American Enterprise Online
November 16, 2005
By Alan W. Dowd
“With the rise of a deadly enemy and the unfolding of a global ideological struggle, our time in history will be remembered for new challenges and unprecedented dangers.”
-George W. Bush, November 11, 2005
It has been too long since President Bush spoke in such sober, ardent terms. Thrown off course by a perfect storm of scandal, natural disaster, his own missteps and what might be called reverse triangulation by the right and left, he has been unable to remind Americans of what is at stake in this war. Perhaps his Veterans Day speech in Pennsylvania marked a turning point.
“The war came to our shores on September the 11th, 2001,” he explained, making clear that it wasn’t a war Americans sought or could avoid. On that day, Americans caught a glimpse of their vulnerability and the enemy’s hatred. Yet it was only a glimpse. In a wordless, instinctive way, most Americans quickly connected the dots from terrorist groups to WMD-armed regimes—and from September 11 to a future deformed by some secret alliance of the two.
“Any administration in such a crisis,” according to historian John Lewis Gaddis, “would have had to rethink what it thought it knew about security and hence strategy.” In other words, was deterrence any longer possible? Was containment viable? Was common ground achievable? Was giving repeat-offenders the benefit of the doubt responsible?
One by one, Bush answered those questions. And the answer to each was “no,” which is why September 11 led first to Afghanistan and then to Baghdad.
He wasn’t the only one to arrive at that conclusion. As Sen. John Kerry asked, in those days when he supported the war on terror and its offspring in Iraq, “Can we afford to ignore the possibility that Saddam Hussein might accidentally, as well as purposely, allow those weapons to slide off to one group or other in a region where weapons are the currency of trade? How do we leave that to chance?”
Note what was taken for granted in his statement—that Saddam possessed “those weapons,” the kind that killed entire villages in northern Iraq, the kind that eliminated thousands of Iranian soldiers with a single salvo, the kind that deformed generations of Kurds. “Those weapons” were the ones that even Jacques Chirac and Hans Blix believed Saddam possessed. “Those weapons” were then, and remain today, the seed of nightmares.
Yet “those weapons” were not the only reason Bush decided to finish the war Saddam began in 1990, although that’s what the revisionists want us to think. In fact, in the Iraq war resolution of 2002, a sizable majority in Congress agreed that it had been US policy since 1998 “to support efforts to remove from power the current Iraqi regime and promote the emergence of a democratic government to replace that regime;” that the president was authorized “to use United States Armed Forces pursuant to United Nations Security Council Resolution 678 in order to achieve implementation of Security Council Resolution 660, 661, 662, 664, 665, 666, 667, 669, 670, 674, and 677;” that Iraq posed a threat to the national security of the United States and international peace and security by “continuing to possess and develop a significant chemical and biological weapons capability, actively seeking a nuclear weapons capability, and supporting and harboring terrorist organizations;” and that “the attacks on the United States of September 11, 2001, underscored the gravity of the threat posed by the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction by international terrorist organizations.”
In short, there was no bait and switch. And if there was, 77 Senators and 296 House members were right in the middle of it. Now that the road to victory is wet and red with blood, many of them call Iraq “Bush’s blunder” or say they were tricked into supporting the invasion. In other words, they are hoping we are dumb enough to believe they were dumb enough to be duped.
Some of these profiles in courage who now deride preventive war in Iraq even have the nerve to criticize the president for failing to prevent September 11. In doing so, of course, they unwittingly make the case for preventive war. And that is how September 11 is linked to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq—not because the latter planned or hatched the former, but because the former taught Washington a lesson about the danger of failing to confront threats before they are fully formed. In the same way, Munich at once had nothing and everything to do with how America responded to the Soviet Union in Berlin, Korea and Cuba.
In fact, one could argue that neither Saddam’s government nor the Taliban was responsible for September 11. After all, the Taliban maintained that al Qaeda acted on its own, without Taliban assistance. Indeed, there were no Afghanis among Mohammed Atta’s mass-murderers. Yet America took down both regimes because one offered al Qaeda the opportunity to train for September 11 and one had the means and motive to do far worse. Without question, other regimes contributed their share to the primordial soup of terror. But had Bush targeted those others instead of Iraq—Syria or Saudi Arabia or Iran—the critics would be heaping scorn on the administration for averting its gaze from the “real threat” in Iraq. And had Bush targeted none of them, had he failed to shift the battle back to foreign shores, the enemy would surely have continued to wage this war on our own.
Even though the critics say otherwise, neither the threat nor the enemy was ever confined to one capital or one regime or one stateless army. For decades, a disparate mix of governments, terrorist organizations, and terror syndicates had been coalescing into an ominous, if unplanned, phalanx, feeding off the terrors and triumphs and tactics of one another. Whether they comprise an “axis of evil” or something else is largely irrelevant. They have a common enemy and a common goal, in Bush’s words, an “end to American and Western influence in the broader Middle East… the establishment by terrorism, subversion and insurgency of a totalitarian empire that denies all political and religious freedom.” Along the way, they aim “to destroy Israel, to intimidate Europe, to assault the American people and to blackmail our government into isolation.”
Last week, Bush reminded us of how often Americans overlooked this gathering threat. “The tactics of al Qaeda and other Islamic extremists have been consistent for a quarter of a century,” he said. “They hit us, and they expect us to run.” And for good reason: From Tehran in the 1970s to Beirut in 1980s to Mogadishu in the 1990s to Yemen in the 2000s, the enemy hit and America retreated.
Now the enemy is hitting hard in Iraq; and Bush, peering over the horizon of history, has concluded it is better for American troops to stand and fight than for America to run and hide. “They believe that America can be made to run again, only this time on a larger scale, with greater consequences,” he explained. “We must recognize Iraq as the central front in our war against the terrorists,” he grimly added.
In other words, for Bush, the hit-and-run cycle ended on September 12, 2001. It is important for the American people to understand this, because if the American people lose their nerve, the troops will lose the very thing that gives them the strength to go on. And if that happens, America will lose this war. As Alexis de Tocqueville observed long before the British carved out the borders of Iraq or Afghanistan, “Among democratic nations, the private soldiers remain most like civilians; upon them, the habits of the nation have the firmest hold and public opinion has the most influence.”