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Published: Sunday, 3/23/2003

White House Watch: Wars come and go, but this one is different

WASHINGTON - Except for more concrete barriers, more magnetometers, more police, and more nervousness, the nation's capital seems remarkably the same as it did 12 years ago. The name of the president is the same. The advisers are the same. The target is the same.

And yet it's all much, much different.

For a peace-lover, Washington has been at war a lot. Until recently, it was still possible to see vestiges of the damage done when the British burned the White House during the War of 1812. Soldiers camped on the White House lawn during the Civil War. German spies sneaked right past the house during World War I. In World War II, the White House was surrounded by ugly temporary buildings to house teeming masses of war workers. During the Vietnam War, the White House was the target of angry protesters, the smell of tear gas in the air.

This war has brought with it clear warnings that Americans going about their business are in potential danger from terrorists seeking retaliation against the innocent. It has brought with it astonishing new weaponry. It has elicited warnings from President Bush, the son, that this war will be decisive but won't be as swift and relatively uncomplicated as was his father's.

Once again, as in 1991, there are unanswered questions. Such as: Is this war about oil?

The question brings swift, almost angry choruses of “no” from the administration. The United States has more than enough energy to compensate for Iraqi oil, which belongs to Iraq, comes the response. But doubts remain. Billions of dollars are at stake in rebuilding Iraq's oil industry - as a president who himself worked in the oil industry knows well.

Once again, the American people have rallied behind the President, with more than 7 of 10 giving him a thumbs-up. It is often forgotten that before the 1991 Persian Gulf War there was nearly as much doubt and skepticism as there has been in recent weeks. Then, the brutal tyrant Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait; this war is pre-emptive, based on the Bush Administration's judgment that Iraq is more dangerous than ever despite its decisive loss in 1991.

The administration is crowing that countries representing 1.8 billion people - and, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said with no tongue in cheek, $21.7 trillion in gross domestic product - have joined with Mr. Bush in the “coalition of the willing,” ready to figuratively thump the optimistic President on the back as everyone watches the U.S. military fight.

Yet there's enormous anxiety about this Gulf War, more than there was 12 years ago. War is inherently risky. People will die. Mistakes will be made. Miscalculations are inevitable. And the aftermath is a frightening unknown. Will Turks and Kurds end up fighting? Will Americans occupy an inherently unstable Iraq for years? Will the entire Islamic world become our enemy?

A worried Kofi Annan, U.N. secretary-general, says this is a very sad time in history. Much of the world thinks the United States is on an inexplicable power jag.

Yet a confident, resolute Mr. Bush has given the go-ahead; the deed is done. As good citizens, we must hope that our truly noble armed forces, clad in bulky chemical protection suits, are safe, lucky, and victorious. We must hope that this time we finish the job.

Like it or not, now we are committed to rebuilding Iraq and salvaging the Middle East as well as getting terrorism under control. But is our goal more than just being respected? Will America still be admired for our values, our generosity, and our humanity?

Vice President Dick Cheney said the other day that the cowboy image - direct, uncomplicated, uncompromising - may not be all that bad for Mr. Bush. Perhaps. There were many cowboys who died in ignominy. Fewer victoriously rode off into the sunset to become great figures of history.

The century so far has not been kind to this city or this country - terrorism, anthrax, sniper attacks, kidnapped children, a lousy economy, mystery illness, millions without health insurance, job insecurity, evaporated savings. Worse, there's a nagging feeling that America might be losing her soul.

Wars come and go. One man's righteousness is another man's folly. As a country we must make certain that we like ourselves in the morning. We have to ensure that our capital city still stands for the best values humanity has to offer. Most of all, we have no other option but to win the peace.



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