Tuesday, April 13, 2004

World War IV

World War IV began on Feb. 26, 1993, but almost nobody in America realized this. Islamic fundamentalists tried to topple one of the Twin Towers onto the other amid a cloud of cyanide gas. The plan failed, the details didn't emerge until much later, and at the time it seemed like another wacky day in the Big Apple, not a dress rehearsal for Hell.

We had grown up thinking in terms of World War III, with the enemy cast as a military superpower, our mirror image, armed with bristling missiles and tank brigades. It seemed impossible that we were at war with dark men who lived in caves and who flowed through our national veins and rented rooms in the dingy neighborhoods of old Northeastern cities. They didn't have aircraft carriers, they had box-cutters and credit cards.

World War IV continued with the bombings of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania on Aug. 7, 1998. It continued on Oct. 17, 2000, with the attack on the U.S.S. Cole. But even as the enemy became more clear, even as a U.S. warship was blown nearly in half, few people in America understood this as a new war. The administration in power here at the time was not suited for this war. It had an antagonistic history with the military and the CIA when it was out of power, and a tendency to use them fecklessly when in power.

That administration in Washington left. A new one arrived. We were unlucky to get for a president a man with little world experience, who was uninterested in foreign policy; an Attorney General eager to go to war only against home-grown perverts and homos; and a cranky Secretary of Defense great at moving missles and light forces, but unwilling or uninterested in large-force actions, long-term missions, deep investments.

On Sept. 11, 2001, a great many people woke up to the fact that the United States is at war. Since then, with every day's headlines, the realization seeps in more deeply into some people, and begins to dawn in others. But a great many still do not accept this. They only see one side of the war, like people hearing only one half of a telephone conversation, sitting in the room with the caller.

The main difference among Americans today is that some of us believe the United States is at war, a dangerous war against a desperate enemy. And other people don't believe that's true at all. To the non-believers, the people who are waging war look insanely violent, paranoid, and unstable, and to the people at war those who don't believe it look like appeasers and useful idiots, if not outright traitors. It's hard to concoct a formula more certain to breed ugliness.

The people we are fighting say certain things very clearly: we are infidels who have offended their religion, they are at war with us, and they want us to die.

Osama bin Laden issued a "Declaration of War Against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places" on Aug. 23, 1996. Again, on Feb. 23, 1998, bin Laden and others signed a fatwa declaring war on the United States. "The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies -- civilians and military -- is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it ... We -- with God's help -- call on every Muslim who believes in God and wishes to be rewarded to comply with God's order to kill the Americans and plunder their money wherever and whenever they find it."

Now more people are waking up to the fact of a war, but I expect the result will not be a shift toward majority unity, as in World War II. Instead, the difference between us will shift to whether World War IV existed before America invaded Iraq, or whether the globe was happy and at peace until the big oaf America kicked up this explosion of hatred. If there had been no Iraq, we'd be having the same discussion about Afghanistan, or the West Bank; certain groups insist on seeing only the United States as an agent in the world. All violence and all blame traces back to Washington, D.C.

Now we are fighting in Iraq. After the terror attacks, many people in the world told America, "don't just go out and kill terrorists; strike at the root cause of terrorism." So this is where we're trying to do that, whether we always realize it or not. This is the most daring thing America has ever attempted. We've opened a second front in the war between us and Islamofascism. Except the goal of this front is not merely to kill the enemy and sap his strength; it is to plant seeds of freedom and democracy in the dark places where his poisons grow.

Once it's begun, it has got to succeed. The U.S. is trying to do this almost alone, with a highly capable military, an astonishingly inept and high-handed presidential administration, a vituperative opposition at home, and a wobbly hand-wringing media with a recurring case of the vapors.

It's too late to bring the boys (and girls) home and pretend it never happened. Yet that is the only solution offered on the liberal radio network, for instance. Like an unwanted baby, Iraq is here, it's ours, we better adjust. What happens in Iraq now will determine the future of the world for the next century. I've always said that it will be 20 years before we can even begin to say whether toppling Saddam and trying to set up a democratic Iraq was a good idea, in world history terms.

Now we have a chance to change administrations again. It doesn't matter to me if George W. Bush stays or goes. Iraq is more important than anything on the radar screen in this election. If Bush can't do the job, and the other guy can, dump Bush. I never voted for a Bush and I hope never to do so. But Kerry has got to show me that he understands the seriousness of this situation and knows what to do about it. So far, if I try to construct a policy out of his statements, it seems to be "turn back the clock to April 2003 and do something else."

Why trade one set of bumblers for another? It only encourages the enemy. If Kerry wants to lure voters like me over to his side, he ought to start by saying, "Whether President Bush or I wins this election, America will stand by the Iraqi people as they rebuild their nation. I will do things differently, but the terrorists, the thugs and killers, the mass transit bombers, the fundamentalist fascists who haunt the Middle East, will not get their way. They will be more unhappy with me in the White House than they can ever imagine."

I doubt I'll hear that from him, however, since I hear how the Democratic "base" talks and thinks around here.

I look around at the people who see this the way I do, in my personal circles or on the Internet: I see many are like me, men between about 35 and 50 who had previously thought of themselves as liberal, in a mild way. It is natural to become more conservative as you age. Perhaps in our cases, that one stunning September day three years ago telescoped 10 years of personal evolution into an hour.

[I have no hesitation in conflating related conflicts into large wars. America was defeated in Vietnam. But that was one camapign in a war which we ultimately won. This is not political justification. Nor is it revisionism. It's merely a historical perspective. The long view of history sees related conflicts as long-term wars. The Peloponnesian War, the Hundred Year's War, had long intervals of truce and peace, but we rightly consider them single conflicts. So the U.S.-Soviet conflict of 1945-1989 will seem, a century from now, to be a single world war in which Korea, Vietnam, Bay of Pigs, and Afghanistan (1980s) were campaigns or episodes.]