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The Battle Before the War

March 18 2002

Last week a new interest group made its Washington debut. In a city where coalitions fracture and form with the ease of printing letterhead, it's just another acronym. But AVOT has grander plans. At its Press Club coming-out, Americans for Victory Over Terrorism announced that it will do more than oppose Americans Against Victory Over Terrorism - should such a group ever surface. According to master of ceremonies Bill Bennett, AVOT will "take to task those groups and individuals who fundamentally misunderstand the nature of the war we are facing."

Now perhaps "tak[ing] to task" is limited to issuing particularly crisp white papers, but Mr. Bennett seems bent on deeper damage. In true Salem style, he's drawn up a "threat" list fingering the likes of Jimmy Carter - so charged for calling the "axis of evil" designation "counterproductive," and American Prospect editor Robert Kuttner for questioning the "dubious notion of permanent war."

"Professional and amateur critics of America are finding their voice," Mr. Bennett admonished in his opening presser. Read: Those unwilling to fall in line with AVOT-think won't just make the blacklist. They'll forfeit their patriots' credentials. From seasoned pundit to thinking citizen, certain questions now carry the taint of treason. What price an invasion of Iraq? What justification? What tie to terror? What reward if we triumph? In a doth-protest-too-much turn, Bennett lieutenant James Woolsey maintains, "We're not here to shut anybody up or to impugn anybody's patriotism or anything like that." He just happened to sign on to the group that, in a $128,000 ad in the New York Times, classed external and internal threats in the same sentence, lumping the latter into a "blame America first" caucus.

Were that characterization accurate, Messrs. Bennett and Woolsey could demolish the opposition in a single debate. But they take pains to navigate around just such a confrontation. Indeed, they won't even admit that the opposition makes a thoughtful counterclaim. Instead, dissenting voices must "fundamentally misunderstand" -- as if juvenile misapprehension alone could account for conclusions different from AVOT's.

But many argue that it is Mr. Bennett himself who "fundamentally misunderstand[s] the nature of the war we are facing." The day after the terrorist attacks, he told CNN, "It's not just these individuals and groups, but it's these nations, these states that sponsor or support. That could be a lot of people. That could be Syria, that could be Libya, that could be Lebanon, that could be Iraq and Iran. It could be China." Long before culpability could be established, he had drawn up a one-size-fits-all plan for world war - and hasn't much changed his tune.

Were the tables turned and the White House unsympathetic to the neo-con case, Bennett & Co. would be clamoring for debate and blacklisting any opposed. But with the wind of Administration opinion at their backs, they've found a way to silence critics under the guise of patriotic duty.

Michel de Montaigne wrote, "He who establishes his argument by noise and command shows that his reason is weak." If the President is right to widen the war, then his plan will withstand a hearty debate. Let the country look closely and argue vigorously. Let Congress question and authorize or not. Let the "amateur and professional critics" hash it out without implication that any share fellowship with our foes. Those who believe Bennett's blueprint is neither warranted nor wise have an obligation to say so, and should be able to make that case. Those who toe the AVOT line also have an argument, and democracy calls them to account.

The nation can stand it. The Republic requires it. There's a fight to be had, so let's get it on.

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