Although American forces impressively deposed the tyrannical regime of Saddam Hussein, the nearly two-year-long War on Terrorism is, in fact, going badly.
The tragedy is that we lack not weapons, nor military prowess, nor bravery; our military is the most powerful in the history of the world. The problem lies not with our armed forces, but with the ideas guiding our military campaign. Consider how we fought the two major battles of the war so far: Afghanistan and Iraq.
In Afghanistan we exposed our self-crippling ambivalence about the purpose of the war. If our goal was to wipe out al Qaeda terrorists and their Taliban hosts as a step toward eliminating militant Islam, we should have attacked ruthlessly. But we were tentative. As we dropped bombs, we also showered the country with food and medicines, some of which doubtless made it into the hands of the Taliban.
Early on President Bush had promised: “I will not yield, I will not rest, I will not relent in waging this struggle for freedom and security for the American people.” Yet in Afghanistan, on orders from Washington, our military did yield–refraining from bombing mosques; it did rest–calling for needless cease-fires during the Tora Bora siege; it did relent–catering to the wishes of our coalition “allies,” who demanded that we limit the number of American ground forces. In deference to the wishes of such “allies” as Saudi Arabia, a known financier of terrorism, our military had to rely largely on proxy soldiers led by venal warlords, who let the enemy flee.
By hampering our military operations, Washington subverted them. The forces of al Qaeda, scattered rather than eradicated, continue to plot against us. American soldiers die almost daily in skirmishes with lingering Taliban and al Qaeda forces.
In the war against Iraq, the timidity of the Administration was obvious. Though President Bush had explained the threat of Iraqi weapons and expertise falling into the hands of terrorists–and our urgent need to act–he dithered, groveling abjectly before the United Nations for approval. The battle plans he finally issued were seemingly calculated to thwart the efforts of our military. Even as we sought to wipe out Hussein’s regime, our goal, apparently, was to avoid upsetting Iraqis. As was true in Afghanistan, high-priority targets such as power stations were to be spared, and our military was ordered methodically to pull their punches. It is much to the credit of our soldiers that they succeeded while bearing only minor casualties, despite Washington’s contradictory injunctions.
The Iraq war, however, has done nothing to quell Islamic terrorism. Whereas Afghanistan, the stronghold of al Qaeda, was a plausible first target, Iraq was not a major base of terrorists, nor the most significant supporter of them. We have let the arch-sponsors of Islamic terrorism–Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iran–believe that they are untouchable. Observe that terrorism against American and Western interests–from Indonesia to Kenya to Morocco–continues unabated. The American people, urged by Washington to believe that Iraq was a success, cannot fathom why more of our soldiers are dying there now than during the hostilities. We should not be surprised if our resolve to fight is diminishing.
To defend American lives properly, we should target not terrorism, a tactic, but militant Islam, the ideology that motivates the terrorists. But we have been flailing in unpredictable directions, unsure of where to go next, because the war lacks a clear purpose.
Why? The Bush Administration lacks moral confidence. At every turn we blushingly pretended that we are fighting to liberate the oppressed Afghans or tyrannized Iraqis–anything but confess what we should proclaim loudly: that we value and seek to protect American lives. Facing the prospect of civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Administration quailed. It should have asserted that, though such casualties are regrettable, they are the responsibility of the regime that initiated force against us. Instead, America was guilt-ridden, apologetic and appeasing.
We are not winning the war, but we could be.
Our Founding Fathers did not have even one hundredth of America’s present military power, but they were armed with the conviction that political freedom is an ideal worth fighting for. Their moral certainty gave them the courage necessary to fight for their independence from England, the 18th century’s lone superpower. We are at war with militant Islamists who lust for our annihilation. Our survival depends, not only on having a more powerful military, but on the courage to use our might–to act on what is morally proper–to act on our urgent need of ferocious self-defense.