The Terrorists Win a Few

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A detainee is escorted by U.S. military guards at Camp X-Ray

Who says the U.S. doesn't negotiate with terrorists? Camp X-Ray commander Marine Gen. Michael Lehnert came one step closer to moving all 300 of the Camp X-Ray "battlefield detainees" to suites at the Miami Hilton, reversing previously immovable policy and allowing them to make turbans out of their bedsheets — as long as the sheets were subject to inspection.

The Pentagon was happy to report that most of the prisoners ate their breakfast Friday after skipping two meals in an organized hunger strike/chant-a-thon Thursday that got rowdy enough to prompt Marine security forces into a ring around the perimeter of the camp — their machine guns pointing in. About two-thirds of the prisoners participated in the protest, which started after two guards physically enforced the no-bedsheet-on-head policy on a prisoner in the middle of his prayers.

A spokesman for Marine Gen. Michael Lehnert said the General plans to train his soldiers in the "finer points of the Muslim religion" to avoid another confrontation. Gen. Lenhert had also addressed what he believes is the underlying source of prisoners' agitation — what's going to happen to them and when — by telling the prisoners over loudspeakers that they "would be judged fairly, at some time in the future." Lehnert will now speak to the detainees weekly to inform them what, if anything, he knows of their status.

Meanwhile, in Washington, the White House admitted that it has since Sept. 11 been operating a shadow government in various undisclosed locations, thus equating the al Qaeda nuclear threat with the specter of the Soviet Union, circa 1980. And in the real government — the one that's supposed to be united in protecting those of us who don't have shadow homes to hide out in — partisanship is once again bumping up against the water's edge, with Democrats this week voicing their first big break with the White House's handling of the war.

After Robert Byrd broke the ice in a hearing Wednesday by questioning the war's price tag, Majority Leader Tom Daschle told reporters Thursday that the U.S. must add two more prisoners to its X-Ray pen — Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden — "or we will have failed." Trent Lott, through his spokesman, was very upset; Bush, through his, played it cooler, with Ari Fleischer drily informing reporters Thursday that "individuals are free to focus on any one person if they think that's the best way to conduct foreign policy. That's a different approach than the president has."

And then there's the tatters of what was supposed to be the Senate's real business this week — debating energy policy. With Ken Lay's ghost haunting the House version and deep disagreements over everything from CAFE standards to alternative energy sources to ANWR drilling, actual legislation seems unlikely to emerge. But just as the fruitless economic stimulus fight centered on "getting America working again," every congressional debate has an agreed-upon theme. This one? "Reducing our dependence on foreign oil."

Not that it's a bad idea — from the OPEC embargo to Iran to the Gulf War to the perenially-in-crisis Middle East, energy-related economic interests has dictated U.S. involvement in plenty of unwanted scrapes, and America's moral legitimacy in the Muslim world has eroded accordingly. The U.S.' oil-fueled alliance with Saudi Arabia was what turned bin Laden against America in the first place; the arguable legitimacy of his beef certainly hasn't damaged his following.

So does it matter if a worthy goal — weaning the U.S. from foreign-policy complications by meeting more of its energy needs at home — is just what the terrorists wanted? Is it OK to add a little more political correctness to U.S. treatment of the alleged terrorists at X-Ray, if only to keep them under control and the international community off the Pentagon's back while it ponders what to do with its captives? And could the war on terror — lately expanded with the departure of U.S. military trainers to Yemen — benefit from a little partisan nay-saying?

We haven't heard those highly patriotic, vaguely chilling exhortations of the early post-Sept. 11 days and months — buy a car, or you're letting the terrorists win — in a while. But the terrorists never wanted to win this war in the conventional, occupy-the-Capitol sense. They were after changes in U.S. foreign policy, and from the inconsequential (no bedsheet turbans) to the far-reaching (meeting more energy needs at home) they're having a pretty good week.

Maybe this is a war both sides can win.