28 DECEMBER 2002, Page 24


Osama is still dead, says Mark Steyn, but

otherwise the news is not good, and Bush is going to need more than luck in 2003

New Hampshire NOT every political development is discernible even to the shrewdest analyst. I did not foresee, for example, that the year would end with Bill Clinton dating Demi Moore, as the livelier newspapers have reported. One of the few things I liked about the guy was that at least he had an appetite for real women — twangy Paula. pudgy Monica, fragile, wounded Kathleen Willey. . . . In many ways, it was the only real thing about him. It seems rather sad to think of him covered in bruises from too sudden an embrace of Demi's bullet-proof chest. We do not yet know how this latest twist in the Clinton saga will play out in the Democratic presidential race, but, putting aside the conspiracy theorists who say Bill and Hill have to stay married so they can't testify against each other, the wedding of Teflon Willie and Silicon Demi would be like one of those old European dynastic unions, formally sealing the relationship between the Dems and Hollywood, just when both parties, if they had any sense, should be figuring out that they ought to be seeing less of each other. Like Sean Penn holding press conferences in Baghdad, there are times when the Dems could use fewer celebrities. Far fewer.

The Republicans, meanwhile, have gone from post-election jubilation to the edge of the Congressional precipice, all because their incoming Senate Majority Leader, Trent Lott, decided to put in a good word for segregation at Senator Strom Thurmond's hundredth birthday party. At the 1948 Democratic Convention. Strom and his fellow 'Dixiecrats' broke with Harry Truman when a presidential panel recommended a Federal anti-lynching law. This is Democratic party history and only a chronically club-footed idiot like Lott would think it a smart idea to bring it on over and hang it round the Republicans' neck. The controversy is already said to have cost the GOP the Senate seat up for grabs in the Louisiana run-off this month: allegedly motivated by Lott's loose cannon of a mouth, the Democratic base roused itself to put incumbent Mary Landrieu just over the top. So the Senate remains at a 51-49 Republican majority. Ls.)tt is then said to have told those Republicans demanding he resign as Majority Leader that he'd also resign his Senate seat. Mississippi's Democratic governor would then appoint a Democrat to replace him. That would make the Senate 50-50. The barely Republican Lincoln Chaffee of Rhode Island would then defect. That would make it 49-51, and put the Democrats back in charge.

It might still happen. Lott is a worthless careerist and, given that after a week of being denounced as an old-time segregationist he was appearing on Black Entertainment Television and endorsing 'affirmative action' and all the other obnoxious neo-apartheid quota systems demanded by the Left's racial shakedown artists, anything is possible. But, in the end, the Dems have as much to lose as the Republicans if the TV shows play up the Reverend Al Sharpton, the Reverend Jesse Jackson and all the other reverend racebaiters as the voice of the Democratic party. Sharpton's running for President. He can't win in the Iowa caucus or the New Hampshire primary, but, up against three jostling honky candidates, he could easily win South Carolina and give the Dems a whole mess of headaches.

In its own shrivelled way. Trent Lott's selfinflicted wound sums up the last year. The Republicans underperform. But ultimately the Democrats always manage to underperform more. Furthermore. the Dems' key interest groups, whether African-Americans or Celebrity-Americans, seem to be working overtime to keep the party looking at best irrelevant or at worst deeply trivial. What happened in November is that a small but critical sliver of the electorate decided the Democrats weren't credible on the big issue of the day. This is very true. The Dems' lack of credibility is laughable — so laughable, so ridiculous, so pathetic that it's very conveniently obscured how the administration's own credibility on this issue diminishes month by month.

This is the real change of the last year. Nobody thought 52 weeks ago, when the Yanks were mopping up in Afghanistan and Hamid Karzai had just put together his broad-based government, that that was it. Intermission. A selection of snacks, icecreams and beverages will be available in the stalls bar for the next 12 months, but do make sure you take your seat in plenty of time for Act Two in early 2003, well, maybe late spring, whatever. In his State of the Union address last January, identifying Iraq, Iran and North Korea as the 'axis of evil', the President warned that 'time is running out'. Well, someone evidently jammed a big of sausage in the hourglass, because it stopped running out round about August and, indeed, much of the sand seems to have run back in again. A year ago, few conservatives, including yours truly, would have bet that today Saddam would be sitting in Baghdad still enjoying his Quality Street, HP Sauce and digitally remastered Songs for Swingin' Lovers. On its face, this is very difficult to explain, though a lot of us go to a lot of trouble trying to. The endless postponement of the Iraqi D-Day, now as routinely rolled over as those Soviet five-year plans, is all part of some cunning Bush 'ropea-dope' strategy. So is Colin Powell's recent statement that the administration isn't looking for regime change in Baghdad. So is the ongoing mantra of 'the Saudis are our friends, no matter how many of us they kill'.

It's true that lulling the enemy into a false sense of security can be vey cunning; but only if the sense of security does, indeed, turn out to be false. And a lot of what the Bushies do barely falls into the lulling category. When Princess Haifa, wife of the Saudis' Washington ambassador, was revealed to have funnelled money, unwittingly or otherwise, to the 9/11 killers, why did Alma Powell and Barbara Bush rush to phone her to commiserate? The connection between Saudi 'charitable giving' and terrorism is well known. The most benign explanation is that the Princess is an idiot, and Americans are dead in part because of her idiocy. The wife of the Secretary of State and the mother of the President have no business comforting a stooge of their country's enemies.

Meanwhile, the alternative explanation to 'rope-a-dope' is that the Pentagon needed time to replenish stocks. This was just about believable last spring. By late November, when senior officials were allegedly leaking to the press that they might need another year just to make sure they were really fully absolutely replenished, it was looking a whole lot less plausible. I'm one of those who believe that the actual war with Iraq will be over in nothing flat — i.e., the proverbial cakewalk. Military chaps generally seem to feel the same. So the question is why, after a year standing at the podium poised with his baton, has Bush still not given the downbeat? At this rate, the mullahs in Tehran will be on the run before Saddam.

Possibly the President knows something we don't. Every so often, some well-connected Washington type, late in the conversation, spins me some dark yarn involving weaponised smallpox resistant to the vaccine, or some such. The last time this happened, the guy emailecl me the following morning to say he'd been drunk and to pay no attention. Her Majesty's Government in London, with its terrifying warnings of mounds of corpses on every Tube platform sheepishly withdrawn the morning after, would also seem to be following this pattern.

I don't know what to make of it myself. But these latest pursed lips from General Powell at Saddam's UN document dump had better be the real thing, because this phoney war won't work for another year. As the Internet pundit William Quick put it. Bush can't dine out for ever on Afghanistan, And Afghanistan is a very wobbly laurel to rest on: a couple of bullets in the right chapan or karakul, and the President will have even less on his war record. Obviously, a war on terror is not like a war on Japan: it's not just about the battles, but also the battles that never take place. One assumes that alOa'eda have tried to pull off another attack on US soil but at some border post or ticket counter or rental-car agency they've been stymied. There are rumours that the recent spate of mass-vomiting and diarrhoea on Caribbean cruise ships is the work of alQa'eda. The idea that the Great Satan can be overthrown by making him spend 19 hours a day on the can is a novel one, and I defer to my distinguished colleague Sir John Keegan when it comes to assessing its chances of success: but, w-eaponisecl laxatives aside, from their inability to hit anything other than the softest of targets — from Bali to Tunisia — it seems reasonable to conclude that al-Qa'eda's freedom of manoeuvre has been drastically curtailed.

Oh, and by the way, Osama bin Laden is still dead, no matter what either US government 'experts' or the Independent's Robert bin Fisk tells you. After examining the most recent audio tape, US intelligence sources said it was 'probably' Osama, whereas Fisk

was positively orgasmic: It is him. , He is alive. . . . It's the real McCoy.' I'm in love, I'm in love, I'm in love. I'm in love, I'm in love with a wonderful guy? I am not a great expert in sound-editing, though when I was a slip of a lad I was entrusted by the radio network for which I then worked with recording an exclusive Andy Williams Christmas show. I went along to Andy's hotel suite in October,

recorded his seasonal musings on his favourite Yuletide tunes, and took the openreel tape back to my bedsit, planning to edit the music in later. I came back one afternoon to find my new kitten had unspooled most of the tape and was playfully tangled in it, like an over-cute greetings card. He'd chewed up the front end, which was unfortunately the bit that said, 'Hi, everybody, this is Andy Williams, wishing you and yours the merriest of Christmases and a happy New Year.' For most of the next 72 hours, I combed the rest of the tape, lifting a syllable here, a syllable there, until I was able to recreate Andy's opening greeting, or at any rate a jerky approximation thereof: 'Huh-I, e-vuh-ree buh-odd-ee, thuh-iz A-nub-dee Wuh-ill ee-ams. . ' Ever since, I have had no fear of audio tape. That last al-Jazeera thing doesn't sound like bin Laden, it sounds like Noam Chomsky none of your strong horse/weak horse Arabian mumbo-jumbo, but instead a bog-standard laundry-list of American failings, including Vietnam. It sounds like a feeble al-Qa'eda attempt at pandering to the root-causists. The only thing they got wrong was griping about East Timor, the Left's great cause of the Nineties. Poor old John Pilger was asked about this on Australian TV the other week and floundered like Free Willy on an oil-slicked beach, as if he could scarce comprehend that al-Qa'eda might not be on the right side of every issue.

I see that the prestigious Dane Molle Institute for Perpetual Artificial Intelligence of Lausanne has concluded that it's 95 per cent certain that the tape is not bin Laden. If it's a choice between Washington, Fisk or the Swiss, take the disinterested party. Osama is still dead, for which we owe the Pentagon a debt of gratitude. But the world is more dangerous than it was a year ago. The 'axis of evil' the sophisticates mocked last January turns out to be a going concern: a nuclear North Korea is a problem that in the end has to be removed rather than managed. Bush understands this, as does Australia's John Howard, who after Bali has also signed on to the doctrine of pre-emption. But he's walking a fine line: another atrocity on American soil and he won't be able to blame Clinton-era foreign policy and intelligence failures. The State Department's terrorist visa express programmes, Barbara Bush's kissy-kissy with Princess Haifa and all the rest will be cast in a far harsher light by the less dopey Dems. Joe Lieberman is already positioning himself to run as a credible national security candidate. Unless Bush stumbles, a pro-war Jew won't last through primary season, but not every political surprise this year will involve Clinton's sex life and Trent Lott's idiot mouth.

It's hard not to feel that this year has been a lucky escape — except for the dead in Bali, in Moscow, in Kenya et al, It seems unlikely that the West can make it through another 12 months without something happening somewhere. By 'the West', I mean not just the serious countries — America, Australia, Britain — but also the softer Euro-Canadian provinces still in quiet-life mode. If that's a gloomy note to end on, well, as is my wont, I'll be the first to cheer when I'm proved wrong. In the meantime, as my old pal Andy Williams once said, 'Huh-app-uh-ee Nuh-oouh Yi-e-ah!'