The man in the chair leaned back, closed his eyes, and rubbed his temples. It was 9:07 on a Friday night, and in a sane world he would have been home long ago with his family, not sitting here with two more appointments on his schedule.
My G_d, thought the President, I am so very very tired.
The desk was spread with foreign policy briefing papers. All today’s. All bad. The war- always the war- was always good for bad news, and today it had delivered in spades. In the worst single incident for the U.S. forces this year, at least twelve South Carolina national guardsmen had been killed by a roadside bomb in a region that had been designated ‘pacified’ two weeks ago. Moment by moment the news feed brought more sneers at his quixotic nation-building project from the right, more gibes from the left mocking the ‘so-called War for Justice’. ‘An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,’ they said, denigrating his motivation and his religion in the one glib catchphrase. It’s about justice, he told himself, as he always did. Not revenge. And Americans would not sleep soundly at home until justice was established everywhere in the world. It was not possible to just pull back the troops and pull up the drawbridge.
He knew he would not see it out to the end. That would be for others, who came after. The part he had taken upon himself was to impose the rule of law on Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan. All the dark forces of Islamo-Jacobinism had boiled out to oppose him, drawn from the ends of the earth to the wound he had made on the body of Dar al-Islam.
A verse of Kipling ran willy-nilly through his head.
When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains
And the women come down to cut up what remains
Just roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
And go to your G_d like a soldier
It had not been his war to begin with, though now his name was inextricably linked with it in the public mind. After the September 11 attacks, President Gore had been ceaseless in his efforts to build a multilateral framework to ensure its perpetrators were brought to justice. He had built a consensus, and a U.N.-mandated coalition, and after exhausting all diplomatic avenues with the Taliban regime, had launched a full invasion of Afghanistan in March 2003. Gore presided over the first, triumphant phase of the war, but by November he was gone, the first U.S. President to resign because of ill-health. Doctors said his debilitating respiratory illness was a consequence of too many morale-building visits to Ground Zero in the first terrible days after the attacks. It had been left to Lieberman, like it had been left to Johnson after Kennedy, to prosecute the inevitable escalation of the war. He had pressured Musharraf to provide full co-operation in hunting down Al-Qaida forces in the border region, and today over a hundred thousand U.S. servicemen were operating on the Pakistani side of the border, in Baluchistan and the Northwest Frontier Province. Spain had pulled out of the coalition after Madrid bombings. Italy after the Palermo incident. As year succeeded year with no sign of a successful conclusion, as Pakistan became more radicalised and the flow of foreign fighters into the region intensified, so too grew disapproval of the war. There was a consensus in the media that Lieberman’s second term would go down in history as a litany of wasted opportunities. He took no notice of this. Whatever the rest of the world said, he knew that defeat was unthinkable.
Westward of the war zone, there were equally intractable problems. When he thought of all the diplomat years that had been wasted on the Kurdish problem- all those special envoys, all those flying visits to Suleimanayah and Ankara- and now the Constanta Accord for Kurdish Autonomy had collapsed in a bloody shambles. What a waste. As the net of U.N. sanctions restricting Iraq had been gradually dismantled, the Kurds in the northern no-fly zone had grown increasingly apprehensive about the future of their de facto independence, and had pressed for U.N. guarantees for continued autonomy. There had been a plebiscite, against the protests of Turkey and Iraq. The results of the plebiscite had been shelved by a U.N. committee. The Islamist regime in Turkey and the Baathists in Iraq had been increasingly open in their efforts to subvert Kurdistan. The Constanta Accord had offered a face-saving solution for everyone. There had been a timetable. There had been foot-dragging, provocations. And then these past few weeks- the stupid unilateral declaration of independence, and now the Turks and Iraqis were rolling in from north and south, ignoring the long-moribund no-fly zone. A NATO member and the ‘Butcher of Baghdad’ conniving at the dismemberment of one of the few democratic enclaves in the Middle East. Lieberman’s ambassador to the U.N. was pushing a raft of measures to rein in the aggressors: but the U.N. was so slow, so terribly slow. The reaction from the Western media had been muted: There were no comfortable hotels with broadband internet and Kentucky bourbon in convenient proximity to the warzone, and no scheduled international flights into the Kurdish enclave. And it wasn’t like there were Americans dying or killing.
In Israel even more diplomat years had been wasted. Yasser Arafat was dead, and Sharon, but whatever opportunities for hope these might have afforded were swept away by the continuing campaign of suicide bombings. Netanyahu had come back to power in a landslide and rejected any suggestion that the Jewish state hunker down between a defensive line, pushing an aggressive line in the Territories that had made it difficult for Lieberman to offer the unqualified support he would have liked to give. $10,000 a head: that was the going price for a dead Jew, offered by the Iraqi dictator through a chain of intermediaries offering plausible deniability. He had the evidence, but it was not enough to convince the international community to act: the memory of the last disasterous attempt to influence Iraq’s behaviour through sanctions was still fresh. In other countries, perhaps. For other victims, there might yet be sanctions. Not for the Jews. One of the papers on the President’s desk reported on a suicide bombing in Modi’in, the first for a few weeks. Only one person had been killed besides the bomber when he detonated himself in an IKEA checkout line, a seventeen year-old girl. Lieberman didn’t suppose her name would even be mentioned in the New York Times tomorrow morning. Poor Eretz Israel.
He must have dozed off, just for a second. He opened his eyes, and there was Gleishner. The man looked as white as a sheet. I hope I don’t look as bad as he does, thought Lieberman.
Gleishner’s adam’s apple bobbed up and down, and it was a few seconds before he could reply.
‘Mr. President, we have a problem.’
Suha had taken the baby up onto the rooftop because she wouldn’t stop crying, and was rocking her on her shoulder. Already the swarming city of Gaza was beginning to stir, its residents making the most of this interlude between curfews. You never knew how long they would last, and in the first few days especially there was always a mad scramble to obtain basic supplies. Suha looked off to the east, where a pink glow through the diesel fumes promised the sun would soon be rising.
The sun rose in an instant, too far to the left. Suha was not looking at it, so was not blinded permanently, but by the time she could see again the false sun had been replaced by a tower of black cloud, higher than any thundercloud she had ever seen. The baby screamed. The sounds of traffic fell silent.