If ever a president went into a period of national crisis with a surplus of good will, it was George W. Bush.
The nation responded positively to his leadership after the Sept. 11 terror attacks. There were promises the White House and Congress would now pull together toward a great national goal -- ridding the world of terrorism. Partisanship and cynicism suddenly seemed out of fashion. But there are disturbing indications the new unity and the creative thinking promised by the president may be more spin than substance. Here are a few recent headlines that should run up the caution flags.
"CIA Mulls Targeted Assassinations."
That headline in the Washington Post came only a week after this one: "Israel's Assassination Policy Criticized."
The State Department continues to insist that targeted killings by Israel only lead to "cycles of violence" -- a logic that apparently doesn't apply to the U.S. effort to track down and kill terror mastermind Osama bin Laden.
State Department spokesmen, pressed to explain the difference, only mumble nonanswers. The administration is still tacitly distinguishing between bad and not-so-bad terrorists. Bin Laden is evil; Hamas and Islamic Jihad may not be, depending on which "ally" supports them.
There may be real differences between the two situations and logical reasons to focus first on the Al Qaeda network. But U.S. officials have failed to make that case to the world. That undercuts U.S. credibility, and may lead nations that support terrorism to believe that they can get a free pass from Washington in return for empty promises. They might be right.
"Bush Defends Saudis."
The Saudis are valued coalition partner in the fight against terror, the administration keeps assuring us, even as they thwart efforts to track down the network that turned the World Trade Center into rubble and demolished Americans' feeling of safety.
It's not hard to see why the Saudi sheiks make policymakers here tremble. Years worth of energy neglect have made us more vulnerable than ever to blackmail, at a time we can ill afford a new oil crunch. And the Saudis are seen as wielding enormous influence over the Muslim nations we want for our anti-terror coalition.
But wasn't this supposed to be a battle between good and evil, a fight in which old lines were being redrawn to create a better world? Against this benchmark, the Saudis are big-time losers. They have provided vital funding for the terror networks we are now fighting. President Bush, reacting to news stories about Saudi non-cooperation, continues to defend the desert despots.
"Congress Returns to Partisan Ways."
Remember the predictions of a new, bipartisan spirit in Congress as the nation rallied to fight the terror menace? It's already fraying around the edges.
A major airline security bill, passed unanimously by the Senate, has being held up by House conservatives who loathe any expansion of government authority. Last week the House passed an ideology-driven "economic stimulus" package that looks suspiciously like a payoff to big GOP contributors. Even Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill dismissed the plan as "show business."
With House conservatives determined to continue their effort to slash government, will Congress be able to create the expensive new scientific and medical infrastructure needed to protect the nation against bio-jihad?
Will critical social programs survive, when defense needs are soaring and the Republicans are still trying to cut taxes for the nation's richest citizens?