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My friend Hans is as much a lover of Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” as I am, and after Tony Blair’s magnificent speech to the Joint Session of Congress, he e-mailed an off-the-cuff thought: Blair is playing Sam to the president’s Frodo.
The game was on, and I posted the exchange at my website and discussed it on my radio program. The analogy was launched and the e-mails began to flow.
The exercise sought analogies to various LOTR figures in the individuals, institutions and nations involved in the defining conflict of our times – the struggle between the liberal democracies and Islamicist fascists. Many thought the U.S. military ought to be cast as Frodo – slow to anger, but diligent, deadly and successful in its prosecution of its mission. Others suggested the Ents as stand-ins for the troops.
Elrond – the eternally wise, long-lived background warrior was Reagan in one letter; Gandalf, another old warrior, brusque but focused, was Rumsfeld in another. Gollum, the misshapen, dangerous mutant, was in various missives, France, Chirac, or Bill Clinton. Wormtongue had bunches of nominees. Mine was Dominique de Villepin, who deserves it for ambushing Secretary of State Powell.
Bush also was nominated for a role as Aragorn, Gimli as Australia (down under, smaller than the others, but marvelous in a fight), and Boromir as either Putin or Hans Blix. Legolas was cast as Poland or other surprising allies from the old world. One wit suggested Hillary as Shelob, but if you are only a movie-goer, you won’t get the humor in that. One thoughtful writer cast Israel as Faramir – who had been on the front lines long before the reinforcements arrived, and who had taken much abuse from people who did not understand the danger.
Bilbo was perhaps the easiest: George H.W. Bush, who got the story started, but didn’t finish it. Canada reminded one writer of Pippin: “Often ridiculous, but in the end, a hobbit at heart,” while I thought our neighbors to the north more like Theoden. A hard core LOTR reader came up with Radagast the Brown as Kofi Annan.
Oh yes: Condi Rice as Galadriel.
The e-mails keep coming, despite the essential silliness of such a game. What is remarkable, though, is how easy it is to explain the premise, and without any direction whatsoever, to anticipate the results.
The significance of that is the current conflict is understood by my audience – and I think by most people in the U.S. and the West, generally – to be one of good vs. evil, and starkly so. It is not an ambiguous, shadowy conflict, but a stark clash of diametrically opposed visions of how men and women ought to live. There can be no compromise, just as there could be no compromise in Tolkien’s world, no matter how much some characters wished for compromise and an end to conflict.
Tony Blair was right: This isn’t a war of civilizations and we are not fighting for Christianity. It is rather a struggle for the universal value of freedom, and for the essential human right of liberty. That was also the theme of Tolkien’s books and why analogies to it are easy to produce and not difficult to grasp.
Incredibly there are some who are maneuvering within the conflict to increase their own power by questioning the motives of Bush, as opposed to his competence. The latter debate is a fair one in any democracy – critics are free to proclaim better ways of fighting the good fight. Would-be presidents can logically appeal to the population that they are better equipped to lead the war on terrorism.
Denying the fact of the conflict, however, is sheer recklessness. Increasingly the debate over “yellowcake” is getting closer and closer to this recklessness, reducing the threat that Saddam posed all so clearly to the region and the world, and substituting a demand that every detail of Bush’s case be seen to have been completely airtight in retrospect. Incredibly, those pursuing this line of argument are generally allowed to escape the question of whether we are safer today than we were in February.
Although the case against Bush’s decision to remove Saddam, never strong to begin with, is falling apart with each passing day, the damage will linger if any impression is left as to the level of certainty a president needs to launch pre-emptive action against serious threats. That is the recklessness of Dean and Kerry and Kennedy and the rest of the “show me” gang: Future presidents will remember this attempted inquisition and stay their hand for fear of not having a litigator’s case upon which to stand in the dock at some later date.
Tolkien’s world had villains and turncoats and perils galore, but it had no analogy for Howard Dean and those who share his perspective – political opportunists who will say anything to advance their profile and thus their campaigns. And it had no media covering the Fellowship. It also had a satisfactory ending. With an opposition like Dean, such an ending is not guaranteed.