The Breakfast Table

If Rudy Goes, So Does Hillary

Just so we have no illusions about the cast of characters in Sierra Leone, Human Rights Watch/Africa says it has collected credible reports that paramilitaries allied with the government there are also practicing torture and summary execution against suspected members of Sankoh’s militia. Highlights cited by HR Watch include cutting the ears off former Sankoh fighters, beating them to a pulp, and then killing them. I think most newspaper readers have a powerful impulse, faced with back-and-forth like this, to say the whole lot of them should send a postcard from Freetown when they’ve had their fill of bloodshed. The trouble with that is that the great majority of Sierra Leone’s citizens are pawns; blaming “all sides” equally leaves victims at the mercy of the victor of the moment.

As you know, the Israeli version of the Vietnam syndrome is actually called the Lebanon syndrome in popular parlance there. There are parallels: a bigger, more muscular army being picked off in twos and threes by guerilla fighters with intimate knowledge of the terrain, and a central focus in the Israeli general staff on body counts. I once had a briefing from the chief of Northern Command with slides and charts comparing Hezbollah vs. Israeli casualties. It bore a striking resemblance to Westmoreland’s Five O’Clock Follies in Vietnam: Even if the counts were accurate, which is doubtful, they were hardly a measure of success. Hezbollah’s popular backing grew with casualties–or despite them–but the couple dozen Israelis killed each year in Lebanon were eating away at fearful Israeli parents of every political stripe. Remember the brouhaha when the army’s old guard said Israeli soldiers should stop weeping and tearing their clothes at the funerals of their fallen comrades?

Despite the parallels, Lebanon is not Vietnam in other ways. Its border touches Israel, and Hezbollah is not going to stop–of its own accord–using Lebanese territory to launch attacks on Israel’s northern towns. Hezbollah’s deputy commander, a scholarly looking fellow sipping tea in a South Beirut apartment to which I was guided by hard-eyed cutouts, said so plainly to me and lots of others before and since. Israel can take some comfort in the poor design of the Katyusha rockets the guerillas still use after all these years, since the rockets tend to miss by a kilometer (if not a mile) and often land in empty fields. But until Syria cuts off the supply lines from Iran (by way of Damascus airport and the truck routes through the Bekaa Valley), Israel will probably still have a low-level war to its north for some time to come. I think the unilateral withdrawal from the Security Zone is Barak’s way of looking for a more sustainable political base–at home and abroad–from which to fight it.

But enough about the world’s troubles. We are in New York, after all. That gnashing sound you hear out your window is the state’s county Republican leaders after Rudy declared this morning that he is “not leaning in either direction” on a Senate run and “I don’t have a timetable in the sense of 10 hours, 12 hours, two days, 30 days.” (You can read an early account from my newspaper’s Web site here.) This could be just a head fake, because Rudy is making a big appearance tonight at the 92d Street Y–to be broadcast on MSNBC–and if he wants to make a splash, he would have held back this morning. On the medical front, no one could blame him for taking his time on a decision of this magnitude, but if he really plans to stay on the political fence that long, the GOP rebellion should be a sight to behold. Someone wrote the other day that Rudy knows the opera can’t start without the diva, but I doubt the understudies will have to wait a month.

All this should be great news for Hillary, according to nearly everyone, but I stand by my idiosyncratic view that Rudy’s eventual departure could do her in. I’m emboldened in this line by my favorite New York political writer, the Observer’s Tish Durkin, who asks (assuring her readers it is not a “trick question”), “For which Senate candidate do recent, surreal events spell real trouble?” Durkin notes that Rudy has done nothing but screw up (plus be screwed by cruel fortune) for a month or more while Hillary has set nary a foot wrong. And where does all this leave the race? Tied. A statistical dead heat. What does she have to do to snare a lead? When Hillary is matched in Zogby polls against six possible Republican opponents, half of whom the average voter hasn’t heard of, here are two groups of voters who vote against her no matter what: 53 percent of white voters, and 56 percent of those in the suburbs. Try getting elected senator with numbers like that if your opponent is not equally loathed. Hence: Senator Lazio. Then again, as you well know, I’ve never made a true prediction in my life. That’s more or less why I stick with an empirical craft.

This has been fun. See you.