Posted: 28 October 2004 Clear away all the politicking about tax cuts, domestic spending and Social Security changes that we hear every four years, and you'll notice that this election is vastly different from any that has preceded it. Obviously, we are in a war, and unfortunately, that's not terribly new. What is new, though, is the type of war we face and the nature of our enemy.
We're used to fighting wars against nations. Although there's no such thing as a straightforward war, traditional warfare among nations always has a predictable goal: cause the enemy government to collapse or capitulate. This is generally done through some combination of crushing the opponent's military apparatus and demoralizing their population.
The New Warfare
The War on Terror--probably more accurately described as the war against Islamo-fascism, Wahabbism or whatever label you'd like to affix to radical Islam--is a completely different type of war. Like the Cold War, it's a war based on ideology; instead of Communism, the ideology is radical Islam. But unlike the Cold War, there is no single state that can be defeated to end this war. The more radical of the madrassas (Islamic religious schools) that preach the destruction of the Western world to young Muslims can be found in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Indonesia and Pakistan, just to name a few.
Madrassas have the most political power in the most repressed regions of the Islamic world. Living without liberty undoubtedly creates a discontented people, and when that frustration is turned inward, it poses a danger to the leaders of those repressive regimes. Such societies therefore need to fixate on an external enemy, one at whom the finger can be pointed, one to bear the wrath of the angry citizens. That's what happens in many madrassas, that's why someone who'd be considered in the prime of his life in our part of the world might feel compelled to buckle bombs to himself and go kill some strangers. That's why nineteen men voluntarily incinerated themselves in order to kill 3,000 people whose only offense was showing up to work.
If you read the rhetoric of radical Islam--you have to search for it yourself, because our media seems disinterested in telling us much about the true aims of our enemy--you realize that the ultimate goal is the complete destruction of Western society. If you think the annihilation of Israel would satisfy the militants, you're not paying attention. If you think America is the only target, perhaps you're a self-deluding European. Each and every nation that values liberty is an enemy of the Islamo-fascists. Anywhere women are free to venture outside their homes without a family escort or without wearing a shroud from head to toe is a target. In other words, any nation that is not a strict Muslim state is in their crosshairs.
The threat may seem remote now, because we're remarkably lucky that we've been spared more domestic attacks since September 11th, 2001. Other countries haven't been so fortunate, but then again, not every country is taking this war as seriously as we are. Every day we rest is a day we give our enemies a chance to creep closer to their objective of obtaining the weapons to kill tens or hundreds of thousands in a single attack. Massive simultaneous attacks against several of our largest cities could cause so much economic damage that the Great Depression would look like a bank holiday.
On November 2nd, Americans will decide how we're going to proceed in this war. To be fair to each candidate, they both say they're committed to continuing the fight. The election, therefore, hinges on how.
In the short term, President Bush's policy is to attack before we're attacked, that we need to proactively protect ourselves by fighting our enemies on their land, not ours, and that waiting until threats fully materialize is foolhardy; by then, it may be too late to do anything about them.
The president's long-term vision is perhaps the least understood part of his overall strategy. George W. Bush believes the key to defeating radical Islam is transforming the Middle East. His theory is that the message of the madrassas will have a lot less resonance in a liberated Middle East, and that a lot fewer people will have reasons to detonate themselves if they can enjoy the fruits of freedom that we've been feasting on for two centuries. The reason Iraq is central to the War on Terror is that Iraq is central in the Middle East. If democracy takes hold there, if Muslims in countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran see their neighbors living in peace and freedom, isn't it possible that it would exert internal pressure on those regimes to modernize? It's a risk and it may not work, but at least it is a coherent strategy that attempts to solve the problem.
Despite months of campaigning, I still can't decipher John Kerry's overall vision. Kerry talks of responding forcefully to attacks, which presumably means that, as president, he'd take no action against threats until after they result in dead Americans. He speaks of our decisions needing to pass a "global test," which presumably means the United Nations would determine when America takes action. Kerry talks of building grand alliances, but denigrates the allies we already have, calling them "the coerced and the bribed." At the same time, Kerry courts countries like France that actually did take bribes...from Saddam Hussein! And in 1991, when President George H.W. Bush built the kind of alliance John Kerry now demands, he voted against it.
Aside from vague invocations of feel-good multilateralism, Kerry hasn't articulated the circumstances under which he'd take the nation to war. And for all his supposed intellect, Kerry still doesn't see how a free Iraq fits into the War on Terror. He calls it a "diversion," as though al Qaeda is our only enemy in the Middle East. Even if al Qaeda were completely destroyed, until we defeat the broader ideology of radical Islam, plenty of other terrorist organizations would gladly to pick up the slack. Until we clean up the cesspools of repression in which the madrassas operate, they'll continue churning out terrorists.
Say what you want about either candidate, the contrast couldn't be more stark. George W. Bush is a radical in the sense that after September 11th, he looked at our default foreign policy stance, one very much rooted in the Cold War, and decided it was obsolete against our new enemy. He's a classical liberal in the sense that "the transformative power of liberty," as he puts it, is his rallying cry for reforming the Middle East. Oddly, John Kerry is a conservative in that he can't let go of our old way of doing business. To Kerry, the institutions built as responses to World War II and the Cold War are sufficient for handling the War on Terror. But those slow-moving debating societies were created when the only actors on the world stage were nation-states; they were not designed to battle worldwide networks of loosely-tied terror cells. John Kerry wants to fight this war with the weapons of the last one.
The choice we have on election day is between the worldview of September 10th--embodied by John Kerry--and President Bush's September 12th worldview.
If you believe that nothing changed fundamentally on September 11th, then John Kerry is a plausible candidate for you. After all, he himself said that the attacks did not change him, and he speaks of returning to a time when terrorism is a mere nuisance, one he compares to prostitution or gambling.
Ever since the Islamic Revolution toppled the Shah of Iran in 1979, the United States has been repeatedly attacked by the militants of radical Islam. And in each of those cases, when we responded at all, we responded with weakness. That weakness led directly to September 11th, and as much as President Bush's opponents talk about war creating more terrorists, it seems that a deadly number of terrorists were created long before we decided to start defending ourselves.
In 1983, terrorists in Beirut, Lebanon killed 241 Marines. In 1988, 270 people were killed on the PanAm flight that crashed in Lockerbie, Scotland. Six were killed in the first World Trade Center attack in 1993, 19 at Khobar Towers in 1996, 224 at the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, and 17 more on the U.S.S. Cole in 2000. Many more plots--such as the bombing of the major bridges and tunnels in New York City and the millennium attack in Los Angeles--have been foiled. This is all just a nuisance to John Kerry. Not to me, and not to anyone else who recognizes that our enemies have been at war with us for decades.
Unfortunately, we don't get to decide whether we're at war; we can only choose how we respond. John Kerry doesn't get it. President Bush does.