Get Out Or Dodge

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Who says the prime-time Western is dead? Monday night, President Bush brought the moribund genre back to life, with a brief speech that promised war in as little as two days in Saddam Hussein didn't get out of Dodge. Ironically, it may have contained more to reassure listeners if they happened to be Iraqis than if they happened to be Americans.

Certainly no one envies a people about to face the full brunt of the American military, however smart the bombs. But at least there were a few carrots in it for the people we are fixing to invade: don't fight back, lay low, surrender — maybe pop a cap in your fearless leader if you get a chance — and we'll make it worth your while. There will be food, there will be medicine, we will give you your rightful oil wealth and take away the torture chambers and rape rooms.

But for the American people, what Bush had to offer was, at best, a return from an oppressive, all-encompassing sense of imminent dread to our now-accustomed level of vaguely unsettling background dread. There was the possibility of spilling American blood—in Iraq's streets or our own. There could be terror attacks, military setbacks, damage to our oil supply or other unpleasant surprises—oh, and since we couldn't persuade many of our allies, we'll pretty much be paying the whole tab for that privilege.

If the President still has any of those $300 checks lying around, now would be a good idea to start offering one to every person in America again.

That said, Bush's simple, direct speech disproved a couple of the commonly accepted piece of political wisdom that have taken hold in the media. First, the notion that Bush has had a problem "making the case" as to why he wants to go to war if necessary to put Saddam Hussein out of power. Nonsense. His case is simple, and he's been making it over and over again for months. Iraq had chemical and biological weapons before. We have fair reason to assume they still have some. We don't know if they've ever given any to terrorists, but we can't know they won't and we now consider that good enough reason to go to war.

This case may work for you or it may not—and you could argue that a better diplomat or communicator would have convinced more people by now— but it's been clear for months to pretty much everyone except those in the punditocracy whose job it is to overthink such things. And he made it tonight in plain language: "peaceful efforts... have failed again and again, because we are not dealing with peaceful men." He also managed an always crowd-pleasing dig at the French, saying that other nations "share our assessment of the danger but not our resolve to meet it." In other words, Francois wants us to do his dirty work, so fine, we'll do it. Just don't be surprised when we rename French fries after the Bulgarians.

Another piece of conventional wisdom that grew especially popular over the weekend, as it became clear war was looming, was that, as CNN's John King put it tonight, Bush was "staking his presidency" on the war. The media can't resist gilding the lily, or in this case, the 21,000-pound bomb, and it certainly makes for a dramatic buildup, but where's the evidence? You could more convincingly argue that there are few outcomes of this war that could hurt him politically in the long term, least of all the horrible ones. A chem or bio attack against American troops, or a hit on an American city could just as easily play as proof positive that we made the right choice— See? Five more years and it would have been a nuke!—and any arguments that it never would have happened without the war will be seen as just so much blah blah blah from the Blame America Firsters. Indeed, Bush's speech included an effort to spin any war-inspired terrorism in advance: "Should enemies strike our country, they would be attempting to shift our attention with panic, and weaken our morale with fear."

What the Bush-is-risking-his-presidency argument doesn't get, but Bush does, is that American politics are no longer Republican and Democrat, they are Labor and Likud. Any terrorist blowback that follows upon a crackdown will retroactively justify the crackdown itself. Arguably, if cynically, the greater political dangers are a quick, successful war—especially one that reveals no weapons of mass destruction—or a drawn-out quagmire that almost no one expects. (Again, a troublesome occupation punctuated by truck bombings of military sites would more likely be seen as proof of the need for pro-activeness.)

Is the Bush-as-gambler line wishful thinking on the part of media types who'd like to see him go down? In most cases, it's probably just proof that there's no news event so big it can't be further hyped. But if anything, this storyline actually probably works politically in Bush's favor—the more the media portray it as a high-stakes gamble, the bigger the payday if and when things go his way.

Then again, I may be overhyping the overhyping. Even with the leader of the world's only supermilitary all but promising to unleash hell by the end of the week, most of the major networks ended coverage minutes after he finished, returning to "The King of Queens" on CBS, "Boston Public" on Fox and on NBC, "Fear Factor," about whose title you can insert your own darkly ironic remark here. Only ABC stayed on with special programming, but this was after all, a Monday night, which means the alternative was the low-rated "Veritas," whose three fans would just have to make the supreme sacrifice for wartime. The 48-hour ultimatum, though, plus a little cushion time for military preparation, could conceivably have hostilities starting on Thursday night. If that's the case, Bush will have to make the "shock and awe" attack pretty shocking and awesome if he wants to bump "Friends."