MANILA, NOVEMBER 21, 2003  (STAR) BY THE WAY By Max V. Soliven - George "Dubya" Bush is at his most engaging when he cracks a joke. The trouble is, even when he’s serious, some of his listeners think he’s cracking a joke. Or that he’s the joke.

As for me, I’m one of the many who believe that Bush is doing his level best. I’ve been listening to his speeches on BBC, CNN, and Asian News Channel. He looks tired, and ten years older. And sure, he’s got his troops and his reputation stuck in the quicksands of Iraq, which are beginning to look like the quagmire of Vietnam.

But these headaches should have been expected from the very start. The Middle East is littered with the shards of ancient kingdoms which rose and fell, and the bones of would-be conquerors, reformers, and crusaders, who came to rule, and ended up lost and choking in the sandstorms of death – or frustrations more painful than death.

The Americans, the Brits, and their other allies (including us, quite plainly from recent reports) are now looking for some quick and, if possible, graceful exit from Iraq. There is none. It was ordained from the very start, long before the war began, that the problems of Iraq would far exceed the mere formality of toppling the dictator, Saddam Insane, because the major problems lay in the divided psyche, the divided religious beliefs, jealousies and hatreds of the various people who inhabit Iraq – as well as the Arab culture of rejection, both inside and outside Iraq.

We warned in this corner that America, Britain, and the coalition of the willing, even if they failed to drag the unwilling along with them, would definitely win the conventional war to oust Saddam and his cruel Ba’athist regime. After that, I had said (recalling the six-year guerrilla war the Filipinos had fought between 1898 and 1904 against the occupying American forces) would come the hard part: Beating down a guerrilla war, waged by Fedayeen and Mujihadeen. (Then there would, in addition, be tribal wars complicating matters, plus Sunni versus Shiite, and Kurds versus Arabs, etc.) This has come to pass. Yesterday, another car bomb exploded – in what promises to become an almost daily occurrence.

Remember Vietnam? We had an explosion or bomb attack in Saigon and elsewhere in that war-torn country every few days – and hour upon hour, for 24 hours, you would hear interdiction fire from American cannons. Have the Americans forgotten what they went through then?

With regard to those two Blackhawks colliding, with resultant great loss of life; or other helicopters being downed by hostile rocket fire, it’s deja vu of an almost ho-hum variety. Except when it comes to the bereaved families, their personal tragedy and heartbreak can never be dismissed as "ho-hum".

War is hell.

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For update on the Iraqi situation, all we have to do is re-run that already "old" movie, Blackhawk Down about another mini-war – the debacle in Mogadishu, Somalia, to put matters in perspective.

American helicopters colliding with each other are not a new phenomenon either. Rotary wing craft are tricky to handle. Remember what occurred at the terrible climax of the dismally botched mission ordered by US President Jimmy Carter to rescue 53 Americans held hostage (since November 4, 1979) in the US Embassy in Tehran, the capital of Iran? Carter had authorized Operation "Eagle Claw", to be implemented by US Rangers and Delta Force, and involving C-130 transports and six helicopters.

Halfway through the desert, at a point code-named Desert One, the group was directed to refuel and "call" the White House for a final decision – whether to proceed or abort. The mission was ordered "aborted". The pilots and soldiers concerned seethed with frustration. What contributed to the snafu? Nobody will really fully know. One of the refueling aircraft, an EC-130 had completed its refueling mission and had been cleared to depart as soon as the helicopters had moved off – but one helicopter, on lift-up, began to slip to clear the larger plane, then suddenly turned 90 degrees and rammed into the EC-130, both bursting into flames. Exploding ammunition and fuel tanks killed all aboard and nearby, and extensively damaged three other choppers which had to be abandoned. A fourth, still not yet refueled, and gas-tank empty, had to be junked there, too.

The survivors scrambled aboard the remaining three C-130s, and flew off into the night.

The following day, the charred corpses of the eight dead were exhibited to the world media by the Ayatollah Khomeini’s propaganda chiefs as proof of American treachery, perfidy, and bungling. (Indeed, in the confusion, some secret documents revealing the mission plan had been left behind – and publicized to the international press by the gleeful Iranians!).

Gee whiz, Dubya. Take comfort. Jimmy Carter’s woes far outweighed your own! He goofed big time. But the world forgets – which is why Jimmy Carter can criticize succeeding Presidents with such piety and sanctimony, and be applauded for his Nobel Prize-winning goodness and wisdom.

However, this is no consolation to Mr. Bush. He puts on that tough, sometimes humorous Texas bluffness, yet deep down it must be both painful and sad to have sent so many men and women to their deaths. This is the burden of leadership, which no President can shrug, particularly that of the world’s only remaining superpower. (What a bromide that is – repeated ad nauseam.)

It’s no surprise either that there are big rallies and demonstrations against Bush in London. Bashing Bush, and even more persistently British Prime Minister Tony Blair as "Bush’s poodle" has become a favorite pastime among many Brits – who, if you’ll notice, are of various stripes, including a great many of Arab, Pakistani, and otherwise Muslim descent.

Everytime this writer visits London, I’m impressed at how increasingly "Islamic" that metropolis is becoming. Edgeware Road, not far from Hyde Park, where I used to pass on my way to Oxford street almost daily in my younger days, is now a completely Arab, mainly Lebanese Arab, neighborhood, as one would quip, a tasty Kebab and Cous-cous country nonpareil. (The Empire has struck back.)

In truth, London, Paris, and even Brussels are growing more "Muslim" by the week.

Poor Americans. They are surrounded by hostility. (Even the terrorist who engineered the kidnapping in Karachi and the death by beheading of Wall Street Journal correspondent Daniel Pearl carried a British passport.) I suspect the "British citizens" being held by the Yanks as maximum security prisoners in Guantanamo Bay – which the mobs are currently raging about – are British Muslims of Arab and Pakistani extraction.

William Shakespeare, if he were alive today, might even have had to change his name to Muhammad Abdulla Shakes-kebab to get his plays patronized in the West End theaters. (However, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Bombay Dreams, sad to say, is proving a flop.)

* * *

When I was last in London last September 26, I made a detour to Grosvenor Square, not to see the statue of Ike Eisenhower which stands there, but to find out how the US Embassy in that famous square is faring. It now looks like Fortress America, surrounded by concrete suicide-car approach blockers, steel fences, trip-wire fences, and all corners are manned by well-armed British policemen, Special Branch officers, and US Marines.

The week before, we had been staying at the Hotel Crillon, that pricey hostelry on the Place de la Concorde. Right across the narrow street from it (with its rear on the Faubourg St. Honoré, not far from the Elysee Palace itself) is the American Ambassador's residence and office on Rue Boissy d’Anglais. It, too, is surrounded with concrete and wire protective casing, like a fort under siege, and two vans of armed gendarmes are parked in front and at the back, with portable metal barricades on hand for the purpose of sealing off, if need be, the street approaches to the large, walled compound.

In Madrid last October 26, I also went by the US Ambassador’s barricaded residence in the Spanish capital. The compound was not only tightly guarded by policemen, Guardia Civil, and security guards, but has a tank parked in the street right behind it! Susmariosep. Do they expect an armored car assault on the poor Ambassador’s home? The Ambassador’s wife, I was informed in diplomatic circles, is very friendly and active in civic and charity matters, but allegedly won’t accept invitations for evening affairs.

Isn’t it strange? The envoys of the world’s only Superpower and their families have to live practically "in fear". They must feel like persons constantly under threat – which they are. Aren’t you glad you come from a Lack-of-Power Country? On second thought, we must be the most powerful people. Why? Everytime somebody writes me a letter, he or she invariably ends it with the exclamation: "More power to you!" Since I have been receiving so much "power" with every letter, over the years – even those written by readers who disagree with me – I must by now be very "powerful" indeed.

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THE ROVING EYE... Beware of credit card fraud. Your credit card number, your name, and your "identity" can be stolen and misused by scamsters. Then there are the fake credit card racketeers. National Bureau of Investigation agents the other day arrested four Chinese allegedly caught in the act of utilizing fraudulent credit cards in Ermita-Malate, Manila. The suspects were caught using fake credit cards last November 15 in "L.A. Cafe" shop by an NBI team which had been trailing them, keeping them under surveillance for several weeks. The complaint, filed by the arresting team leader, NBI Agent Arnel Dalumpines, averred that the illicit activities of the four had been brought to their attention after Citigroup and Standard Chartered Bank sought NBI help in checking the proliferation of fraudulent credit cards. The agents had the four under surveillance when one of them, Zheng Wang, 20, of Mabini st., Malate, attempted to use a credit card in the name of Edwin Koo to settle his bill. However, when the shop’s machine denied "access" for the card, the four tried to get away without paying the bill. This is when the NBI agents pounced on them. Subsequent investigation showed that the suspects had used spurious credit cards under different names 23 times in less than a month. The suspect arrested, aside from Zheng, were Huang Kun Yu, 40, of Del Pilar st., Ermita; Chung Man Hu Johnny, 40, of Pasay City; Yen Yu Man Nee, 40, of Mabini st., Malate. However, a Manila prosecutor, our reporter Cecille Suerte Felipe told us, ordered only Zheng charged, while his three companions were released "pending further investigation".

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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