Maureen Dowd, Gunsmoke and Mirrors, NYT, Sept. 14, 2003



This is how bad things are for George W. Bush: He's back in a dead heat with Al Gore.

(And this is how bad things are for Al Gore: He's back in a dead heat with George W. Bush.)

One terrorist attack, two wars, three tax cuts, four months of guerrilla mayhem in Iraq, five silly colors on a terror alert chart, nine nattering Democratic candidates, 10 Iraqi cops killed by Americans, $87 billion in Pentagon illusions, a gazillion boastful Osama tapes, zero Saddam and zilch W.M.D. have left America split evenly between the president and former vice president.

"More than two and a half years after the 2000 election and we are back where we started," marveled John Zogby, who conducted the poll.

It's plus ça change all over again. We are learning once more, as we did on 9/11, that all the fantastic technology in the world will not save us. The undigitalized human will is able to frustrate our most elaborate schemes and lofty policies.

What unleashed Shock and Awe and the most extravagant display of American military prowess ever was a bunch of theologically deranged Arabs with box cutters.

The Bush administration thought it could use scientific superiority to impose its will on alien tribal cultures. But we're spending hundreds of billions subduing two backward countries without subduing them.

After the president celebrated victory in our high-tech war in Iraq, our enemies came back to rattle us with a diabolically ingenious low-tech war, a homemade bomb in a truck obliterating the U.N. offices, and improvised explosive devices hidden in soda cans, plastic bags and dead animals blowing up our soldiers. Afghanistan has mirror chaos, with reconstruction sabotaged by Taliban assaults on American forces, the Afghan police and aid workers.

The Pentagon blithely says that we have 56,000 Iraqi police and security officers and that we will soon have more. But it may be hard to keep and recruit Iraqi cops; the job pays O.K. but it might end very suddenly, given the rate at which Americans and guerrillas are mowing them down.

"This shows the Americans are completely out of control," First Lt. Mazen Hamid, an Iraqi policeman, said Friday after angry demonstrators gathered in Falluja to demand the victims' bodies.

Secretary Pangloss at Defense and Wolfie the Naif are terminally enchanted by their own descriptions of the world. They know how to use their minds, but it's not clear they know how to use their eyes.

"They are like people in Plato's cave," observed one military analyst. "They've been staring at the shadows on the wall for so long, they think they're forms."

Our high-tech impotence is making our low-tech colony sullen.

"It's 125 degrees there and they have no electricity and no water and it doesn't make for a very happy population," said Senator John McCain, who recently toured Iraq. "We're in a race to provide the services and security for people so the Iraqis will support us rather than turn against us. It's up for grabs."

Senator McCain says that "the bad guys" are reminding Iraqis that America "propped up Saddam Hussein in the 80's, sided with Iraq in the Iraq-Iran war, told the people in Basra in '91 we'd help them get rid of Saddam and didn't, and put economic sanctions on them in the 90's."

He says we have to woo them, even though we are pouring $87 billion — double the amount designated for homeland security — into the Iraqi infrastructure when our own electrical grid, and port and airport security, need upgrading.

"If anyone thinks the French and Germans are going to help us readily and rapidly," he says, "they're smoking something very strong."

Mocking all our high-priced, know-nothing intelligence, Osama is back in the studio making his rock videos.

The cadaverous caveman has gone more primitive to avoid electronic detection, operating via notes passed by couriers.

We haven't forgotten all Mr. Bush's bullhorn, dead-or-alive pledges.

But he's like a kid singing with fingers in his ears, avoiding mentioning Saddam or bin Laden, or pressing the Pakistanis who must be protecting Osama up in no man's land and letting the Taliban reconstitute (even though we bribed Pakistan with a billion in aid). He doesn't dwell on nailing Saddam either.

His gunsmoke has gone up in smoke.