IF YOU ARE FRUSTRATED ALONG THE WAY WITH some monkey on your back-some issue that, no matter what you do, just won't go away-consider this: George W. Bush has at least two. He must wake up every morning puzzling over a couple of intractable monkeys.
Monkey No. 1 is the dark mystery of Islam. Set aside, for the moment, any theological disagreement we Christians might have with committed Muslims. Zip your lip for the time being about what you might think are valid issues of truth and error.
Just look instead at the cultural fruit of this growing religion. Where else in the modern world, for all its other violent wickedness, do you find such frequent expressions of religiously motivated outbursts that result in widespread destruction of human life? Nor is such murder restricted to the enemies of Islam. Where else in the modern world do you find dictators turning on their own people, or mobs of one subset of Islamic people turning on another subset?
It must be hard enough for Mr. Bush and his team, as it is for the rest of us, to figure out the difference between the Sunnis and the Shiites. But when one Shiite leader then assassinates another Shiite leader, it's enough to prompt any of us to throw up our arms as journalist Thomas Friedman did a few days ago in The New York Times: "I'm fed up with the Middle East, or more accurately, I'm fed up with the stalemate in the Middle East. All it has produced is death, destruction, and endless 'he hit me first' debates on cable television."
With Hamas, the Palestinian group that repeatedly takes credit for suicide bombings in Israel, there's not even any effort to resort to the question of who started the squabble. For them, it's a moral obligation to destroy Israel, but a moral outrage for Israel to respond. The poor Palestinians deserve better than that. The homeless and the unemployed among them need to hear something other than gunfire and bombs; they deserve at least to hear the semblance of a sane and logical argument on their behalf.
Comparing the Middle East in 2004 to Vietnam a generation ago is superficial, wrongheadedly pessimistic, and propagandistic. Having said that, any Middle East crisis always includes one incendiary element only minimally present in Vietnam-the volatile religious commitments and conflicts that extend all the way back to Ishmael and Isaac.
It's a maelstrom way too complex for any human to understand, much less resolve. But it's only one of two monkeys on Mr. Bush's back.
Monkey No. 2 is the American media. If you doubt that, you weren't watching carefully when a hostile media corps relentlessly personalized the president's April 13 press conference. Coy question after clever ambush, reporters concentrated more on dueling with the president than on helping shed light on a complex and baffling world.
The sorry event did show Mr. Bush at his best, and perhaps at his worst. His best is his rock hard, unassailable commitment to principle. His worst may be that in the glare of the national spotlight, he is not quick with one-liners and memorable retorts. But if that's the nature of this year's electoral referendum on his presidency, you have to hope Americans will not be overly affected by superficial show biz.
The point is that the mainstream media, with a few wonderful exceptions here and there, do little these days to help turn the American mind and the American judgment to real issues. Want a good test of that assertion? Try this: With all the furor over the Bush administration's policy in Iraq, can you outline in even summary form any alternative approach that has been suggested and debated? Can you associate such an approach with any notable spokesman?
Wouldn't you think it's something of a minimal and basic assignment for a nation's media to help promote a thoughtful debate? And wouldn't you think they could do this not by repeatedly suggesting that someone must be lying, but by weighing whose judgment seems most sound? And couldn't they promote such a discussion by some means other than maligning, undermining, and tripping up?
Until the media do that, though, Mr. Bush-and probably whoever succeeds him in 2008 or maybe even this year-will be struggling regularly with multiple monkeys on his back.