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Washington's War Of Words Is Increasingly Unreal


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By Mary McGrory

WASHINGTON -- It was a week to check your hearing. Much was said of which the kindest thing that could be said was that it was delusional.

Tuesday night the president -- who seemed to have been spoken to by Tony Blair (news - web sites) -- talked about Iraq (news - web sites) in terms of peace. He wants to make war to bring peace to the Middle East and, yes, statehood for Palestinians.

From Baghdad, Saddam Hussein (news - web sites), in an interview with Dan Rather, also engaged in fantasy. Iraq, he said, was not defeated in the Gulf War (news - web sites) of 1991. Hello? What about those legions of Iraqi soldiers who surrendered to any English-speaker they could find -- truck drivers, reporters, medics? They were asking for directions to the front?

Bush's speech to the American Enterprise Institute seemed an implicit admission that cowboy lingo and U.N.-trashing hadn't won over the world. Solicitude for the Palestinians was a wholly new tack. Bush has avoided the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, turning a deaf ear to all appeals to consider even-handedness as the not-so-secret weapon against anti-Americanism in the Muslim world. If he had said six months ago -- or six weeks ago -- that he could see a time when settlements in the occupied territories would end, he might have made a difference.

The one-minute-to-midnight conversion could have astonished the West Bank, although they may have had trouble believing it. The idea that the war would benefit Palestinians is stunning and totally contradicted by the record.

Bush has sedulously ignored the Middle East. He has accepted all of Ariel Sharon (news - web sites)'s alibis for not going forward with the "road map" that the so-called quartet -- consisting of the United States, the United Nations (news - web sites), the European Union (news - web sites) and Russia -- is supposed to use in negotiations. Sharon pleaded suicide bombers, the election and finally the formation of his new government as reasons not to come to the table. The time for action has never been ripe, nor is it likely to be: Sharon has chosen a hard-line Cabinet that would rather fight than switch.

We should not be surprised. The other foreign policy problem is being dealt with in a spirit of unreality. Colin Powell (news - web sites), who did a slam-dunk job of convincing his countrymen of the need to stop Saddam Hussein, although not necessarily to start a war, has been on the stage of another hot spot, the Korean Peninsula. North Korea (news - web sites) observed the inauguration of the new president of South Korea (news - web sites) by throwing a new fit; it fired a short-range missile into the sea. Translation: Why won't the United States talk to us?

There is no good answer to that question except to say that the real reason is that Bill Clinton, in his day, talked to the North Koreans and so George Bush must not. This may not seem to be high statecraft. Bush has been exceptionally generous in sharing his feelings with us, instead of formulating the nation's views. He "loathes" Kim Jong Il, he told an interviewer. He is "sick and tired" of Saddam Hussein. With the bombs about to fall, the first-person singular does not suffice.

But Colin Powell is willing to be soldier rather than statesman, and he obediently says that we mustn't lower ourselves to parleying with a little dictator who could blow up the world if we don't give him the attention he demands. Powell insists that this is a multilateral matter and that we misunderstand and distort it if we don't include the North's neighbors at the table. Standing with the new South Korean president, Powell did the best he could with what spin he had. He said the missile was "fairly innocuous" and "fairly old." That was all the comfort he could give the new South Korean leader quaking by his side.

Unfinished international business was personified by Hamid Karzai, who is the role-model, U.S.-installed leader of Afghanistan (news - web sites). He is, in fact, a dream. He speaks excellent English, has an exemplary attitude, and has a brother in Baltimore who owns a restaurant. His beard is neatly trimmed and he wears colorful woven scarves.

Karzai does not whine. Even with skeptical and sympathetic senators inviting him to speak candidly about his problems, beginning with nation-building funds far short of "a Marshall plan for Afghanistan," he does not wince or cry aloud. Democrats importuned him to be candid, but he knows that no man can serve two masters. George Bush, who has labeled Afhganistan "a success," holds the purse strings on whatever Karzai might get that is left over from lavish Iraq expenditures.

So, in spite of the fact that he has to be guarded by U.S. forces, dares not venture far outside Kabul and sees warlords recapturing control of the countryside and Taliban remnants attacking American camps, he maintained that "the picture is much brighter than you read in the newspaper." Sometimes the expression in his large, dark eyes seemed at variance with what he said, but this was not a week for reality in Washington.

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