Fighting Words

By David Von Drehle
Sunday, July 17, 2005

Barbara O'Brien wishes to disagree.

She has been listening as Betsy Newmark -- a history teacher, a proud mom and a very conservative political blogger -- expounds her reasons for supporting the war in Iraq. Listening very intently. Not in the sense that a doctor listens intently through a stethoscope. More like the intense attention a suspicious wife might apply to her husband's reasons for coming home late.

"I think we're beginning to see just the first positive effects, positive impacts, of the decision to remove Saddam Hussein," Newmark is saying. Positive impacts "in Central Asia, in the decision by Libya to disarm, in Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon, Musharraf in Pakistan -- people forget that he wasn't always an ally."

As Newmark's list of positive impacts and glimmers of democracy rolls on, through Egypt, Georgia, Ukraine, O'Brien's jaw muscles -- the medial and lateral pterygoids -- tighten like the lid on a Mason jar until they are clamped down so rigidly that you think her teeth might shatter.

Her eyes dart up, down, right, left. She raises her eyebrows, then tries to suppress a scowl.

Newmark seems not to notice. "I feel there is something noble about helping Iraq learn to govern itself," she is saying. "This is something liberals used to support -- helping people liberate themselves -- and I think if Clinton had done this, instead of George Bush, a lot of people would feel differently about it."

A sardonic gust escapes O'Brien's clenched teeth -- heh! -- almost as if she has been bopped in the sternum. O'Brien has agreed to let Newmark say her piece, but a solid minute or more has gone by, and O'Brien can't help herself any longer. That laugh would be a perfect crowbar to pry the floor away from Newmark, except that O'Brien must pause for a microsecond after the laugh to take a breath.

In that moment, Newmark surges on. "So, I think all in all it's an exciting time," she summarizes, though she adds that no one should expect an end to the conflict any time soon.

O'Brien's turn.

A cat lover, a proud mom and a very liberal political blogger, O'Brien opens cautiously, even a bit defensively, by allowing that "many wars are ambiguous" and noting that she favored the invasion of Afghanistan. But then she lets loose: Iraq was "a colossal mistake" made for "foolish reasons [by] neocons [who] had been pushing to invade Iraq for years." Saddam Hussein was "an evil man, yes, but his power was eroding," and in fact he had become "a toothless tiger."

As for George W. Bush: "He had to be pushed" to support Iraqi elections in January.

"Some people would say that shows flexibility," Newmark interjects.

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