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David Corn will be debating the contents of this column with Bill Bennett's PR man on the provocative, engaging Working Assets Radio show. AlterNet readers are encouraged to join in the discussion, moderated by host Laura Flanders. Find out how at WorkingAssetsRadio.com.


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Six months into the post-9/ll era, GOPers and conservatives have conniptions whenever Democrats and others dare to differ with -- or ask questions about -- the war on terrorism.

A few weeks ago, when Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle noted he was concerned Bush "is cloaking the war on terrorism in secrecy" -- hardly a sign of taking-it-to-the-streets opposition -- Republicans went ballistic. Senate minority leader Trent Lott said such remarks broke a tradition of maintaining a united front while U.S. troops are in harm's way. "Any sign that we are losing that unity, or crack in that support, will be, I think, used against us," Lott complained. Lott and other Republicans argued that criticism of war -- even Daschle's mild rebuke -- would impair what's known as "national resolve."

The "national resolve" gang got its own lobby recently, when William Bennett, past education secretary and self-proclaimed virtues-czar, announced the formation of Americans for Victory Over Terrorism. At the outfit's unveiling in Washington, Bennett expressed his great fear: "professional and amateur critics of America are finding their voice."

By his side stood two prominent get-Saddam hawks, R. James Woolsey, a former CIA director, and Frank Gaffney, a former assistant secretary of defense. Their point, Bennett maintained, was not "to silence people; we wish to answer people." Bennett vowed that the group will challenge critics of the war "through free and open debate and discussion." As Woolsey put it, "we're not here to shut anybody up or to impugn anybody's patriotism or anything like that."

But Bennett and Company are not interested in a vibrant and vigorous debate. Sure, they're willing to slug it out with those who criticize or question the war (or aspects of it). But what they desire is that critics of the war shut their traps. This group does intend to portray critics as dangers to the country for, yes, weakening national resolve. Loose lips sink ships and all that.

This is a campaign of intimidation. As Bennett said about the war's critics, "Your words can be interpreted in such ways that they hurt national resolve." He cited Jimmy Carter, who called Bush's "axis of evil" rhetoric simplistic and counterproductive. It's not only that Bennett disagreed with the former president's assessment, but he asserted that Carter's remark will "weaken the resolve of others." This is a rascally attack, suggesting that Carter's criticism will cause harm.

But Bennett did not state plainly what damage would be done by Carter's words. Will U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan think twice before assaulting a Taliban redoubt because they read Carter's comments? Will the leaders of other nations change their opinions about the use of the "axis of evil" label after learning of Carter's opinion? Will they be less inclined to join Bush's expanding war on terrorism? Whose resolve is weakened? The real question is whether Carter is correct or not in his evaluation, not what impact his statement has. If others abroad and at home find his criticism valid, then the problem will be Bush's use of the term. Conservatives are supposed to believe in the marketplace. Does that not cover ideas?

Gaffney went beyond Bennett. He conceded congressional Democrats have the right to be critical of the President and the war -- not that many have been -- but he said "the test of [criticisms] is how others, particularly our enemies, perceive the second guessing, the questioning, the criticisms, and I think there is reason to believe that that may be in a way that emboldens them, causes them to think, as they have perceived in us before, that a divided America will lack the resolve" -- there's that word again -- "to stay the course and to achieve the victory that we clearly require." How else to interpret this other than, if you question the war, you could be assisting America's enemies, so zip it?

I suppose it is possible that Kim Jong-Il, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and Saddam Hussein monitor CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and C-SPAN around the clock and step up their nefarious plotting whenever they see someone take issue with a portion of the war. ("Kim, did you see that Howard Zinn blasted the Pentagon for killing civilians?" "Yes, Saddam, I did. Clearly, their national resolve is slipping. Now's the time to...") But it sure doesn't seem like Osama bin Laden takes his cues from what opposition Democrats or commentators say or write. If he can be believed, bin Laden indicated, in one of his post-9/11 videos, that he learned of the attacks on the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon from radio reports. It does not seem that he and his partners-in-slaughter watch "The O'Reilly Report" or read The Progressive in order to suss out the state of America's resolve.

When Gaffney was pressed on this criticism-emboldens-terrorist position, he replied, "If somebody says, and they happen to have a senior position in the Congress of the United States, we're going to cut off funding for prosecuting the war on terrorism in Afghanistan, or perhaps beyond Afghanistan, I think it's reasonable to say that would embolden enemies."

Again, Gaffney is drawing stark -- and perilous -- lines. If Congress decides not to authorize war against Iraq -- after all, this call, according to the Constitution, belongs to Congress, not the President -- then it is encouraging the nation's foes? This is fundamentalist reasoning. If an elected official believes that launching a war against Iraq is not justifiable or productive, if he or she does not have confidence in the war strategy presented by the administration and the Pentagon, if he or she believes that lives will be lost and that the situation in Iraq and the Middle East might be made worse by a U.S. attack, this lawmaker's obligation, according to Gaffney, is to say nothing.

Surely, Saddam would be delighted to see commentators and politicians in the United States dousing invade-Iraq fever. But undelighting Saddam Hussein should not be a goal that leads to self-censorship. (Last time I encountered Gaffney, it was shortly after Bush's axis-of-evil speech, and he was happy Bush had raised expectations about war against Iraq. But he was worried some weak-kneed administration officials would attempt to pull Bush back from this stance.)

Bennett and his Americans for Victory Over Terrorism lieutenants are trying to chill discourse when they say certain criticism of the war is out of bounds. So far, they have yet to release guidelines for AVOT-approved criticism. But the group has distributed a list of those who have offended AVOT sensibilities. On their list of national-resolve-underminers is Representative Maxine Waters, a California Democrat, who said, "Some of us, maybe foolishly, gave this president the authority to go after terrorists." AVOT noted that Gen-X author Elizabeth Wurtzel remarked, "I had not the slightest emotional reaction [to watching the twin towers fall]. I thought: 'this is a really strange art project.'... It was a most amazing sight in terms of sheer elegance." (Okay, so they have a point with that one. But I doubt the al Qaeda remnants straggling through the mountains of western Pakistan are saying, "Praise Allah, we shall fight on," because they picked up a copy of The Richmond Times Dispatch and saw the Wurtzel interview in it.) AVOT also shouted j'accuse at Robert Kuttner, editor of The American Prospect for opposing Bush's "dubious notion of permanent war."

Most of their targets -- surprise, surprise -- are on the left. But what about those rightwingers who last fall were accusing Bush of being too wimpy in his prosecution of the war (such as commentators Charles Krauthammer and William Kristol)? Were these Bush critics not telling the world -- including America's enemies -- that Bush was an ineffective commander-in-chief? Couldn't that have caused citizens to lose faith in the president's ability to lead the country and, thus, weaken national resolve? Couldn't that have emboldened enemies? Nah. If Bush changes direction and moves away from military action against Iraq, Gaffney will be squawking louder than any Democrat is now.

War deserves debate -- at the start and during its course. With stakes so high, no part of the war should be off-limits to discussion. In a full-page ad in The New York Times, Bennett and AVOT recently declared, "The war cannot be won without firm support from American citizens." No disagreement there. But "firm support" can come from a vibrant exchange of views. The war -- that is, Bush's management of it -- must be tested by subjecting it to scrutiny. (That means you, Congress.) If it cannot bear close examination and critical barbs, then perhaps it does not warrant firm support.

In that newspaper ad, Bennett went on, "The threats we face today are both external and internal; external in that there are groups and states that want to attack the United States; internal in that there are those who are attempting to use this opportunity to promulgate their agenda of 'blame America first.'" The Bennett bunch is loosely relegating all from-the-left criticism of the war into this blame-America-first category, so it can be readily dismissed and critics can be baited as self-hating Americans abetting the enemy.

Ever since September 11, Bush has repeatedly depicted the war on terrorism as a noble war for freedom. Many of his ardent supporters back this view. AVOT quotes Tom Paine praising freedom and assailing "the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot" who "shrink from the service of their country." But these soundbite patriots and freedom-in-the-abstract-lovers argue Bush's campaign for freedom is threatened by a free exchange of views. It must be that they value freedom so much they want to see it used sparingly.

David Corn is the Washington Editor of the Nation.
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