If you had read the American press last Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, you would have thought the media analysts were covering Napoleon's retreat from Moscow. There were ludicrous Vietnam comparisons, rampant quagmire forebodings and learned deconstructions of What Went Wrong.
Of course the press is generally over-critical, as part of our constant and pathetic efforts to prove that we are smarter than whoever it is we happen to be covering. But in this case the pundits seemed shocked that the Iraqi Gestapo actually had the audacity to shoot back. And the gloom was reinforced by the anti-war sentiment that prevails in the press rooms. Every flaw in the war-plan set off another round of we-told-you-so gloating.
But the media types were positively sober compared with the Pentagon bureaucrats. Before 9/11, Donald Rumsfeld, the Defense Secretary, had offended many of them with his rough and sometimes hamfisted effort to modernize the military. Rumsfeld cut the budgets of certain units, especially in the army, to transfer money to high-tech weapons. With the war inexplicably not over in three days, these fuming desk jockey warriors took their revenge, filling the Washington Post and the New Yorker with anonymous quotations about how Rumsfeld was an idiot and the war planning had been botched. And they were not even as bad as the off-the-record snipers from the intelligence agencies, who wanted everyone to know that whatever the coalition confronted: "We warned them about this."
This defeatist tone in the press simply proved unsustainable day after day as the coalition forces seemed to be bungling their way straight into Baghdad. Iraqi crowds sometimes grew exuberantly pro-American as the Baath secret police vanished. An Iraqi civilian in Najaf exulted, "Democracy! Whiskey! And Sexy!" giving the war its first great slogan. Members of the commentariat began to realize that once again they'd gone off the pessimistic deep end.
But that's not the only reason the American mood has picked up over the past few days. In the first place, President Saddam Hussein's regime revealed its true nature. In Britain, Tony Blair has long emphasiaed the monstrous cruelty of the Baath regime. But for reasons that are unfathomable, the Bush Administration has never really made the moral case against Saddam. So the American people are only now seeing the granular reality of his evil, the violation of all norms of decent behavior, the torture chambers, the essential totalitarian nature of his regime. Now it seems ludicrous to think that this regime was ever going to sit down with the genial Hans Blix and negotiate away its weapons.
When U.S. troops are interviewed, they never talk about weapons of mass destruction. They talk idealistically and nobly about ending the suffering of Iraqi people. This refrain has had an effect at home.
There's also a growing sense in the political class that this is an important cultural and political moment. I've been up and down the East Coast this week, from Massachusetts to Florida, and I've heard two sentiments over and again. The first is tremendous admiration for the dedication and professionalism of the troops, even from those who don't support the war. Many college students seem to sense that these soldiers are accomplishing something for humanity, while all they are doing is preparing for business school. Second, one hears of a growing distaste for the peace marchers, again from people who don't necessarily support the President. Their objections are not so much substantive as tonal. These peace marchers seem driven by bile and self-righteousness, and are fundamentally out of step with a country that wants, now that the war is on, to back the troops.
In short, the mood feels a bit as it it did after September 11. Americans are pulling together. There is a yearning to perform some act of public service. There is greater revulsion at those who are trying to divide the country. There is no tolerance for alienated poses.
In the White House, the mood is further buoyed by the thought that we may be seeing a political realignment. Independent voters are responding to war events, the polls reveal, in exactly the way Republican voters are, and are likely to side with Republicans whenever foreign and security issues come up.
The Democrats, meanwhile, are as divided as any U.S. party has been since Vietnam. Many Democrats support the war, while criticizing Bush's diplomatic tactics. This group includes most of the Clinton foreign policy team and liberals such as Richard Gephardt. But a hard core within the party never did, and never will, support the effort. And this group is getting more alienated, insular and vituperative each day.
It should be emphasized that these mood swings are occurring at the elite level. Out in l'Amerique profonde there is amazing stability. Eight-five per cent tell pollsters the war is going very or moderately well, and this figure has barely wiggled in the past two weeks. Polls show a willingness to absorb casualties.
In this as in so many ways, President Bush reflects the country better than the beltway. He is not the sort of person who wakes up wondering what the columnists think. He has the advantage of having a mind that does not flit about much. Aides say he is dismissive of the chorus of instant evaluators, and has grown imperious towards those who bring that mentality into the White House. The media mood ebbs and flows, but persistence shapes U.S. policy.
David Brooks is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.