IT’S HARD TO CONDONE CELEBRATING any man’s violent death, but in the case of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, I’ll make an exception. Although recent videos cast this thug in a clownish light — struggling with his machine gun, wearing black to disguise his paunch just like Steven Seagal — Zarqawi was actually an unholy cross of jihadist and psychopath. He got off on killing; the virgins were just a bonus. Whether you were an infidel or a Muslim, for or against the invasion, he would have cheerfully lopped off your head and praised Allah if somebody blew your kids sky high.

Even American officers mythologized Zarqawi — they whispered about “the Z word” like Hogwarts students talking about He Who Must Not Be Named. And why not? His ruthlessness didn’t merely terrorize ordinary Iraqis — who, in interviews, routinely termed him a “monster” — but even spooked the leadership of al Qaeda, who clearly saw him as some sort of Islamicist Joe Pesci, the crazy-ass motherfucker who’d blow up a mosque full of civilians and never think twice about the larger consequences. Despite Zarqawi’s evident charisma and skills as a micromanager of murder, I’m sure Osama de Niro is happy that this mean bastard is toast.

As with most good news from Iraq, you couldn’t be quite sure what Zarqawi’s death meant. If the occupation has taught us anything, it’s that you can run through a whole lot of headline-grabbing “breakthroughs” (Saddam’s capture, the taking of Fallujah, the purple-fingered election) without ever getting any closer to a genuine turning point. So it was hardly surprising that the American left wasn’t exactly bowled over by newscasts showing photos of Zarqawi on his slab. Wasn’t this just another summer rerun?

This blasé attitude did occasionally fall into self-parody, as when the anti-war Internet news service Truthout sent out a roundup of its top stories with the laughable teaser: “Marjorie Cohn on the legality of the Iraq war and U.S. Army First Lieutenant Ehren Watada’s refusal to deploy; Zarqawi killed . . .” If only he’d blown up an abortion clinic, his death might have been the lead.

For the most part, though, the left’s response took the not-unreasonable form of a big “Yes, but”: Yes, Zarqawi was a dangerous killer, and yes, it’s good that he’s gone. But his disappearance won’t stop the insurgency or the low-grade civil war, and anyway, the White House deliberately passed up chances to wipe him out in northern Iraq back in 2002 lest it dilute the case for war.

Such ideas “enraged” professional frothers like Rush Limbaugh, who had recently suggested that Zarqawi’s speeches could’ve been written by Howard Dean or Al Gore. (How true. I think fondly of Al’s taped message that called for the beheading of Ralph Nader.) My favorite outburst came from the pseudo-intellectual Limbaugh, William Bennett, who chastised his CNN colleague Christiane Amanpour for calling Zarqawi’s death “important” but noting that officials claimed it was too early to declare the insurgency finished. Dubbing her “Aman-bleakness” — a joke so tin-eared it made you respect the Wildean flair of “feminazi” — he accused her of trying to “get bad news” out of the killing.

Of course, the great joke here is that, far from flashing her unpatriotic liberalism like a “Dean for President” garter belt, Amanpour was faithfully echoing the White House line. Ever since George W. Bush’s mea partly culpa with Tony Blair last month, his polls-battered administration has changed tack, scuttling its clueless triumphalism and conceding that the struggle for Iraq was still going to be tough. “Mission Accomplished” has turned into a cautious “Yes, but.” Announcing Zarqawi’s death, the once-jaunty Rummy maundered oh-so-softly, like a man announcing his own senility.

As for the president, I don’t know whether Bush sincerely believes he’s made a hash of things — who among us can plumb this man’s shallow depths? — but we shouldn’t deride him now for uttering the reality-based words we’ve excoriated him for not saying earlier. Perhaps he really has made a small personal breakthrough. (I’m well aware that die-hards won’t be truly satisfied until Bush renounces his God, packs Cheney off to Gitmo and loads his iPod with the complete recordings of Pet Shop Boys.)

Despite the president’s sober new tone, Zarqawi’s death became yet another occasion for some neocons to “revisit the case” for the invasion. Flashing his catfish grin on the Web site of The Weekly Standard, editor William Kristol asked, “Would we be safer if [Zarqawi] were living there, under Saddam’s protection, securely planning attacks around the world and working on his chemical- and biological-weapons projects?”

A good question, Bill. Now, can I throw you a couple? Would we be safer if Bush had let the military take out Zarqawi back in 2002? And if we really wanted to be safe, was it smart to spend hundreds of billions of dollars, sap our armed forces, cause tens of thousands of deaths (most of them civilian) and alienate the whole world in order to topple a tyrant, tenuously tied to al Qaeda, who had no power to hurt us? Just asking.

TO BE HONEST, I FEEL slightly mortified to still be arguing that the war — the actual one, of course, not some pipe dream of what it should have been — was a blunder. That argument has already been won. But don’t take my word for it. Just listen to the White House. After being in Iraq almost as long as it took the U.S. to fight World War II, the president just brought his team together at Camp David for two days to strategize what a top official called “the last, best chance to get it right.” If only they’d spent two days thinking about this before they invaded.

We already have copious examples of how to get it wrong. One of the grisliest happened last November in Haditha, where a small group of Marines allegedly gunned down 25 unarmed Iraqi civilians. For me, the scariest thing about the whole episode is that, after decades of Saddam and three years of war, most Iraqis don’t even find the story especially newsworthy. As New York Times reporter John Burns put it on Charlie Rose, “To Iraqis, it appears to be another incident in an endless stream of such incidents.”

Typically, the right-wing punditry glanced at Haditha — which, seen in the best light, was an international public-relations calamity — and instantly strapped on their ideological blinkers. They minimized the episode (fewer corpses than My Lai!). They blamed the killing on the war apologist’s favorite fruit, the bad apple (which also sprouted in Abu Ghraib). And they criticized those overly fussed by such atrocities: New York Times columnist David Brooks attacked the moral prissiness of anti-war Americans “willing to betray the decent Iraqi majority in order to preserve some parlor purity.”

Now, it’s delightful that Brooks, who has spent recent years embedded at The Times and PBS, would label anybody else a “parlor” anything — his idea of combat is ducking Chris Matthews’ flying spittle. Still, he at least was acknowledging that you can’t fight terrorists without getting your own hands dirty. (Sadly true: The air strike that got Zarqawi also killed a woman and child.) In contrast, Limbaugh simply accused the war’s opponents of being “gleeful” about the massacre. And Oklahoma’s James Inhofe — incredibly, not even the scariest senator from that state — took time from gloating that his family tree contains no divorces or homosexuals to declare that anti-war types “are rejoicing” over Haditha.

Talk about projection. While many war opponents doubtless felt a grim satisfaction on hearing about the massacre — they’d been expecting such news — I haven’t met a soul who expressed the slightest pleasure in it. Jeez. Can’t Limbaugh and Inhofe at least get their clichés right? Bleeding-heart liberals aren’t gleeful, they’re earnest.

And though earnestness can be a real drag — the left could do with a lot more glee — it does make one take seriously the killings at Haditha or the hooded prisoners at Abu Ghraib. What’s bizarre is that so many of the war’s champions — Christopher Hitchens is a visible exception — still don’t grasp that in a global struggle against despotic jihadism, you can’t merely lecture other countries about democratic values, you have to behave like an open, accountable, lawful society yourself.

The blindness starts at the top. Far from respecting human rights and visibly punishing those who violate them, Bush and Cheney make it clear that they consider such issues marginal. Indeed, the harried troops in Iraq hold themselves to a higher standard than our administration’s big shots who grow offended by criticisms of Guantánamo and publicly fight for the right to torture prisoners; just last week the Los Angeles Times reported that the Pentagon wants to omit from its basic soldier’s manual a key tenet of the Geneva Convention about the humiliation of prisoners. Forget the moral reasons for acting decently. It’s just good public relations.

Speaking of which, during his surprise photo-op visit to Baghdad on Tuesday — the media dutifully dithered endlessly on about all the top-secret planning — the president told Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki that he’d come to Iraq to look him in the eye. Don’t you wonder what Maliki saw when he looked back?

LA Weekly