LAST WEEK, RETURNING from the Middle East, George W. Bush took a victory lap, turning the onetime No-Fly Zone into a kind of Mile High Club of conquest. Air Force One took a shortcut across Iraq so that the country's new lord could survey his new dominion from his throne on high. As the self-proclaimed military victor, Bush couldn't resist raising his leg on the fire hydrant of the enemy.
MORE MOSSBACK This week's other Mossback column: Slick Rick, the gambler.
It was fitting that he viewed it from the sky, seat of American power. It was our B-52s that made the difference in Afghanistan"B-52 justice" they called it. It was our total dominance of the air that allowed American and British forces to cut the Republican Guard to pieces and blow Iraqi command and control to kingdom come. Shock and awe by way of thunderbolts from the heavens.
As he cruised above in his airborne Oval Office, the president showed great familiarity with the lay of the land around Baghdad. Presumably, he has spent many months and hours poring over military maps and satellite photos. Press accounts said he was able to make out some of the neighborhoods and spot Saddam's airport on his own. Looking down on cataclysm can be quite a thrill, as some of us know from having flown over Mount St. Helens. It must be doubly thrilling when that cataclysm is yours alone.
THE AIR TOUR HAS resonance because it is America's dominance of space and sky that is key to global power in the 21st century. Much as the British once commanded the world from the seas, Americans hold what military planners refer to as the "high ground": missile-defense platforms, surveillance technology, space stations, and next-generation laser weapons. Ensuring dominance is the most easily understood goal of Bush's national security policy. We will save the world for democracythe politics of equalsby remaining now and forever unequal, amen.
That view trickles down through all policiesforeign, domestic, economic, and otherwise. The laws of the sky god virtually demand tax breaks for the rich. Anything else is unholy.
Bush has shown the world that heone man, the American commander in chiefhas his hands on the controls of this high-flying power: That was the real message of Bush's landing on the carrier Abraham Lincoln in a jet: See the global Alpha in a cockpit.
Let's contrast that with the real Lincoln for a moment. Here was another president who visited the field of battle. The photographs capture an awkward, gangly man with an equally disheveled Ulysses S. Grant at his side. Lincoln was the ultimate civilian. Not a Top Gun but a man in a top hat. He gloried in the victories of his armies; he believed in the righteousness of his cause. But he did not don the garb of a warrior; he did not gloat; he was eager to put the saber down. Saber- rattling George W. Bush is no Abraham Lincoln, as if that needed pointing out.
FROM 31,000 FEET, Iraq no doubt looks quite conquered. But it is a land of corpses. Saddam's killing fields are being excavated by the living; Iraqi civilians and fighters are still dying; and U.S. troops are coming home in body bags at the rate of one a day. The news from the ground reveals a land and its people occupied and in turmoil, and the true cost of the warBush calls it merely one "battle"still is far from being tallied. It's not easy to add up a quagmire in the making.
Even at home, there are signs of possible casualties: British Prime Minister Tony Blair is in trouble over the weapons-of-mass-destruction debacle. Who played the bigger shell game, Saddam with his weapons or Bush and Blair with the truth? Even Bush is trying to change the subject to Medicare. For the first time, commentators not so far out on the political fringe are demanding explanations. The "I" word is being whispered in some corners: If it is proven that Bush & company lied about Saddam's WMDs, then that might prove to be impeachable (as if stealing an election and shredding the Constitution are not). As former White House lawyer John Dean reminds us in a recent analysis, his former boss, Richard Nixon, was about to be impeached over misuse of the FBI and CIA. Bush's WMD fiasco could be bigger than Watergate, he opines. Foreign-policy scandals tend to be more scandalous, at least if people notice. A poll this week from the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland found that 34 percent of Americans believe WMDs have been already found.
A sky god cannot be held to mortal standards: truth, details, laws. Bush wraps his terror-war rhetoric in biblical code. Blair mimics him by posing against stained glass windows for the same effect: These men have seen "truths" the rest of us have not seen.
And we follow.
In ancient times, the emperor Caligula once made his horse a Roman senator. Look who we've turned into a divinity.