The American Enterprise Magazine | 9.1.05
By Alan W. Dowd
With GITMO being compared to the gulags, members of Congress pushing legislation to retreat from Iraq “as soon as possible but not later than October 1, 2006,” and the American people going a bit wobbly, perhaps it’s time for us to return to our first principles. The president laid them out in a Churchillian speech almost four years ago, back when the World Trade Center was still smoldering, when the Pentagon was still scarred by a gaping hole in its side, when a shell-shocked America faced a grim choice between war and retreat.
The doctrine he outlined was first applied in Afghanistan (against al-Qaeda’s base of operations and its Taliban hosts) and the Philippines (against an al-Qaeda offshoot), with remarkable success. It was later amended to highlight the nexus between terror and WMDs, to brandish the prospect of preventive war and to put men like Saddam Hussein on notice.
Between now and then, the doctrine’s enforcers have killed the USS Cole bombers in Yemen; captured the chief 9/11 planner in Pakistan; captured or killed 3,000 al-Qaeda operatives in a global dragnet; intercepted weapons on the highs seas; eliminated 70 percent of al-Qaeda’s leadership; stood up friendly and freely elected governments in Iraq and Afghanistan; and perhaps most remarkably (but not coincidentally), disrupted or prevented any follow-on terror attacks inside the U.S. homeland.
Contrary to the critics, Iraq was not a diversion from the war on terror. Yet it could be diverting the enemy from America. As historian Paul Johnson has observed, “America obliged the leaders of international terrorism to concentrate all their efforts on preventing democracy from emerging in Iraq.” In other words, since the enemy is neither omnipotent nor omnipresent, he must pick his battles. And Iraq may prove to be his Alamo. But don’t take my word for it: As Musab Zarqawi, the most active and effective of bin Laden’s lieutenants, lamented in an intercepted missive about Iraq, “Our field of movement is shrinking and the grip around the Mujahidin has begun to tighten…Our enemy is growing stronger by the day…This is suffocation.”
Absent this global counteroffensive, bin Laden would be free to plan his war on civilization, rather than fighting to survive and avoid capture. Saddam would be biding his time and waiting for his chance to mete out revenge, rather than waiting for justice. Khalid Sheikh Mohammedwould be recruiting and bankrolling the next wave of suicide bombers to strike America, rather than rotting away in some undisclosed prison. Mohammed Atef would be planning something unthinkable for an unsuspecting corner of America. (As it is, he is dead and buried.) And Zarqawi would be plotting attacks on our cities rather than on our soldiers.
In short, US forces have shifted the field of battle away from America. And in the harsh calculus of a global war like this one, isn’t it preferable for military personnel to risk life and limb on foreign shores than for civilians to be evaporated on our own? Every sailor, soldier, airman and Marine I know would agree that it is. Their parents and peers may not accept or understand it, but perhaps their children and grandchildren will. If you doubt this, contrast the daily emptiness that haunted the widows and mothers of our World War II fallen with the freedom and opportunity that blessed the generations born since 1945.
But no matter how willing they are to stand between us and the enemy, between civilization and barbarism, our troops aren’t the ones who decide when and where to fight, or how long to stay once the shooting starts. Those decisions initially fall to the president and Congress, but ultimately it is the American people who decide when to bring the troops home.
One reason this global counteroffensive has been successful to date is the ebb and flow between Bush and the American people: By and large, his arguments about the nature of the enemy—and the nature of the war required to neutralize the enemy—have resonated with the American people. When Bush has made his case forcefully and clearly, as in September of 2001, January and October of 2002, March of 2003, and November of 2004, the American people have responded and rallied. When he has allowed events to dictate policy or when he has allowed his administration to shift focus away from the war, as in summer 2002, spring 2004, and spring 2005, support among the American people has eroded.
At those times of drift and uncertainty, Bush has recalibrated his rhetoric, reminded Americans of the dangers, and reconnected with the people. This is crucial, because the enemy has not been vanquished—and this war is far from over.