President shouldn’t discount war protesters

As the rumors of war grow stronger, the rumbles of discontent do, too.

Outside NBC’s “Today Show” studios in 20-degree weather last week, several people in the crowd held a peace banner in mittened hands.

A TV ad sponsored by a peace group echoes the girl-picking-the-daisy-petals ad of the 1960s. It says, “The war in Iraq may end quickly. Maybe not. Maybe extremists will then vent their hatreds with nuclear war. Let the inspectors finish their work.”

British author John le Carre wrote a stunningly vitriolic column for The Times of London in which he imagined a bedtime conversation about the impending war:

“But will we win, Daddy?”

“Of course, child. It will be over while you’re still in bed.”


“Because otherwise Mr. Bush’s voters will get terribly impatient and may decide not to vote for him.”

“But will people be killed, Daddy?”

“Nobody you know, darling. Just foreign people.”

“And afterwards, will everything be normal again? Nobody will do anything horrid any more?”

“Hush child, and go to sleep.”

Thanks to the Internet, the le Carre piece was a hot item on e-mail lists last week as peace marchers were congregating in the nation’s capital. Congregating is an apt verb because many of the marchers were church people who were protesting for the first time. That’s a discomfiting situation for President Bush, a very sincere church guy himself. But he struck the right tone by saying the protesters were all “part of the process” of democracy.

The anti-war sentiment still is a minority view – polls show that 63 percent to 68 percent of Americans say they support a war to stop Iraq from having nuclear weapons. But more than half of those say the president has yet to explain why the use of force is necessary right this very minute. And a Newsweek poll showed 60 percent want to take more time to explore other options.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Halberstam, speaking at the Nasher Lecture Series in Dallas the other day, expressed the kind of anxiety that is percolating as the clock ticks on the inspection process. He recalled the words of former Kennedy adviser George Ball that “events are in the saddle and ride mankind.”

Like le Carre, the former war correspondent said he would be glad to see Saddam Hussein gone, but he worried that attacking Iraq would be like “smashing our hand into the largest hornet’s nest in the world” – and that we might pay for it for years.

Halberstam said the United States has been hugely slow in seeing how the rest of the world sees us. “And if we do not see the rest of the world, it sees us, and if we do not find the rest of the world, it will find us.” He emphasized that we must be wise and patient as well as strong in the war on terrorism.

And, I would add, more constructively involved with the rest of the world.

That should mean more, not less, support for the new Office of Public Diplomacy in the State Department. That office, you may recall, was created after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to improve our image in the Middle East. Since then, the office’s research has shown that Muslims overwhelmingly see our Western ways as decadent. Comparisons showed that Americans ranked faith as the fifth most important factor in their lives, while Muslims ranked it first. They tended to believe that Muslims in the United States were mistreated.

In order to “get our story out,” the State Department has created TV and newspaper ads showing American Muslims who are business owners, teachers and homeowners. Radio programs with American music and a little news are being pushed as a way of winning over teen-agers. And a program along the lines of “Sesame Street” is being explored to reach the very young before they become incorrigibly anti-American.

It is a tough sell. As that great sage Ann Richards used to say, you can put lipstick on a pig and call her Monique, but it’s still a pig. We aren’t going to convince the Muslim people that the movie “Chicago,” great fun that the sexy dancing and singing are, is actually a tribute to the American justice system. We aren’t going to convince them that TV shows like “Sex and the City” prove that women are more respected in our culture.

But we can show that we aren’t entirely made of cotton candy, that there is a place for religion in our culture, that democracy sometimes listens to something besides money. The president deserves great credit for stepping up to the Iraq problem while others winked. Like they say in “The Hours,” the movie of the moment, “You cannot find peace by avoiding life.”

One way or another, he may nudge that part of the Middle East closer to democracy. When he makes his case to the nation Tuesday, he should keep in mind those who are protesting out of sincere religious conviction, those who want to explore every alternative to more violence, those who want a clear and convincing case for action. The truth is that we may “win” in a military engagement in Iraq, but lose in the long run, if we don’t use this moment to demonstrate the values we claim we believe in.

Rena Pederson is editorial page editor of the Dallas Morning News.