ARLINGTON, Va. - There is a scene in the film Dr. Strangelove in which the president of the United States, played by Peter Sellers, talks to the Soviet premier, Dmitri, and apologizes for the planes that are about to drop nuclear bombs on his country. The president and the premier engage in a contest of one-upmanship about who is sorrier. Finally, at an impasse, the president settles for, "All right, we are both equally sorry, Dmitri." Then they get to the real issue, which is how to stop the planes.
This "sorry" episode came to mind as I watched the real president of the United States and secretary of defense apologize for the behavior of a few out-of-control reservists, their superiors and apparently uninformed civilian leaders in the abuse of Iraqi war prisoners.
There are calls in some circles for Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to resign and for the postwar strategy in Iraq to be overhauled. New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman went so far as to suggest that President Bush, for the purpose of apologizing for his "mistakes" and eating "crow," invite to Camp David the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and, among others, leaders of several Middle East countries.
What makes Mr. Friedman think this would change the policies of any of these states or the United Nations? It was precisely the failure of the United Nations to follow up on its numerous and worthless "resolutions" that forced the United States and Britain to act to oust Saddam Hussein.
Can we expect new resolutions, without resolve, to be taken any more seriously than previous ones? Don't look for apologies or any personnel changes by the White House to change the mind or behavior of a single Arab state, or any of the fanatical clergy who believe, preach and teach that America is the "Great Satan." Instead, as is the case when Israel makes concessions to its enemies, the message sent is that terror and resistance work.
The hand-wringing about these abusive incidents not reflecting "who we are" is the stuff of touchy-feely television shows. Who are we? We are a free people who send their sons and daughters to other nations in order to lift the yoke of oppression and allow others to be free, which we view as their inalienable right. There can be no higher earthly good than to lay down one's life for one's fellow man.
The pictures we are seeing, and the ones to come, are being used in an election year (would they be treated as seriously if it were not an election year?) to weaken us and to destroy our resolve. We are being held to a higher standard than most of the world - certainly the Middle Eastern world - holds itself. It is good and right to have such a high standard, but not good if that standard is one-sided and undermines what we are trying to achieve in Iraq.
If Mr. Rumsfeld resigned immediately and if President Bush followed Mr. Friedman's advice, nothing would change.
The insurgents would not stop shooting Americans.
The mullahs would not stop preaching hate and eternal damnation for all things American.
The Arab press would not begin editorializing in favor of democracy. Dictatorial regimes would not suddenly see the light and stop abusing wrongly imprisoned people.
All that matters is victory. Anything less is defeat - for the United States and for those in Iraq and elsewhere who yearn to breathe free.
No one other than our coalition members will help us. Freedom is a lonely battle, but if the United States doesn't lead it - sometimes imperfectly, but mostly with honor - who will?
The Washington Times recently carried a valuable story headlined "Prison Torture Common in Mideast, Survey Finds." In it, Musa Keilani is quoted from The Jordan Times: "We in the Arab world did know what was going on in Abu Ghraib [prison] when Saddam was in power: summary executions, dismemberment and torture of the worst kind we ever heard of in modern times. It is true that few in the Arab world talked about it and scant attention was given to international organizations' criticism of the gross violations of human rights in Iraq while Saddam was in power."
And we think apologizing is going to change such attitudes? It won't, but total victory might. Let's get on with that and engage in the psychobabble later.
Cal Thomas' syndicated column appears Wednesdays in The Sun.