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On the stump, all enemies are equal

WASHINGTON -- Despite the public's misgivings about some of President Bush's strategic decisions, one approach to the war on terrorism that is likely to outlive his administration is his way of selling the war to the American people.

In his blitzkrieg of 9/11 speeches, Bush has lumped together numerous countries, foreign leaders, religious figures, and political movements under one banner -- as supporters of terrorism -- and ignored the differences among them.

On the stump, this conveys a sense of moral clarity, of a battle between good people and evil people, suggesting a clean distinction can be made. But it also has led to a widespread misunderstanding -- that all the people cited by Bush are working in concert against the United States.

This has become the way many Americans perceive the war on terrorism. It is why 43 percent of Americans questioned in a CNN poll last week said they think Saddam Hussein was involved in the Sept. 11 attacks.

And now, a similar blurring of distinctions is marking the language of Republican presidential contenders.

Senator John McCain of Arizona, who differs with Bush on the Iraq war strategy, has nonetheless adopted Bush's sweeping language in defining the war on terrorism: ``I think it's clear that this is now part of a titanic struggle between radical Islamic extremism and Western standards and values," McCain said earlier this year.

And last week, another GOP hopeful, Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, refused to allow state police to protect the former president of Iran, Mohammad Khatami, declaring without clear evidence that Khatami had endorsed the call of his successor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to ``wipe Israel off the map." Romney also blamed Khatami for Iran's crackdown on democracy protesters.

It was a Bush-like attempt at making a sharp moral distinction: Anyone involved in Iran's various offenses must be treated as an enemy of the United States. Romney ``gets it," crowed the conservative Washington Times.

Khatami is viewed by most scholars and human rights groups as a moderate figure by Iranian standards, one whose efforts to advance political freedom ran afoul of Iran's ruling clerics.

Indeed, the United States had been optimistic about reform in Iran for much of Khatami's presidency from 1997 to 2005.

A sense that Iran was reforming itself persuaded some neoconservatives to set their sights on Iraq, not Iran, as a target for democratic ``regime change."

Now, with Ahmadinejad pushing Iran in a more radical direction, many scholars and human rights groups feel Romney's attempt to demonize Khatami had sent the wrong message. They believe the United States would be more effective in promoting political freedom by emphasizing the differences between moderates like Khatami and hard-liners like Ahmadinejad, rather than branding both as equal enemies.

After all, many politicians in the Middle East have fundamental disagreements with the United States, and have at times endorsed policies -- be they weapons programs, threats against Israel, or a refusal to abide by United Nations restrictions -- that jeopardize American interests. But not all of them are equal dangers to US security, and not all are terrorists.

But it sometimes seems that way in Bush's elastic rhetoric. When he recently compared today's terrorists to Adolf Hitler's Nazis, some commentators assumed the president was referring to Osama bin Laden as the Hitler stand-in, while others thought he meant Ahmadinejad. Hussein, in his day, was also likened to Hitler.

Bush has also spoken repeatedly of the terrorist ideology, as if all enemies of the United States were reading from the same text, a terrorist manifesto equivalent to Hitler's ``Mein Kampf" or Karl Marx's ``Das Kapital."

Many assumed that Bush was referring to Islamic extremism -- the fundamentalism that drives bin Laden and the mullahs in Iran. But other enemies listed by Bush -- such as President Bashar Assad of Syria, Hussein, and most Iraqi insurgents -- do not practice Islamic fundamentalism.

More likely, Bush was reaching for an overarching belief in terrorism that would unite all the countries, people, and militia groups that he believes are against the United States. But it's hard to see terrorism as anything other than a tactic, serving many different ideologies and agendas.

Understanding all those ideologies and agendas does not seem to interest Bush, and has not really captured the attention of the US public. Fighting for freedom against bad guys is all that most people want to hear about.

Or so assume Bush, McCain, and Romney.

Peter S. Canellos is the Globe's Washington bureau chief. National Perspective is his weekly analysis of events in the capital and beyond.

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