Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Today's theme

Gary Kasparov, the great chess master, knows a bit about how to win and lose a mental game. His piece in the Wall Street Journal today is a call to arms.

When I used to play a lot of chess, I was enamored of gambits -- those strategies where you give away a lot of pieces, but in the end of giving them up hold such a commanding position on the board that, while you're opponent has been greedily snatching up the pawns, he hasn't noticed he's ended up in deep shit.

Trouble is, those tricks don't work on any halfway decent chess player, who knows how to think more than one move at a time. Maybe it's a coincidence that the same period in my life when I tried to play chess like that was my time of greatest fondness for moral equivalency arguments.

Kasparov sweeps this right off the table in his first paragraph:

It is said that to win a battle you must be the one to choose the battleground. Since the Abu Ghraib abuses were revealed, the battleground has been chosen by those who would blur the lines between terrorists and those fighting against them. The Bush administration has contributed to the confusion with its ambiguous "war on terror." You cannot fight a word. You need targets, you need to know what you are fighting for and against. Most importantly you must have beliefs that enable you to distinguish friend from foe.

While al Qaeda may not have a headquarters to bomb, there is no shortage of visible adversaries. What is required is to name them and to take action against them. We must also drag into the light those leaders and media who fail to condemn acts of terror. It is not only Al Jazeera talking about "insurgents" in Iraq, it is CNN. Many in Europe and even some in the U.S. are trying to differentiate "legitimate" terrorism from "bad" terrorism. Those who intentionally kill innocent civilians are terrorists, as are their sponsors. No political agenda should be allowed to advance through terrorist activity. We need to identify our enemy, not play with words.

Yet in the same space he points out the serious flaws in the Bush Administration's current approach. It is, as others have noted, an inarticulate administration. I'm not talking about inarticulate as in "nook-you-lar." I'm talking about the missing Lincoln/Roosevelt/Churchill quality. Hell, even a Giuliani quality would be an asset. Tell us who we're fighting for, tell us who were fighting against. Tell us why. Give us goals and tell us how we plan to accomplish them. Get up tomorrow and do it again.

Most of the rest of the Kasparov piece outlines the problems in the Islamic world and the media. It's difficult not to be totally demoralized about the Western media, which has no interest in the sarin shell story -- I was told last night that that's because we're "cautious" about such a story, but there's no such caution about (bogus) prison abuse photos which run in major media outlets with their Photoshop tags still dangling off them in plain view. It seems we're only cautious about the news that might help Bush get re-elected.

Which is a shame, again, because as I've said, Iraq and the war to create a safer world for our children is much, much bigger than this administration or this election. As Kasparov points out, it is crucial enough that it pulls down the usual political lines -- Chirac, the rightist, opposes rightist Bush; Blair, the leftist, supports him. And I'm among the former independents and leftists who have come into the tent on this issue, standing with a party whose ranks include many characters whose social agendas I find unsavory and whose economic policy seems disasterous.

I wish the Kasparov piece had been more full of advice on how the administration could get its mental game back in shape. The critiques of it generally come from war opponents, and are limited to the totally unhelpful "Bush is stupid" variety. Of course, they don't mean to be helpful. They want the war to fail so Bush will lose.

But a real debate among war supporters about what could be done better, in Washington, could be very productive. Even a bad gambit can become a win, if the mental toughness is there.