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By Bill Gallagher

DETROIT -- One says make peace, not war. The other says we must make war to make peace. A pope and a president who worship the same God, view Jesus Christ as their savior, read scripture and pray every day have positions on the impending war with Iraq that are universes apart. Why is that?

"I pray for peace every day," President Bush said during last Thursday night's news conference, when he made it unmistakably clear we will attack Iraq. He did drop a couple of lines like "if we go to war," but that's impossible to take seriously. The die was cast long ago. We didn't send 300,000 troops to the Gulf to boost sunscreen sales.

The president's drum roll for war came at only the second prime-time news conference since he moved into the White House more than two years ago. King George III had more contact with his subjects.

In his prepared remarks and when fielding questions from a carefully chosen list of questioners, the president was strangely reserved, even listless. The usually confident and often flippant commander-in-chief delivered his long-rehearsed and often-repeated lines with the tones that meditation, or perhaps medication, will induce.

The Washington Post's Tom Shales wrote, "It's tempting to speculate how history would have changed if Winston Churchill or FDR had been as lethargic as Bush about rallying their nations in an hour of crisis." I'll tell you. We'd all be speaking German.

But one area where the president showed spark and enthusiasm was anything that could be tied to God, prayer and his faith -- an important pattern of his presidency. George W. brightens up in a flash when he gets an opportunity to link his decisions, military or otherwise, to doing God's will on earth.

All presidents invoke the Almighty to bless and justify their actions, but George W. Bush has gone beyond the norm and unabashedly makes God his copilot in politics and his quest for righteousness throughout the world, especially where cherished economic interests are at stake.

We must rid the world of the evil Saddam and, in doing so, bring democracy and freedom to the Middle East. This cannot be just a holy war driven by a quest for strategic position and advantage in an oil-rich neighborhood, or simply a crusade to remove a murderous dictator under the breathtakingly arrogant banner of "regime change."

No, the president is on an anointed mission to share divine gifts. "The liberty we prize is not America's gift to the world, it is God's gift to humanity." Last Thursday, the president repeated the line first used in his State of the Union Address -- words surely crafted by one of the several Christian, religious-political writers on the White House staff.

They work under the direction of the president's "brain," "guru" and "political commander-in-chief," Karl Rove, the protector of the realm and preserver of George W.'s core constituency: Religious conservatives.

Rove's religious writers share the president's sincere faith and the words they prepare for him to preach are marked with the conviction that he is doing God's will. Sincere people can also be very dangerous.

Bush's black-and-white world, good versus evil, us against them, creates several intended and unintended consequences.

The themes will always sell with Rev. Jerry Falwell, Bob Jones University and evangelists like Billy Graham's son, who calls Islam "a very wicked and evil religion." But beyond pleasing the political core, the "doing God's will" themes are divisive, inflammatory and foster more antagonism toward the United States.

The pope knows better, and wants an end to the inflamed rhetoric and a far more reasoned and nonviolent approach to conflict. "War would be a defeat for humanity," the pope says, and he's sent emissaries to Iraq, the United States, the UN and elsewhere, trying to avert it.

It's difficult to imagine how different John Paul II is from George W. Bush. The pope is Polish, but he's very comfortable with the political restraint Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld derisively calls "Old Europe."

The pope is profoundly interested in the entire world and he works tirelessly for peace in the Middle East. He has seen the horrors of war firsthand. He's an intellectual, a philosopher, a poet, a person who understands subtlety and nuance. He is judicious rather than impetuous and possesses the virtue of patience.

It would be blasphemous to mention George W. Bush's name in the same paragraph.

The pope sees the prospect of a massive American military assault on Iraq as abhorrent and a reckless precedent for how any nation, especially the world's most powerful, should deal with potential threats.

The pope knows that creating peace between Israel and the Palestinians is the single most important act that can be taken to bring stability to the Middle East, vastly more important than removing Saddam.

But the Bush administration has totally abandoned any effort to create a Palestinian state because that would require political risk and painfully patient diplomacy.

It's much easier to drop another $50 billion or so in bribe money in the region, bomb Baghdad, chant "U-S-A, U-S-A," sing "God Bless America" and call it a day.

The pope also knows we use Israel as a fig leaf for our own ambitions and, in fact, attacking Iraq will place Israel in a terribly dangerous position, assuring the Jewish state will remain an isolated garrison indefinitely.

Religious zeal may, in large measure, inspire Bush's belief that war with Iraq will make America safer, democratize the Arab world, redesign the Middle East and help end violence there.

But certain faith does not assure certain reality and is particularity dangerous when coupled with frightening ignorance.

In a New York Times Magazine piece about what may develop and the costs of building a post-war Iraq, journalist George Packer recounts this telling episode.

In January, some Iraqi exiles were summoned to the White House for a session with the president himself. But they had to spend a good portion of their time explaining to George W. that there are two kinds of Muslims in Iraq: Sunnis and Shiites. That fact, and the notion that there actually was an Iraqi opposition, seemed totally new to the president.

That's ever so instructive. Such knowledge is covered in the first class session of "Middle East 101" and requires no subtlety or sophistication, but is fundamental to understanding the geopolitics of Iraq.

Our incurious, untraveled president may not know who it is we're going to save in Iraq, but by God, we will.

The president's faith to bring liberty, freedom and democracy to the Middle East does have limits, though, especially if it means offending our beloved friends in Saudi Arabia.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom advises the state department on a list of countries of "particular concern." It's an accounting of nations which engage in "systemic, ongoing and egregious" violations of the rights of religious minorities.

Well, now that the Taliban are history in Afghanistan, what regime do you suppose tops the commission's list as the worst oppressor of religious rights in the world?

You've got it, loyal readers: The oil-rich land of the House of Saud. They are freedom-hating dictators who oppress any who dare challenge their authority. They will tolerate no religious expression other than their own terrorism-spewing Wahhabi Islamic sect, the fanatical faith that spawned bin Laden and al-Qaeda and whose clerics are urging more terrorist attacks.

But the Saudis should fear not. Secretary of State Colin Powell has intervened and spared them from being ignominiously branded as a religiously intolerant regime. Powell, who spent most of last week at the UN talking about freedom and Saddam's oppression, agreed to the White House demand that publicly chastising the Saudis would be counterproductive. Gee, I wonder why?

Rev. Karl Rove and his disciples are succeeding in what once seemed like an impossible propaganda campaign. The war on terrorism has been converted into a war on Iraq.

Not everyone is buying the nonsense, thank God. A veteran State Department hand is joining the voices of many in the CIA and FBI, who charge the administration is greatly overstating the threat of Saddam and inflating any remote links he may have with al-Qaeda.

John Brady Kiesling, a career diplomat who was political counselor to U.S. embassies across the Middle East, called it quits for reasons of honor.

In his letter of resignation to Secretary Powell, Kiesling wrote, "We have not seen such systematic distortion of intelligence, such systematic manipulation of the American people, since the war in Vietnam. ... Until this administration, it had been possible to believe that by upholding the policies of my president, I was also upholding the interest of the American people and the world. I believe it no longer."

Our nation will be at war shortly, and for moral guidance I'll be turning to a Polish Catholic in Rome, not a Texas Christian in Washington.

Bill Gallagher, a Peabody Award winner, is a former Niagara Falls city councilman who now covers Detroit for Fox News. His e-mail address is gallaghernewsman@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com March 11 2003