most of the American people were happy to string along on an eight-year holiday from history. There's nothing Sandy Berger can pack down his gusset that can change that, and all the rest is details.

What matters is where we're headed, not where we were. And, in that respect, John Kerry is still looking through the rear window. Not so much because of his remarkably poor choice of advisers — Joe Wilson (the Politics Of Truth fraud), Max Cleland (with his schoolyard cries of "Liar, liar!") and Sandy Berger (with his pants on fire) — but because Kerry's prescriptions (the U.N., the French) are so Sept. 10. A holiday from history is one thing. The Democrats are now embarked on a holiday from reality.

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JWR contributor Mark Steyn is North American Editor of The (London) Spectator and the author, most recently, of "The Face of the Tiger," a new book on the world post-Sept. 11. (Sales help fund JWR). Comment by clicking here.

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© 2004, Mark Steyn