WASHINGTON -- It's not easy to demonize a demon. But President Bush is trying.
The Evil One is getting eviler and eviler.
Al Qaeda terrorists, Mr. Bush said yesterday, speaking by satellite
to an audience of European leaders gathered
in Warsaw, "are seeking chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. Given the means, our enemies would be a
threat to every nation, and eventually to civilization itself."
It's been known for years that Osama bin Laden wanted to go nuclear.
So why would the president gild the
plutonium lily by invoking a nuclear threat now, when Americans are already wincing and flinching their way
through life? Why put fangs on a vampire?
It reminded me of the first Bush team's hyperventilating attempt to
convince Americans that we should go to war
with Iraq over Kuwait, which ranged from Bush senior comparing Saddam to Hitler to James Baker justifying it
on economic grounds: "Jobs, jobs, jobs."
But this time everybody's on board with the goal, even if some allies
and segments of the European public are
concerned about tactics. The allied governments agree that bin Laden needs to be taken out. And Europeans
have pressed their combat troops on a reluctant Bush administration, which had mistakenly preferred the
flexibility of a more unilateral approach but is now giving in to British pleas for a more multilateral one.
The Evil One's latest video was a flop in this country. TV pretty much
ignored it, newspapers buried it, and reporters
had to go to the C.I.A. or to London or India to even find a complete translated text. In a way, the White House was
hoist on its own censorship petard because Osama's ranting insults of the U.N. and Muslims who support America
could well have worked against him had the video gotten wider play.
The president should not have to pump up his case with ominous threats
in the future. He can simply point to the past.
The rubble is still smoking in New York. He should put down the bullhorn and tell Rummy to get moving.
Mr. Bush may have wanted to turn up the volume on Osama again to divert attention from law enforcement failures
to get any break in the anthrax and hijacking cases.
When he attacked the U.S., bin Laden unleashed several American phobias:
The yuppie fear of germs. The boomer fear
of not giving up to the greatest generation. And the post-Vietnam fear of risking ground troops in unfamiliar and harsh terrain.
But we will have to come to grips with that last fear if we want to make good on our promise to rid the world of Al Qaeda.
Right now we are using beards as beards, trying to prop up the Northern Alliance and hoping that somehow a Southern Alliance will materialize like a genie from Aladdin's lamp.
But the stories about the lame rebel force with its wooden saddles and
line of old Russian tanks get sillier and sillier,
like scenes out of the Marx Brothers or Woody Allen's "Bananas." TV footage shows troops practicing taking hills,
and confused about whether they are supposed to advance or retreat after they win a battle with the Taliban.
We've been trying to use the Northern Alliance to lure the Taliban out
of holes so we can drop 15,000-pound
Daisy Cutter bombs on them. These proxies, who smoke and complain more than they fight, can help. But they are
not the key to victory. Our military plan has been too much of a political plan. So far we have been trying to do it
on the cheap, with minimal risk, putting off the prospect of ground forces until the last possible moment.
If we really believe that Osama represents a potential nuclear threat
to civilized Western life, as Mr. Bush said yesterday,
we better be prepared to put our forces where our rhetoric is instead of waiting patiently with a fingers-crossed strategy.
But right now our leaders do not seem to be sure if they are prepared to wait months or years. The Air Force has a bomb
it can steer horizontally from an F-15E into the mouth of a cave, but we are not likely to get bin Laden that way.
So keep on bombing. Keep bribing feudal chieftains. Get the allies involved
and let the Northern Alliance do what it can.
But let's not kid ourselves.
Give war a chance. But if it does not work, let's cut the chitchat and
go get the rat.