A quirky confluence finds Saddam Hussein and George Bush seeing eye to eye on at least one thing. They both profess to brim with respect for Americans who dissent against the war with Iraq. President Hussein calls the demonstrators "noble souls." President Bush lauds "thoughtful dissent" and judges most of the dissenters "responsible" (only a handful are "reckless"), observing that "the fact that all voices have the right to speak out is one of the reasons we've been united in purpose and principle for 200 years."
Saddam's praise is cheap and unprincipled. He permits no dissent in Iraq, and he lacks standing to pronounce on the nobility of American souls. His praise can only be a burden to most of those who receive it. But he has, it seems, read about Vietnam, a war in which dissent took a toll on the policies and political capacity of successive presidents.
The question is, has he read enough about Vietnam? He would presumably have Iraq play North Vietnam to Kuwait's South. But it is mainly in his own mind that Kuwait was awaiting a destiny of unification. The considerations that led some Americans to accept that North Vietnam had a right or natural interest to take over South Vietnam, and that led many more to conclude that the United States had no comparable right or interest to help the South resist, echo only faintly in the Gulf. There the view is of clear-cut aggression across an imperially drawn but internationally recognized state frontier.
Saddam, of course, is not a historian but a politician, and shrewd. Sometimes one wonders how his experience in international diplomacy and commerce could not have taught him that Western democracies are easy enough to manipulate, intimidate and divide.
In any event, at home we know that these matters of support and protest are not resolved exclusively by historical or political analysis. The element tipping the scales may be something in the air, in the political culture. It goes not just to the way that institutions of authority behave but to the way that citizens and especially the young perceive them. Is there confidence and closeness there, or distrust and distance?
The big march against the war last weekend brought this question to our streets and, not least, to our dinner tables. The protest enabled many of those drawn into it to examine their deeply held ideas about what kind of nation the United States is and to hold up these ideas against the circumstances of the Gulf.
A veteran of Vietnam debate could not help noting that, in the eyes of protesters, Saddam Hussein enjoys little of the high repute in which Ho Chi Minh was widely held; Iraq is no North Vietnam. Even people who do not believe in any sort of war or American intervention accept some part of an obligation to deal with things Saddam has done.
Asked what was the theme of the Saturday protest, one marcher thought to look for it in the diversity of signs and slogans, the lack of organizational direction, a mood of inquiry. Underneath the umbrella of "No Blood for Oil," it seemed to me, hovered a tilt to the embargo. That measure satisfies a double requirement to check a bad leader and to do so in a nonviolent and not overtly interventionist way.
But as of old, many marchers did not accept the standard Washington premise that the problem must be addressed in the particular posture that it is in today. Oriented less to policy than values, these people want not just to head off what they see as an engulfing slaughter but to will into being a whole different, more cooperative and peaceful sort of society, and to alter -- perfect -- the American character in the process.
President Bush is increasingly drawn to make a fervent moral case for his policy. It is hard to listen to the protesters without being impressed by their conviction that a moral case can also be made against it. Furthermore, if your dominating concern is supporting the troops -- and even while they protest the policy they do show a live concern for the troops sent to execute it -- then the non-violent way of withdrawing them and bringing them home has an undeniable appeal.
President Bush offers respect for demonstrators. Some think he's doing it by design, faking it, so as to avoid falling into the old bitterness and polarization. Others think he can afford to show tolerance because he's way ahead in public opinion, and still others believe he's being respectful because he's decent. No matter, he's absolutely right to set an example of civility. This is a marvelous contribution to a country at war.